West Coast Fast Food Chains We Wish Were Everywhere

It's been said that the West Coast is the best coast, and that's for good reason. First of all, it rhymes, and that's a lot of fun. Plus you've got the sun and the surf — unparalleled in the lower 48 — along with the music, the movies, the multiple sports championships, not to mention the House of Mouse.

And then there's the food, particularly of the fast variety. McDonalds. Taco Bell. Panda Express. Starbucks. These beloved brands that pop up EVERYWHERE are interwoven into the American fabric and they all began their journey on — you guessed it — the West Coast.

But which chains will follow in their footsteps? The fast food game across California, Oregon, and Washington remains extremely strong and there are a number of eateries with the credentials for achieving breakout success across the country. Some candidates are upstart eateries preparing dishes Americans are largely unfamiliar with but absolutely should be. Others are emerging brands that are slowly getting a foothold beyond the Pacific Time Zone. And, of course, there's that one burger behemoth that stubbornly refuses to venture east.

Below are some of our favorite West Coast fast food chains that are destined for national expansion.

Little Big Burger

Living up to its name, Portland-based Little Big Burger specializes in quarter-pound, squat patties that resemble mini-hockey pucks. With a focus on sourcing local ingredients, quality is high and that's reflected in the juicy, expertly charred burgers made with Cascade Natural beef, which according to Portland Monthly, "deliver some beefy perfume and lip-smacking crunch."

Expect some Portlandia touches you normally wouldn't come across at other burger joints starting with the cheese selection. (Pimento? Check. Goat cheese? They've got that too. American? You won't find any of that processed stuff at Little Big Burger.)  The bun is fluffy brioche (made local, of course). The veggies are organic. The ketchup is spelled "catsup" and comes from Portland's very own Camden's  (no Heinz here). As for the fries — the standard setting is shoestring slivers tossed in truffle oil, and no, we're not complaining, especially when they're dipped in the creamy frysauce.

Beyond multiple locations across Oregon, there are two in North Carolina, and a spot in Washington. But this is a burger chain that definitely needs to think bigger.

Zankou Chicken

If the one and only Beck is dropping the name of your restaurant in a song, you're probably doing something right. With a dozen locations across Los Angeles and Orange Country, this Lebanese chicken chain is still going strong since making its Hollywood debut nearly four decades ago.

While ordering a rotisserie bird is your best bet to feed the family, the chicken tarna is where it's at. Marinated and flame-grilled, it's pure poultry perfection, especially stuffed in a pita wrap with diced tomatoes and Zankou's beyond-addictive garlic spread (have plenty of mints handy). If you're especially hungry, elect the plate option which comes loaded with basmati rice, a roasted tomato, spiced onions, cucumber salad, smooth hummus, and a pita, plus some eye-catching pink turnip pickles.

The grilled kabobs — chicken, shish, and lule (spiced ground beef) — are also worth ordering from their menu but if you're in a red meat mood, consider the spit-shaved tri-tip shawerma which is a cut above.

KazuNori

KazuNori doesn't exactly fit the standard perception of fast food, but "The Original Hand Roll Bar" serves Japanese bites and does it quickly, so technically it satisfies that criteria. Named after famed (and feared) sushi master Kazunori Nozawa (who's also behind A-list-approved sushi phenomenon Sugarfish) this Los Angeles-based chain has earned a reputation for being high on quality and low on cost considering the product at hand.

If you're unfamiliar with hand rolls, they're essentially two-bite sushi burritos, with crisp seaweed acting as the tortilla with a filling of warm vinegared sushi rice and seafood (often raw but occasionally cooked). The limited menu focuses on assorted sashimi and hand rolls which can be ordered a la carte or, for the best value, as part of a set. Those start at $12 for a three roll combo (salmon, bay scallop, and blue crab), but it's worth upgrading to the $24 six-pack which includes a welcome yellowtail roll plus a pair of luxury additions — toro (fatty tuna) and lobster.

Grab a seat at the circular bar (the only dining room option), give your order to the chef, who will soon get rolling. If there's a line, which is likely, not to worry. Meals usually clock in around 15 minutes so turnover is quick. There's the option of ordering to-go in which case the rolls will be pre-cut. Beyond L.A., KazuNori has also found success in New York and there's sure to be plenty of opportunity for expansion between the coasts.

Super Duper Burgers

This Bay Area sensation is basically the West Coast's answer to Shake Shack and, dare we say, surpasses what is offered up at the Danny Meyer empire. The burgers, which Business Insider describes as "an amalgamation of rich, fresh flavors," fall under the fast-casual banner so prepare for a bit of sticker shock. In an interview with QSR magazine, founder Adriano Paganini explains, "If a burger costs $3 or less, you're not getting enough food or enough quality. But it doesn't need to cost $15 either. We're charging the right price for the right quality."

In other words, don't expect to order off of a dollar value menu here. What you will find, however, are ingredients that are "organic, locally-sourced, humanely raised, never frozen, always made fresh from scratch everyday" which in our estimation is indeed, super duper.

The burgers are prepared with meat from single family-owned Brandt Beef (there's also a veggie patty option served with hummus, cucumber, and Super sauce), the ice cream in the milkshakes is courtesy of certified-organic Strauss Family Creamery, and the Peregrine Ranch wine (yes, wine!) is sustainable and biodynamic. If you're in search of a higher-end fast food option in your area, Super Duper Burgers would be a welcome addition.

Ezell's Famous Chicken

If your reaction to potentially bringing West Coast fried chicken to the South is "what the cluck?" you probably haven't tried this Seattle legend. Too often restaurants that tack on boastful superlatives to their names don't actually live up to the grandiose billing. That's not the case with Ezell's which has the coveted distinction of serving Oprah Winfrey's favorite fried chicken. It doesn't get much more famous than that.

There are plenty more devotees beyond Gayle's best friend who flock to its 14 locations across Washington, along with a Tigard, Oregon outlet.

There are two big predicaments here. The first is whether to go tender or bone-in but thankfully there is no wrong answer. The next is seasoning: original or spicy? According to the Seattle Times, you can't go wrong with the original recipe. But if you want heat, kick it up a notch. You can even take the "why not both?" approach and go half and half. 

Classic homemade sides like mashed potatoes, slow-baked BBQ beans, mac & cheese, and cole slaw are first rate but it's the fresh baked dinner rolls that absolutely require your attention. The Seattle Spectator goes so far as to anoint them "the best thing on the menu." And if that wasn't enough carbs, you're gonna wanna cap off your meal for a slice of the sublime home-baked sweet potato pie.

Guisados

There are plenty of restaurants across the country where you can order all the (American) taco standards like carne asada, pollo asado, ground beef, and carnitas. This is not one of them. Guisados specializes in its namesake slow-cooked stewed meat and vegetable fillings which are brimming with flavor.

Everything is great here whether it's the tender steak picado, multi-layered chicken mole poblano, or cochinita pibil, a Yucatan specialty of sweet and tangy shredded pork. And the vegetable options like hongos (mushrooms) en cilantro and calabacitas (squash) rival the meats. For hot heads, there's the chiles toreados, a scorching union of blistered habaneros, serranos, jalapenos, and Thai chilis, which the late great Jonathan Gold brilliantly described as "a taco that could play bada** trumpet in a mariachi band and sing sweet love songs to your girlfriend." 

If you can't make a decision (we don't blame you), luckily there is a sampler option served on mini versions of the delightfully chewy homemade corn tortillas. 

 It's no wonder Bon Appétit lauds the Los Angeles chain with seven locations impressively on both sides of town (as in Boyle Heights AND Beverly Hills) for serving "the best tacos in town."

Pizza Port

Pizza Port, which has five locations spread across San Diego and Orange County, is like that renegade cop in all the movies. You know, the one who doesn't play by the rules. It's a brewpub, but also family-friendly. It serves pizza ... topped with everything from meatballs, bacon, and BBQ sauce to shrimp, pepperoncinis, and Buffalo ranch (the Bressi Ranch). Indeed, the thick-crusted, kitchen sink pies would assuredly cause Neapolitans to riot, but your kid's soccer team will be ecstatic.

The beer, however, is unequivocally phenomenal, racking up a slew of industry awards and accolades. Hoppy West Coast IPAs are the house specialty but Pizza Port also excels at brewing the darker stuff as well as easy sippers like the California Honey ale and Chronic amber ale, the chain's most popular brew.

Pizza Port does a brisk takeout and delivery business, so it definitely fits the bill for fast food. If you're ordering to-go, make sure to grab a six-pack or growler-fill to wash down your 'za, wings, and maybe even a salad (we won't judge).

Mendocino Farms

Sorry, Subway. If any sandwich deserves to use the slogan "eat fresh," the honor should be bestowed upon this California rising star. Inventive "cheffy" sandwiches and "soulful" salads made with farm-fresh ingredients are the main draw at Mendocino Farms which offers permanent menu fixtures and seasonal specials prepared with a pan-global approach. Sandwiches are divided between "foodie favorites" and more familiar "craveable classics." For the former, we can't get enough of the Peruvian Steak, which is doused in spicy aji amarillo, topped with Oaxacan cheese, herb aioli, red onions, tomatoes, and shredded romaine (go for the avocado upgrade). It's served on a toasted potato roll and requires plenty of napkins so try not to wear white. Over to the more familiar fare, A Sandwich Study in Heat takes the humble turkey sandwich and turns up the temperature adding chili aioli and a jalapeno salsa verde. There's also smashed avocado gouda, so no, this isn't a sandwich that ever showed up in your school lunchbox.

There are also vegetarian and vegan options if that's your thing along with a slew of sides like spicy curried couscous and marinated red beets & quinoa salad which you can sample before you commit.

Mendocino Farms is currently only operating in California and Texas. That's 48 states short of where it should be.

The Crack Shack

Celebrity chef Richard Blais successfully channeled fine dining flair into this fast casual hit. Chicken (of the high-quality Jidori variety) is the name of the game at The Crack Shack and it comes in just about every iteration you can think of — fried, grilled, ground, atop salads, by the piece, sandwiched, intermingling with fries that are cooked in chicken fat — and just like the "Top Chef's" winner's hair, they're bound to grab your attention.

There are plenty of chicken dinner winners on the menu but The Infatuation recommends The Firebird, "with a just-spicy-enough fried thigh, crispy onions, pickles, and ranch sauce." Save room for sides, including the messy yet magnificent Mexican poutine (schmaltz fries, pollo asado, and jalapeño cheese wiz) and freshly-baked bite-sized biscuits served with sweet and savory miso butter which Condé Nast Traveler deems "can't miss."

And if you want to bring the youngins', go right ahead. There's a kids meal which comes with nuggets, grilled chicken, or grilled cheese; a choice of carrots or small order of fries; a juice box; and a house-baked cookie. Speaking of, the mighty Cookie Monster milkshake (made with Afters ice cream) is suitable for all ages. 

Lee's Sandwiches

San Jose boasts the second largest Vietnamese population in the United States so it makes sense it would produce a booming bánh mì empire. Lee's may not be the best bánh mì slinger in town but it's the most prolific and without a doubt is superior to the vast majority of its fast food sandwich competition. (We'll take Cali Lee's over Jersey Mike's any day of the week.)

Skip the Euro portion of the menu and stick with one of the 18 Asian sandwich options which are all served on a fluffy 10-inch baguette with house-pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, and house-made mayo. There's a reason Lee's Combination is at the top of the list with a standard bánh mì cold cut combo of ham, head cheese, and pate. The full package offers a contrast of textures and flavors that wow with every bite. The grilled meats also deliver, particularly the chicken and pork meatball which is prepared in the traditional Vietnamese style. For earlier risers, there are egg-centric breakfast sandwiches too.  If you still have room in your belly, the crispy pork & shrimp egg rolls are a worthy addition. 

Spread across California, with additional franchises in Arizona, Texas, and Oklahoma, Lee's Sandwiches are currently over 60 shops strong. Let's hope that growth continues.

Spice Waala

You may not know it yet, but you need some kathi rolls in your life. Stuffing bread with a kebab or other savory fillings is an Indian street-food standard, but sadly a rarity in the U.S.

Seattle's Spice Waala, which open to great fanfare in 2018, is poised to change that. Offering an "unapologetically authentic" taste of Calcutta and Delhi, the relative newcomer's selection of traditional snacks and beverages is impressive. That said, a visit is really all about the easy-on-your-wallet kathi rolls. Choose from four fillings served up in roti bread with a spicy green chutney and onions. While aloo tiki (fried potato patty) and cheesy paneer bhurji are exceptional picks for vegetarians, if you have a carnivorous craving either meat option is the way to go. Both the chicken tikka and the kebab (made with ground lamb patties) are marinated for 36 hours and grilled for a full flavor explosion. For dessert, cool off with a bowl of soft serve rose & cardamom ice cream.

Spice Waala offers more than just mouthwatering eats. As Seattle Refined points out, the chain has a commitment to treating its employees right, which is evident by offering living wages and bringing employees into the fold as profit-sharing partners.

Though there are currently only two locations, Spice Walla's prospects are just heating up.

Leo's Tacos

The food truck frenzy may be on the decline in Los Angeles, but the love for Leo's (which operates seven vehicles across the county) remains strong. The menu highlights all the usual taco suspects plus some more interesting cuts of meat like buche (stomach), tripa (tripe), and cabeza (head). But the lines remain long primarily for one extremely delicious reason: al pastor. The brilliantly spiced, juicy spit-grilled pork bridges the best of Middle Eastern and Mexican cooking, and few do it better in the U.S. than Leo's.

Paper-thin slices of pork are gracefully shaved from the massive cone of meat then topped with a sliver of pineapple which resides all the way at the tippy top of the towering structure so its sweet and sour juice can flow down upon the pastor. Order simply as a taco or if you're with friends (or in need of extra subsistence after an extra long night out), opt for the alambres Hawaiian, a piggish mound of al pastor topped with plenty of cheese and pineapple (tortillas are served on the side to yank all that deliciousness up).

Before you dig in, make a detour towards the salsa bar to load up on sauces, cilantro, onions, and pickles.

Pink's Hot Dogs

Few stars shine brighter in Hollywood than Pink's. The landmark may not be recognized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but its intersection at Melrose Avenue and La Brea Boulevard has been formally named "Pink's Square" which is quite the achievement for a no-frills hot dog shack.

Started in 1939, Pink's is as popular as ever, drawing crowds of tourists and locals including plenty of familiar faces. Beyond history, there's the food. If you want a hot dog kept simple, topped with sauerkraut and mustard (and possibly onions), there's New York. If a pickle, relish, tomato, and poppy seed bun is more your style, Chicago it is. In Los Angeles, the chili dog reigns supreme, but narrow that focus to Hollywood and you're going to need plenty of razzle-dazzle to grab attention, and Pink's offers plenty of showstoppers. 

Toppings include everything from guacamole and nacho cheese to grilled mushrooms and pastrami. Span the expansive menu and you'll come across a who's who of boldfaced names attached to fanciful creations — getting your own Pink's hot dog is an honor falling somewhere between a People's Choice Award and an Oscar. Our top dog happens to be the Huell Howser. Named after the local television legend, it features a pair of hot dogs in a single bun with a topping of chili, cheese, onions, and mustard.

Including the flagship, Pink's is currently operating 15 locations in nine states (plus the Philippines) and frankly, that's not nearly enough.

Tender Greens

An "elevated spin on the comfort dishes you love" is the modus operandi of this 15 year-old fine-casual chain. The name Tender Greens may give off a kale, tofu, and sprouts, beyond impossible vibe, and while some dishes fall in the category, the eclectic offerings also include plenty of hearty fare (even some fried stuff) prepared with actual animal flesh.

The chain is currently exclusively in the Golden State and with a focus on keeping ingredients local (items vary by location and are constantly rotating) it's no surprise that a portion of the menu is devoted to dishes that fall in the Mexican-influenced "California" category as well as some "Pacific" entrees like fried katsu chicken and togarashi tuna or salmon — both are served with sushi rice, spicy miso mayo, pickled cucumber, carrots, greens, sesame, and ginger dressing. For a filling lunch or dinner, choose the plate option which comes with a protein (as simple grilled steak or maybe buttermilk fried chicken), side (brown rice, mashed potatoes, or seasonal vegetables), and of course a leafy green.

If California can export a pizza kitchen to the rest of the country then surely Tender Greens can find a way to succeed.

In-N-Out

What more can be said about this quintessentially SoCal all-time legend? In-N-Out serves the absolute best fast food hamburger, in our humble opinion, not to mention the sweet headwear, secret menu, and earworm of a jingle ("that's what a haaaamburger's, alllll about!") which only adds to the mystique.

But despite ferocious demand for those shockingly reasonably priced Double Doubles, expansion continues to move at a glacial pace. That's because the powers that be are sticklers for quality and while that ensures your burger will be made exclusively with fresh (not frozen) ground beef and vibrant veggies, it's bad news for anyone who doesn't live within 300 miles of the company's processing facilities which are currently relegated to California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Texas.

If you're out of range, don't despair. Just think of all the drawbacks to living the In-N-Out life. For one, there are the frequent waits which have extended to an astonishing 14 hours. Plus those notoriously polarizing fries have plenty of detractors. And — sorry, that's all we got. In-N-Out is basically the perfect burger chain so go ahead and pray hard that it eventually finds its way to your town.