Fast food restaurant BBQ sauces ranked worst to best

Barbecue sauce is no laughing matter. For some, it's the finishing touch to a master's great work, lovingly tended, perhaps for hours, over coals and infused with woodsmoke. For others, it's an interesting condiment, something a little more daring than ketchup or mustard to dress a burger or piece of grilled chicken. Oftentimes, a good barbecue sauce is loved for its smokiness, its blend of vinegary tang and dark, complex sweetness.

Can you get a sauce like that at a fast food place? Most places nowadays serve something approaching barbecue sauce, though whether or not it hits the mark is up to both personal preference and how the sauce is made. It also depends on where you've procured your BBQ sauce fixings.

While each place serving up fast food has its devotees, not all of their sauces are made equally. Some are, to be brutally honest, sad mockeries of their inspiration that turn out to be little more than a pool of something red and sweet. Then again, there are spots where you can get a truly respectable barbecue sauce with a rather skillful blend of sweetness, smoky flavors, and spices. So, there's no reason to lose hope, brave BBQ sauce seeker. You've just got to be selective.

16. White Castle BBQ sauce

White Castle has plenty of fans, and for good reason. A variety of items on this fast food chain's menu are genuinely tasty, especially those mouthwatering crinkle-cut fries. After all, if a film franchise like Harold & Kumar can inspire people of all stripes to make a pilgrimage to their local White Castle, then surely there's something there to draw them in.

Alas, it's not the barbecue sauce. If you are in a state like good old Kumar or Harold, perhaps the taste of the BBQ won't matter so much after the wonders of your journey to get some burgers. For the rest of us, however, the sauce tastes artificial. It's got a lot of flavor, to be sure, but none of the nuanced tang or smokiness seen in far better versions of the condiment. If you're going to make a trip to White Castle, all the power to you, but consider reaching for a different dipping sauce when you get your hands on those delicious fries or the classic square sliders. The Zesty Zing sauce is probably the best of the bunch, assuming you're a fan of horseradish. The BBQ sauce, however, deserves little more than a single taste and then a quiet trip to the bottom of the bag.

15. McDonald's Tangy BBQ sauce

Sometimes, you need to be happy with what you've got. It's not that you're in a bad place, exactly, but you are at McDonald's. Sure, this fast food place has plenty of devotees, and if you're in the right mood, its offerings can really hit the spot. But what about its barbecue sauce? 

The truth is that McDonald's Tangy BBQ sauce is thoroughly unimpressive. It's sweet. It's tangy. It's red. That's about it. Consuming the barbecue sauce out of its little plastic tub, perhaps on top of your chicken McNuggets or fries, won't do anything immediately terrible to you. You may briefly feel as if you're different or even a tad superior for choosing something other than ketchup, but that's about all this poor sauce can offer. Next time, consider McDonald's buttermilk ranch. It's not at all healthy, of course, but it offers up some interesting shades of black pepper and even onion, which is more than the barbecue sauce can say for itself.

14. Burger King BBQ sauce

Burger King's BBQ sauce doesn't stand out too much from its other big-name fast food competitor, McDonald's, Tangy BBQ sauce. Like McDonald's offering, it's a thick, dark red condiment that tastes mostly like syrup. In fact, it's arguably quite fruity, with hints of acidic pineapple in the mix.

If you snag a few packs of Burger King's version of barbecue sauce for whatever you've ordered, hardly anyone is going to raise an eyebrow at you. Then again, there are better options right in front of you. If you're not afraid of a bit of heat, Burger King's buffalo sauce is surprisingly pretty good, with a good hit of cayenne that some, like this Twitter user, really love with their chicken fries. Meanwhile, their ranch is one of the more complex versions available at most recognizable fast food joints. So, yeah, you can certainly get their barbecue sauce, but the real truth is that you can do a lot better when it comes to sauces in the same establishment.

13. Dairy Queen BBQ sauce

It could be that you're going for a classic American stereotype and want quantity over quality. Of course, that's not to say that all Americans really want to dive into a vat of middling barbecue sauce, but that weirdly fits into a narrative, unearned or otherwise.

The point being, if you do secretly want an amount of BBQ sauce approaching surprising portions, you might want to head over to Dairy Queen. With over double the amount offered up by other fast food places, you'll certainly get a lot of BBQ. But how does it actually taste?

That depends a lot on your own personal preferences. Unlike other barbecue sauces here, Dairy Queen's version is genuinely pretty different. Careful tasters might observe that, amongst the tanginess and sweet flavors, there's also hints of more complex flavors. While it doesn't approach the top of our list, some love it so much that, like Kasey Moore on Twitter, they say it "goes with anything."

12. Popeye's BBQ sauce

Amongst the vast landscape of the fast food chicken wars, there are many distractions. There's the fried chicken, of course, which rightfully gets most of the attention. Then, eaters may also tussle over the quality of a place's fries, the deliciousness factor of its sides, or even the flavor and mouthfeel of its drinks.

Then, there are the sauces. Purists might argue that really good fried chicken should be enjoyed by itself, but others aren't above a little added flavor, especially a good, strong BBQ sauce. How does Popeye's BBQ sauce hold up to the competition? It's not the most exciting sauce, to be sure, but it's not terrible. The sauce is sweet and tangy, as one might expect, with a bit of complexity thanks to molasses and some smoke flavoring. Nothing wild enough to knock you on your seat, but neither will it ruin a piece of chicken, assuming you're cool about that sort of thing.

11. Jack in the Box BBQ sauce

There are times when you need a sauce to get out of your way. It doesn't need to stand on its own, shouting about how unique and interesting it is. You don't need to eat it in isolation, drawing strange looks as you consume barbecue sauce with a spoon. You just need it to its job well without stealing the spotlight from your chicken or french fries. All you want is something to add a subtle layer to your food-eating experience.

The BBQ sauce from Jack in the Box does just that. It's a simple concoction of water, tomato paste, and brown sugar, with a hint of vinegar. Sounds easy enough, but whoever's doing the actual measuring and blending is doing an admirable job. The barbecue flavors are there in good balance, with neither sweet, smoky, nor acidic flavors punching their way to the surface.

10. KFC Summertime BBQ sauce

Without becoming too much of a smart aleck, one wonders if a summertime barbecue sauce has a wintertime equivalent. KFC hasn't debuted any such special sauce, though we'll be sure to check it out if it ever makes it to the real world.

Until then, we'll have to be content with the restaurant's Summertime BBQ sauce, which isn't such a bad consolation prize. It's still not clear what makes it a seasonal sauce other than the fact that barbecues tend to happen more frequently in the summer than winter, but only if you're a quitter.

Anyway, KFC's BBQ sauce has a decent variety of flavors, with a pretty standard smokiness and an interesting bit of heat that's missing from sweeter sauces. Overall, it's a bit bolder than other fast food barbecue sauces, but not so outstanding or interesting that you'll really take notice. It's vaguely interesting and largely inoffensive.

9. Sonic Drive-In BBQ sauce

If you're sick to death of the ultra-sweet barbecue sauces that have become little more than vaguely smokey syrups, you might be in need of some vinegar. Not a whole bottle, of course, but a bit of acidity can go a long way. If nothing else, it's at least different from some of the competition that can't help but indulge their own sweet tooth.

Unlike other restaurants, it's possible that Sonic Drive-In has achieved its highest sauce form via its BBQ sauce. That's not to say its other offerings, like Honey Mustard or Ranch dipping sauces, are bad. It's just that the barbecue flavor of Sonic's stuff is balanced pretty well by a hit of plain old white vinegar. It's not shockingly different, to be sure, and you probably won't be writing home to anyone about your transcendent experience dipping french fries into the Sonic BBQ sauce. That said, it's not a bad choice if you're at the drive-in, staring down those delicious tater tots, and wondering what will be their best pairing.

8. Whataburger Honey BBQ sauce

Don't you love tomatoes? If you're turning your nose up at this member of the nightshade family, you should really reconsider. If you've only ever had a mealy grocery store fruit or even just ketchup, it doesn't quite get at the rich, fruity, savory flavor of the tomato. To be fair, Scientific American can back you up by indicating that there may be a genetic factor influencing your taste. That said, there's really something lovely about a well-made, tomato-heavy barbecue sauce that you should try at least once.

If you don't feel like agonizing over what's on the shelf at your grocery store and you're not quite ready to make your own, the barbecue sauce from Whataburger is a pretty decent fast food alternative. Its Honey BBQ sauce is full of good tomato flavor. Since it's paired up with honey, this sauce can get pretty sweet, but that's no obstacle for many people. Plus, if you're lucky enough to live near an H-E-B grocery store in Texas, you can snag a whole bottle for yourself, according to Whataburger's Twitter.

7. Chick-fil-A BBQ sauce

People go nuts for Chick-fil-A. On many days, you can see a line snaking its way through your local Chick-fil-A's drive-through, despite the restaurant's image problem after its connections to anti-LGBTQ charities came to light, explains Vox. In 2020, the Chick-fil-A Foundation announced that it would take a "more focused giving approach" in response to criticism, so we'll leave the ultimate judgment up to you.

If you do visit your nearest Chick-fil-A, though, should you go for their BBQ sauce? One of the reasons the franchise has been so popular, after all, is the high quality of all their different sauces and dressings. Well, it depends on which version you try. The standard BBQ sauce is good, and we definitely recommend getting some with your next chicken-heavy meal at the chain. The flavor is nice and rich, and it tastes darker than other BBQ sauces out there.

But the real raves reviews are reserved for the restaurant's Chick-fil-A sauce. As the company claims, the sauce was invented in the 1980s when an employee accidentally combined BBQ sauce and honey mustard, creating a pretty delicious concoction. If you could count the Chick-fil-A sauce as BBQ sauce, it would rank at the top of our list.

6. Carl's Jr. Sweet & Bold BBQ sauce

True to its name, the Sweet & Bold BBQ sauce from Carl's Jr. is pretty dang sweet. It's also pretty bold, and for a solid reason: those french fries. The waffle fries at Carl's Jr. restaurants come to you already heavily seasoned. This means that, if you're going to pair them with a dipping sauce, you'd better get something a little more intense to stand up to the flavor.

You could reach for the Honey Mustard. The buffalo sauce is okay, though some have said that it has a disappointing chemical tinge. Really, the choice is clear. You've got to get some Sweet & Bold. According to at least one Twitter user, it's "the best in the game."

Carl's Jr.'s version of barbecue sauce has a strong tomato paste flavor, which lends a bit of sweetness and a savory tone to the finished sauce. It's still plenty sweet, however, which helps to offset some of the salt sprinkled all over your fast food.

5. Arby's Tangy BBQ sauce

Arby's has become famous partially because it rode to public recognition on the back of its sauces. Weird image, to be sure, but there are plenty of people that are willing to forge ahead because they just love that weirdly neon yellow cheese sauce slathered all over their roast beef sandwiches. Maybe you should just enjoy the experience of whatever that is without asking too many questions. Plenty of other fast food fanatics also dig Arby's creamy horsey sauce, a horseradish-based potion that brings the burn to whatever you're eating and has earned devotees nationwide.

How does Arby's Tangy BBQ sauce hold up to its more well-known companions? Not too bad. True to its name, the sauce is pretty tangy, not unlike the traditional Kansas City BBQ sauce that leans pretty heavily on ketchup and molasses. While the slightly grainy texture can be a turn-off for some, overall, we think this is a fantastic sauce.

Perhaps that explains one Twitter user's reaction to the sauce: "Roast Beef sandwich with BBQ sauce from Arby's smacks!! Try one and y'all see!! That's the only way I'm eating Arby's."

4. Shake Shack BBQ sauce

At this point, you may be wondering if there's anything new under the barbecue-drenched sun. Each BBQ sauce seems to think that it's really, truly groundbreaking, when really, it's just another sweet, smokey goop that tastes pretty good on chicken. That leaves us quibbling over ingredients like vinegar, cayenne, pepper, and tomatoes, to name just a few. To be sure, a truly masterful barbecue sauce creator can take those seemingly simple parts and blend them into something magical, but you may not always find something like that in a fast food place.

If you're still craving novelty, then the BBQ sauce on deck at Shake Shack is pretty distinct. Somewhere along the way, someone decided to add mustard to their mix. It's there in such quantities that you can taste it pretty easily. It goes beyond mere pepper or vinegar to something with, well, a lot of mustard flavor. For some tasters, that's going to be way harsh. For others, it's the perfect accompaniment to the bolder menu items available at Shake Shack.

3. Checkers/Rally's BBQ sauce

What is it that makes a barbecue sauce good? We can spend all day listing the different ingredients that we individually prefer, be it as common as brown sugar or as wild as chocolate or Coca-Cola. Many of us could stay up into the wee hours of the night debating ratios, cook times, the spiritual state of the pit master involved, or anything else that might affect the slightest change in taste or texture. Ultimately, though, the makeup of a really good barbecue remains a bit mystical for many of us.

That's why it's difficult to articulate just what's so appealing about Rally's barbecue sauce. Also known as Checkers in some states, this restaurant serves up a thick BBQ sauce with a powerful, lingering taste. It's definitely got plenty of smoke flavor to it, which is sure to appeal to many eaters. It's sweet, too, but there's something more complex in there that might go beyond brown sugar, like maple. Overall, it's a rich, pleasing barbecue sauce that will stick around in your memory and on your palate.

Wondering what to try it with? You can't go wrong with a Bacon BBQ Mother Cruncher.

2. Wendy's BBQ sauce

Smoke is obviously a pretty definitive flavor when it comes to barbecue. Pit masters and amateurs both love to debate the finer points of how to best get the rich, complex flavor of smoke into their food. What kind of wood is best? How long should you cook something? How carefully do you need to tend it? And how is one supposed to encapsulate all of that in the sauce?

Amongst fast food joints, Wendy's arguably has some of the smokiest barbecue sauce out there. It's rich and thick, almost velvety, and with a dark, complex flavor. There's smoke, of course, which is one of the predominant flavor notes in the sauce. You can also taste plenty of sweetness, brought on by both sugar and molasses. Full-time barbecue enthusiasts might have their quibbles, like this Twitter user who called a new version "straight trash", but for fast food BBQ sauce, Wendy's take on the classic condiment is definitely up there in quality.

1. Church's Chicken Honey BBQ sauce

Honey barbecue can be a tricky flavor to get right. Too much of one flavor can completely overpower the other. And how are you supposed to get the taste of honey to stand out in the middle of strong flavors like tomato and smoke? It can be a subtle taste, after all, and one that doesn't always stand out in the knockout world of barbecue flavor.

Church's Chicken seems to have gotten it right, at least if you like your honey BBQ sauce spicy and balanced with a hit of dark, rich molasses. There's also a hit of chili powder in the mix, which adds just a little heat and some more savory notes that build up the overall complexity of the sauce. It's also got some tang to it that makes it all the more tasty. It's especially good on fries, helping to cut some of the salt and greasiness that's native to this fast food staple.