There are three ways to approach fast food desserts -- and, inherently fast food in general. You can dismiss it all as trash, and thumb your nose. You can pick your spots and enjoy some select items in a pretension soaked, holier-than-thou-but-still-cool, food critic manner (which is almost just as annoying).
Or, you can accept all of the wonders of fast food for what they are, enjoy it, and then dutifully rank the things you enjoyed for other people to read, comment, like, share, and subscribe. You don't have to be embarrassed to suck down a McFlurry, after all.
In that vein, presented here are the greatest fast food desserts our fair nation, ranked according to overall quality and aptitude. It's full of unabashed, unashamed, unconcerned love. Please take it as such.
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13. McDonald's: M&M McFlurry
Am I committing fast food blasphemy by a) not only including the much-maligned McFlurry in a "best of" list but also b) Not choosing the (probably) normally favored Oreo version?
The McFlurry isn't perfect. It may be a quick-serve medley of gelatinous, innocuous ice cream that some reviewers might consider closer to caulk than dairy. In this specific instance, you might even decry the frozen M&Ms robotically scattered throughout the mixture -- they might not melt in your hand, but (for some reason?) they do melt in the McFlurry. What you're left with is a cup of vanilla pseudo-ice cream with tendrils of M&M chemtrails and shell-less chunks of frozen M&M chocolate. It should be bad, given what we know. But the point of the McFlurry revolves and depends upon you not thinking. It relies on you forgetting what you think you care about in a dessert, and start relying on what tastes the best after inhaling a fast food burger. The McFlurry is the antithesis of pretension, and the epitome of low stakes, drive-thru fun. In other words, just relax, nerds. This isn't Per Se, per se.
12. Jack in the Box: Mini Churros
Seemingly, Jack in the Box caters to one specific, target demo: people who are kind of stoned, and want something good, but a little weird.
These mini churros are exactly what they claim to be. For one single dollar, you will receive a grease-laden container of five, crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, bite-sized churros. The big difference here from a simple sliced up churro you'd buy on the street, is the inclusion of a gooey sauce pumped through the middle of each stick, best described as churro-flavored corn syrup. You might not want these mini churros to follow every meal. But when you want something over-the-top, hedonistic, and cheap-as-hell, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better deal. At Jack in the Box, or anywhere.
11. Long John Silver's: Fried Twinkie
Whatever marketing and/or R&D genius that decided to turn LJS's prolific deep fryers away from fish and hushpuppies deserves the artery-clogging equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize.
It's a Twinkie. It's deep-fried. It's hard to mess this State Fair staple up. And Long John Silver's did not. Thankfully.
10. Bojangles': Sweet Potato Pie
The sweet potato pie is a major outlier on this list for the simple fact that it (!) actually is primarily vegetable based. Which is the bad news. The good news, is that the veggie in question is none other than everyone's favorite tubular wonder-root: the sweet potato. It's basically nature's candy.
And what this handheld pie lacks in ostensible glamour, it makes up for in distinct taste. Bojangles' trademark take on the Southern classic is not just an assimilation of American cooking tradition, it's the successful transfusion of "something a grandma would make" into a true fast food icon. Does it taste like it would at home? Absolutely not. Does it remind you enough of the "real deal" to make it a worthy throw-in to your next chicken and biscuit combo? I'd bet my own sweet potato, that it is.
9. White Castle: Fudge Dipped Cheesecake on a Stick
White Castle is a food best enjoyed in the throes of a desperate drunchies craving. It's an "act now, think later" type of establishment. It's the fast food equivalent of a one-night stand... that happens much more than once, of course.
The cheesecake on a stick might not be something you brag to your friends about. But at midnight on a Tuesday, fresh out of the bar, the perfectly competent, expertly snack-sized, slice of ultra-savory cheesecake (on a stick) is the after-dinner mint White Castle sliders deserve. They are one (or maybe three) bites of pure bliss.
8. Popeyes: Cinnamon Apple Pie
On a quick scan of this list, the casual reader might think two things, immediately: "Wow! This guy must be super unhealthy!," and "Where the hell is McDonald's apple pie?!"
First off, I take sensible bites. Secondly, it's at Popeyes... and it's better than ever. While the Golden Arches certainly have the more popular fast food self-contained slice of Americana, Popeyes simply sticks the landing more proficiently. The crust has more crisp. The apples taste more... apple-y. The cinnamon dusting adds that just-right hit of flavor to make the whole ordeal a little more interesting. It just tastes more like an apple pie. I challenge any would-be fast food dessert connoisseurs to throw nostalgia and tradition out the drive-thru window, and try this superior version of the standby classic.
7. Sonic Drive-In: Fresh Banana Classic Shake
As the lone, true "shake" on this list, you have to expect Sonic to be packing a bonafide banger in their Styrofoam cups. Outside of Mr.'s Ben & Jerry, it does seem fairly difficult to get pleasant tasting banana ice cream. When it comes to banana snacks, so many purveyors go overboard on pumping as much banana-esque flavor into their fare that the end result tastes more like liquified Runts than actual bananas.
This shake, surprisingly, doesn't have a nip of that artificial, saccharine taste of pseudo-fruit. It actually tastes like Sonic took ice cream and Donkey Kong-esque pile of fresh bananas, and blended them. And that's because they actually did. Who knew the secret to a good fruit-based dessert was using actual fruit?
6. Chick-fil-A: Frosted Sunrise
The Frosted Sunrise isn't Jimmy Buffet's latest chart-topping tropical-tinged hit; it's Chick-fil-A's decidedly awesome answer to the Orange Julius. Featuring the snacking power couple of soft serve ice cream and orange juice, the frozen beverage is a cool, creamsicle reminiscent dose of refreshment that might freeze your brain, but will certainly fill you with happiness.
Also, it gets extra points for being one of the only items on this list that is perfectly acceptable to chug down before noon. Pair with a chicken biscuit to achieve true snacking nirvana. At any time.
5. Jollibee: Peach Mango Pie
Almost every longtime fast food chain has an apple pie. Look, we get it. The smell of spiced cinnamon and baked apples is as comforting and American as fast food. But apple pie can also get boring if every other chain offers their own Hot Pocket-like version. This, however, is exactly how Jollibee succeeds. The Peach Mango pie is fragrant and tropical, juicy and bright. Within the filling, peach and mango both battle to be the dominant flavor. The result is a hot pie that stands out against the backdrop of boring cinnamon apple.
But beyond the fleshy, ripe flavors of peach and mango, Jollibee also supplies an excellent crust that pockets the syrupy stuffing. The exterior is blistered thanks to a bath in hot oil (yes, Jollibee’s pies are fried rather than baked which makes all the difference) and dusted in cinnamon sugar. It’s crunchy, it’s fragrant, and it’s an excellent, original pie.
4. Culver's: Vanilla Custard
Custard occupies a special spot in the pantheon of American snacking. Sure, it's not as widely known or beloved as ice cream, its attention-seeking older brother. But for many people who are in on the secret, custard is the only frozen snack worth the caloric intake. It's a more savory, thicker, almost-buttery take your classic scoop.
And perhaps no one does mass-produced custard more masterfully than Culver's, a regional burger chain with a rabid following and a reputation for delivering quality in a fast food setting. The vanilla custard here will make you swear you were sitting by a roadside stand on a Midwestern highway, with cows in the distance and paint chipping the corners of custard stand. And if you've ever experienced that (incredibly specific) slice of American heaven, you'll know this is a compliment of the highest order.
Chocolate is, naturally, the Frosty flavor mainstay -- with the vanilla version slightly lacking in the full-bodied character of its counterpart (despite the fact that the chocolate still uses vanilla as its base). But, it is this reviewer's opinion that the choco Frosty can be even further improved with another concentrated blast of smooth vanilla. Neither flavor truly realizes its full potential, till they are combined in fast food unity. They're like the Lennon and McCartney of national burger chain frozen desserts. You'll have to specifically ask a black and white Frosty, but it is the Platonic ideal of what a Frosty should be.
Spoon it. Watch it melt. Drink it. Love it. It is the frozen fast food dessert of our time.
2. Taco Bell: Cinnamon Sticks
Perhaps the most "basic" entry on this entire list, Taco Bell's iconic dessert does more with a few basic ingredients than most fast food purveyors do with an entire fridge full of corn syrup, food coloring, and crossover gimmicks.
The simplistic twists have a light dusting of cinnamon, an instantly identifiable crunch, and a ping-pong ball-level lightness, which makes consuming them alarmingly easy, and infinitely enjoyable. And most importantly, they give Taco Bell denizens a dessert experience consummate with the rest of the menu: It's simultaneously a friendly callback to something you could vaguely identify as "Mexican" food, while being something entirely distinct. I'd call that a nuanced Taco Bell-ian flourish (as a compliment). It's top-five material on their entire menu. And No. 2 material in the dense, confusing, and more-often-than-not delicious world of fast food desserts.
1. Yoshinoya: Cheesecake
Fast food desserts are either apple pies, fried twists of dough, frozen treats studded with cookies, or whatever unholy candy bar-remixed thing that appears at Burger King. They are, rarely, as stand out as our absolute favorite fast food dessert: the humble Yoshinoya Cheesecake.
Yoshinoya’s Cheesecake is everything that a typical fast food dessert is not. Its sweetness is gentle, not overpowering. Its texture is whipped and creamy. It does not break into fried shards, spray sprinkles of sugar with each bite, or freeze your teeth. The graham cracker crust is buttery but not crumbly, and carries the tangy, cheesy filling. In terms of texture and flavor, it is a mouthful of bliss -- despite its simplicity. Sometimes, simple is better. Sometimes, all you want following a big, beefy bowl of rice, stewed onions, and sharp ginger is a wholesome slice of cheesecake that isn’t cloying, won’t numb your taste buds with sugar, or burn your tongue with piping hot filling. Bells and whistles aren’t necessary when you’ve nailed the perfect dessert.
Introducing The Fasties, Thrillist's first fast food awards. Think glitzy TV and movie award show, but to honor the best things that came out of fast food restaurants in 2019. We rolled out the ketchup carpet for fast food’s biggest names and handed out golden burger trophies in 16 categories. Watch the full awards show and check out the winners here.
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