33 bucket-list US fast food chains for unforgettable meals

Only in the USA

<p>culvers/Facebook</p>

culvers/Facebook

Think of fast food and you think of the USA. Most of the world’s most iconic chains started here, but not all have expanded overseas. From cult favourite In-N-Out Burger to wonderfully retro Sonic Drive-In, these are the tasty joints that Americans get to keep all to themselves. Here's our pick of the fast food restaurants that only have locations in the US, counting down to the one everyone wants to visit.

Read on to discover the fast food chains you’ll only find in America.

We've based our ranking on the enduring popularity of each restaurant in its place of origin and beyond, and on the opinions of our well-travelled (and well-fed) team. The list is unavoidably subjective.​

33. Tropical Smoothie Cafe

<p>tropicalsmoothiecafe/Facebook</p>

tropicalsmoothiecafe/Facebook

The colourful smoothies such as Sunshine (mango, banana, pineapple and orange) and Avocolada (avocado, pineapple, spinach, kale, coconut and lime) alone are enough to entice you into Tropical Smoothie Cafe. But the chicken and veggie flatbreads and wraps also draw in customers. In fact, the Floridian chain is currently one of the country’s fastest growing.

32. Taco Bueno

<p>buenoheadquarters/Facebook</p>

buenoheadquarters/Facebook

One of America’s favourite Mexican chains is Taco Bueno. Located in Southern states such as Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, it’s loved for its Taco Platter featuring crunchy and soft tacos, rice, refried beans, tortilla chips, sour cream and guacamole. The chain needs to go global so the rest of the world can try it.

31. Wienerschnitzel

<p>Wienerschnitzel/Facebook</p>

Wienerschnitzel/Facebook

Despite the name, this historic fast food company doesn’t actually sell wiener schnitzel (a type of schnitzel made of thin, breaded, pan-fried veal) but it does make a fantastic hot dog. Founded in 1961 by a former Taco Bell employee, the chain is notable for the A-frame roofs of its older restaurants, as well as its menu of loaded hot dogs, corn dogs and indulgent milkshakes. The majority of the chain’s locations are in California and Texas, though there are some in other states including Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado and Illinois.

30. Eegee's

<p>eegees/Facebook</p>

eegees/Facebook

Eegee's is one of America’s lesser-known chains, but it’s a massive deal in Tucson, Arizona, where most of its locations are found. Fans rave about the crinkle-cut fries covered in a delicious house-made ranch dressing, the hefty subs stuffed with everything from meatballs to Buffalo chicken, and the huge cookies. Its signature frozen fruit slushies – available in flavours such as strawberry, piña colada and lemon – also provide much-needed refreshment in the scorching Arizona heat.

29. Burgerville

<p>burgerville/Facebook</p>

burgerville/Facebook

At Burgerville it’s all about low prices, local ingredients and trying to be a sustainable fast food brand. Beef comes from Pacific Northwest-based, family-owned ranches, the chain uses Tillamook Cheddar and Grand Central Bakery provides its brioche buns. The shakes feature fruit from family-owned farms too. Sadly, outposts are only in Washington and Oregon.

28. BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse

<p>BJsRestaurants/Facebook</p>

BJsRestaurants/Facebook

BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, founded in California in the 1970s, has a huge menu of burgers, pizzas, pastas, chicken dishes and salads at wallet-friendly prices. So there's always something for everyone. The joint, which also specialises in craft beer, has locations across the USA, and is probably most famous for its iconic Pizookie dessert (pictured), which is basically a cookie that's baked in a skillet like a deep-dish pizza.

27. Cook Out

<p>CookOut/Facebook</p>

CookOut/Facebook

After the best place to get a milkshake in the Southeast? Head to Cook Out – when you order a cheesecake shake you get a whole slice of the dessert in the drink. Plus, there are more than 40 flavours including watermelon and peach cobbler. It’s also known for its barbecue pulled pork sandwich, cheeseburgers and quesadillas.

26. Runza

<p>runzarestaurants/Facebook</p>

runzarestaurants/Facebook

Nebraska isn’t a state that immediately comes to mind when thinking of enviable fast food options, but it has one vendor doing something you won’t find elsewhere. Runza serves a dish that’s something between a burger and a hot pocket: the Runza Sandwich (pictured). The signature version sees hot minced beef, onions and cabbage stuffed in the centre of a soft, fresh bread roll. There are also options to order it with cheese, mushrooms or bacon, among other toppings.

25. Zaxby’s

<p>Zaxbys/Facebook</p>

Zaxbys/Facebook

A fast food joint with a sprawling menu, Southern chicken chain Zaxby’s offers tasty chicken fingers, wings, sandwich meals and its signature 'Zalads'. Most of Zaxby's meals are served with Texas toast, a thick slice of buttery, white bread cooked so it's crispy on the outside but still soft on the inside. Opened in 1990 in Statesboro, Georgia, it now has over 900 locations in 17 states.

 

24. Jimmy John’s

<p>jimmyjohns/Facebook</p>

jimmyjohns/Facebook

There’s more to American sandwich chains than Subway and Panera Bread. Jimmy John’s, founded in Charleston, Illinois in 1983, became popular because of its huge, fresh subs and delivery service, and is still a favourite today. A classic choice is the Vito featuring salami, capicola (cured pork meat), provolone, onion, lettuce, tomato and zingy Italian dressing.

23. Dog Haus

<p>doghausdogs/Facebook</p>

doghausdogs/Facebook

Hip hot dog chain Dog Haus was founded in Pasadena, California in 2010, and in little over 10 years it has expanded into 14 states. If you’re not in one of them, you’re missing out on extravagantly topped sausages and all-beef hot dogs, chilli cheese fries, tots and craft beer.

22. Del Taco

<p>deltaco/Facebook</p>

deltaco/Facebook

Budget-friendly Del Taco has been satisfying Southerners' appetites for Cali-Mex fast food since the 1960s. Apart from the ridiculously good prices, it’s known for great crunchy beef and fried chicken tacos, burritos, burgers and loaded fries.

21. Braum’s Ice Cream & Dairy Store

<p>BraumsIceCreamandDairyStores/Facebook</p>

BraumsIceCreamandDairyStores/Facebook

Braum’s Ice Cream & Dairy Store's history dates all the way back to the 1930s. Locations combine a burger joint, ice cream parlour and supermarket in one. Fans love its classic cheeseburgers, crinkle-cut fries and ice cream milkshakes. However, it can’t expand further than Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Missouri and Arkansas as its stores must stay close to the company's dairy in Tuttle, Oklahoma.

20. First Watch

<p>FirstWatch/Facebook</p>

FirstWatch/Facebook

Named after a naval term for the first shift of the day, First Watch is only open for breakfast and lunch. It specialises in pancakes, waffles, breakfast sandwiches and healthy-ish egg dishes. The popular spot is currently in 29 states, with plans to expand.

19. Biscuitville

<p>biscuitville/Facebook</p>

biscuitville/Facebook

Did you know Biscuitville bakes biscuits fresh every 15 minutes? Diners can order them filled with fried chicken, sausage patties, fried eggs and bacon, and served with home-style gravy. Sadly, it currently only has outposts in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

18. Pal’s Sudden Service

<p>Palsweb/Facebook</p>

Palsweb/Facebook

Bold and a little kitsch, Pal’s Sudden Service restaurants are drive-thru only, and are designed as a bright blue box with a giant hot dog, burger, box of fries and drink on the roof. Located in Tennessee and Virginia, the chain is known for the quality of its food. Highlights from the menu include the tasty Bacon Biscuit, Big Pal burger and Frenchie Fries.

17. Iceberg Drive Inn

<p>icebergdriveinn/Facebook</p>

icebergdriveinn/Facebook

Love thick shakes? Then Iceberg Drive Inn, a burger joint set up by an ice cream salesman, might interest you. Located in Utah, California and Arizona, it offers the thickest shakes you’ve ever seen in flavours such as cheesecake and mint chocolate chip, plus burgers, hot dogs, onion rings and pastrami sandwiches.

16. Raising Cane’s

<p>RaisingCanesChickenFingers/Facebook</p>

RaisingCanesChickenFingers/Facebook

This fast-growing company's success is largely down to its refreshingly concise and simple menu. Raising Cane’s is best known for making juicy and perfectly crisp chicken fingers, served with its cult-favourite Cane's Sauce – the chain’s super-creamy, tangy take on thousand island dressing. Also on the menu you’ll find Texas toast, crinkle-cut fries, coleslaw and soft drinks, but that’s pretty much it. The brand launched in 1996 and now has more than 700 restaurants in 38 states.

15. Tudor’s Biscuit World

<p>tudorsbiscuitworld/Facebook</p>

tudorsbiscuitworld/Facebook

What’s more American than a chain devoted to biscuit dishes? That’s exactly what Tudor’s Biscuit World in West Virginia and its surrounding states is. With mouthwatering biscuit sandwiches such as the Mary B (bacon, egg and cheese), Rocket (steak, egg, cheese and potato) and Shaved Ham Melt (shaved ham and melted cheese) on the menu, you're missing out if there's not a location near you.

14. Taco John’s

<p>tacojohns/Facebook</p>

tacojohns/Facebook

Taco John’s started as a tiny taco stand in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1969, and has gradually grown to be one of the Midwest’s most popular fast food joints. It’s best known for its unique 'West-Mex' cuisine, serving dishes like meat and potato burritos and fried chicken tacos, as well as delicious salsas and crispy shelled tacos. Fans also rave about its signature side: the Potato Olé. These bite-sized deep-fried potato nuggets are coated with a secret blend of seasonings, and no trip to Taco John’s is complete without grabbing a box. The chain has restaurants in 23 states, but most are concentrated around Wyoming.

13. Friendly’s

<p>friendlys/Facebook</p>

friendlys/Facebook

You absolutely must leave room for dessert at Friendly’s, the retro East Coast chain known for its ice cream sundaes. It started as an ice cream shop in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1935, and still sells ice cream to grocery stores. Looking for something savoury? There are also chicken and seafood dishes, hearty burgers and cheese melts on the menu.

12. White Castle

<p>WhiteCastle/Facebook</p>

WhiteCastle/Facebook

It’s astonishing this historic brand hasn’t expanded outside of the US. Many consider White Castle the first US fast food chain and it must be doing something right because it’s still in business after 100 years. The signature dish is a square, steam-grilled beef slider which people buy 'by the sack'.

11. Checkers/Rally’s

<p>checkersrallys/Facebook</p>

checkersrallys/Facebook

Depending on where you are in the US, this drive-thru chain is known as either Checkers or Rally’s (Checkers in the Southeast and Rally’s in the Midwest). A quintessential burger joint, it serves hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs and milkshakes. What makes it stand out is its French fries. They’re coated in seasoned batter before they’re fried.

10. Krystal

<p>Krystal/Facebook</p>

Krystal/Facebook

There isn’t anything quite like Krystal outside of the USA. Founded in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1932, it’s one of the country’s oldest fast food brands and serves the same steamed beef sliders as it did when it first opened. These days there are locations in nine states, including Florida, Georgia and Alabama. More recent menu additions include tiny chicken burgers, hot dogs and biscuit sandwiches.

9. Sheetz

<p>sheetz/Facebook</p>

sheetz/Facebook

It's hard to believe that food this good comes from a convenience store. But 24-hour Sheetz isn’t your regular service station. It offers made-to-order sandwiches, hot dogs, pizzas, burgers, fries and toasties. It’s currently found in states including Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina, but a concept this good should go global.

8. Jack in the Box

<p>jackinthebox/Facebook</p>

jackinthebox/Facebook

Jack in the Box locations are instantly recognisable from the huge, springy jack-in-the-box mascot waving over its restaurants. When the craving hits for a hard shell taco, curly fries, fried chicken sandwich or burger, this is the place to go. Jack in the Box, which first opened in San Diego, California in 1951, now has around 2,200 locations in over 20 states.

7. Blake’s Lotaburger

<p>blakeslota/Facebook</p>

blakeslota/Facebook

A spicy food fan’s dream, New Mexico-born chain Blake’s Lotaburger doesn’t serve regular burgers and fries. The LOTA Burger comes packed with green chile and cheese. You can get chopped Hatch Valley green chile, jalapeños or chilli con carne added to your fries too.

6. Portillo’s

<p>portillos.hotdog/Facebook</p>

portillos.hotdog/Facebook

Craving a real Chicago all-beef hot dog with mustard, relish, celery salt, onions, tomatoes, pickled peppers, dill pickles and a poppy seed bun? Illinois-born Portillo’s is the best of the best. It currently only has locations in its home state and plus a handful of other states including California, Indiana, Arizona, Florida and Michigan.

5. Waffle House

<p>WaffleHouse/Facebook</p>

WaffleHouse/Facebook

A Southern institution, Waffle House opened in 1955 in Georgia, and now has more than 1,900 locations in 25 states. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, serving fresh waffles, egg dishes, hash browns (covered in grilled onions, melted cheese and jalapeños) and biscuits.

4. Whataburger

<p>whataburger/Facebook</p>

whataburger/Facebook

The 1950s-founded joint Whataburger is one of the best places to grab a burger in Texas and its surrounding states – in fact, many Texans loyally declare it the greatest place for a burger anywhere. Here, the juicy beef patties are known for their hearty size and thickness, and the burgers can be customised with loads of different toppings, from grilled jalapeño to avocado. However, Whataburger’s Patty Melt (featuring Texas toast, grilled onions, melted cheese and two beef patties) is a must-order too.

3. Culver’s

<p>culvers/Facebook</p>

culvers/Facebook

Deliciously named ButterBurgers (made with fresh Midwest-raised beef, Wisconsin Cheddar and lightly-buttered, toasted buns), plus cheese curds and frozen custard are what Culver’s is known for. It opened in Sauk City, Wisconsin, in 1984 and now has more than 900 locations in 26 states.

2. Sonic Drive-In

<p>sonicdrivein/Facebook</p>

sonicdrivein/Facebook

Located in 46 states with 3,550 locations, Sonic Drive-In is pretty ubiquitous. As well as the carhops on roller skates, the retro-themed joint is loved for its classic cheeseburgers, beef hot dogs, customisable lemonade and limeade, and root beer.

1. In-N-Out Burger

<p>Shinya Suzuki/Flickr/CC BY 2.0</p>

Shinya Suzuki/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Celebrity favourite In-N-Out Burger was founded in 1948 but only had locations in California until 1992, when it opened its first joint in Las Vegas, Nevada. These days it has restaurants in a handful of other states, including Arizona, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Colorado, with plans to expand into several more in the next few years. Those in the know order from its 'Not So Secret Menu' – like burgers made 'Animal Style' (with mustard cooked into the patty). It’s also famous as the place where A-listers head for a bite after award shows like the Golden Globes.

Now take a look at America's classic diners through the decades

Last updated by Natasha Lovell-Smith.