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The Best American Fast Food Chains – Ranked

American fast food is some of the best fast food on earth. Read on to discover ten of the best American fast food chains that make us smile every time we go for a quick meal.

Big Mac Meal at McDonalds

American fast food chains have come a long way since White Castle opened its first restaurant in Wichita back in 1921. Before long, as cars moved faster and highways filled the landscape, fast food restaurants became a fixture from sea to shining sea.

Fast forward to the present and fast food restaurants have expanded their menu offerings to include a variety of foods from salads to ice cream. They’ve also jumped the proverbial pond. Today, you can find a McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC just about anywhere in the world with the exception of Antarctica.

Tacos and Salad at Taco Bell
Taco Bell is proof that not all of the best American fast food chains are burger joints.

While we typically opt to eat local cuisine and enjoy fine dining, fast food is a guilty pleasure that we’ve been known to indulge in both at home and on the road. Hey, we can’t dine at restaurants like Noma every night of the week. Fast food is also something we crave when we’re away from the states for an extended period of time.

We’ve learned a lot from eating KFC and McDonald’s in a variety of countries. We can tell you that a quarter pounder (called a royale with cheese) in Rotterdam is far superior to the ones served in Lisbon or Bucharest. And we have no regrets about licking 30¢ ice cones at the KFC in Chiang Mai or the perfectly cooked McDonald’s burgers we scarfed after a late arrival in Kyoto when every other restaurant was closed.

Lunch for Two at In N Out Burger
In-N-Out Burger is proof that many of the best American fast food chains are burger joints.

Sometimes we ate fast food on the road because we were jonesing for a taste of home and other times we were hungry late at night and nothing else was open. And then there’s that one time that we bumped into a Shake Shack in London that drew us in like a moth to a flame.

But, at the end of the day, there’s nothing like eating American fast food at the source.

Chili at Wendys
The Chili’s at Wendy’s is a relatively healthy fast food option.

We get that most fast food isn’t healthy.

We watched Supersize Me and read Fast Food Nation which is why we eat fast food in moderation. We also try to choose relatively healthy options and practice portion control by sharing our fries.

Our Favorite American Fast Food Chains

Counter at In N Out Burger
The retro counter design makes us smile whenever we step into an In-N-Out.

Living in Portugal has given us ample opportunity to miss and rank our favorite American fast food chains. Yes, we’ve had plenty of time to analyze which fast food restaurants are our favorites and plot what and where to eat when we’re home.

As a disclosure, some American fast food chains have locations in Lisbon. However, the Portuguese locations just aren’t the same. If you’ve ever eaten a dry quarter pounder, then you know what we mean.

Big Mac at McDonalds
We ate this Big Mac in South Philly. It wasn’t dry.

Like everybody, we have our go-to fast food spots. While we appreciate Arby’s, Poyeyes and Sonic, they’re not on our list. We also omit regional chains like Whataburger and Culver’s. The same goes for chains that sell coffee, donuts and pizza – sorry Starbucks, Dunkin and Pizza Hut.

Cutting to the chase, as opposed to cutting into a burger, these are our favorite American fast food chains and the ones you shouldn’t miss when you’re stateside:

1. Shake Shack

Smoke Shake Burger on Tray at Shake Shack
We dream about Shake Shack’s burgers when we’re not in America. The SmokeShack is our favorite.

Year Opened: 2004
Original Location: New York City

Originally opened as a hot dog cart in 2001, Shake Shack has a pedigree that transcends its fast food status. Its owner, restauranteur Danny Meyer, operates some of New York City’s top restaurants. Its original location was in Madison Square Park on the southern end of Midtown Manhattan.

We knew that Shake Shack was special when we first queued up at that original location for a sweet corn concrete (i.e. St. Louis style blended frozen custard). We’ve since eaten dozens of burgers at Shake Shack locations both within New York City and beyond. Some of those locations were free standing, some were in malls and one was in Grand Central Terminal. They were all good.

Fun Fact
Shake Shack is Daryl’s favorite American fast food chain. He used to eat there regularly when we lived in Philadelphia.

Smoke Shake Burger in Wrapper at Shake Shack
We ate this SmokeShack burger during a recent visit to New York. It was delicious.

Although we like Shake Shack’s standard ShackBurger with its angus beef blend patty, melted cheese and special sauce, we’re partial to the SmokeShack. This big boy burger is topped with applewood-smoked bacon, chopped cherry peppers and special sauce.

Considering Shake Shack’s name, not ordering a shake would be wrong. Two of our favorites are the Black & White Shake (made with vanilla custard and chocolate syrup) and Caramel.

Our Favorite Items at Shake Shack
SmokeShack Burger, Crinkle Cut Fries and Black & White Shake

2. McDonald’s

McDonalds Meal with Ketchup
Although this wasn’t a happy meal, it still made us happy.

Year Opened: 1940
Original Location: San Bernandino, California

With tens of thousands of locations in every state and most countries around the world, McDonald’s is the biggest fast food chain and far from a hidden gem. Its golden arches are instantly recognizable and its origin story was told in a 2016 movie called The Founder.

Brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened the original McDonald’s as a family business and achieved success by streamlining the process of serving burgers, fries and milkshakes. Things got real when Roy Kroc joined the business more than a decade later and changed the focus from burgers to franchising. After buying out the brothers, Kroc grew the business to the juggernaut that it is today.

French Fries at McDonalds
There’s no contest. McDonald’s french fries are the best fast food french fries.

Almost everything on the McDonald’s menu is iconic. We’re talking about things like Big Macs, Quarter Pounders and Happy Meals. Even the Egg McMuffin is a breakfast icon. But nothing surpasses this chain’s French Fries.

Served in a distinctive red container, McDonald’s French Fries are crispy and thin and have a savory, salty flavor that’s impossible to resist (most likely due to the beef flavoring added to the fries during processing). While we’re not ready to compare them to crack, there’s something addictive about these fried potatoes that keeps us coming back for more.

Our Favorite Items at McDonald’s
Big Mac, Quarter Pounder and French Fries

3. Chipotle

Burrito Bowl with Tabasco at Chipotle
Chipotle burrito bowls are usually a meal and a half. This one was no exception.

Year Opened: 1993
Original Location: Denver, Colorado

Chipotle put a spin on Mexican fast food with is made-to-order burritos, bowls, quesadillas, salads and tacos made from a variety of proteins, rices, beans, salsas and accoutrements. Some people call this popular chain fast casual instead of fast food. We just call it lunch.

Fun Fact
Chipotle has expanded well beyond Denver. We once saw a Chipotle in Paris and we’ve read that there are also Chipotle locations in Canada, Germany and the UK. There’s even a Chipotle clone here in Portugal called Guacamole which we have yet to try.

Burrito Bowl with Fork at Chipotle
Who needs a tortilla wrapper when you can eat Chipotle’s yumminess with a fork?

Mindi started eating at Chipotle when she moved to Denver in 1999… and she hasn’t gotten bored of the chain’s burrito bowls yet. She has her favorite ingredients which include white rice, pinto beans, chicken, mild salsa and hot salsa. She sometimes adds corn and lettuce as well as small amounts of sour cream and cheese. She always gets guacamole on the side and adds a prodigious amount of chipotle Tabasco for good measure.

She’s not the only Chipotle fan. McDonalds (see above) liked Chipotle enough to purchase a chunk of the company in 1998 which they maintained for eight years.

Our Favorite Items at Chipotle
Chicken Burrito Bowl and Guacamole

4. In-N-Out

Burgers and Fries at In N Out Burger
We said “Yes Yes” to these Double Double burgers in Tucson.

Year Opened: 1948
Original Location: Baldwin Park, California

The secret is out about In-N-Out. Literally. The fast food chain’s ‘not-so-secret’ menu is on its website. That special, clandestine menu contains six items – Double Meat, Triple Triple, Quad Quad, Grilled Cheese, Protein Style and Animal Style. Its non-secret menu items include Double Double, Cheeseburger, Hamburger, French Fries, Beverages and Shakes.

Since there are no In-N-Out franchises, the menu and vibe at each west coast In-N-Out location is the same. We can’t say the same about the east coast In-N-Out locations since there are none. Due to its not-so-secret menu and emphasis on freshness, In-N-Out is the epitome of destination dining for travelers like us.

Double Double Animal Style Burger at In N Out Burger
While you could hypothetically order an In-N-Out burger that’s not animal style, why would you want to do that?

We always order a Double Double (two patties and two slices of cheese) when we eat at In-N-Out in cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Tucson. We also order it, as one does, ‘animal style’ with lettuce, tomato, mustard cooked beef patties, pickles, extra spread and grilled onions.

Apparently, you can order In-N-Out’s fries animal style too. We haven’t done that yet but it could happen.

Our Favorite Item at In-N-Out
Animal Style Burger

5. Chick-fil-A

Meal at Chick fil A
Chick-fil-A’s pickled topped chicken sandwich has become an oft imitated classic.

Year Opened: 1967
Original Location: Atlanta, Georgia

Chick-fil-A‘s conservative political positions have alienated many chicken sandwich loving clients to the point of boycott. While we firmly disagree with those political positions, we have to admit that Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwiches are among the best, if not the very best, at American fast food chains.

Chicken Sandwich at Chick fil A
Just looking at this Chick-Fil-A sandwich makes us hungry.

Mindi grew up eating Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches at mall locations in Atlanta on various days of the week but never on Sunday when the bible-thumping fast food chain shuts down. Eating the chain’s chicken sandwiches and washing them down with lemonade elicits nostalgic feelings for her.

Since Daryl did not grow up with Chick-fil-A in his life, he doesn’t experience the same nostalgia. He just likes eating crispy chicken sandwiches. He also likes Chick-fil-A’s waffle fries and typically orders a rainbow of complimentary dipping sauces.

Our Favorite Items at Chick-fil-A
Chicken Sandwich, Waffle Fries and Lemonade

6. Wendy’s

Meal at Wendys from Above
Smiles abound at Wendy’s and we’re not just talking about the food packaging.

Year Opened: 1969
Original Location: Columbus, Ohio

Wendy’s was already famous for its square patty burgers when it achieved next level status by asking “Where’s the beef?” in a commercial. That commercial went viral and the phrase became part of pop culture.

The hamburger chain was far from new when its infamous commercial hit the airwaves in 1984. Dave Thomas opened the first Wendy’s 15 years earlier and named it after his daughter Melinda. Yes, Melinda.

Cheeseburger at Wendys
Square is the new round when it comes the burgers at Wendy’s.

While Wendy’s is America’s third largest hamburger chain, we don’t usually eat this chain’s hamburgers. Well, not exactly. Daryl is partial to the Baconator, a quarter pound hamburger patty topped with three bacon strips, cheese and other fixings. As for Mindi, she always orders Chili made with chopped up hamburger patties. If she’s extra hungry, she adds a baked potato to her order.

Pro Tip
If the regular Baconator isn’t decadent enough, you can order a Triple Baconator made with three quarter pound patties, four slices of cheese and nine (!) bacon strips.

Sometimes we order a Frosty, the signature dessert at Wendy’s. Made with both chocolate and vanilla ice cream, it comes with a spoon and a straw. We typically start eating it with the spoon and finish with the straw.

Our Favorite Items at Wendy’s
Baconator, Chili and Frosty

7. KFC

Fried Chicken and Fries at KFC
KFC is AOK in our book.

Year Opened: 1952
Original Franchise Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

People who eat buckets of fried chicken at KFC locations around the world probably never heard of Colonel Sanders and may not realize that the global fast food chain has roots in the US. After all, shrimp donuts and deep-fried corn soup may be ‘finger-lickin’ good but they aren’t exactly American food favorites.

Originally called Kentucky Fried Chicken, KFC is a classic American success story that doubles as a fast food restaurant chain. Harland Sanders, i.e. the Colonel, came from humble roots before he opened his his first restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky at age 40. Over the years, he created a secret recipe with ’11 herbs and spices’, donned a white uniform, grew a goatee and conquered the world of food.

Fun Fact
Harland Sanders wasn’t a colonel in the military. After Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon bestowed the honorary title upon him, Sanders ran with it.

Fried Chicken Thigh at KFC
KFC’s original chicken recipe may be secret but it’s no secret that it tastes finger lickin’ good.

Beyond his persona, Sanders was a real deal chicken cook who used a pressure fryer and created a unique recipe that remains a secret to this day. We read that his recipe includes basil, black pepper, celery salt, dried mustard, garlic salt, ginger, oregano, paprika, salt, thyme and white pepper but we’re not really sure if this list is correct since, as previously noted, it’s a secret.

KFC introduced extra crispy chicken in 1970. This variation has an extra layer of breading and isn’t cooked in a pressure fryer. Not everybody loves KFC’s crispier chicken option. Daryl is firmly against it while Mindi kind of likes the added crunch. Love it or hate in, after lasting more than half a century, it’s probably here to stay.

Our Favorite Item at KFC
Original Fried Chicken

8. Taco Bell

Lunch at Taco Bell
This selection of Taco Bell dishes was too much for us to eat in one sitting.

Year Opened: 1962
Original Location: Downey, California

The food at Taco Bell is so wrong that it’s right. Seriously. Serving a hard taco inside a soft taco sounds ridiculous but somehow the Cheesy Gordita Crunch works. And that’s just one of Taco Bell’s many mash-up menu items.

Fun Fact
Taco Bell has locations in dozens of counties including Japan, Korea, Portugal, Spain and the UK. Interestingly, Mexico is not one of those countries.

Taco Trio at Taco Bell
This taco trio at Taco Bell had all the crunch we desire when we eat hard-shelled tacos.

Originally a hard-shelled taco shop when it first opened in 1962, Taco Bell has evolved over the years. It took a couple decades of franchised growth before the successful taco fast food chain got creative with its value meals and recipes. That creativity hasn’t stopped yet.

Despite its rapidly approaching senior status, Taco Bell continues to innovate. We expect nothing less from the fast food chain that introduced the world to Mexican Pizza and the Mountain Dew Baja Blast over the years. Relatively recent menu additions include Doritos Locos Tacos and the Crunchwrap Supreme.

Our Favorite Items at Taco Bell
Crunchwrap Supreme and Tacos

9. Burger King

Whopper in Front of Burger King Sign
While we’re not sure what happened to the right side of this Burger King sign, we’re know that this Whopper tasted great.

Year Opened: 1954
Original Location: Miami, Florida

Despite its ‘royal’ status, Burger King has perpetually held secondary status behind McDonalds in terms of sales and popularity. But don’t feel bad for this king of burgers. The fast food chain sells millions of flame-broiled Whoppers every single day.

While most of its Whoppers are made with beef, Burger King also sells a flame-grilled Impossible Burger made with plant-based patties. Toppings on both Whopper include lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, ketchup and mayonnaise.

Pro Tip
Vegetarians beware! The Impossible Whopper’s patties are cooked on the same broilers as beef patties.

Lunch at Burger King
This Whopper meal was an ideal lunch and that’s no whopper.

Originally named Insta-Burger King, Burger King achieved fame with its Whopper but the fast food chain didn’t stop there. In addition to the original Whopper and the aforementioned Impossible Whopper, Burger King sells various versions ranging from the compact Whopper Junior up to a ginormous Triple Whopper with Cheese.

We’d be remiss if we neglected to mention Burger King’s Big King XL made with a half pound of beef. That particular meaty morsel comes with two patties, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles and stacker sauce. As far as the Extra-Extra-Large Big King XXL goes, we’re not going there. That’s too much for even us to handle.

Our Favorite Item at Burger King
Whopper

10. Subway

Subway Sandwich with Turkey and Fixings
We walked to Subway to each this sandwich.

Year Opened: 1965
Original Location: Bridgeport, Connecticut

Subway has come a long way since 17-year old Fred DeLuca and family friend Peter Buck opened Pete’s Super Submarines in 1965. The duo changed the name to Subway in 1968, started franchising in 1974 and the rest, as they say, is sandwich history.

Subway now has locations in all 50 states and even more countries. Regardless of the geography, each shop offers a myriad of topping options that includes fresh veggies, cheeses and condiments. And, at least in the US, Subway’s bread is baked fresh daily.

Fun Fact
We can smell the distinctively yeasty aroma of Subway’s bread from blocks away.

Sub and Chips at Subway
This foot-long Subway sandwich was big enough to share.

Subway is less of a guilty pleasure compared to the other fast food outlets listed in this guide since it’s entirely possible to order a healthy sandwich with turkey and fresh vegetables. Then again, it’s also possible to order a Meatball Marinara sub.

Our Favorite Item at Subway
Custom-Made Sub Sandwiches

American Fast Food Chain FAQs

What is the #1 fast food chain in the US?

McDonald’s

What is the #1 fast food in the world?

McDonald’s

What is the #1 fast food item in the US?

Burgers

What are the top 5 biggest American fast food chains?

McDonalds, Subway, Starbucks, KFC and Pizza Hut

Hungry for More Great Food Around the World?

Check out our picks for the best sandwiches, the best desserts, the best noodle dishes, the best salads, the best soups, the best hot dogs, the best donuts and the best fried chicken. Then check out our meals at the best restaurant in the world and the world’s best pizzeria.

About the Authors

About the Authors

Daryl & Mindi Hirsch

Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Disclosure

We update our articles regularly. Some updates are major while others are minor link changes and spelling corrections. Let us know if you see anything that needs to be updated in this article.

Original Publication Date: November 27, 2022

GREGORY PEZZULLO

Saturday 7th of January 2023

How much did Shake Shack pay you to get on the list? Have you ever been to Freddy's? Culver's? Your list is a joke with your choice at number 1.

Daryl and Mindi Hirsch

Saturday 7th of January 2023

They paid us nothing. We love their burgers. Thanks for reading!

BILL BLAKE

Monday 5th of December 2022

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT YOU DIDN'T INCLUDE WHITE CASTLE IN YOUR LISTING. WHY IS THAT/

Daryl and Mindi Hirsch

Tuesday 6th of December 2022

Thanks for the tip! (That being said, we do mention it in the article.)

Randy

Sunday 27th of November 2022

I'm a little confused by your omitting "regional chains" but include In-N-Out. It is only in 7 states while "regional" Whataburger is in 14 states and Culvers is in 26. It seems like one is more regional than the others.

Daryl and Mindi Hirsch

Tuesday 6th of December 2022

Hmmmm. We'll address all those issues in future updates.