American fast food is some of the best fast food on earth. Read on to discover 13 of the best American fast food chains that make us smile every time we go for a quick meal.
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.
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.
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.
Our Favorite American Fast Food Chains
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.
Like everybody, we have our go-to fast food spots. While we appreciate Sonic, it’s 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
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.
Shake Shack is Daryl’s favorite American fast food chain. He used to eat there regularly when we lived in Philadelphia.
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
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.
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
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.
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 in Portugal called Guacamole.
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
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.
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
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.
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 didn’t 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. Five Guys
Year Opened: 1986
Original Location: Arlington, Virginia
Unlike McDonalds and Arby’s, both of which started with two brothers, Five Guys started with five family members (a father and four sons). And, as if five isn’t enough, a fifth son later joined the family business.
The original five guys included Jerry (the father) and brothers Jim, Matt, Chad and Ben. Baby brother Tyler later replaced father Jerry to become the company’s fifth guy.
Beyond its family dynamics, Five Guys distinguishes itself by living up to its mission of serving ‘burgers and fries cooked to perfection’ throughout the US and in countries like the UK and Spain. We can vouch for the juicy Five Guys burger which was excellent on a recent visit.
Fifteen toppings ,including A1 sauce, BBQ sauce, green peppers, grilled mushrooms, grilled onions, hot sauce, jalapeño peppers, ketchup, lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard, onions, pickles, relish and tomatoes, are available for no extra charge. Five Guys’ also offers various hot dogs and milk shake flavors.
Our Favorite Items at Five Guys
Cheeseburgers, Hand-Cut Fries and Milkshakes
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.
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.
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
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 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.
Harland Sanders wasn’t a colonel in the military. After Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon bestowed the honorary title upon him, Sanders ran with it.
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
9. Taco Bell
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.
Taco Bell has locations in dozens of counties including Japan, Korea, Portugal, Spain and the UK. Interestingly, Mexico is not one of those countries.
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
10. Burger King
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.
Vegetarians beware! The Impossible Whopper’s patties are cooked on the same broilers as beef patties.
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
Year Opened: 1972
Original Location: New Orleans
Proving that not every fried chicken mogul is either a bible thumper or a senior citizen, Al Copeland was a 28 year old businessman when he opened his traditional fried chicken eatery in New Orleans. Originally called Chicken on the Run, Copeland quickly changed the name to Popeyes and added spicy Cajun chicken to the menu.
The changes were savvy. With its new name and ramped up menu, Popeyes achieved local success, eventually becoming the nation’s second most popular chicken chain. Fast forward and there are now Popeyes locations around the country as well as in more than two dozen countries.
Popeyes wasn’t named after Olive Oyl’s sailor boyfriend. Instead, the inspiration for its name came from the The French Connection, the movie which also inspired the creation of the French Connection cocktail.
Popeyes hit the pop culture zeitgeist when Dr. John sang “love that chicken from Popeyes” decades ago in celebration of the chain’s poultry prowess. Although the prolific New Orleans musician died in 2019, his jingle lives on in Popeyes commercials.
Shrimp and flounder have swum onto the menu but chicken continues to rule the roost at Popeyes. Some of that chicken is served in nuggets and on sandwiches. But, at least for us, there’s nothing like biting into a piece of spicy fried chicken flavored with Cajun spices.
Our Favorite Items at Popeyes
Spicy Fried Chicken, Biscuits and Red Beans & Rice
Year Opened: 1964
Original Location: Boardman, Ohio
Brothers named Forrest and Leroy Raffel founded the original Arby’s more than a half century ago with three things on the menu – roast beef sandwiches, chips and sodas. It wasn’t until later that the menu expanded to include a range of meats plus fries and milkshakes.
You might think that Arby’s is named after that original signature roast beef sandwich but you would be wrong. Instead, the name (which phonetically combines R and B) stands for Raffel Brothers. Maybe there was a double entendre involved but we’re not really sure.
Ving Rhames, the voice of the “We Have the Meats!” commercials, isn’t the only star with links to Arby’s. Seth Rogen and Jerry Seinfeld literally ate the meats (and poked fun at the slogan to hilarious effect) in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee while Marge Gunderson, i.e. Frances McDormand, exclaimed “Ah, hon, ya got Arby’s all over me” in Fargo.
While the original Arby’s menu was limited, today’s selections include chicken sandwiches, reubens and gyros as well as curly fries, crinkle fries and mozzarella sticks. Kids can eat their own meals while grown ups can choose sandwich sizes ranging from small sliders to hefty half pounders.
It would be an exaggeration to call ourselves Arby’s regulars but we have our regular order. We typically opt for roast beef sandwiches (or a double to share) and curly fries. We also help ourselves to an array of condiments that go beyond ketchup and mustard to include an addictive horsey sauce made with mayonnaise and horseradish
Our Favorite Items at Arby’s
Roast Beef Sandwiches, Curly Fries and Horsey Sauce
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.
We can smell the distinctively yeasty aroma of Subway’s bread from blocks away.
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
McDonald’s is the #1 fast food chain in the US.
McDonald’s is the #1 fast food chain in the world.
Burgers are the #1 fast food item in the US.
McDonalds, Subway, Starbucks, KFC and Pizza Hut lead the pack of American fast food chains.
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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 their website 2foodtrippers. Since launching the site in 2012, they’ve traveled to over 40 countries in their quest to bring readers a unique taste of the world.
Original Publication Date: November 27, 2022