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While part of the joy of travel is experiencing new cuisines and expanding one's epicurean horizons, sometimes a hungry traveller just wants something familiar, with consistent quality, quick service, and a low price. This is where the fast food restaurant shines. And even with fast food there are some "hidden gems" that you can't get just anywhere. Finally, foreign visitors might find it interesting to try out some fast food restaurant they've seen in American media.
"Street food" has been a staple of civilization dating back millennia, to the dawn of cities and personal commerce, but it was only in North America that the mass-produced, quickly prepared meal moved indoors and was refined into the modern, efficient fast food restaurant of today, allowed through the industrialization of the United States, the rise of automobile travel and the colonization of the "Wild West".
While it is often scoffed at by health advocates and gourmands on the one hand and by locavores, traditionalists, and promoters of local cuisines on the other, fast food is today often seen as the quintessentially American food. While fast food as a concept — or, indeed, many of its components — are by no means American inventions (French fries were invented in Belgium, while hot dogs and hamburgers have German roots), American chain restaurants have undoubtedly perfected and globalized this style of food.
As is so often the case with local cuisines, the best examples of fast food are found where they were developed: in North America. While some chains are available almost everywhere, others are highly localized even within the U.S. and may only have restaurants in small parts of the country or a handful of states (for example, White Castle in the Midwest and the New York City area, Krystal in the South, and In-N-Out Burger on the West Coast). Even today, some fast food restaurants are owned by a single family and only present in one place, with no intent to form franchises elsewhere or expand. These locations sometimes serve the epitome of fast food and tend to be popular with locals.
- Hamburgers — Arguably the most well known fast food dish in the world, a hamburger comprises (at minimum) a bun and a ground beef patty, usually with other ingredients like lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, bacon, or cheese piled within. McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's are the dominant players but there are many others. Marketing for these chains tend to emphasize the bacon and cheese variations and there are indeed some truly heart-stopping combinations with quadruple patties, double bacon and double cheese, making the lone piece of lettuce seem like a fig leaf.
- Sliders — Miniature hamburgers with thin, square patties about three inches long, generally sold by the sack. Can also refer to any miniature bun-based sandwich of similar size.
- Hot dogs — A sausage (usually mixed beef and pork, or pure beef, known as a wiener or frankfurter) in an elongated white flour roll (called the bun). The hot dog was allegedly named for its resemblance to a dachshund. Chili, mustard, ketchup, relish, and other items are added to taste, with great variations from city to city (Chicago, in particular, is noted for its variation). Very few large chains serve them — hot dogs are still largely the province of independent mom-and-pop stands and small local chainlets that often specialize in some of the myriad regional variations on the dish, and indeed the hot dog vendor with a mobile or semi-permanent stall has long been a staple of U.S. street food.
- Corn dogs are made by putting a hot dog wiener on a stick, wrapping it in cornbread batter, and deep frying it. Most often found at sports events and fairs or carnivals.
- Chicken is served in various formats, many of them fried and greasy. A box or bucket of fried chicken is one common format, but a hamburger joint will most often offer at least one sandwich in which a breaded chicken replaces the beef and a salad place may offer a "chicken Caesar" in which strips of white meat top a reasonably healthy salad. Another moderately healthy option offered by many hamburger joints is to replace the beef with a grilled chicken patty without breading. Chicken fingers or nuggets, of breaded chicken meat which are fried, are also common.
- Tacos — Along with other Americanized versions of Mexican traditional dishes (like nachos and burritos), tacos are part of what's known as "Tex-Mex" cuisine. It's especially popular in Texas, the Southwest and California. Taco Bell is the ubiquitous chain, though Chipotle and its "fast-casual" service are becoming more popular.
- Subs — A submarine sandwich (also known as a hero, hoagie, grinder, or po' boy in various regions) is made with a French or Italian-style bread roll. The sandwich is filled with one or more of a variety of sliced meats (such as chicken, beef, ham), topped with your choice of cheeses, vegetables and often sauces.
- Chinese food — Americanized and Canadianized versions thereof which would likely be borderline unrecognizable to folks from China. Offerings include various stir-fried vegetable and meat dishes, often with noodles or rice.
- Soup and salad — A few chains offer a reasonably healthy option. Be warned, however, that some salads contain as much or more salt and fat as the burgers on the menu.
- French fries and onion rings — French fries, while Belgian in origin, are a mainstay in seemingly every fast food venue, to the point that the phrase "would you like fries with that?" has become a cliché in North America referring to dead-end service-sector work. Most menus offer a "combo" or "value meal" of a burger, fries and a soft drink. Onion rings are another popular fast-food side dish: the outer layers of an onion are sliced into a ring shape, dipped in batter, and deep-fried until crispy.
- Poutine is a Québécois regional dish (also occasionally seen elsewhere in Canada and, increasingly, in the far northern tier of the United States) where French fries are smothered in brown gravy, cheese curds, and a variety of different toppings. Unlike plain french fries, it's usually intended as a main course rather than a side dish.
- Wraps and pitas — Can be Mexican burrito influenced but also Mediterranean/Middle East pita bread based.
- Ice cream — Dairy Queen, in particular, is known for dispensing a soft-serve vanilla ice cream topped with caramel, hot fudge, or other toppings to make sundaes, dipped in melted chocolate to make "dip cones", or used as an ingredient in milkshakes or other sugary treats.
- Breakfast foods — Some fast-food operators serve traditional breakfast foods (toast, bacon, eggs, pancakes, muffins or pastry) for part of the morning (usually 6-7AM until 10:30 or 11AM, after which the menu board is flipped to show lunch items). Often these are packaged to fit the chain's assembly-line model, so what was a hamburger assembly line mid-day builds breakfast sandwiches in the early morning, where an English muffin is filled with bacon, ham or egg. Most chains also serve coffee; a few serve orange juice.
- Baked goods — Though better examples can often be found at dedicated bakeries, American variants of British, German and Polish baked cake and bread products such as muffins and bagels are available at fast food restaurants, principally at breakfast time. Doughnut shops are an exception: they tend to remain open late (or even 24/7) dispensing coffee to keep police and night watchmen awake until dawn.
- Soft drinks — most of these restaurants, aside from those that specialize in coffee or smoothies, offer a variety of soft drinks, mostly fizzy. Typically, the cashier gives you a cup and you serve yourself from a soda fountain—usually with free refills. Water is always an option and usually free. Some restaurants will give you a different-looking cup if you ask for water, to stop you (or at least firmly discourage you) from getting a different drink that you didn't pay for.
Vegetarian travellers may have trouble finding a filling meal at many of these restaurants, though some increasingly have options. Burger King notably has introduced a veggie burger, Panera has several vegetarian options, and Mexican, pizza, and sub places typically have something. Vegans can be confident in getting a decent meal without difficulty at Subway, Chipotle, or Qdoba.
Types of service
While most fast food establishments rely upon a "fast in, fast served, fast out" model of some sort, there is a more-or-less fluid transition (especially in the U.S.) from street food on the one side, to classic fast food, to so-called "fast-casual" restaurants (see below), and onward to "normal" restaurants. While some companies offer several kinds of service, usually brand identity, price, and (perceived) quality hinge on the question of whether sitting down to eat is common.
- Drive-through (often spelled "drive thru" on signage) — Order your food from the car and get it handed through the window without ever leaving your vehicle.
- Counter service — Line up for food at a counter or window to bring back to your table; the meal is served on a cafeteria-style plastic tray for consumption on-premises. A food court is a group of these counters, each operated by a different fast food vendor with a different style or genre of food, all arranged around a common indoor seating area. A common retail fixture, these were added to most major indoor shopping malls in the early 1980s. The food court design also appears at many highway rest stops and university dining halls.
- Fast casual restaurants occupy a sort of middle ground between fast food and casual sit-down restaurants. Generally, customers come to the counter to order and then take a number and, when the food is ready, staff delivers it to the table. They also usually feature a slightly better quality of cuisine, and somewhat higher prices.
- Take-out or takeaway — While you have to physically go to a place, you can or even have to take the food with you, often in some type of special box or package to keep it warm and fresh. A variant is to call for pick-up. A telephone call to a local pizzeria gets dinner into the oven. When you drive up 10-15 minutes later, a meal freshly cooked to order is waiting at the takeaway window. Special take-out places have few opportunities to sit down, if any. May overlap with street food and food trucks somewhat, especially in more informal street stall kind of places.
- Sit-down restaurant — While some or even most of these places offer take out or drive through, it is more or less common to sit down at least for a couple of minutes with your foods. Where these chains exist outside North America, they are often the only places with free refills for soft drinks.
- Drive-in or car hop is a dying breed in which a server brings your meal to your parked car — often on a tray which attaches to a car window — for consumption in your vehicle. Another variant is to buy food at a takeaway window for consumption in-vehicle or at a picnic table on-site. Like drive-in cinema, these operations are inherently seasonal, especially in Canada. (A&W Canada abandoned this system in the 1980s. One might still see it in the US, with the Sonic chain being by far the most common example, but it has long been losing ground to the newer drive-through system.)
- Some convenience stores and gas stations, as well as almost all Walmart superstores, operate one or more fast-food counters such as McDonald's, KFC/A&W, Subway, etc. in a separate part of the store.
A word about tipping: in North America, a tip of at least 15% (and ideally 20-25%) is de facto mandatory for most sit-down restaurants, but the rules for fast-food places are different and a bit more complicated. The key thing to remember is that tipping is associated with table service, which few if any of the restaurants listed in this article provide. The procedure for takeaway (even from what is otherwise a sit-down restaurant) or at a cafeteria-style eatery is inherently self-service; therefore, tipping is not necessary. Some eateries, mostly in the fast-casual sector, will have a "tip jar" at the checkout station, but tipping in that scenario is purely optional, and you won't be expected to contribute much more than the coins you're handed back as change.
Coffee and breakfast
Starbucks is a coffeehouse chain with an international presence, but it's ubiquitous across North America — so ubiquitous, in fact, that in some American cities you're likely to happen across several different locations within a few blocks of each other. However, they also have a lot of competition from other breakfast-oriented chains:
- Bruegger's Bagels — Bruegger's serves New York-style bagels about as authentic as any you'll ever find at a fast-food chain (that is to say, a notch above Einstein Bros. and light-years ahead of Dunkin' Donuts and Tim Hortons, but still no comparison to authentic NYC-area institutions like Ess-a-Bagel and H&H). Bagels come either plain, slathered with tangy cream cheese or smoked lox, or else as the bread in a variety of specialty breakfast sandwiches. At lunchtime you'll find more sandwiches, salads, as well as an interesting selection of seasonal soups. Bruegger's locations can be found mainly in the Northeastern U.S. (with the understandable exception of Metro New York), the coastal South, the Midwest, and Southern California.
- Caribou Coffee — A coffee chain with locations spread across the Midwestern and Eastern USA. Menu offerings are substantially similar to Starbucks, but generally regarded as being of slightly higher quality.
- The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf — A specialty coffee chain mainly limited to California but with locations in some other U.S. cities. Their coffees and teas are frequently regarded as much better than Starbucks, but with a much more limited food selection.
- Coffee Culture — An upscale Canadian coffeehouse chain very much in the vein of Starbucks, with a somewhat more extensive food menu to go with the coffee: gourmet panini sandwiches and wraps, salads, pastries, and breakfast fare are served fast-casual style (order at the counter, take a number, and they'll bring it to your table when it's ready). Locations are concentrated in Southern Ontario (mostly in the Greater Toronto Area and points west), with a few in Manitoba as well. They once had a rather formidable U.S. presence in areas near the border, but they're now down to six Stateside locations mostly in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.
- Dunkin' Donuts — A popular supplier of calories, found all over the U.S. but especially in the Northeast; a few exist in Canada, but Tim Hortons largely owns the Canadian market. A hot coffee and a box of doughnuts from Dunkin' is a morning ritual for millions of Americans.
- Einstein Bros. Bagels — A US nationwide brand featuring a wide selection of bagels and cream cheeses for its namesake, from basic toppings to specialties such as apple cinnamon or cheesy hash brown. Basic selection of drinks, but they can be a good accompaniment to the warm piece of toasted bagel.
- Krispy Kreme — Another highly-popular doughnut chain, noted for having glazed doughnuts. Its best-seller is the original glazed doughnut: which is a warm doughnut covered with a coating of sugar that gives it a modestly sweet taste compared to its counterparts. Look for the "Hot Now" lights that turn on when a warm fresh batch has just come out of the oven; even its website has information on the hours when each store's light is on. They are usually open between 5 and 6AM to around midnight.
- Peet's — A coffee chain with locations mainly in California, though with a smattering of stores in a few other cities around the USA. Peet's is noted for being one of the first gourmet coffee chains in the U.S., even serving as a model for the founders of Starbucks. Noted for excellent coffee and teas, with a small pastry and breakfast sandwich selection.
- Robin's Donuts — Placing a distant second behind Tim Hortons on the list of largest Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chains, Robin's nonetheless remains a formidable presence in the Prairie Provinces and the Maritimes, and if you're traversing the Trans-Canada Highway through their home region of Northern Ontario you're indeed far more likely to spot a Robin's than a Tim's. (On the other hand, they're completely absent from Quebec and have been supplanted in the Toronto area by Coffee Time, now owned by the same parent company.) The menu has no surprises on it — coffee, doughnuts, bagels, breakfast sandwiches, some lunch items — but portions are a lot more generous than the competition for essentially the same price. Perhaps taking a page from Starbucks' playbook, Robin's also serves a range of smoothies and more upscale pastries including not-half-bad cheesecake by the slice.
- Second Cup — Once Canada's dominant coffeehouse chain, Second Cup has seen its market share erode in recent years due to competition both from mass-market coffee-and-doughnut outfits like Tim Hortons as well as upscale chains like Starbucks. Still they continue on in their niche as the middle ground between those two poles — you'll find locations across Canada, concentrated in large urban centers, as well as three in the U.S. (in Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Florida, where they're called My Second Cup). They've got a good selection of fair-trade coffees from around the world as well as loose-leaf teas. Prices but also quality and variety (especially of non-coffee items, limited here to a few premade sandwiches and baked goods) are all lower than at Starbucks, however hours tend to be longer — many Second Cups remain open 24 hours a day.
- Tim Hortons — A Canadian institution, now with about 800 U.S. locations as well. Now under the same ownership as Burger King, though the two chains continue to operate separately. You should get a box of "Timbits" at least once on your road trip. Much like Dunkin' in the U.S., Tim Hortons is also a main supplier of coffee to Canadians.
McDonald's and Burger King are almost the same the world over (though there are some variations to accommodate religious dietary laws and local tastes in which meat is used and several other things), so take the opportunity to try other chains.
- A&W — One of the better Canadian fast food chains, though a different company from the identically named U.S. chain. They serve burgers, chicken sandwiches, and everything else you'd expect, but the star of the show here is A&W root beer served to you on draft in glass mugs that they keep frosty cold for you in a freezer tucked behind the counter. (Free refills, too!)
- Carl's Jr. and Hardee's — Two burger chains owned by the same company, operating in different parts of the U.S. (Carl's Jr. in the West and Southwest, Hardee's in the Midwest and South, with minimal overlap) but offering mostly identical menus. Distinguish themselves from most of the majors by flame-broiling burgers (BBQ style) instead of frying (Burger King also flame-broils). The parent company has started to open locations in Canada, using only the Carl's Jr. name there because of the existence of Harvey's (see below).
- Checkers and Rally's — Like Carl's Jr. and Hardee's listed above, these were originally two separate chains that merged together and now have identical menus but different names. Checker's and Rally's are drive-in burger joints whose decor is based around an "auto racing" theme. You can also get chicken and fish sandwiches, hot dogs, wings, and other such fare here. Locations are concentrated in the South, Southwest, and Great Lakes regions.
- Culver's — The specialties for which this fast-casual chain is most famous — delicious soft-serve frozen custard, deep-fried cheese curds, and a line of "ButterBurgers" (served on a buttered, toasted bun) — pay homage to the company's home state of Wisconsin (they don't call it "America's Dairyland" for nothing!) Culver's also serves a variety of chicken and fish sandwiches, main-course salads, crinkle-cut fries, and a surprisingly wide variety of vegetable sides too. Locations are mostly concentrated in the Midwest and Great Plains, with additional clusters in Texas, the Phoenix metropolitan area, and a few scattered elsewhere.
- Fatburger — A fast-casual burger chain originally from California, but now also present elsewhere in the western U.S. They serve some really big hamburgers and have a wide range of sides to choose from.
- Five Guys — Made to order burgers, hot dogs and fries. This place is pricier than the other burger chains on this list, but noted for its quality and large portions — a "regular" burger has two patties while a "little" has one, and a large order of fries will practically fill up the paper bag they serve them in. You can also choose as many toppings as you like. Each Five Guys restaurant has a bucket of complimentary peanuts for you to enjoy while you wait for your order.
- Fuddruckers — Order your burger at the counter then go to the salad bar to fill the bun how you like.
- Harvey's — Canadian hamburger (and hot dog) chain; like Burger King and Carl's Jr./Hardee's, flame-broils its burgers. Also distinguishes itself by offering a wide selection of toppings and condiments so that there are nominally 223 different variants of the same basic burgers.
- In-N-Out Burger — A California must visit; now expanding to a few other Western states, plus Texas. Simple short menu (although there is a semi-secret extra list). You have to wait for your order, but it is made fresh. Its most well-known item is the "animal-style fries", a selection off the "secret menu" in which your fries are drenched in a concoction of melted cheese, grilled onions, and Thousand Island dressing.
- Jack in the Box — Burgers, fries, and all the other usual suspects, but also breakfast burritos, tacos, egg rolls, and cream cheese-filled jalapeño poppers. One of the few major fast-food chains without a mobile app.
- Krystal — The Southern version of White Castle (see below), with a similar slider-based menu (see above). The two chains overlap only in South Central Kentucky and the Nashville area.
- Smashburger — The Cadillac of fast-casual burger joints, fast-growing Smashburger was launched in Denver in 2009 and, only seven years later as of this writing, has grown to include almost 400 locations in nine countries. Their North American geographic range covers most of the U.S. as well as a quartet of Canadian locations. The name of this place comes from the practice of "smashing" a ball of 100% Angus ground beef onto the grill to sear the meat before cooking, making for a juicier burger, and that goes a long way in summarizing Smashburger's high-end, foodie-friendly approach. Expect smaller portions than Five Guys but a far wider range of options to choose from — maybe too wide; premium ingredients such as truffle oil and fresh avocado make for a sometimes daunting customer experience — as well as craft beer served at each location, for prices not nearly as high as you'd expect. Burgers come as specialty creations or you can build-your-own, and Smashburger also serves chicken sandwiches, a decent variety of specialty fries, salads, and milkshakes made with premium Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
- Sonic Drive-In — 50s-style drive-in restaurants serving burgers, sandwiches, fries, and shakes. Most offer only carhop service and drive-thru, though a few of the newer ones have indoor dining rooms.
- Wendy's — Hamburgers and salads; a marginally healthier choice than the other burger joints as any combo may substitute salad for fries on request.
- Whataburger — Regional chain that started in Texas and has its biggest presence in that state, but has expanded to other parts of the South.
- White Castle — The oldest fast-food burger chain in the United States, predating McDonald's by a good thirty or forty years. The specialty then, as now, are sliders. You'll find White Castle in the Great Lakes and upper South, as well as the New York City area and a single location on the Las Vegas Strip.
In the early days of McDonald's, founding father Ray Kroc famously forbade his company from ever selling hot dogs (he considered them unsanitary), setting a trend in the world of North American fast food that largely continues to this day: leaving aside a few halfhearted incursions into the genre from the likes of Sonic, Checkers/Rally's, and most recently Burger King, hot dogs are noticeably hard to find in the big chains, especially compared to the ubiquitous hamburger. Here are a couple of exceptions to that rule.
- Nathan's Famous — Nathan Handwerker served up his first hot dog on the Coney Island boardwalk in 1916; a century later, there are over 300 hot dog stands bearing his name (not to mention hundreds of grocery stores stocking Nathan's products to cook at home). You'll find Nathan's Famous most often in the major Northeastern megalopolises of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, with two or three dozen more in Florida and further locations scattered widely across the U.S. The signature product is a skinless, all-beef frankfurter infused with a secret seasoning mix, grilled up and served with your choice of toppings, including chili and cheese sauce. Also on the menu are burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, grilled or fried chicken (wings, tenders, or sandwiches), and crinkle-cut French fries.
- Wienerschnitzel — If you know any German or have even a passing knowledge of Austrian cuisine, the name will make you cringe: they don't serve schnitzel at this mostly West Coast chain, but rather hot dogs (along with a few other items such as chili cheeseburgers and Polish sausage sandwiches).
Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is known all over the world. If you're visiting from overseas and in search of something you can't get at home, here are some competitors that are more-or-less specific to North America.
- Bojangles' — A regional chain found mostly in the South specializing in biscuits and fried chicken.
- Chick-fil-A — While this chain sells chicken, it's in the form of sandwiches (with biscuits for breakfast), nuggets or strips (in salads and wraps), not as breasts, wings, legs, etc. Historically a Southern chain, and also frequently found in food courts at shopping malls, this has dramatically changed in both respects in recent years. Its most unique distinction is that all of its locations are closed on Sunday. (The founder, whose family still controls the chain, was a devout Southern Baptist — which may explain the chain's tendency to land in the crossfire of the same-sex marriage debate instead of staying apolitical.) Also notable for its advertising, featuring spelling-impaired cows urging customers to "EAT MOR CHIKIN".
- Chicken Express — Popular across the South from Texas to Georgia.
- Church's Chicken — Think KFC, but bigger portions, better quality food, and with a focus on a more well-rounded fast-food approximation of Southern cuisine than the Colonel's strict emphasis on fried chicken. Yes, Church's serves original-recipe as well as spicy marinated chicken in a delightfully crunchy, not-too-greasy buttermilk batter, but there's also mac & cheese, "jalapeño bombers" breaded and fried with melted cheese, fried okra bites, and sticky-sweet honey butter biscuits. Church's 1,700 locations are spread throughout most of the United States (concentrated most densely in Texas and the Deep South, while relatively absent in the Northeast); they're also present in Canada (a handful in the Vancouver area) and widespread in Puerto Rico.
- Pollo Campero — A fried chicken chain founded in Guatemala in 1971 and now widespread in Central America, Pollo Campero broke into the U.S. market in 2002 and now has locations in various different regions where there is a high Latino population. Campero is most famous for their hand-breaded chicken, but they also offer other Latin-inspired recipes such as chicken empanadas, plantains, yucca fries, horchata, and flan.
- El Pollo Loco — Serves up a selection of Latino-inspired grilled chicken dishes that come with a wide range of sides from tortillas to mac and cheese. If you like avocado, you're in luck with this place's menu. Can be found in California and as far east as Utah.
- Popeyes — Based in Atlanta, but claims a New Orleans heritage of spicy and mild fried chicken, chicken tenders, seafood, red beans and rice. Mostly found in the South, but is beginning to appear as far afield as Canada.
- Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers — A chain found mostly in the South (but starting to expand beyond the region) with only one entrée—chicken fingers. Also, only combo meals are sold (plus extras of sides). All meals include fries, a soft drink (with free refills), and the company's secret dipping sauce. You have a choice of three adult sizes and one kids' size of finger combos (with, variously; "Texas toast" and/or coleslaw; kids' size contains neither) and a chicken finger sandwich combo.
- Zaxby's — A fast-casual chain popular in the South, offering wings, fingers, sandwiches, and salads. Finger orders come with your choice of four sauces, ranging from mild to extremely hot. Dining rooms are filled with often-whimsical decor; in college towns, many decorations pertain to the local school.
Broadly speaking, there are two distinct experiences to be had in North America when it comes to Mexican fast food. Cheaper and more basic places like Taco Bell offer simplified, Americanized versions of Mexican street foods like tacos and burritos, while fast-casual outfits like Chipotle and Moe's have embraced a concept widely known as Fresh-Mex: a marginally more authentic and markedly healthier model that's slanted toward abundant fresh vegetables and herbs, rather more adventurous flavors, and (especially in Chipotle's case) organic, unprocessed, GMO-free, etc. ingredients.
- Chipotle — The biggest fast-casual chain in the Mexican-derived category, likened by many to a fast-food version of Whole Foods (a well-known organic/natural supermarket chain). Specializes in the so-called "Mission burrito", a heavily stuffed burrito originally developed in the San Francisco neighborhood of that name, and tacos; also offers salads.
- Del Taco — With locations concentrated in the Pacific Coast, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain regions as well as a cluster in Metro Detroit, this chain has an odd hybrid American/Mexican menu: tacos, burritos, and the like but also burgers, fries and milkshakes.
- Moe's — Besides being rated the highest-quality Mexican fast-food restaurant in a 2016 survey of U.S. diners, this fast-casual Fresh-Mex outfit also provides what is easily the most quirky dining experience of any Mexican food chain in North America, starting when you walk in the door to a thunderous greeting of "Welcome to Moe's!" shouted in unison by the entire staff (a cute idea, but the constant din gets annoying at peak hours, as you can imagine) and continuing with a menu full of obscure pop-culture references selected seemingly at random (the nickname of one of Elaine's ex-boyfriends on Seinfeld, "Close Talker", has been repurposed here for a taco salad, while "Who Is Kaiser Salsa?", a reference to the '90s detective movie The Usual Suspects, refers to their house-special medium-heat salsa). As well, each location is dotted with posters of look-alikes of deceased popular musicians; at one time, the background music consisted exclusively of songs performed by dead artists (or bands in which at least one member was deceased). Foodwise, you might call Moe's the Subway of Mexican: you order at the counter and the staff makes your tacos, burritos, quesadillas, taco salad, etc. in front of you, assembly line-style, adding various meats, vegetables, and other toppings to the customer's specifications. Moe's was founded in the South in 2000 but also has widespread presence on the East Coast..
- Qdoba — Owned by California-based burger chain Jack in the Box, Qdoba's slate of fast-casual offerings are basically indistinguishable from Chipotle's, with one big difference: queso dip, which Qdoba offers in several popular varieties and its competitor lacks completely. There's also a full breakfast menu. Qdoba's 600+ restaurants are located across the U.S.; there are also three in Canada.
- Rubio's — A pioneer in the fast-casual Fresh-Mex model (beating Chipotle to the punch by a decade or so), Ralph Rubio's first taste of authentic Mexican fish tacos while on vacation in Baja California in 1983 was enough to inspire him to open his own taquería in his hometown of San Diego. Nowadays, there are about 200 Rubio's locations all over the Southwest (plus a dozen or so in Florida), and fish tacos are still the specialty of the house: the original one that started it all is a filet of beer-battered Alaska pollock served in a stone-ground corn tortilla and topped with house-special white sauce, mild salsa, and shredded cabbage, but you also have your choice of some ten other fish and seafood tacos, as well as a similar size selection of seafood burritos. Those who don't like fish needn't fear — Rubio's also has an equally creative range of chicken and steak options, along with enchiladas, surprisingly authentic chicken tortilla soup, nachos and quesadillas, and arguably the best desserts of any restaurant listed in this section.
- Salsarita's — A small-ish chain centered mostly in the South with a few outlier locations in the Dallas, Detroit, and Buffalo areas, Salsarita's is a fast-casual Fresh-Mex chain with a menu that's almost identical to Moe's (minus the random pop-culture references). The main differences are that at Salsarita's they don't offer tofu as a substitute for meat, they offer shrimp as a meat option, there's no self-serve salsa bar (staff ladles it out to you at the counter), and also many locations have bars where alcohol is served.
- Taco Bell — As McDonald's is to fast-bood burgers, Taco Bell is to fast-food Mexican: the oldest, best-known, most widespread, and in many ways the prototypical exemplar of its subgenre, but with a mediocre reputation that means it's a place that's generally defaulted to based on its omnipresence, rather than sought out in particular. Tacos, burritos, nachos, and other heavily Americanized fare await you; however, perhaps Taco Bell's best-known option is the "Doritos Locos taco", with a hard tortilla shell made from the same material as Doritos corn chips.
- Taco Bueno — If you're in Texas or adjacent states, Taco Bueno is the next step upscale from Taco Bell in terms of both food and price point: while not straying far from the usual roster of fast-food Mexican standards like tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and nachos, the menu is quite a bit more extensive than the Bell's, and the food quality generally regarded as better. Taco Bueno also takes a page out of the fast-casual playbook with a self-serve salsa and condiment bar at each location. If you're especially hungry, or if you're a family looking to order something to split, go for one of the combo platters which feature various permutations of menu items plus rice, refried beans, and guacamole on the side.
- Taco Cabana — For Texans, Taco Cabana is yet another step up the Mexican fast-food ladder from Taco Bueno and Taco Bell (see previous listings) into a realm that's somewhere between classic fast food and fast-casual. Though they don't exactly follow the vegetable-heavy Fresh-Mex formula espoused by Chipotle, Qdoba, and Moe's, the emphasis at Taco Cabana is indeed on fresh food made to order from high-quality ingredients. Besides the usual tacos, burritos, and the like, the menu here also includes chicken, steak, or shredded beef fajitas served on a sizzling cast-iron skillet with tortillas on the side, king-sized burrito bowls with your choice of meat, and a full breakfast menu. Many locations are open 24 hours a day, and most offer al fresco dining on an outdoor patio. Aside from the 160 or so locations spread across Texas, there are also four Taco Cabanas in the Albuquerque area and one in Oklahoma City.
- Taco John's — This Cheyenne, Wyoming-based chain serves inexpensive Tex-Mex (or "West-Mex", in their parlance) fare that's even more Americanized than Taco Bell — Taco John's seemingly most popular menu item, "Potato Olés" (basically hash browns dusted with taco seasoning and optionally topped with melted nacho cheese) may be delicious, but they certainly bear no resemblance to anything actually eaten in Mexico. They're also famous for their seasonal holiday menu: the "Apple Grande" is basically a deep-fried taco shell repurposed as the crust to a mini-apple pie, while the "Nachos Navidad" feature tortilla chips dyed red and green. And if you don't like spicy food, Taco John's might be the Mexican fast-food chain for you: there's pretty much no heat to their salsa, nor anywhere else on the menu for that matter. By reputation, Taco John's food is a touch fresher than at Taco Bell (everything is cooked to order), and portions a bit larger. You'll find nearly 400 locations in the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and western Great Lakes.
- Manchu Wok — A fixture of shopping mall food courts, airport terminals, military bases, and similar non-freestanding settings, Manchu Wok serves a range of stir-fried meat and vegetable dishes and rice/noodle bowls that's typical of American Chinese cuisine. You'll find them across the U.S. and Canada, especially along the Windsor-Quebec corridor and in the Seattle/Vancouver megalopolis.
- Panda Express — Fast-casual American Chinese food chain with locations in all 50 states and a few in Canada too (mainly in and around Edmonton). A standard order includes rice (plain or fried) or fried noodles with up to 3 entrees (mostly either chicken or beef). Its orange chicken is the chain's signature dish and the "tea bar" has an interesting selection of drinks that, while (like the food) not the most authentic representation of Chinese cuisine, are tasty all the same.
Pizza and Italian
Similar to hot dogs, pizza is one of those foods you'd think would make for a natural fit with the concept, yet there are surprisingly few "classic" fast food restaurants that serve it. For many years, North American pizza lovers were limited, broadly speaking, to one of two types of options: either full-fledged sit-down restaurants like Pizza Hut and Uno Chicago Grill, or else places like Domino's and Little Caesar's that offer takeout and delivery, but have no dining rooms. These two categories remain dominant — see our article on Pizza in the United States and Canada for a rundown of those — but in recent years, a growing number of fast-casual pizza chains have sprouted on the national scene, alongside longtime shopping mall food court mainstay Sbarro.
- Blaze Pizza — Founded in the Los Angeles area in 2011, Blaze's service (like the other two of the "big three" fast-casual pizza chains listed below) is based on the Chipotle model, with customers choosing their own crust, sauces, and toppings, and then having the pizza baked in an open-flame oven in about 3 minutes. In terms of food quality and culinary creativity, Blaze is in the middle of the pack relative to its competitors: foodies aren't cared for quite as artfully as at MOD, but the whole cloves of roasted garlic and hand-cut basil Blaze puts in their food, for example, are a step above Pieology's crushed processed garlic and pre-shredded basil, respectively. There's also a wider range of toppings, as well as custom main-course salads for those who may not be hungry for pizza. Blaze's geographic footprint is rapidly spreading outside its California homebase: additional locations can be found in the Northeast and Great Lakes, and a few in Canada too — two each in Calgary and Edmonton, plus one in Toronto.
- MOD Pizza — The largest, oldest (founded in Seattle in 2008), and fastest-growing of the trio of fast-casual pizza chains to emerge at the dawn of the 21st century, with 200+ locations across the country but especially along the Mid-Atlantic coast, in the Chicago, Detroit, and Phoenix areas, in Texas, and (above all) splayed along the Interstate 5 corridor on the U.S. West Coast. By comparison with the competition, MOD's emphasis on fresh, high-quality ingredients and relatively more upscale preparation (for instance, all dough is made fresh in-house daily, and ingredients are sourced sustainably from eco-conscious suppliers) gives it the strongest claim to the coveted "artisanal" buzzword all three chains employ heavily. Though you can build your own pizza at MOD, the menu here also places more emphasis on their selection of ten specialty pizzas (augmented by a changing seasonal selection or two). Order "double crust" (a nominal upcharge) for the closest thing to Chicago-style deep dish you can find anywhere in the fast-food world. Outside the realm of pizza, build-your-own salads following a similar Chipotle-style service model are offered, or you can enjoy a "pizza salad" served on a warm asiago crust.
- Pieology — Largely seen as a poor man's Blaze — the same basic concept except fewer topping choices and cheaper-quality ingredients — Pieology redeems itself somewhat by offering a selection of "After Bakes", or optional toppings that can be added to your pizza after it comes out of the oven: everything from barbeque sauce to roasted red peppers to an olive-oil drizzle. As well, if you like your pizza well-done, Pieology may be the fast-casual option for you: pizzas are cooked for a full five minutes, making for a nice crispy texture. You'll find Pieology in basically the same geographic area as Blaze, but even more heavily concentrated in California.
- Sbarro — Sbarro is almost universally derided as the bottom of the pizza barrel: descriptors in a particularly uncharitable Slate article included "America's least essential restaurant", "devoid of atmosphere, charm, and gustatory relevance", and "Sboring". However, its status as by far the largest fast-food Italian chain (800 locations worldwide; in North America you'll find them mostly in shopping malls, highway rest stops, and airport terminals) means that if you absolutely need a fix and aren't in an area served by the above fast-casual options, Sbarro may be the only game in town. Is the food really that bad, though? Consensus says it's hit-and-miss, but in the best-case scenario their New York-style pizza by the slice gets the job done sufficiently if not particularly artfully (the crust is even thin enough to fold!) Other options include thicker-crust, Sicilian-style "double duo pepperoni" slices, stromboli, and a few pasta dishes. Locations are spread out all over the U.S. and Canada (yes, that includes New York City, where pizza diehards scoff at Sbarro's food yet the Times Square location is reliably packed with tourists!)
Apart from pizza, Italian food has little presence in the fast-food or fast-casual marketplace. Some of the few exceptions to this rule are:
- Fazoli's — A hybrid between fast food and fast casual, featuring a wide array of Italian-American dishes; all entrees come with unlimited breadsticks. While the chain operates in about 25 states, its largest presence is in the greater Ohio Valley, especially its home state of Kentucky.
- Villa Italian Kitchen — With a history that stretches back to 1964, when Italian immigrant Michele Sciotto opened the original Villa Pizza in midtown Manhattan next door to the Ed Sullivan Theater, you'll find this fast-casual chain spread out in over 300 non-freestanding locations across the U.S. — shopping mall food courts, university dining halls, highway rest stops. While pizza remains the cornerstone of Villa's menu (the various selections come in regular, Neapolitan-style, or thicker-crust pan pizzas) as well as stromboli and other pizza-adjacent specialties, you can also get a variety of pasta dishes and main-course salads.
Subway is of course known all over the world, but why not take the opportunity to try a chain that's uncommon outside North America?
- Arby's — Roast beef sandwiches are the star of the show at this chain: the flagship item on the menu is the "Beef 'N Cheddar", with roast beef sliced fresh in-house (Arby's is the only fast food chain that does this, which goes some way toward accounting for the higher prices) topped with melted cheese and, ideally, a generous dollop of Arby's Sauce (sort of a hybrid of a barbeque and steak sauce — it's delicious). They're also famous for their seasoned curly fries, and recently Arby's has expanded their purview somewhat to incorporate turkey, crispy breaded chicken, and corned-beef Reuben sandwiches onto their menu. Arby's has locations all over the United States, and across Canada except for Quebec.
- Blimpie — Founded in Hoboken in 1964, Blimpie vied with Subway through the 1990s for the title of the largest sub chain in the U.S., but they're now down to about 700 locations (from a high of about two thousand back in 2002). You'll still find them all across the country, though. Basically the same deal as Subway, except the ingredients are a notch or two fresher and higher-quality. Try the "Blimpie's Best", their souped-up answer to Subway's Italian B.M.T. with ham, capicola, prosciutto, and provolone cheese.
- DiBella's Subs — This fast-casual outfit isn't the biggest chain in the world — DiBella's has 43 locations stretching from Indiana to Connecticut — but it's noteworthy due to the quality of the ingredients they use, which is head and shoulders above any of the other restaurants listed here, as well as the sheer size of their portions. For instance, you'd think there'd only be a marginal size differential between DiBella's large (14-inch) sub and a Subway foot-long, but at DiBella's they pile the meat and veggie toppings so high that the former ends up being easily twice as big as the latter. On the side you can get some of the best whole Kosher dill pickles you've ever eaten, as well as huge, mouth-watering, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. You order at the counter, pay, take a number, and then they bring the food to your table when it's ready.
- Firehouse Subs — The name of this fast-casual sandwich chain is no gimmick: it was founded by a pair of retired firefighters, the decor and menu follow a firefighting theme, and they're active in fundraising for local fire departments. As for the food, the huge, mouth-watering, made-with-premium-ingredients submarine sandwiches Firehouse serves don't quite reach the rarefied heights of DiBella's, but they're still a good sight better than anything you can find at Subway or the other big chains. Though they do serve cold cuts, hot subs are the specialty of the house; they also offer a choice of hot sauces to go with. Though Firehouse has expanded all across the United States, as well as entering Puerto Rico and most recently venturing north of the border with five locations in southern Ontario (a total of 90 locations in that province are planned for the coming years), you'll find the densest concentration of them in the Southeastern U.S., from Florida to North Carolina.
- Jersey Mike's — Founded as a neighborhood sub shop on the Jersey Shore in 1956, it first franchised in 1987, and has since expanded to over 1,000 locations, though its greatest concentration is still in the eastern third of the country. Similar to Firehouse in quality of ingredients, but its flip side in terms of the menu — while it serves several different types of hot subs, the specialty is cold subs, with the meats and cheeses sliced in front of you.
- Jimmy John's — A chain of sandwich shops widespread across the United States, Jimmy John's differentiates itself from the competition by offering delivery service, which — much like their counter service — is renowned for being lightning-fast. The food quality is also a cut above what you'll find at Subway, but the flipside is that it comes in smaller portions, there are fewer toppings to choose from, prices are higher, and they tend to be less flexible with substitutions and other special customer requests. Notable as well are the chronic bad PR and periodic boycotts this place continues to earn due to its owner's widely-documented-on-social-media penchant for African big-game hunting, which have been dogging the business for several years despite Jimmy John Liautaud's assurances that he's since given up his controversial hobby.
- Mr. Sub — A direct rival to Subway. Mr. Sub dominated the market in Central and Western Canada from its 1968 launch as "Mr. Submarine" in Yorkville, Toronto until the US-based Subway chain began to encroach on the market in the 1990s. Mr. Sub now has some 200 locations, of which just four (on Prince Edward Island) are east of the Ontario-Quebec border. The sandwiches are a bit smaller and flimsier, the ingredients a tad lower in quality, and the bread not quite as fresh (it's shipped to each location pre-baked in plastic bags, while Subway bakes theirs in-house daily), but Mr. Sub makes up for this by offering a somewhat wider and more interesting range of sandwich toppings, some of which are particular to certain markets or even individual locations — mushrooms and pineapple are a couple of examples.
- Panera Bread — Also known as the St. Louis Bread Company in its eponymous homebase, Panera is a chain of over two thousand fast-casual bakery-cafés whose menu is based on the roughly two dozen varieties of breads, bagels, flatbreads, and pastries fresh-baked daily in-house. In the morning, breakfast sandwiches and bagels with a variety of cream cheese spreads rule the day; at lunchtime you have a slate of sandwiches made from high-quality, additive-free ingredients, as well as salads (served in a house-baked bread bowl on request), homestyle soups, and pasta bowls. For healthy eaters, Panera is one of the best options in the North American fast food and fast-casual world — they were one of the first chains to list calorie counts on their menu. You'll find locations across the United States and in a swath of Ontario from Toronto east to Kingston.
- Quiznos — Briefly a major player in the sub shop scene alongside Subway, Blimpie, and Jimmy John's, Quiznos' restaurant count has shrunk in recent years to a total of about 1,000 locations in North America (down from over 4,000 before the Great Recession). That's a shame, because they handily beat those aforementioned competitors in pretty much every category imaginable. While the other places mainly deal in cold-cut sandwiches that come topped with your choice of veggies and other fixins, Quiznos' strong suit is specialty subs with predetermined toppings, usually made with chicken or steak and always served toasted. Food quality, portion size, and flavor are all a cut above what you'll find at Subway or Blimpie, for prices only a little bit higher. On the other hand, there are far fewer options here for vegetarians, and bread is shipped to the stores frozen rather than baked in-house (though you can't really tell the difference with toasted subs like Quiznos serves). Despite the chain's ongoing decline, you'll still find Quiznos locations across Canada and throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., though they're relatively absent from New England, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and the Deep South.
- Which Wich? — A Dallas-based fast-casual chain that serves "superior sandwiches" a good sight bigger than Subway's or Jimmy John's, with locations widely scattered throughout the U.S. The ordering process at Which Wich? is unique: you walk into the store and up to a dispenser in front of the counter, from which you take a red Sharpie marker and an empty sandwich bag numbered 1 through 10 corresponding to the ten different broad categories of sandwiches they offer (e.g. "beef" is bag #3 and "Italian" is bag #7), then you fill out a checklist printed on the bag to further customize your order (choosing from three sizes and some 60 different toppings including cheeses, veggies, dressings, spices, and premium toppings) and present it to staff at the counter. When the sandwich is ready, they'll serve it to you at your table in the same bag — and you can keep the Sharpie to doodle on your bag; customer artwork is proudly hung on the walls at most Which Wich? locations.
- Auntie Anne's — Soft pretzels with a variety of sweet and/or savory toppings, as well as "pretzel dogs" (Nathan's Famous hot dogs baked in a shell of pretzel dough with a variety of toppings) served up at malls, university dining halls, highway rest stops, and other non-freestanding locations across the United States, plus two in the Toronto area.
- Dairy Queen — They started out as a chain of walk-up ice cream stands famous for their sundaes, dipped cones, and soft serve, and many older locations retain that format to this day. However, most newer Dairy Queens are more elaborate affairs that have dine-in seating and also serve burgers and fries, chicken strips, and the like.
- Jamba Juice — Founded in 1990 as the "senior project" of a California Polytechnic University student, Jamba Juice serves up a range of fresh, healthy, blended-to-order fruit juice mixes and smoothies (to which you can add "shots" and "boosts" of wheatgrass, soy protein, and various vitamin and nutrient blends to ratchet up the nutritional benefits even more), as well as oatmeal bowls, whole-grain flatbreads, sandwiches, and other nonjuice options that are a healthy alternative to usual fast-food fare. Jamba Juice is a nationwide presence in the U.S. with the densest concentration of locations on the West Coast; there's also a single Canadian location in the Toronto suburbs.
- Long John Silver's — Fried fish and shrimp platters, sandwiches, hush puppies and combo baskets of miscellaneous fried stuff, including fish served with fries.
- Roy Rogers — Named for the famous star of old-time cowboy movies, Roy Rogers was once one of the largest fast-food chains in the United States, with over 600 restaurants at its 1980s-era height. Today there are less than a tenth of that number, scattered through the Mid-Atlantic coastal states from New York to Virginia (you'll mostly find them in highway rest stops, especially north of the Mason-Dixon line), but its customers' loyalty is such that Roy Rogers remains an iconic presence on the fast-food landscape in its home region. The menu is an odd pastiche of different fast-food concepts — Roy Rogers seems to be one part McDonald's (a selection of burgers including the "Double R Bar" which comes topped with sliced ham and Cheddar cheese), one part Arby's (roast beef sandwiches that most consider superior to the competition), and one part KFC (family-size crispy fried chicken buckets).
- Smoke's Poutinerie — The only chain solely dedicated to Canada's native fast-food specialty, Smoke's offers a respectable choice of about thirty different specialty poutines where a variety of meat, veggie, and other toppings are added on to the standard fries/cheese curd/gravy template. Smoke's has become an ambassador of sorts for poutine, especially these past few years: though the vast majority of their restaurants are still located in Canada (nationwide, but concentrated in southern Ontario; ironically, there's only one location in Quebec, where the dish originated), they opened their first U.S. poutinerie in 2014 (there are now four: two in California and one each in Arizona and Florida) and have ambitious plans to take the operation international.
- Souplantation — Select your own vegetables to make a salad on your plate and all you can eat soups, pastries and ice cream. Most dishes are vegetarian and about half are also gluten-free; the menu changes at the end of each month. Also known as Sweet Tomatoes outside Southern California.
- Pizza in the United States and Canada — a phenomenon all its own, occupying a niche in North American cuisine that's similar in some ways to fast food
- Restaurant chains in North America — prefab dining experiences a bit more elaborate than what you've read about here
- Street food — North American-style fast food is but one facet of this much broader worldwide phenomenon