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This week saw the launch of Supper Club, The A.V. Club’s new food section. Given the firestorm of debate that greeted food editor Kevin Pang’s list of the 10 best fast food items, we thought the following question only fair:
What other fast food deserves a place on our top 10 list?
It makes me sad to think that only half of our nation’s states have Taco John’s in them. Founded in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with its owners coining the term “West Mex,” Taco John’s is most accessible to those in the central and mountain time zones. For those who didn’t grow up within driving distance of Williston, North Dakota, Taco John’s is a cleaner, friendlier Taco Bell, and it similarly serves the kind of Tex Mex (sorry, no one says “West Mex”) that anyone who’s purchased an El Paso Taco Dinner Kit and a pound of ground chuck will be familiar with. But they also offer something that you can’t get at home: Potato Olés. Potato Olés are, simply, spicy tater tots. They’re spicy tater tots you can dip in nacho cheese. And unlike a certain heralded fried potato product, Potato Olés are always hot and crispy, never limp or soggy. You might have to take a road trip to get to them, but they’d be worth the drive.
As one of several unapologetic Taco Bell advocates on staff, I was miffed to learn that not a single item on Kevin’s list thinks outside the bun. I’ve had a number of Taco Bell go-tos throughout my life, but none hold up like the Chalupa, probably because nothing on the chain’s menu literally holds up like the Chalupa’s flaky, crunchy shell. Taking one Americanized bastardization of Mexican cuisine (the Gordita, which is nothing like a gordita) and creating a fresh bastardization in the most American fashion possible (by deep-frying the Gordita’s outer layer), the pride of Yum! Brands finally developed a vessel that could withstand the heat and grease of its ground-beef fillings. Never shattering like a hard-shell taco, but sturdier than Taco Bell’s soft-shell offerings, the Chalupa is a crowning achievement of fast-food architecture.
While I’m tempted to play off Laura’s answer here and go with Arby’s Potato Cakes—which, by the way, are much better than McDonald’s—just saying “Arby’s” makes me want a plain old regular Arby’s roast beef sandwich, and thus that is where my heart must lie. Perfectly customizable and elegant in its simplicity, the Arby’s roast beef sandwich is a master work in maligned fast food. It stands up to the rumors that plague it and emerges victorious, resplendent on its perfectly toasted sesame seed bun. There’s just something about it that I love. Yes, it’s delicious, but it also seems to say, “Look, like me or don’t. I don’t care. I’m a good sandwich.” It’s like the food equivalent of Cleveland. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.
I cannot champion the Chalupa enough, and I’m glad Erik also went to bat for it, allowing me to highlight another fast food delicacy—Dairy Queen’s chicken strip basket. Available in four or six pieces, this basket is essentially a cardboard box of starch and carbs, with the chicken strips joined by crispy fries, Texas toast, and your choice of dipping sauce. If you don’t go with the country gravy, you’re doing it wrong, because what this meal needs is more salt. I spent many summers after a fun morning at the beach refueling with this savory treat (at one of the oldest DQ locations, no less) before heading back into the water. Later, when I spent my second year of college living above a Dairy Queen, I discovered the basket held up. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me, and again, get the country gravy or gtfo.
I personally consider yielding two of our list’s scant 10 spots to McDonald’s to be a grave miscarriage of justice, but nowhere more so than in the category of breakfast, where I believe the McMuffin is a pale, squashed substitute for what should rightfully be fast food’s golden standard: the Whataburger Taquito. A warm flour tortilla filled with fluffy egg and melted American cheese, plus bacon, sausage, or crispy hash brown sticks—and served with as many containers of perfectly spicy picante sauce as you can wheedle out of the drive-thru worker—the taquito is a reassuringly simple, eminently satisfying bastardization of the breakfast taco that’s ideal for soaking up booze at either 2 a.m. or 10 a.m., as well as for getting Michael Douglas-in-Falling Down irate over missing if you happen to pull in five minutes after they stop serving. More importantly, it makes the McMuffin look like the gummy hockey-puck-filled, glorified microwaveable Jimmy Dean sandwich that it is—to say nothing of the sad attempts of McDonald’s, Sonic, and so many others to craft their own breakfast burrito wannabes. After angrily flipping my laptop over the taquito being shut out, I consoled myself by saying, well, perhaps Whataburger is just too regional to be appreciated outside of the millions of Southerners who swear by it, and the ex-pats who occasionally check Google to see how many hours they’d have to drive to get to the closest one. (Nine.) Even if, you know, the Whataburger itself did win Best Burger In America, and—fuck, now I’m angry all over again.
Since Marah and Becca have both scooped me on two of the cornerstone pieces of my self-destruction-by-fast-food regime, I’ll go with a more recent addition to the William Hughes Window To Weight Gain: the cheese curds at A&W. As a life-time fan of mozzarella sticks—the good kind, not the legally troubled bullshit McDonald’s tried to get away with earlier this year—I’m always looking for my next cheesy fix. But I didn’t realize that these little nuggets of greasy joy were hiding in plain sight at the root beer chain, because I’d always dismissed A&W’s hot dog fare as insufficiently filling to scratch my frequent fast food itch. But the cheese curds are basically perfect: golden, lightly breaded, and with each bite providing a perfect mixture of deep-fried grease and delicious white cheddar cheese. I was literally eating them last night after a stressful move, and when the A&W worker sheepishly told me he’d accidentally made me a large order instead of the small one I’d requested, I almost leaned out of my car and gave the dude a hug.
I feel like this entry could anger some of my Chicago colleagues, but here I go: I am going to go to bat for the New York delicacy that is the Papaya dog. Now, the “Papaya”-named restaurants scattered around Manhattan are not all part of the same chain, which perhaps disqualifies them from the list. Also, their numbers have sadly dwindled over the years. Having family on the Upper West Side, I am partial to Gray’s Papaya on 72nd Street, which serves the wonder that is the “Recession Special”—two hot dogs and a drink. My beverage of choice is a papaya concoction, a grainy, sugary wonder of a beverage. The franks are small but satisfying, their skins are crispy, and the buns are slightly stale. The only appropriate toppings are sauerkraut and deli mustard. (Well, onions are also acceptable, but not my preference. Ketchup is blasphemy.) No hot dog in the world is more satisfying.
McDonald’s fries are fine—definitely the top of the heap when it comes to the big three burger joints, ahead of Burger King and Wendy’s—but at the end of the day, the only fast-food frites I’d go out of my way for are the Famous Seasoned Fries from Checkers/Rally’s. Instead of the other guys’ pale thin-cut spuds, these are a deeper orange-brown and sport a crispy coating thanks to their extra layer of batter. I love that added crunch (which only lasts while the fries are fresh, admittedly) but the real hook is the seasoning, a mix of salt, black pepper, paprika, and God knows what else that puts these things over the top and separates them from the rest of the pack. If you’re feeling particularly self-destructive, you can also get them in chili-cheese or bacon-ranch-and-cheese form, but that’s gilding the lily, really. Forget the fixins, and instead pair an order with one of the chain’s gloriously artificial banana shakes—possibly with a chocolate swirl—for the quintessential Checkers experience.
I joke often about how my enjoyment of Taco Bell transcends love and is a full-on obsession. Picking a single item from the Taco Bell menu is incredibly difficult for me, and while I could mourn the loss of limited-time products such as the Volcano Box or the Flatbread Chicken Sandwich, I’m going to out myself as someone who hoards Fire and Diablo sauce like it’s currency in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Fire sauce is a classic for a reason, and Diablo is probably the spiciest packet of hot sauce one can find at a fast food joint. Any trip to Taco Bell requires a couple handfuls of sauce tossed into my messenger bag for later use. And while I like Taco Bell’s food, it’s the chain’s ability to create products that get use in my daily life that makes it a thing worth obsessing over.
Building off of Matt’s answer, although millions of years of human evolution have ensured that I am not immune to the greasy, salty charms of Popeye’s fried chicken, what I’m really there for are the fries. Much like Checker’s—or Rally’s, as we called it back in Ohio—Popeyes’ fries operate on a similar principle to the deep-fried Twinkie, namely that if you want the pleasure centers in someone’s brain to light up like the Griswold residence in Christmas Vacation, take something delicious, dip that shit in batter, and deep-fry it again. Thinner cut than Checker’s fries, they do lack a certain “cajun” quality, but when you’re getting the spicy chicken (as you should), that particular flavor profile is being taken care of anyway.
I know I sound like the asshole who claims to not own a TV, but in general I don’t eat fast food—at least not the McDonald’s/Burger King/Taco Bell variety. I honestly just don’t like how it tastes anymore. Which isn’t to say I’m immune to the charms of junk food, because I will eat the holy living hell out of a Culver’s Double Deluxe With Bacon, with for my money (and 800+ calories) is as good as any high-class restaurant’s burger (including the famed Au Cheval burger in Chicago). The only downside—besides the empty calories and cholesterol—is that I’m not in love with Culver’s crinkle-cut fries. They’re fine, but they’re nothing special. Not as good as McDonald’s fries, certainly. Not that I eat those.
Unlike Josh “Fitness Freak” Modell over here, I love fast food. I love it so much that I once organized a “fast food crawl” where everyone in the car got one item from five different drive-thrus on a single street. I love it so much that I have to subject myself to deprivation bets (lose $100 and your pride if you answer the siren call of those Golden Arches) just to keep myself from eating it all the time. I love fast food too much, in other words. As such, this question is like picking my favorite route to an inevitable triple-bypass. But if I must: the Burger King original chicken sandwich is deep-fried crack. There’s nothing special about it; it’s basically breading between bread. But something about that specific combination of elements—the hoagie-style long bun; the dab of mayo; the smattering of nutritionally negligible iceberg lettuce; the mandatory slice of cheese; that salty slab of bird bits—creates a rush of pleasure I’ve never outgrown. One day, when some doctor has basically insisted that I Put. The Fries. Down. and eat only vegetables from there on out, the original chicken sandwich will be the broken rule that kills me. And I’ll die smiling.
I have serious (okay, not all that serious) concerns that this list lacks Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich, the popularity of which pushed it from an occasional to permanent menu item—and even warranted an entire ad campaign in the mid-’90s! Sure, the Chick-Fil-A sandwich is the iconic chicken sandwich (and their spicy version is superb), but the company’s politics have done an excellent job sucking the enjoyment out of their food. Chick-Fil-A has since scaled back, though not eliminated, its support of anti-gay organizations since an avalanche of bad press in 2012, but even if that weren’t an issue, it’d still face a credible threat from Wendy’s. Its spicy chicken sandwich is flavorful, with just enough of a kick, and reasonably priced. And considering there are 6,500 Wendy’s locations worldwide vs. just 2,000 Chick-Fil-A locations in 43 states, the Wendy’s version is a lot easier to find.
This would be a shock to my local Starbucks establishment, but they do not offer my favorite morning beverage. For that, I have to go around the corner, and get some Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Like my copy desk compatriots Caity PenzeyMoog and Kelsey Waite, I am a fan of what the English like to call a white coffee, with generous amounts of cream. No matter how many times I ask the Starbucks barista to leave room, they fail to grasp that an 1/8 of a millimeter is not enough. Also, their overpriced brew usually tastes burnt. This never happens at Dunkin’ Donuts, because I believe I read somewhere that they toss their coffee out every 15 minutes or so, to make sure that it always stays fresh. And they add the cream for me already, in the perfect amount. Yes, it’s poured into a less-than-environmental styrofoam cup, but the wonderful smell always reminds me of family road trips with my parents when I was a kid. Of course, now I’m the one who needs copious amounts of caffeine to get through the day. Caity and her fellow coffee expert Laura Browning may scoff, but Dunkin’ Donuts’ brew is my perfect, relatively inexpensive, full-flavored fuel.
I haven’t really eaten in many fast food places since having a pot-fueled anxiety attack at a McDonald’s when I was 19. I still eat plenty of junk food, but mostly from smaller scale establishments. But since my family lives everywhere except where I am, regular car trips and remedial lack of planning leaves me looking for something quick and tasty on the road. My preferred choice is a Subway Spicy Italian loaded up with everything.
Admittedly, it’s a weak choice. A tentative sop to healthy eating; like buying natural food store candy. Why half-ass it? Either do it or don’t. We live in a country that will gladly provide you a day’s worth of calories for a mere handful of dollars and getting a sub sandwich for the thin promise of a few spinach leaves can feel like depriving yourself of pleasure for a not-significantly healthier meal. But I honest-to-god love it. The soft yield of the bread against the tooth of the salami. The sweet mayonnaise mingling with the vinegar sharpness of the banana peppers. I love ordering a foot-long and eating half with the lie that I’ll save the rest for another meal only to sneak bites of it over the intervening, interminable hours on the road like a greasy, ham-faced chipmunk.
It pains me to stump for a McDonald’s item, since the nation’s most taken-for-granted burger chain is already well-represented on this list. In my defense, I wouldn’t add a third Mickey D’s dish to the list, I’d replace one that made the cut. For the McMuffin is not the towering achievement of McDonald’s breakfast menu. That title belongs to the Sausage, Egg, and Cheese McGriddle, history’s most perfect breakfast sandwich. I’m the first to admit that the McGriddles’ pancake buns—each one studded with chunks of crystallized maple syrup that liquefy when heated—are exactly the kind of thing the word “Frankenfood” was invented to describe. Still, the McGriddle is the fast-food breakfast evolved. Portability is an important factor to consider in evaluating fast food, and the McGriddle takes a luxurious knife-and-fork breakfast of pancakes, sausage, and cheesy eggs and crams it into a palm-sized sandwich. A McMuffin is an adequate, if dull breakfast choice, but a McGriddle is a decadent upgrade, with the perfect balance of sweet and savory and a pleasantly smothering mouthfeel. It’s not just a breakfast sandwich, it’s a way of announcing to the world that you deserve the best delicious gunk that food science has to offer.
Though its once-mighty empire has now shrunk to fewer than 100 locations primarily in the Midwest (basically just Wisconsin and Minnesota, and then one in Washington, randomly), it is time to speak the truth of Rocky Rococo pizza. Namely, that it’s the fucking best. Squares of perfection, the company has somehow managed the art of the ideal hunk of cheese, sauce, and bread, plus whatever vaguely meat-like substance you may choose to add. (I’m a cheese-only purist, personally.) The crust is just the right amount of burned, and the dough hits that epicurean sweet spot of being just chewy enough without the tactile sensation that you’re approaching breaded bubble gum. (Thanks for that, Papa John’s.) The cheese and sauce are perfectly slathered, a savory mix that most other pizza chains can only hope to come near with their soporific gut bombs. Please return to Chicago, Rocky. I swear I’ll be faithful.