Look, we love a great restaurant as much as anyone, but nobody's immune to the allure (or convenience) of fast food once in a while. It brings back memories. It fires off endorphins. It saves our lives at 3am. But the moment you get to any drive-through, panic can set in as you try and wrap your mind around which item is best. So, with your sanity in mind, we've pulled together our experts to choose the definitive list of the best items on every major fast-food menu. Then we bought, like, three Bowflexes.
Arby's: Beef 'n Cheddar
The allure of bright-yellow cheese sauce can never be overestimated, but nowhere has it found a home as comforting as it does cascading over a pile of slightly off-color roast beef, where it commingles with the tangy Arby's sauce and finds the perfect punctuation with the juicy bits of onion in that perfectly dense bun. Yes, these are oddly highbrow words for a sandwich consisting of processed everything, but even as Arby's tries to do fancy stuff with brisket and turkey, the classic flavor of its flagship meat and cheese remains poetically scrumtrulescent.
A&W: Root Beer Float
A&W is the odd man out in the fast-food world, mainly because there's no constant. The combination drive-in versions all taste overly processed, especially if you grew up in a small town centered around an old-fashioned drive-up restaurant with poodle skirts, car cruises, and exceedingly better food. But one thing unites them all: the root beer float, that perfect combination of sugar and frothy ice cream. If you get nostalgic for that small town, you can dump it in a glass mug at home… if you can get out of the drive-thru line without taking it down in one long, painful gulp.
Burger King: The Original Chicken Sandwich
Boo-ya, the Whopper. It's this torpedo-shaped behemoth that really takes the crown at the King. It's lettuce, breaded chicken, mayo, and bread. Nothing more. Yet somewhere between the time when you unwrap it and take the first bite, something happens. All those powers unite like a morbidly obese Captain Planet. The first bite releases an oddly watery torrent of meat juice, hot mayo, and pepper. The second bite is a blur. That's the power of heart. Speaking of which, you might want a side of Lipitor. Because you just started a three-sandwich chain reaction.
Carl's Jr./Hardee's: The Original Six Dollar Thickburger
Carl's Jr. and Hardee's seem to be in a battle of one-upmanship with themselves, but when they upped their game and launched the Six Dollar Thickburger (which is, like $4), it set a gold standard. It's just a basic burger, no different than, say, the McDonald's Quarter Pounder, but the meat tastes higher-tier, the cheese is perfectly melty, and the addition of fresh-baked buns sealed the deal on your arteries. Hell, when even the sight of Paris Hilton eating it in a bikini doesn't make it look gross, you've got a winner.
Chick-Fil-A: Spicy Chicken Biscuit
This breakfast sandwich takes everything that is great about Chick-Fil-A’s lunch and dinner options and doubles the awesome with a buttermilk biscuit that tastes exactly like your momma would have made you every morning (if you were a child in 1800s Alabama). Ignore the slightly reddish tint of the chicken -- it's just the fiery peppers and magic dust whipped into the batter before cutlets are hand breaded. It's the same color your face will be once you feel the heat.
Church's Chicken: The Drumstick
Nothing defines a fast-food chicken chain more than their batter, and no one is more generous than Church's. The drumstick is the prefect vessel for that flaky buttermilk jacket, making for a lopsided breading-to-meat ratio that maximizes the crunch and takes the focus off the chicken. Because, let's be honest, we were always there for the breading in the first place.
Culver’s: Cheddar ButterBurger with Bacon
With its frozen custard and fried cheese curds, Culver's is pretty much the equivalent of taking a bite out of the state of Wisconsin. But nothing tops the legendary ButterBurger. The secret to its deliciousness is the sharp Wisconsin cheese, the huge, crispy-on-the-edges patties of beef, and the smoky bacon working together with Korine levels of harmony. Oh, and the whole "butter" thing: that's courtesy of a generously coated-and-grilled bun. That Culver's is only in the Midwest is a shame, but possibly a good tourism move: once you've had one, you'll start planning your pilgrimage back.
Dairy Queen: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard
When you're a kid in the summer, nothing beats a Dairy Queen Blizzard on a hot day. When you're an adult in the summer, nothing changes.The conflict also remains: what flavor do you get? The answer to that inquiry should always be Reese’s, and here’s why: the insides of a Reese’s crack open, mixing their signature peanut butter with vanilla and chocolate, and, as they all melt together, you get a swirly mush of three of the best flavors ever.
The Original Dunkin' Donut (or, if you can't get that, the Boston Kreme)
We quoth Executive Editor Kevin Alexander: "Every Sunday, my Mom would make us go to church. We would complain, because church, as a kid, is the worst. You have to wear scratchy clothes, the priest’s sermon is boring or incomprehensible, you really have to pee, etc. But the flip side was we got to go to Dunkin' Donuts and pick out two donuts each. My first move was a Boston Kreme, because of the kid-based health algorithm stating that kids need chocolate and some kind of pudding with their fried breakfast treats, but my second move was always the original Dunkin' Donut. It was a plain donut with a freakin’ handle, so you could dip it into your drink. Most DD’s no longer carry the original, but if you run across one that does, get it immediately, and God will smile upon you. Get it with hot chocolate on a cold Boston day, and it’s like winning the morning Super Bowl every Sunday."
In-N-Out Burger: Double Double, Animal Style with chopped chilies and no tomato
Look, it's #1 for a reason. You get double the patties, double the cheese. But the custom order is important. It's why you feel cool, even though you're waiting in line in Tevas. Of course, first, you've got to go Animal Style so you can get pickles, extra spread, grilled onions, and the oft-overlooked mustard-fried burger patty. But then the cagey veteran move is to lose the tomato, which honestly just adds height and moisture without doing anything for the taste, and get chopped chilies, which give it a kick and some tang without overwhelming the flavor. Want to be bonus awesome/that much fatter? Wash it all down with a Choco-Vanilla swirl shake, and some Animal Fries done "light well".
Jack in the Box: Curly Fries
Jack has spent the past few years piling everything from grilled cheese to mozz sticks onto their burgers, but not even the bacon-stuffed burgers
can contend with the simple pleasure of its curly fries, which are gloriously seasoned and come in shapes that resemble the earrings in Sophie Vergara's jewelery box (and paired with burgers that will put up your cup size to compete with hers). The perfect complement isn't some monstrosity, but rather a simple cheeseburger or double, maybe with bacon, but it really doesn't matter. For once, the sides are the star and the burger's the afterthought.
KFC: Potato Wedges
Sure, the normal move is to go with the mashed potatoes, but the wedges pack some serious flavor. They're perfectly seasoned… salty and peppery with just the right amount of kick and the occasional hunk of chicken breading stuck to the side. In all their golden, visibly-seasoned glory, these might be the best potatoes in the fast-food game right now. They're not oily, they have a delicious, distinctive flavor, and the crunch is perfect. Oh, and they pair well with that chicken too.
McDonald's: The Big Mac
First of all, the sandwich is named after the store. The Quarter Pounder isn’t the Quarter Pound Mac. The Filet-o-Fish isn’t the, um, Fish Mac. Who cares if the sauce is really Thousand Island dressing? Mickey D’s started the trend of burger places pretending that Thousand Island dressing was some kind of secret sauce invented by doctors in underground bunkers. Now combine all those things -- the pickles, the definitely-not-Thousand-Island sauce, the two all-beef patties, lettuce, cheese, and the AMAZING LACK OF TOMATO -- and you get one of the most iconic, delicious, American things invented in the last 200yrs. Try and say that about the Filet-o-Fish.
Popeyes: Mild Tenders
There's nothing wrong with the bone-in variety of Popeyes fantastically decadent chicken, but it almost seems criminal to leave any of the crunchy breading behind, which means you're stuck trying to dig it out of the crevices between the bones like a friggin' raccoon on garbage night. The tenders are the solution. Not only do you get to eat the whole thing, but the meat-to-breading ratio tips slightly in favor of breading, giving you more of what you really want. Now if they only started doing skins...
Sonic: Supersonic Bacon Double Cheeseburger
First off, this monster is about as big as Shawn Kemp and enough food to feed at least several of his children. You always want to go with a double at Sonic because the layers of meat and cheese almost immediately collapse into one beautiful ball of flavor that is much greater than its component parts. Add some crispy bacon on top and this might just be reason enough to move to Oklahoma City, where there are 10 Sonic locations (and an NBA that used to be the Sonics).
Taco Bell: Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco
I used to hate on Taco Bell, but live by the philosophy that Doritos make everything better. When the Doritos Loco Taco hit the market, the world changed. That neon Doritos dust transformed T-Bell's ordinary taco into something for which I would sell my family. Don't bother with the Supreme… the tomatoes and sour cream will simply dull the taste of what you truly want: that pupil-dilating, endorphin-releasing jolt of fake nacho cheese commingling with beef, hot sauce, and cheese in a glorious symphony of artificial flavoring.
Taco Cabana: Steak Fajita Cabana Bowl with three extra tortillas
This meal isn't fit for a king. It's fit for three or four kings... and probably the fat, medieval French kind. The crispy tortilla bowl is loaded with all the ingredients that are in every other item anyway -- there's just about five more of each. You've got your guac, cheese, sour cream, vegetables that don't really matter, and the cherry on top: slices of flame-grilled fajita steak. Pro tip: order extra tortillas -- their steaming freshness easily makes them the second-best thing on the menu.
Wendy’s: Dave's Hot ‘N Juicy 1/2lb Double
Wendy’s has more than its fair share of good menu items (the Spicy Chicken Sandwich being a sterling example), but their burgers are their juggernauts. Dave's Hot ‘N Juicy 1/2lb Double cheeseburger is the best of the best. The stack ratio here is perfect: two buns, two mouthwatering square burger patties, two slices of cheese, and a bunch of toppings -- it’s the hungry mathematician’s ideal burger. Or, you know, just a hungry regular person.
Whataburger: Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit
Perhaps the most poetic menu item in all of fast food, the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit rolls off the tongue as deliciously as it slides down your throat. A crispy, battered chicken strip, a biscuit that any fried chicken joint would be proud of, and a dousing of syrupy honey butter make this a perfect way to wake up and a great reason to stay up late
White Castle: Cheeseburger Sliders
Thank God that we live in a world where nobody has to live without these weird-tasting, two-bite wonders. Sure, the beef is off-puttingly gray and the onions are mere specks of their former selves, but that perfect combination of the grease-saturated bun and that over-salted beef is the stuff of dreams. And if you're getting them frozen, here's a pro tip: Put them in a broiler pan with a little water in the bottom, cover them in foil, and toss them in the oven. They're better than the "fresh" ones at the drive-in. You're welcome.
Andy Kryza is Thrillist's national eat/drink senior editor, and has proudly lived vegetable-free since 2001. Follow his adventures/slow decline via Twitter at @apkryza.