Regional Fast Food Chains You Should Try Before You Die

They're everywhere. From coast to coast, in big cities and small towns, fast food chains (also those categorized "fast casual" and "quick service") proliferate across the U.S. like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Of the 196,839 fast food businesses currently doing business in America, Alabama, Nebraska, and West Virginia have the most per capita (per Datafiniti). You could probably name the top 10 fast food chains without thinking too much: McDonald's, Starbucks, Chik-fil-A, Taco Bell, Burger King. But if you scan the entire list, you'll see fast food chains you may not have heard of. Many are specific to a state or region of the U.S., and the only way you can try them out is to go there. 

We've curated some of the best regional fast food restaurants all across the U.S., and if you're traveling to their locale, you should add them to your bucket list. You'll eat better burgers, better fried chicken, and better fries, each with a distinctive regional touch.

BurgerFi

BurgerFi started out in Florida, and since its CEO Julio Martinez took the reins in 2020, it has expanded up the Eastern Seaboard. Its name sounds like a riff of the U.S. Marines' motto "Semper Fidelis," often shortened to "Semper Fi." According to Ann Arbor Observer, BurgerFi actually means the "Burgerfication of the Nation." The fast casual burger joint currently has 10 burgers on the menu at most locations, including three plant-based burgers. Most of the six beef burgers have two patties — fresh, never frozen — and some are loaded with fantastic toppings, like bacon-tomato jam, truffle aoili, and on top of the newest creation, the SWAG (Spicy Wagyu) Burger, ghost pepper bacon and habanero pepper jack cheese. BurgerFi also has hot dogs made from wagyu beef, and humanely raised chicken sandwiches. 

One item BurgerFi is especially famous for is their onion rings. These crispy beauties are as large as a bangle bracelet and are beer-battered and fried to order. Martha Stewart recently joined BurgerFi's Board of Directors, and in an interview with Fox News, she crows about the onion rings. And, of course, you can wash down the delicious burger and onion rings with one of BurgerFi's shakes, with flavors such as red velvet, Oreo cookie, or banana churro.

Culver's

Wisconsin-based Culver's shows up on many "best of" lists, and in 2020, it actually beat out California's In-N-Out overall and for food and beverage as America's favorite fast food joint (via Restaurant Business). Culver's started in 1984 with primarily Midwest locations, but since then, its tentacles have reached out to the Southeast and Southwest with over 800 locations. Culver's  serves a lot of frozen custard, but the star of the show is their famous ButterBurger, a pressed and seared fresh beef burger with a buttered bun. Slapping a dollop of butter on a burger isn't as weird as you might think — in fact, it's delicious.

Wisconsin is the Dairyland State, and keeping true to Culver's Wisconsin roots, you'll find fried cheddar cheese curds, pretzel bites dipped in cheddar cheese sauce, and an ever-changing menu of daily-made frozen yogurt and shakes, including a root beer float, made with Culver's own root beer. Along with the usual chicken and fish sandwiches, Culver's also has "Homestyle Favorites," such as a pot roast and a pork loin sandwich. Culver's is fast-growing, and it's likely you'll eventually get to try this Wisconsin institution closer to home. But until that happens, it's worth the road trip.

Bojangles

The original Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits opened in Charlotte, North Carolina in1977 by Richard Thomas, the former president of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Jack Fulk with a crispy Cajun-spiced chicken breast sandwiched between a buttermilk biscuit. Today, Bojangles has 768 locations, almost all in the South, and its success can be attributed to Thomas and Fulk's insistence on using fresh (never frozen) chicken, and daily baked biscuits made from scratch every 20 minutes. Bojangles kept to its Southern roots by adding Cajun beans, dirty rice, mashed potatoes and gravy, mac 'n cheese, and other Southern "fixins" to the menu. 

But you're really going for the yummy fried chicken — bone-in or boneless — with its unique seasoning that Bojangles sells on its website. When compared with KFC, Bojangles chicken is less expensive, more flavorful, and less greasy. Bojangles famous biscuits aren't just made for the chicken; there are many chicken-less biscuit menu items that, again, pay tribute to classic Southern cooking, like country ham biscuit, pimento cheese biscuit, and Southern gravy biscuit. The quality of ingredients is Bojangles' hallmark as a fast food place, so if you're driving through the South and have a yen for some good ol' friend chicken and buttermilk biscuits, stop by a Bojangles.

Skyline Chili

If you're not from Ohio, you might scratch your head and wonder "What the heck is Skyline Chili?" It's a Cincinnati culinary institution dating back to 1949 when Nicholas Lambrinides created his secret recipe for a bean-less chili that's made with a unique blend of spices and does include a sweet taste, often thought to be cinnamon or nutmeg. At Skyline, the chili is ladled over spaghetti and then topped with a blizzard of shredded cheddar. It's not pretty, but many say it's incredibly delicious. This chili-spaghetti concoction is called "Ways" on the menu, referring to the number of ingredients. The chili-spaghetti-cheese combo is called a 3-Way. Add onions or beans, it's a 4-Way, and add both onions and beans it's a 5-Way. 

And then there's The Coney, which is basically a chili dog with gobs of cheese. They have salads, potatoes, and kids meals, but locals go there for the chili. Most of the Skyline Chili locations are in Ohio, but there are a few in Kentucky, Indiana, Florida, and Tennessee, all within 300 miles of the company's Fairfield, Ohio commissary. You can buy canned Skyline Chili on Amazon (or in  many grocery stores), but you should try the real thing in Ohio and see what all the fuss is about.

Pal's Sudden Service

If you happen to be driving through eastern Tennessee or southwest Virginia, it's likely that an oddly-tiered sky-blue structure adorned with gigantic fast food will catch your eye. Pal's Sudden Service has steadfastly kept their 30 locations local, and it's famous for their food and extraordinarily well-trained staff. All but two of Pal's are drive-thru only, and they serve most of the same food you find at any other drive-thru but with a Southern twist. Breakfast is all about the biscuits, one of which is dripping with luscious sausage country gravy. Cheddar rounds are hash-brown bites stuffed with cheese. 

Burgers and hot dogs are the usual fare, but the Bar-B-Dog is a hot dog bun stuffed with barbecue pulled pork, onions, and sweet cole slaw, a Southern dish if ever there was one. Not only is Pal's known for its high quality, but its super-speedy service (12 seconds at the drive-up window and 18 seconds at the handout window) has set the standard for what drive-throughs should be. Maybe their buildings are a bit wacky, but Pal's is one of the best fast food joints in the country.

In-N-Out Burger

Californians are really obsessive about In-N-Out Burger. Even celebrities make it a thing to celebrate after award shows by gorging on an In-N-Out Burger. According to Forbes, it opened in 1948 in Baldwin Park, California, in a small space with no indoor seating and a two-way speaker box connected to the kitchen. Owners Harry and Esther Snyder built their burger business by using only the freshest ingredients, keeping as much of the work in-house as possible, and treating their staff and customers alike with respect. It's enormous popularity has a lot to do with In-N-Out's ingredients. They use fresh beef, which they grind themselves, the vegetables are fresh, and the soft spongy buns that perfectly cushion the burger and toppings are baked daily. 

The menu is simple — burgers, fries, shakes, and soft drinks — and the not-so-secret menu gives you options for how many beef patties you want, toppings to choose from, protein-style, animal-style, and even a grilled cheese. For years, In-N-Out Burger had been exclusive to California, but it's since expanded to the Southwest, with over 300 locations. Still, they say not to expect nationwide expansion anytime soon, so try them when you get a chance.

Wawa

In 2018, Wawa was voted in Market Force Information's annual survey as the best sandwich in America (via Business Insider). What was particularly shocking to other sandwich shops, like Jersey Mike's and Firehouse Subs, is that Wawa is a convenience store and, in some cases, a gas station. Wawa started out in Pennsylvania, but over the past 57 years, it branched out along the East Coast and now has over 850 locations. Fans of Wawa are quite enthusiastic, and it's little wonder. Wawa's menu is amazing. Breakfast sandwiches are hoagies stuffed with scrambled eggs or an omelet and meats, such as applewood-smoked bacon, sausage, or even cheese steak. Sizzlis are Wawa's prepackaged on-the-go breakfast sandwiches that have reviewers swooning. 

As to the award-winning sandwiches, you'll definitely struggle in choosing only one. They have hot and cold hoagies, deli sandwiches, pitas, paninis, and quesadillas, all made to order. Adding to Wawa's dizzying array of fast foods are salads, soups, mac 'n cheese, stuffed pretzels, chicken bites, jalapeno bites, and their own milk and ice cream. You could easily cater a big event with Wawa's, and actually, if you live in Philadelphia, they'll do it for you. 

Sheetz

One of the fiercest rivalries in the fast food industry is between Wawa and Sheetz. Even Pennsylvania politicians get heated up about which one is better (via The Philadelphia Inquirer) — there's a documentary about it. In 1952, Bob Sheetz bought one of his father's dairy stores and founded Sheetz Inc. In 1962, he brought in his brother to work part time at the Sheetz convenience store, and by 1972, they expanded to 14 stores, and the company has been growing ever since. 

When compared side-by-side, both chains have freshly made burgers, sandwiches, and salads, but Sheetz has more Mexican dishes (with that menu section titled "Mexamerican"). Sheetz also leans a little more heavily toward fried foods. Both are great for food-on-the-run and late-night munchies, and it comes down to location. So if you're driving east to west (or vice versa) in Pennsylvania, try them both, and join the Sheetz vs Wawa battle.

Cook Out

If you live above the Mason-Dixon line, you've probably never heard of Cook Out, a fast food chain with over 250 locations throughout the South. Cook Out is one of the better burger joints for several reasons. Most Cook Outs have a double drive-thru and a walk-up window, so you have plenty options for getting your food fast. Its menu is an eclectic mix of char-grilled burgers, hot dogs, corndogs, and grilled chicken, with traditional Southern favorites like hush puppies, vinegary coleslaw, and barbecue pork that you can add on. According to Business Insider, the barbecue pork is one of the best things on the enormous menu. 

The combo trays are incredibly inexpensive — under $5 — and the portions are heaping. Cook Out is also famous for its 40-plus milkshakes with flavors such as peach cobbler, banana pudding, and blueberry cheesecake. (There are actually five cheesecake shakes!) It's worth a stop just to sample the desserts.

Biscuitville

According to Business North Carolina, brothers R.B. and Maurice Jennings were given a choice by their grandmother as she was dying: the farm or the biscuit recipe. Maurice got the recipe, and when the biscuits surpassed the sales of pizza at his 12 pizza places, he transformed them into Biscuitville. Maurice's son took over the business, which now has 65 locations, almost all in North Carolina. As you might expect, biscuit sandwiches rule the roost at Biscuitville, and they are gems of Southern cookery. The buttermilk biscuits are made from scratch every 15 minutes, and you can watch the "biscuit boss" make them in real time. 

Biscuitville is only open for breakfast and lunch. Its menu has the usual breakfast sandwiches with egg, sausage, bacon, and cheese, but the addition of Southern-style ingredients — which Biscuitville sources from local farms — make the true biscuit-sandwich stars. The spicy chicken and honey biscuit, the pork chop biscuit, the country ham biscuit, the homestyle gravy biscuit, and even, the fried bologna biscuit (makes special appearances on the menu) are unique to Biscuitville. They're also famous for their baked goods — peach muffin, apple fritter, honey bun — all baked fresh in the morning. It's easy to understand why Biscuitville has been voted one of the 10 best regional fast food chains in America (via USA Today).

Shake Shack

Shake Shack started out as a hot dog cart in Manhattan's Madison Square Park in 2001, and in three years, it grew into a permanent kiosk. Restauranteur Danny Meyer expanded the menu to include burgers, crinkle-cut fries, and shakes, and he called it "fine casual" because he used the same high-end ingredients he used in his restaurants. His concept changed the fast food industry, and you can find Shake Shacks in 275 locations from California to Dubai. Its simple menu is the same at most Shake Shacks, though the menus are sometimes slightly changed to reflect its location. 

Burgers are the main attraction (there are a couple of chicken and vegetarian options, as well as hot dogs), and they're really, really good. The crinkle-cut fries are also a big thing, despite a negative The New York Times review in 2012. Everything on the Shake Shack menu is made with fresh ingredients... except for the crinkle-cut fries. They're frozen, and after the Times review, Shake Shack spent $1 million to research hand-cut fresh French fries. They bombed, and the frozen crinkle-cut fries are here to stay. You can top 'em with Shake Shack's special cheese sauce and bacon, so what's not to love? Shakes come in five flavors, and the Shack's frozen custard is whipped up fresh every day.

Penn Station

Penn Station is nowhere near New York's bustling train terminal. It's a chain of fast casual restaurants with over 300 locations in 15 midwestern and southern states. After sampling the famous Philly Cheesesteak in Philadelphia, founder Jeff Osterfield decided to bring the "East Coast flavor" to his hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio, and opened two sandwich shops (via The New York Times). Originally called the uninspiring Philadelphia Steak & Sub, he changed it to the more memorable Penn Station: East Coast Subs. The menu has a few wraps and salads, but almost all of the sandwiches are grilled or cold subs. 

Made to order with freshly baked bread, Penn Station's subs are stuffed with meats and cheeses in 20 different varieties, such as chicken cordon bleu, pizza (all the fixings of a pepperoni pizza), and, of course, cheesesteak. Most of the ingredients are fixed (but still customizable) for each sub, but the Dagwood (both hot and cold) lets you dream up your own sandwich. If you don't want to be weighed down by the roll, you can turn any sub into a wrap or salad or order a 3-inch "snack size." Fries are hand-cut and fried to order, and pounds of lemons are squeezed everyday for fresh lemonade. Penn Station offers you a more custom-built experience than other more famous sub chains.

Whataburger

Texans are as obsessed about Whataburger as Californians are about In-n-Out. This Texan fast-food icon began in 1950 in Corpus Christi, Texas, when owner Harmon Dobson dreamed of creating a burger so huge the eater would yell out "What a burger!" In 1961 Dobson built the first orange-and-white striped A-frame store, and as a former pilot, he designed it so Whataburger could be seen from a plane. Dobson died in a plane crash in 1967, and his wife took over running the business. It was a family run business until 2019 (per The New York Times) and today, Whataburger has over 800 locations in the Southwest and Southeast, from Arizona to Florida. 

Whataburger has seven burgers on the menu (they also offer limited-time special burgers), but customers can customize the bread, the meat, the size of the burger, and the toppings over 38,000 ways. Whataburger is open 24/7 and has an impressive breakfast selection, including biscuit (buttermilk or jalapeno cheddar) sandwiches, pancakes, egg sandwiches, and taquitos, which can be made to the customer's preferences. Fries and onion rings can be amped up with an array of dipping sauces and ketchups, and even the three salads on the menu can be customized. Everything's bigger in Texas, and we can say that Whataburger is Whataplace!

Zaxby's

Georgia-based Zaxby's was dreamed up in 1990 by childhood pals Zach McLeroy and Tony Townley, and although it was slow to expand, there are currently 919 locations situated in the South and Southeastern U.S. Today, Zaxby's is often compared to other chicken fast food restaurants. Known for their boneless and bone-in chicken wings and chicken fingers, Zaxby's also gets things right with its breaded, fried chicken filet that's topped with the top-secret Zax Sauce or the newer Spicy Zax Sauce. 

In fact, sauces are a big deal at Zaxby's. If you order chicken wings, you get to choose a sauce or dip from 15 that range in heat level from mild to "insane." Each meal comes with crinkle-cut fries and Texas toast, a thickly sliced bread that's been buttered on both sides and grilled. In March 2021, Zaxby's threw down the gauntlet by re-launching the "chicken sandwich war" with its Signature Sandwich, a behemoth that needs its own larger bun and wrapper. If you're down South and it's Sunday, when Chick-fil-A is closed, get your fried chicken fix at Zaxby's

The Habit Burger Grill

In 1980 Brent Reichard and his brother Bruce bought The Hamburger Habit — a long-time burger joint in Goleta, California, where Reichard was a burger flipper — and changed the name to The Habit (via The Santa Barbara Independent). By 1997, The Habit had only 17 locations, until it was purchased by a private equity firm. The chain rapidly expanded, and in a 2014 Consumer Reports poll, it beat In-n-Out Burger as the tastiest burger in America. 

The Habit Burger Grill doesn't have an extensive menu, and though it's considered fast food, it's pretty elevated. There are five hamburgers, all chargrilled over an open flame and made to order. One of the standouts is the Santa Barbara Char, a double burger with cheese and avocado on grilled sourdough bread. Marinated chicken and beef sandwiches are also chargrilled, and if you're not in a meaty mood, go for the sushi-grade ahi tuna filet sandwich. Salads are definitely on the healthy side with chargrilled chicken. You can get fries and onion rings, but why not try the tempura green beans instead? In 2020, The Habit Burger Grill was bought by Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, so this California regional favorite could pop up near you soon.

White Castle

As the first fast-food chain restaurant in the world, White Castle is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Co-founders Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson opened the first White Castle in 1921, and they sold their square "sliders" by the sack for 5 cents apiece. Back then, burgers were frowned upon as unsafe and unsanitary, so Ingram and Anderson set out to change public opinion by promoting their spotlessly clean restaurant, where patrons could watch the 100-percent beef being ground. Obviously, Ingram and Anderson's perseverance paid off. Still a family-run business, there are 375 White Castle locations in 14 states, mostly on the East Coast, Midwest, and Florida (per Forbes).

A lot has changed since 1921, and White Castle's menu reflects the update to more modern tastes. The Original Slider is still there, but what's new is the Impossible Slider, a seafood crabcake slider, a panko-breaded fish slider, and even a chicken and waffles slider. Sides run the gamut from traditional — fries, onion rings, mozzarella sticks — to a bit out there — chicken rings, fish nibblers, and clam strips. White Castle is considered a niche chain, but with the new menu items, the ol' timer is still making its mark as distinct.

Krystal

Founded in 1932 during the Great Depression by Rody Davenport Jr. and J. Glenn Sherrill, Krystal is the second oldest fast-food chain. Davenport was inspired by White Castle, and he and Sherrill sold similar mini square burgers for 5 cents apiece in their first Chattanooga, Tennessee location. Krystal caught on, and Davenport expanded only in the South because of an agreement with White Castle that neither would cross the Mason-Dixon line. It wasn't only the burgers that were small; Krystal also miniaturized hot dogs and corn dogs, called "pups." But over the years Krystal has had severe legal and financial problems, and in January 2020, the company filed for bankruptcy. Four months later, Krystal bounced back with a new owner and is once again serving.

Krystals (as the sliders are called) and White Castle's Original Sliders are constantly compared, and the main differences seem to be that Krystals have a denser bun and are more savory. Burgers aside, Krystal has uniquely Southern menu items, like the Scrambler, a bowl piled with scrambled eggs, cheese, grits, and bacon or sausage. Chili cheese tots is a recent addition: Think tater tots drenched in chili and cheddar cheese. With a menu marketed as "craveable," Kristal launched Crave TV on social media, proving they're back and still in the game.

Jollibee

Jollibee has been a Philippines institution since 1978. It started out as an ice cream parlor and wasn't profitable, until owner Tan Caktiong added savory items. He changed his two ice cream franchises into fast-food restaurants, featuring the YumBurger, and was an immediate success. The following year, Jolly Spaghetti and Chickenjoy were added, and Jollibee flourished. Jollibee landed on American shores in 1998, and today has 37 U.S. stores and 1,300 worldwide. Jollibee's menu is an intriguing melding of Filipino and American cultures. There's the usual fast-food fare — burgers, fried chicken, chicken sandwiches — but things get interesting with the sides. Jollibee's version of fried chicken, Chickenjoy, is served with mashed potatoes and gravy and steamed garlic rice or adobo rice. 

As to the famous Jolly Spaghetti, which can be ordered separately or as a side with Chickenjoy, it's an unlikely combo of spaghetti, banana-ketchup sauce, ground meat, sliced ham, and sliced hotdogs. According to a recent Washington Post review, dipping the Chickenjoy in the Jolly Spaghetti sauce is a must. There are a lot of traditional Filipino dishes to choose from, and American diners may shy away from fast food that's so decidedly different. Jollibee is one-of-a-kind, and if one pops up near you, give a try. But leave room for the famous peach-mango pie.