How many have you tried? 

By David Landsel
August 26, 2019

The ritual will be repeated, time and again, countless times by countless numbers of California-bound travelers. They will leave the airport, whether in Los Angeles, or Oakland, or any of the others in between, they will have been on an airplane for far too long, coming from somewhere far away, and they are hungry. All they can think of now, besides how pleased they are to be here, where the weather is most likely better, or at least more temperate, where the air just smells that good, how does California manage it, all they want is that first In-N-Out burger.

Shake Shack

The hour may be late, the streets quiet, but the Golden State’s most iconic fast food restaurant will have left the lights on, typically well into the darkest hours, welcoming all comers with characteristic cheerfulness, taking into account their many and varied customization requests, ready to make them feel good, all for the cost of just a few dollars.

Reasonable people might shy away from the barely-contained chaos that defines late night at a popular fast food restaurant, but there aren’t too many chaotic scenes quite as entertaining, and often downright wholesome as the ones you will typically encounter at an In-N-Out Burger in California, from El Centro along the Mexican border, all the way up to Redding. Brace yourself, and dive in. Walk through those doors, place your order, then take a seat on the bench facing the counter. Breathe deeply, meditatively. Feel the army of boisterous strangers just beyond your elbows and toes slipping further away in your mind, marvel at the squad of fresh-faced youths in the kitchen, working at lightning speed, nearly always in admirable sync, as if their only purpose in life were to feed the masses with a smile, the masses who have suddenly figured out, for whatever reason, that they are starving, even at the stroke of midnight on a Tuesday.

The waits can be excruciating to outsiders, but everybody in California knows, or very nearly everybody, that at In-N-Out, anticipation is part of the experience. Finally, your number is called, and there it comes, that classic, familiar burger, wrapped tightly in its paper nest, with half a head of iceberg lettuce somehow crammed in there, along with the tomato, your choice of raw or grilled onions, or both if you’re clever, perfectly-melty American cheese, the burger of course, typically perfectly cooked, two of them ideally, plus plenty of the house spread. It’s the same, every time, this is the taste of home for millions, the taste of welcome back for millions more. Welcome back, to the good life. There are other burgers, there are certainly better fries, but this is just about as close as a fast food restaurant could ever come to being the happiest place on earth.

In-N-Out is far from the only fast food chain linked tightly with its home territory—all over the United States, scores of lower-profile, but equally worthy gems, some generously shared with other parts of the country, others tightly-held by their respective microregions, add up to one of the most iconic, sometimes under-appreciated dining sub-cultures in the world. Fast, easy, typically quite affordable, but nearly always imbued with a deep sense of place, these restaurants often end up pulling double duty as ambassadors for their place of origin—they can be a great introduction to an unfamiliar place, the perfect place to tune in to the local vibe. Let’s go see America, shall we?

Alabama: Milo's

The first time you bite into one of the grilled-bun burgers at this long-running favorite, you may notice they’ve given you slightly more meat than you ordered. Since the 1940s, when former Army mess cook Milo Carlton opened up shop in Birmingham to serve the lunch-related needs of a fast-growing factory town, the idea of giving a little something extra has been at the heart of the experience. That’s just one of the charming quirks, working in its favor—there are those fried pies, breakfasts of buttermilk biscuits stuffed with smoky Conecuh sausage, proper crinkle-cut fries, plus an array of tempting dips and sauces to choose from. The house sweet tea is so popular, you’ll find it sold in supermarkets far and wide. (Milo’s)

Alaska: Arctic Roadrunner

The outdoor deck with its line of tables overlooking Campbell Creek is the perfect perch for a summer date with one of the best fast food menus in Anchorage, not to mention the entire state, offered since the 1960’s, back before Alaskans had access to many of the national chains they take for granted today. Keep it local with salmon and halibut burgers, served on paper plates, with a giant pile of thick-cut fries on the side. Come cooler weather, which will arrive soon enough, move the action inside, next to the fireplace, where it’s always milkshake weather. (Arctic Roadrunner)

Arizona: Eegee's

Tucson likes to talk about its pioneering status as the first North American city to be designated a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, in celebration of its rich, multicultural culinary heritage, starting with some of the world’s best flour tortillas, and while it is highly unlikely the decision-making process at the United Nations-appointed agency was swayed by a sip of a frosty-cold lemon eegee (frozen lemonade, essentially), or a bite of a delicious grinder stuffed with salami and provolone and pepperoncini, Tucsonans who have been wonderfully faithful to this relatively obscure regional treasure, hard at it since the 1970s. (Eegee’s)

Arkansas: Slim Chickens

One of the first things you’ll notice, on your first visit to this fast-growing chicken finger operation, founded barely twenty years ago in the also fast-growing Northwest Arkansas region, are the sauces. There are restaurants that give you options, and then there are the seventeen different options to choose from here, at last count, from Korean BBQ to Mango Habanero to Sriracha Garlic. Better still, the array of condiment choices isn’t here to dazzle you into putting up with the usual plastic chicken—here you find 100% all-natural, real-deal white meat. (It’s delicious.) (Slim Chickens)

California: In-N-Out

Enjoying perhaps the best global brand recognition of any restaurant on this list, at least for the moment, what began life as a simple burger stand in suburban Los Angeles has become the unofficial ambassador of Southern California culture, the ceaselessly-smiling brah of the burger world, and the first thing many visitors will experience upon arrival. The last few years have shown continued growth for the closely-held private company, and while prices may appear to keep ticking up, In-N-Out remains one of the best (and most delicious) values in the business. (In-N-Out)

Colorado: Good Times

Chipotle, Noodles & Company, Smashburger, surely there are others we’re forgetting—when we speak about the reinvention of fas food, Colorado has definitely been at the forefront, but here’s one particular brand they’ve been only too happy to mostly keep to themselves. Frankly speaking, we wish they wouldn’t. The all-natural Montana beef, humanely-raised chicken and top quality ingredients going into their small-batch frozen custard make up a pretty terrific menu, and even if you don’t like any of those things, stop by mornings for breakfast burritos, zipped up with Hatch chiles. (Good Times)

Connecticut: Ted's Restaurant

There’s regional, and then there’s the how-does-this-still-exist steamed cheeseburger, still very much a part of life in a very specific part of an already small state. Said to have been invented back in the 1920s, when steamed hams came into fashion as a healthy alternative to frying them on the grill, Ted’s in Meriden is roughly as old as the steamed cheeseburger itself. While it is far from the only place in these parts where you’ll be able to find the humble delicacy, the bite-sized counter joint certainly remains at the heart of the culture, and if you’ve never had one of these beauties, you’re overdue. What the meat lacks in char, it typically makes up for in juiciness, and then there’s that often overly-generous cap of white cheddar, melting everywhere, like the glaciers—unforgettable. (Ted’s Restaurant)

Delaware: Capriotti's

Every day is the day after Thanksgiving at this rather underrated sandwich chain, which really has had two lives, when you think about it. Founded in Wilmington back in the 1970s, Capriotti’s over time became very much a Las Vegas thing, and while Nevada now tends to claim Capriotti’s as their own, there’s no way we’re letting them take The Bobbie away from Delaware—it’s freshly-roasted turkey with nearly all of the trimmings, served up year-round, and it’s one of the most delicious sandwich chain sandwiches in existence. Unless, of course, you hate Thanksgiving dinners, in which case maybe we can’t be friends anymore. (Capriotti’s)

Florida: PDQ

Fresh—as in, never frozen—chicken, skillfully-made fingers and nuggets and a clear talent for sauce creation (creamy garlic, chipotle pepper barbecue, sweet and hot sriracha) that we can’t get enough of are the calling card at this relatively new, Tampa-based find, with locations scattered around the Southeast. There’s no beef here, thank goodness Clara Peller isn’t alive to see this, but we promise you won’t mind. Get a load, by the way, of their crispy chicken sandwich with the house pimento cheese, crispy bacon, and crunchy sea salt potato chips—it’s rather insane. (Order a healthy side of steamed broccoli or chili-lime corn, you’ll feel better. Or those delicious zucchini fries. That’s a vegetable, right?) (PDQ)

Georgia: Waffle House

The time was the 1950s, in a country gripped by suburban fever, and the obscure dot on the map known as Avondale Estates, just east of Atlanta, might have remained just that, had local residents Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner not opened their 24/7 hash house, specializing in, but of course, waffles. The concept was a hit, and it wasn't long before every growing suburb around the region seemed to want one, an all-night, all-day, fast and affordable breakfast destination, your friend at the highway off-ramp. Today, with more than 2,000 locations found everywhere from Arizona to Pennsylvania, there is so much of American life lived inside and revolving around the local Waffle House, the chain deserves its own museum, which it actually has—the original College Avenue restaurant, known as Unit 1, is open Wednesdays, by appointment(Waffle House)

Hawaii: Zippy's

Name the island favorite, and chances are you’ll find it on the menu at this pan-Hawaiian chain of restaurants that’s been a staple of local life for generations. Spam musubi snacks, loco moco for breakfast, plate lunches, all kinds of delicious things from the in-house Napoleon Bakery—saying that Zippy’s will spoil you is a stretch, but it’ll get you fed, happily so, day or night, and you’ll wish you could take one home with you. (Just put it in your nearest Denny’s. The townspeople will greet you as a liberator.) (Zippy’s)

Idaho: Westside Drive-In

There are two main things you need to know about Idaho, and her various fast food traditions. One will come as no surprise, which is that they are relatively handy with a potato in these parts, and the other is that Idahoans are into a thing called finger steaks, which for any sensible person will be the end of the debate, right then and there—how can you top a strip of choice sirloin, battered, fried, and served with sauces for dipping? You really can’t, and one of the easiest ways to indulge in this impressive regional delicacy is to stop by one of two Boise locations serving some of the state’s most popular finger steaks, along with, but of course, French fries. (Westside Drive-In)

Illinois: Portillo's

Maybe you have to leave Chicago for a while, in order to truly appreciate one of the region’s most prolific fast food chains—maybe you need to be deprived of those Italian beef sandwiches on soft French bread, drowning in a wave of jus, and topped with spicy giardiniera, of those Polish sausages, of dogs dragged through the garden, of chocolate cake milk shakes, and crinkle-cut fries dressed in neon orange cheese—wherever you find a Portillo’s, in the suburbs of Chicago or Los Angeles or Phoenix or Tampa or Minneapolis, you step inside, and you’re home again, home in no-place-quite-like-it Illinois, dammit, and no matter how many locations they open, there are so many now, it’s always the same, there’s always that sense of place, and the food is always too delicious for its own good. (Portillo’s)

Indiana: Schoop's Hamburgers

There’s this unsinkable, workaday charm to Indiana’s industrialized northwest corner, the part with all the smokestacks next to Chicago, hugging the southern shores of Lake Michigan, and if you’re looking for one place to sum up the area’s suspended-in-time, rugged/homey energy, drop by Schoop’s, around since the 1940s, with locations throughout the region. In other places, burgers and fries are an over-the-counter type thing—here, the old ways are still appreciated, you can still sit down and give your order to a classically no-nonsense waitress, there are giant chocolate malts served up in glass, cheeseburgers topped with relish and chopped onion, an abundance of curly fries, and housemade chili. Slow down, and get into the vibe. (Schoop’s Hamburgers)

Iowa: Maid-Rite

To the outsider, the loose meat sandwich appears as an unfinished symphony, or perhaps just unfinished, it is the burger that got lost on its way to being a burger, a sloppy Joe without the slop, a mystery that mostly ends up in your lap, if you do not eat it correctly. To Iowans, it’s home, and this kinda-had-to-grow-up-with-it half-creation goes by many names, depending on where in the state you hail from—the Canteen in Ottumwa, the tavern sandwich in Sioux City, the Maid-Rite in many more communities. The latter appears to come down to the ubiquity of the state’s homegrown fast food chain, now approaching a century of survival, a place best known for piles of crumbled ground beef cooked with onion, salt and pepper, scooped up and placed on a hamburger bun. It’s deconstructed food from before deconstruction was cool, and if you’re smart, you’ll get it with cheese. Make ours with that other Iowa specialty, creamy blue. (Maid-Rite)

Kansas: Spangles

Wichita’s accomplishments are vast and varied, but one of the most interesting things the city has done over the years is give rise to—and then sustain—three very different, all quite successful burger chains. There’s Nu-Way, a historic chainlet where you feel as if you’ve slipped back in time, at least by forty, fifty years, and then there's Freddy’s, now well-known across the country for smashburgers and frozen custard. Most people like Freddy’s, and it’s easy to understand why others are nostalgic for Nu-Way. But Spangles? Spangles is weird, man, in a good way, honestly, but when you roll up to one of its thirty-ish locations, some of them looking like gargantuan juke boxes gone missing from a garish, vaguely seamy '50s diner, it can take a few minutes to sort out just exactly what is going on. There are pancakes for breakfast, go cups overfilled with eggs and sausage and hash browns and sausage gravy, there are people eating 1/3 pound burgers at eight o’clock in the morning, because the full menu is served all day, there are orange juice slushies, and there are milkshakes and ice creams, all proudly lactose and cholesterol free, not to mention low fat, which all sort of goes out the window once you order one of their Mudslides, which layers soft serve with chocolate and your choice of mix-ins (and there is, as you might imagine, an abundance of choice). Don’t fight Spangles. Spangles is amazing. You’ll be back. (Spangles)

Kentucky: Fazoli's

In the beginning, there was Gratzi’s, which is what you name your fast-casual Italian restaurant when you are opening one in Lexington, Kentucky, in the 1980s and are deeply concerned that people won’t be able to pronounce the Italian word for thank you. Turns out, Gratzi was confusing, too—the founder of the chain, a legend in the restaurant business by that time, said that surveys showed customers wondered if the name didn't have something to do with famed hockey player Wayne Gretzky. (Reader, it did not.) Eventually, Gratzi's became Fazoli's, which doesn’t mean anything, but that didn’t stop the concept from taking off, and now there are a couple hundred Fazoli’s, all around the country, famous for their free, fresh breadsticks, pastas, pizzas, subs and salads. Oh, right—and lemon ice for dessert, too. Because Italian. (Fazoli’s)

Louisiana: Raising Cane's

Sometimes, keeping things ridiculously simple is the key—for a good few years now, this Baton Rouge-based favorite has resisted to the urge to grow their menu, offering chicken tenders, crinkle-cut fries, crispy cold coleslaw with little bits of purple cabbage for color, hunks of garlic-buttered Texas toast and sides of freshly-made remoulade, #Louisiana, and little else. There are now officially too many chicken-centric chains in the South, let alone the rest of the country, so how does this one, free of bells and whistles, keep expanding, and doing so well? That’s easy—the food is really good, almost identical to what it was in the very beginning. Match that with a service culture that only appears to have improved with time, and you’ve got a winning formula. (Raising Cane’s)

Maine: Gifford's

Everybody talks about the lobster rolls, because that is one of those things Maine does really well, and they are everywhere, at least during the summer months, but there's another arena, one in which Maine performs spectacularly, once again, also during the summer months in particular, and that is ice cream. New England is just really good at ice cream, generally speaking, but there’s something about the way Maine does it, it’s just so memorable, and maybe it’s those summer days, some of the finest in the country, playing tricks with the mind, but you’ll nearly always have a good time at Gifford’s, with its five locations around the state, serving up beautiful black raspberry, wild blueberry, rich chocolate, and the seasonally-appropriate S’mores flavor. Don’t miss those New England classics, either—the bright pink peppermint stick, and of course Grapenuts, a hyper-regional homage to a cereal that most people don't even eat anymore. (It’s better as an ice cream flavor.) (Gifford’s)

Maryland: Chaps Pit Beef

When somebody asks you where to eat barbecue in Baltimore, just send them to eat pit beef, and let us forego all the banging on about technicalities, because really, nothing else they’ve got is ever going to top the memory of your first rendezvous with one of the Eastern Seaboard’s all-time greatest sandwiches. Rose-colored roast beef, thinly sliced, generous portions of sliced onions, a whomp of creamy horseradish, known around here as tiger sauce—it all goes into a fresh roll, and as you can imagine, this is a sandwich that does not sit around begging for very long. You can get good pit beef in a number of places, Chaps isn’t the only game in town, but they’re definitely hustling the hardest to share one of Maryland’s greatest culinary traditions with the masses. From one very busy shack way out on the east side of Baltimore, they’re slowly growing into a regional chain now, and we say open them everywhere. Everywhere. (Chaps Pit Beef)

Massachusetts: Dunkin'

Could we even be more Massachusetts than mornings at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, neighbors talking with neighbors, sipping from oversized cups with more coffee in them than anyone should be allowed in a day, commuters rushing in and out, nearly every customer in the building cheerfully assigned to the belief that they are drinking, by far, the best coffee in town? Dunkin’ may now be one of the world’s largest fast-food chains, adding new cities and countries all the time, but in Massachusetts, and all over New England, Dunkin’ isn’t some new trinket, bauble or geegaw—it’s part of the furniture, it is the furniture, it’s tradition, and it’s unthinkable—no matter how many changes the company endures—to ponder life here without them. (Dunkin’)

Michigan: National Coney Island

This whole Coney Island business, out here in Michigan, it’s really only confusing on paper, because once you’ve had your first Coney dog, which will be at Lafayette’s in Detroit, if you are living correctly, and let’s not get into a whole argument, you’ll know exactly what it’s about, and you won’t really care what they’re called, or what these lil’ pups have to do with the premiere public bathing / entertainments destination historically favored by New York’s working class. The diminutive doggos are built around the flavorful locally-made wieners everybody around here appears to favor, wisely, served up in soft, white buns, topped with chili sauce and mustard and diced onions. That’s Southeast Michigan, right there for you, and you get your Coney dogs pretty much anywhere, but a lot of people get them at this Greek immigrant-founded chain, with locations scattered around like so many dog-centric Ins-N-Outs. Open late, they’re particularly proud of their chili, and they should be, but that’s not the only reason you come here, there are some delicious curveballs, as well. Lemon-scented avgolemono soup, for starters, then overstuffed gyros, plus cheap and tasty breakfasts, and the famous Hani, a pita wrap that most people order fattened up with fried chicken tenders, two types of cheese, a small amount of vegetables and plenty of garlicky Hani sauce. Definitely order the Hani. (National Coney Island)

Minnesota: MyBurger

Maybe let’s not say all, but most of those pricey so-called gourmet burger chains that have cropped up around the country in recent years? Their services aren’t so much needed in the Twin Cities, which since 2004 have been enjoying the effort put forward by this homegrown company, where if it fits in the bun, you can have it on your burger, pretty much, a policy encouraged/enabled by the rather quirky monthly specials. Recent limited-time offers have ranged from an experiment with the hometown favorite, the Jucy Lucy, to a crowd-pleasing burger topped with bacon, cheddar, hash browns and sour cream—sort of like a loaded baked potato, but also a burger. Whatever you get, don’t overlook the salted caramel milkshakes, which are, broadly speaking, perhaps the ultimate accompaniment to everything. Well, unless you prefer beer or wine. Because they have that. (MyBurger)

Mississippi: Ward's 

Chili burgers and house-made root beer have been an effective calling card for this Hattiesburg-based chain, known around here as the Home of the Big One. (Referring to the aforementioned burger, wink wink.) And while the brothers who opened the first Ward’s back in the 1950s were responsible for creating their flagship sandwich, the inspiration came from just down the road in New Orleans, where another chain—Frosttop—was thriving, serving up root beer and chili dogs. Frosttop franchisees at the time, the brothers had an idea—why not put the chili on the burger? Yes, said all of Southeastern Mississippi, apparently. You do that, and you do it right now. A fine idea, turned out—now, there’s only one Frosttop left, and there are a whole lot of Ward’s restaurants. (Ward’s)

Missouri: Lion's Choice

We’ll get to those classic roast beef sandwiches, some of the best you’ll find at a fast food joint, and to the little dispensers sitting on the counter labeled “Au Jus,” from which you may allow yourself just as much as you like, turning that sandwich into a French dip, for all you care. (Don’t forget the horseradish.) For starters, though, can we talk about the ice cream? Being St. Louis, where they know from these things, it’s more like frozen custard, thick and creamy, and it’s being sold for pennies. Seriously, a regular sized cone, which back in the old days would have been considered enough ice cream in one sitting, costs just fifty cents, at least whenever we’ve been to a Lion’s Choice, which isn’t nearly enough. (Lion’s Choice)

Montana: HuHot Mongolian Grill

There are a lot of things you might expect to find in a small city like Missoula, but a successful Mongolian barbecue chain with more than seventy locations, serving up customized stir-fries to order? Believe it—HuHot is a whole thing, and it’s great. Founded back in the 1990s by a local family that wasn’t quite satisfied with the pizza franchises they were running at the time, they knew they could do something more interesting, and they had this feeling that people would really be into it. They weren’t wrong. (HuHot Mongolian Grill)

Nebraska: Don & Millie's

There aren’t nearly enough restaurants in this country like this Omaha-area chainlet, in fact there really aren’t any, and if there are, and we’ve missed them, please write us immediately, because doesn’t all the world need a casual counter joint where you can rock up for a cheap and delicious burger and fries, accompanied by a 99 cent margarita (all day, every day) or an also very affordable beer of your choice, after a sorely trying 9 to 5? With locations around the area vibing part vintage drive-in, part roadhouse, zero pretense, all fun, this curious, dated delight is perhaps most famous for its dedication to keeping one of Nebraska’s most essential culinary traditions alive—that is, of course, the deep-fried grilled cheese sandwich. Known around these parts as a cheese frenchee, perhaps in reference to its passing resemblance to the croque monsieur, the thing is batter coated and deep fried, and the results are exactly what you might expect them to be—perfection. (Don & Millie’s)

Nevada: Port of Subs

Loved across the American West for being what many customers will say they wish Subway was, what’s less appreciated about the home of the Classic #1 (ham, salami, capicola/gabbagool, pepperoni and provolone, if you please), some very good macaroni salad, and potato salad too, and those good brownies made with Ghirardelli chocolate, is that the company was spawned from one little sandwich shop up in Sparks, Nevada, just next door to the Biggest Little City. Which is Reno, if you didn’t know. (Port of Subs)

New Hampshire: Moe's Italian Sandwiches

There are plenty of traditions you will want to honor when visiting New Hampshire’s Seacoast region—cinnamon sugar-dusted fried dough at Blink’s on the English-level tawdry/fab Hampton Beach boardwalk, buckets of chicken from Farr’s Famous, a pint or three at the Smuttynose brewery. There’s one tradition that’s slightly more everyday, but no less a part of the edible ecosystem—the humble original sub at Moe’s, which sprang to life in central Portsmouth back in the 1950’s. Mild salami, provolone, onions and peppers, tomatoes, olives, and a showering of olive oil—simple, delicious, and available everywhere from the beaches on over to Manchester and Concord. (Moe’s Italian Sandwiches)

New Jersey: Jersey Mike's

Sandwich lovers all over are being introduced to one of the best scaled-up reproductions of the classic Tri-State area Italian sub in existence, with cold cuts still sliced to order, and all the oil, vinegar and cherry pepper relish you could want, but many might not know that there really is a Jersey Mike, and that he opened Mike’s Submarines in Point Pleasant, not far from the beach, back in 1956. This was the sub shop that launched Jersey Mike’s CEO Peter Cancro’s career; an ambitious Cancro managed to buy the place out before finishing high school. The success of the chain is a true testament to putting in the work, and then being patient—Cancro, now said to be a billionaire, purchased the shop in 1975, and began offering franchises in the late 1980s; the most impressive growth, however, only occurred in the last decade or so. (Jersey Mike’s)

New Mexico: Blake's Lotaburger

Without at least one green chile cheeseburger down your neck, did you even New Mexico? Not really, and while you certainly could go out of your way to find the very best ones, surely a worthy exploit, you might also do as two million locals do, and head for the nearest location of the state’s best-loved burger chain, a breathtakingly sparse affair, as often befits the surroundings, trafficking in just a few key—but it’s enough—offerings. There’s quality Angus beef, those prized Hatch green chiles, plus the house chile con carne, which can be served up as a Frito pie, not to mention pretty damn decent burritos, both breakfast and otherwise. Any New Mexico road trip typically includes one tangle with the Lotaburger—in some towns, it’s the only quick option. What you want: Double meat, with plenty of chopped green chile and cheese. (Blake’s Lotaburger)

New York: Shake Shack

From Madison Square Park seasonal pop-up to over 200 locations worldwide, and in just a decade and a half—if you ever bet against founder Danny Meyer’s cheerful homage to his St. Louis upbringing, you’re probably feeling just a tiny bit sheepish, right about now. (The company had its first $2 million dollar day late last year, its best so far, and stock had risen by 60% in the first six months of 2019, so, you know, take that.) The whole world wants Shake Shack, it seems, it wants those burgers and Yukon gold potato crinkle cuts, Chicago dogs and frozen custard that beats most other chain specialists on quality. Why not—it’s all pretty damn delicious. (Shake Shack)

North Carolina: Cook Out

With a sprawling, baffling-to-newcomers, state fair-worthy menu that skates all over the map, it can be difficult to nail down just exactly what the fast-growing chain does well, and the answer is, after a great deal of extremely scientific research, is value. For $4.99, you can order what’s known as the Cook Out Tray—a main (pulled pork, corn dogs, you name it), two sides and a beverage, which could be anything from an iced tea to a Cheerwine float, made with a healthy portion of vanilla soft-serve. The point of Cook Out is that everyone can come, and if you’re having trouble figuring out where to start, let us make this easy—order a side of the crispy, salty hush puppies, a chocolate milk shake, sit down, and think about where to go next. Or maybe that’s enough—either way, you’re going away just a few bucks lighter. (Cook Out)

North Dakota: Burger Time

Beginning life in Fargo back in the 1980s, there are a number of ways to go at the state’s homegrown mini-chain, but most people are here for the Bigger Burger. This 1/3 lb. beast, served up in an equally giant bun, is said to make up the vast majority of sales at the nine Burger Time locations, though you’ll not have much trouble finding customers who love their pulled pork sandwiches, not to mention the occasional specials, from Mac and cheese bites to corn dogs. (Burger Time)

Ohio: Gold Star Chili

The story of Cincinnati chili is a terribly American story, a story of immigrant entrepreneurs; the stuff beloved by generations of locals, and much misunderstood by outsiders, began life as a Greek-American thing, a vaguely Mediterranean-spiced sauce served on top of hot dogs— evolving, then spawning, over time. At the heart of that story you will find the Daoud brothers, hailing from Jordan, who brought their own spice profile to the table, setting Gold Star apart from its famous competitor, Skyline. Today, the very best Cincinnati chili is found in the humble one-off parlors dotting neighborhoods that are often equally humble, but there’s something special about the dueling chains, still so committed to their extremely specific craft, and something in particular about Gold Star, where they’ve got that that slight heat behind the sauce, and maybe a touch less sweetness. While you might have never tried this, and may never again, one of their three-ways, a healthy portion of chili atop a pile of spaghetti, served with an abundance of finely shredded cheddar, on a cold night in the dead of winter—that’s peak Cincinnati, that’s one of those weird, wonderful moments that sticks with you, in a really good way. (Gold Star Chili)

Oklahoma: Braum's

With Sonic now very nearly everywhere, the experience feels slightly less essential when in actual Oklahoma, where it comes from; for a truly regional experience, you will find your way to one of the many Braum’s restaurants dotting the landscape, each one proudly located within a 300-mile radius of the Braum family’s dairy farm. Generous burgers, made from scratch milkshakes, and a rather boss breakfast menu are just the start here—Braum’s is also known for house brand take-home dairy products and baked goods, even selling a selection right on premises. (Try the raisin nut bread, and definitely pick up some cinnamon rolls.) (Braum’s)

Oregon: Burgerville

Walk into your average Burgerville location for the first time, and you might wonder why your Portland friends like the place so much—this is not a particularly slick operation, and in many cases, the whole package just feels out of date. Could this really be the restaurant that inspires so much loyalty, in a region well-known around the world for food? And then you begin to notice things. Burgers, fries—yeah, they have them, but then there are the marionberry milkshakes, the fat, sweet onion rings made with Walla Walla onions, those delicious Vidalias of the Northwest, and the tempura’d asparagus, served with a garlic aioli, one of the surest signs of an Oregon spring—all of these things are seasonal, because Burgerville is all about sustainability; they’re all worth a go. And then perhaps another. A thing you can have any time—tasty wild halibut, shipped down from Alaska. Good fast food fish and chips have become a relative rarity, in this country—Burgerville seems only too happy to hold down the fort. (Burgerville)

Pennsylvania: Wawa

There are sports rivalries, and then there are the regional convenience store rivalries that are a very real thing to Pennsylvanians, and the source of endless, mild entertainment to outsiders. Try the rest—Sheetz, Rutter’s, Turkey Hill, GetGo, we’re probably missing one or two—and then try the best, which is not only a gas station and a convenience store, it’s also the most popular destination for a quick and affordable bite for generations of hard working people in the southeastern part of the state, and increasingly, beyond. The love for Wawa is centered around three, very key aspects of the experience—there are those hoagies, from a tasty Italian to a not-half-bad cheese steak, all for a few bucks. Then there’s the coffee—no convenience store comes close; their limited edition Wawa Reserve program brings in some surprising single-origin coffees from around the world, and you can always sample before you commit. Even if many Wawa fans don’t even know this, the company’s no-franchise policy continues to ensure relative continuity, whether you’re in Northern New Jersey looking out at the New York City skyline, or deep into the Florida subtropics. And have we talked about the breakfast sandwiches, the soft pretzels, the iced teas, the ice cream, and the nearly limitless TastyKake reserves? We have now. (Wawa)

Rhode Island: Del's

You don’t come to Rhode Island’s most prominent chain for a meal—you come for frozen lemonade, one of the state’s most iconic beverages, descended from a classic granita recipe brought over from the old country, nearly a century ago. It’s a recipe to this day kept in the family, even as the gospel of Del’s has spread to an estimated twenty states. From classic lemon to kid-friendly blueberry to their latest flavor, blood orange, you’re covered on any hot summer day; more recently, a collaboration with that other Rhode Island institution, the Narragansett brewery, led to the creation of a line of shandy beverages. Can a frozen coffee milk be far behind? (Del’s)

South Carolina: Rush's

Known for an abundance of seafood in the Lowcountry, not to mention some of the country’s finest pork barbecue, South Carolina’s most successful regional chain makes a complete break with all of that, favoring drive-in classics—chicken baskets, cheeseburgers, chili dogs, and soft-serve sundaes. What was once a lone Dairy Queen franchise run by a local family grew over the years to become an independent powerhouse, the choice of families in and around the state capital, Columbia for generations. (Rush’s)

South Dakota: Nick's Hamburger Shop

They’ve already got Mount Rushmore, The Black Hills, and at least two national parks, that we can think of—what more could you ask for? How about one of the best little vintage burger joints on the Great Plains, open since the 1920’s and still going strong today, in a town with a population of less than 25,000. Just like back in olden times, when they were sold for a nickel, these simple beauties come out on squares of wax paper, with mustard, ketchup, relish, onions, pickles, or all of the above if you’re feeling crazy. What else is there? Nothing, really—just chips on the side, if you like, plus drinks, sodas and milkshakes, and now, apparently, which no doubt has created a great stir in the Brookings-area force, there’s pie, too. (Nick’s Hamburger Shop)

Tennessee: Pal's Sudden Service

With a name like Pal’s, those cartoonish fonts, the squat, robin’s egg blue bunkers with giant fiberglass hot dogs and overflowing cups of French fries adorning the facade, you might think you've finally discovered the actual Springfield of The Simpsons fame, but this favorite has been at it since the 1950s, and has been at it hard enough, and well enough, to have won the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, something very rarely given to fast food restaurants. The menu is succinct, it’s burgers and dogs, basically, and some of the most delicious fries in fast food-dom, plus breakfast, when they start frying up their highly-recommended cheddar cheese-filled hash brown rounds—no slog down I-81 will ever seem quite so difficult, once you come to know these beauties. (Pal’s Sudden Service)

Texas: Whataburger

You’d sooner talk politics with some Texans than admit to anything less than Thelma & Louise-level loyalty toward the Lone Star State’s favorite burger chain. If you know what’s good for you, partner, you’ll keep your opinions to yourself, but better still, you’ll keep diving on in, and learn all about the little things that make Whataburger special, from that jalapeño ranch sauce, which goes with everything, to their chicken fingers, preferably drowned in honey butter, to the breakfast tacos, which you can customize, and that kind of magnificent Swiss and mushroom burger, with the little shots of rich gravy (referred to here, well aren’t we fancy, as au jus) in very nearly every bite. No other chain of this size has done a thing like that. And they probably wouldn’t succeed, if they tried. Who cares that Chicagoans recently bought the company—this place is always going to be as Texas as it gets. Now pass us one of those tasty, limited-edition Dr. Pepper shakes. (So good.) (Whataburger)

Utah: Arctic Circle

Fry sauce, which used to be one of those things Utahns went on about to their befuddled friends from other places, has been enjoying a bit of a moment, in this comfort food-obsessed age of ours—it’s ketchup and mayonnaise combined, there’s really not that much to it, and while it’s making its presence felt all over, the stuff has been practically a religion around here for the better part of a century, thanks to the founder of what would eventually become the state’s most prolific local fast food chain. Proudly serving only Black Angus beef well before meat quality became a thing in most parts of the country, and certainly in fast food restaurants, there’s also Alaskan halibut on the menu, and generously portioned milkshakes. Oh, and French fries. Lots of French fries. (Arctic Circle)

Vermont: Al's French Frys

Sometimes, all you need is one; particularly in a state with relatively few people, and particularly when that one address for excellence is found in the middle of the state’s largest population center. The hybrid roadside stand, with its diner chrome and neon accents, features a relatively small menu, from the regionally-favored flat top dogs to decent cheeseburgers, but it’s Al's fresh-cut fries (sorry, frys) that have helped put this vintage joint on the map, and have kept it there for generations. Get yours plain, or with a sprinkling of vinegar, or with cheese, or chili, or even gravy. Quebec is just up the road, after all. For Vermonters, Al’s needs no introduction; the rest of us are left to dream of getting there, or returning there, as soon as possible. (Al’s French Frys)

Virginia: Five Guys

With locations all over the world, from the Champs-Elysees (no, seriously) to the Dubai Mall, it’s easy to forget that the no-frills burger smash-hit began life very much as a Northern Virginia thing, way back in the mid 1980s. No matter how far from home you find Five Guys now, this is, by far, Virginia’s most impressive contribution to modern fast food culture, and it will most likely take an awfully long time for any up-and-comers to make quite so big a splash. The recipe remains, for the most part, as simple as it was from the start—decent burgers, which you can pile high with far too many free toppings, an abundance of crispy, fresh-cut fries, and not much else. Except for shakes—they’re doing shakes now. (Five Guys)

Washington: Taco Time Northwest

From some of the world’s most delicious oysters to some of the continent’s finest wines, Washington really does have the best of all possible culinary worlds. So why is everyone here so into the crispy rolled tacos (yes, flautas, stop showing off), and those golden-brown tater tots from the state’s most magnificent chain restaurant? Taco Time has roots in Oregon, but the splinter group laying claim to the lands north of the Columbia River, this is the one we’re talking about, the one you want, boasting upwards of seventy locations and counting, mostly west of the Cascades. The fresh-made house hot sauce provides more vinegar tang than heat, lots of people eat their tots—known here as Mexi-Fries, even though there’s nothing different about them—with the house ranch, and you can ask for as much as you want, free of charge. Ingredients are as local as possible, right down to the pinto beans, grown in Washington, and even though many of its stores could use an upgrade, there’s no arguing with the product—this is, by a mile, some of the country’s most repeatable fast food. (Taco Time Northwest)

West Virginia: Tudor's Biscuit World

There are many wonderful quirks to America’s most under-appreciated state; count among them the near-ubiquity of this down home, three-meals-a-day destination. Justifiably famous for piled-high, very large and super-fluffy breakfast biscuits in the morning, all the way up to impressively old-fashioned dinner combo platters at night, the homegrown fast-casual chain was founded in the 1980s in the state capital of Charleston by Bill and Mae Tudor, hence the name. Here for your morning fuel-up? Start with The Thundering Herd, a monstrous affair piled high with nicely-spiced sausage, eggs, cheese, and a hash brown patty—this dangerous beauty is named after the other pride of West Virginia, the Marshall football team. (Tudor’s Biscuit World)

Wisconsin: Culver's

After a lifetime in the dairy and restaurant business, son-of-a-cheesemaker Craig and wife Ruth Culver hit on a winning formula back in 1984 by opening a restaurant in Sauk City that paired two of Wisconsin’s most decadent (and delicious) fast food traditions—butterburgers (burgers, 100% fresh, never frozen, drowned in butter during the cooking process, essentially) and creamy, stand-your-spoon-up frozen custard. Nowadays, you will find Culver’s throughout the Midwest and the Sunbelt as well, and wherever you are, it always feels like you’re on a mini-vacation to Wisconsin. Start with an order of the fried cheese curds, always—they’re nearly as good as you’ll find at most any tavern, up in actual Wisconsin. (Culver’s)

Wyoming: Taco John's

Growing from one small stand in Cheyenne in the late 1960’s to become a Mountain Time powerhouse in almost no time at all, there are still communities across Wyoming, Montana and The Dakotas where nobody has ever been to a Taco Bell, and why would they. The home of the Potato Olé (a spiced hash brown round, the foundation on which the Taco John’s menu is built) and the Crispy Taco (shells are fried in-house, every day) is imbued with a real sense of place—the old “West-Mex” slogan, which doesn’t seem to be quite so widely used today, remains seriously apt. (Taco John’s)

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