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The Single Best Item at Every Major Fast-Food Chain

best food items at every fast food chain
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

We live in a golden age of fast food, one in which Taco Bell offers 20 items for under $1, Arby’s is tipping its oven mitt into Italian tradition, and McDonald’s is offering up breakfast all day long. That’s great, but it can also leave you sitting idle at the drive-thru, staring at the menu for eons as some surly bastard behind you lays on the horn.

Well no more. We’ve broken down the single best item at every major national fast-food chain (sorry, regional favorites, but we still love you). You won’t find any off-the-menu items or special customizations here, just the single best thing you can put in your mouth while sitting in a car.

A&W

The root beer float
Whether served out of a drive-thru window shared with a Taco Bell off a highway or delivered by a poodle-skirted teenager on roller skates in a small Midwest town, the humble A&W root beer float is now, and forever shall be, the underrated fast-food icon's greatest contribution to drive-thru culture. And yeah, you can grab a can and some ice cream and make some at home, but that doesn't do justice to the restaurant, where the cane-sugar root beer is mixed onsite. If you're in one of those old-school Americana locations, it might come in a frosty mug, too. Pair it with a hot dog and cheese curds and you're basically in a time machine back to a simpler Midwest ideal. -- Andy Kryza

Arby's

Beef 'n Cheddar
Arby's has sneakily been raising its profile over the years, experimenting with everything from porchetta to venison and stacking them on Meat Mountains that would give Jon Stewart nightmares. Still, there is no better sandwich at Arby's -- and, perhaps, in the entire drive-thru kingdom -- than the simple Beef 'n Cheddar. You see, simplicity and reliability have always been Arby's forte, ever since it first perfected that salty, thin-shaved roast beef. Alone on a seeded bun, it's fantastic. Paired with gooey, neon-orange cheese goo and tangy Arby's Sauce on an onion bun, though, and it's a masterpiece of alchemy. Order it with a little extra cheese, let it drip off, and watch the pitch-perfect curly fries somehow become better. -- AK

burger king
Matt Lynch/Thrillist

Burger King

Chicken Fries
Is it ironic that a chain with "burger" in its name should be revered for a cardboard box filled with sticks of chicken? Potentially. But racking up anything besides BK's (now ubiquitous) torpedo-shaped chicken tenders would be nothing less than deep-fried blasphemy. Introduced in 2012 as a novelty, limited-time offer, they quickly gained cult-like traction as one of the best items on the menu. After another brief run of excellence in 2014, Burger King realized the indefinable, potentially supernatural power of the Chicken Fry and gave them a permanent slot on the menu one year later. This is a case of a gimmick turning into a mainstay, and an underdog becoming a hero. It's like if Rocky Balboa was a delicately breaded, tubular piece of poultry that ideally pairs with BBQ sauce. One day, there will be a Chicken Fry statue outside of every BK. Till then, just keep them in your heart, and in your car's cupholder. -- Wil Fulton

Carl's Jr./Hardee's

Original Thickburger
Thankfully, the split-identity fast-food chain finally woke up and realized it didn't need to use sex to sell its signature burger. It's quite a strong draw on its own. -- Matt Lynch

chick-fil-a
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Chick-fil-A

Chicken sandwich
The word "original" gets tossed around quite a bit on menus (see Thickburger!), but when Chick-fil-A touts itself as the "home of the original chicken sandwich," it's easy to believe it. Sure, it's highly likely that someone, somewhere made a chicken sandwich prior to Chick-fil-A's debut in 1946, but the Southern staple turned international poultry powerhouse inarguably perfected it: juicy, tender chicken, a buttery toasted bun, and a few pickle chips just to liven things up a bit. Repeat forever. Except on Sundays. -- ML

church
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Church's Chicken

Drumstick
Church's is a veritable dark horse of fast-food chicken. But for those looking for fried chicken and only fried chicken, it's not easy to best the flaky, golden brown, buttermilk-drenched drumstick that has defined Church's success. Sure, it's the obvious choice. But sometimes the most obvious answer is the logical answer. So basically, Church's drumstick is the Occam's Razor of fast-food dark meat. Good rule: If it's good enough for a Kendrick Lamar shout out, it's good enough for you. -- WF

Culver's

Cheddar ButterBurger with Bacon
Legend has it that if you say the words "cheddar bacon ButterBurger" into a mirror three times, Robin Yount appears and takes you out on the town for a couple-two-three brandy Old Fashioneds and keeps saying he has to go use the "time machine" and you're really confused until you realize he's talking about the ATM (Robin Yount is of course paying for your Old Fashioneds). Truly, there are few more classically Wisconsin utterances, and even fewer fast-food burgers in Culver's class. Might as well get some frozen custard in the mix too. And maybe some curds. Once you go ButterBurger there's little point in clinging to any semblance of restraint. -- ML

Dairy Queen
Matt Lynch/Thrillist

Dairy Queen

Oreo Blizzard
Really, we could have chosen any single Blizzard as a standout, but there is something undeniably magical about a plentiful swirl of crunchy Oreo crumbs inside a classic cup of vanilla ice cream that overwhelms all competitors. If Isaac Newton were alive today, surely he would publish a fourth rule of motion: "Any single dessert item that contains Oreos will create a line of hungry of customers that can only be stopped by an outside force." In layman's, it's the coal that makes DQ's train roll. -- WF

dunkin donuts
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Dunkin Donuts

Munchkins
Here's a quick exercise, if you doubt this entry: Buy a box of these little donut holes and put them in front of a group of people. Observe the results. Compare it to a herd of lions feasting on glazed, sphere-shaped gazelles. Apologize to us for your doubt. We accept your apology. -- WF

Five Guys

French fries
The tagline isn't "Five Guys Burgers & Fries" solely for cutesy rhyming purposes. Few chains give their fries the level of care and attention that Five Guys does, and it shows. While this is by no means meant to denigrate the excellent and (almost) infinitely customizable burgers, the fries star in this show. The sacks of potatoes displayed rather conspicuously in Five Guys' restaurants are the first promising sign, and the end results deliver on all the potato-y, crispy outside, fluffy inside, hand-cut happiness that their presence suggests. It is simultaneously good and bad that each order contains roughly a metric ton of them. -- ML

in n' out
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

In-N-Out

Double-Double
We can already hear the clacking of keyboards getting ready to yammer in the comments about Animal Style and chopped chiles and the like, but to borrow from a certain film that features the legendary burger chain: This isn't 'Nam, there are rules. As much of an open secret In-N-Out's "secret menu " may be, it's still not part of the official menu. And truth be told, a Double-Double is pretty damn close to burger perfection just the way it is. -- ML

Jack in the Box

The chicken sandwich
You could make a solid case for the two-for-$1 tacos… actually, no you can't. Those things are an abomination that really speak to the brainwashing aspect of "cult food." But at least they're honest. So too is the humble chicken sandwich. Not the expensive one, either. The value menu one, with the perfectly circular puck of pressed chicken, breaded and fried and haphazardly chucked into a bun, sprayed with mayo and shredded lettuce, and left under a light until some lucky bastard decides to get it. It offers no illusions about what it is, and while it's also good when stacked on grilled cheese and whatnot courtesy of Jack's stoner-y late-night menu, it's just perfect in its simple, original, not-even-trying-to-seem-good form. -- AK

jimmy johns
Andy Kryza/Thrillist

Jimmy John's

The Bootlegger Club
The sandwich chain that cured a million college hangovers continues to expand as quickly as a freshman's waistband, and the nostalgia for its hefty club sandwiches means everybody has their go-to orders. Most will speak the virtues of the Italian Night Club -- or its smaller cousin, the Vito -- which is fine, if not wrong. No, the correct move here is the Bootlegger Club, which is basically a combination of the roast beef-centric Hunter's Club and the turkey pile that is the Lulu, minus the bacon, which is for once a weak link on a sandwich. The two meats dance perfectly on that fresh-baked bread (the white and the wheat, as it were). "But guy on the internet," you lament, "it doesn't come with cheese." Come on dude. Just plop down an extra 50 cents if you want cheese. You're not in college anymore. -- AK

Jersey Mike's

Jersey Mike's Famous Philly
America's fastest-growing chain is certainly well known for its infinitely customizable, super-authentic, Jersey deli-style cold-cut sandwiches. And of course, they are nothing to snub your nose at. But, when choosing the singular best item on JM's encyclopedic menu, you'd be hard-pressed to doubt the cheesesteak. Not only does it prove that a chain can nail a mass-produced cheesesteak (a seemingly impossible task), but it also stands its ground with any of the legendary "local" hoagies Philly itself can muster. And yes, I'm serious. The cheesesteaks even have their own dedicated stand at Yankee Stadium. It's enough to bring a pork-roll flavored tear of Jersey pride to any Garden State native. And also, "Born to Run" is playing in the background. -- WF

kfc
Andy Kryza/Thrillist

KFC

Original Recipe thigh
Double Downs, Zingers, Doubliciouses be damned! (Actually, don't, you're also delicious.) Hell, you don't even need sides here, though leaving off the mashed potatoes and biscuits would be a shame. You could go get an entire bucket of nothing but tender, juicy, pressure-cooked chicken thighs from the Colonel and be perfectly happy. Luckily you don't have to. But it would certainly prevent fisticuffs between you and others with impeccable taste when you have to decide who gets the wing and who gets the thigh. -- AK

Long John Silver's

Hush puppies
Consider the hush puppy: a spherical, deep-fried lump of cornmeal that is almost exclusively paired with seafood. Consider Long John Silver's: the only major fast-food chain dedicated to seafood. Is it bad that this legitimately delicious, surprisingly authentic seafood sidekick overshadows the actual fish at LJS? Possibly. But sometimes you just want to be Luigi when you play Super Mario Bros., right? It's kind of like that, in fried cornmeal form. It's simple. It's filling. And it's a requisite part of the Long John Silver's experience. -- WF

mcdonalds
Andy Kryza/Thrillist

McDonald's

Bacon, egg & cheese biscuit
There's a reason the internet lost its damn mind when McDonald's finally heeded the call of its customers and started doing breakfast all day: McDonald's breakfast is the best thing McDonald's does. The Egg McMuffin may have started McDonald's on the path to fast-food breakfast dominance, and the McGriddle may have made an entire generation stand up and say "That tasted good but I'm not sure if I can ever eat another one of those." Right in the middle of the two, there's the bacon, egg & cheese biscuits -- buttery, cheesy, bacon-y. Hangovers are powerless against it, especially with the addition of some Hi-C Orange. Wait. What?! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE MCDONALD's. Better get two biscuits, just to be safe. -- ML

Popeyes

Biscuits
We're not arguing against the deliciousness that is Popeyes chicken. In fact, it's arguably the best damn fried bird you can get in a fast-food window, perfectly juicy and coated with salty, flaky deliciousness whether you get it mild or spicy, on the bone or in tenders form. But we are saying that the biscuit is the key from taking it from great to legendary, a fluffy, buttery puck that's great alone, better when kissed with honey, and downright godly when split open and adorned with a few chicken nuggets. Why doesn't Popeyes get into the biscuit sandwich game? Answer: It's more fun to make your own. -- AK

shake shack
Courtesy of Shake Shack

Shake Shack

ShackBurger
So, the Chick'n Shack is obviously good. The crinkle fries are good. The shakes are good. Everything at Shake Shack is good. But if we picked anything other than the ShackBurger, we wouldn't be able to fight off the angry hordes of pitchfork-wielding, potato bun-loving burger purists that would storm Thrillist HQ. And you know what? That's OK. We're good. -- WF

sonic
Sean Cooley/Thrillist

Sonic

Tater tots
If only you could eat Sonic commercials. Since you can't, be glad it's one of the few chains that's enlightened enough to make tater tots, and that it makes them damn well. -- ML

steak n shake
Matt Lynch/Thrillist

Steak 'n Shake

Frisco Melt
It might seem odd that the iconic Midwestern chain's finest item is named for a stronghold of fancy-pants tech bros. Also, nothing really seems all that "Frisco" about the Frisco Melt -- let's just say the "sourdough" bread isn't exactly the stuff that would make some artisanal baker cry tears of coconut water. All that said, hot DAMN is it a fine sandwich. The smashed patties taste resplendently of beef. The Swiss and American cheeses intermingle in glorious international harmony. The bread is almost irresponsibly buttery. And the Frisco Sauce basically tastes like some version of French dressing, but you're way too happy right now to quibble with such trivial matters as sauce nomenclature. -- ML

Subway

Italian B.M.T
Fun fact: "B.M.T" originally stood for "Brooklyn Mass Transit," as a nod to Subway's MTA-themed roots. Now, the meaning has transposed to "Bigger, Meatier, Tastier" as the chain has become an international sandwich behemoth. And it's the truth: The B.M.T, out of all Subway's offerings, is simply of a higher class thanks to the holy trinity of deli meats that is Black Forest ham, salami, and pepperoni. You know that enchanting, elusive smell that exudes from every Subway store in the world? This sandwich comes the closest to nailing that smell. And that's a good thing. -- WF

taco bell
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Taco Bell

Soft taco
To quote myself after ranking everything at T-Bell: "It's not Gordita Bell. Or Burrito Bell. And it's definitely not Hash Brown Bell. It's Taco Bell." There's a reason for that. And I stand by myself. Come at me. -- WF

whataburger
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Whataburger

Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit
The burgers are fantastic. The taquitos are the stuff of legend. The HBCB is somehow better -- even if the namesake honey butter sometimes congeals in a way that can be off-putting. Don't worry about it, and definitely don't worry about the health consequences of adding sugar and butter to your fried-chicken breakfast. They cancel each other out. It's science. -- ML

White Castle

The Crave Case
OK, the actually correct answer here is the humble slider, arguably America's first fast-food chain item and a two-bite knockout of steamed hams, grilled onions, and bouncy bun. But half the fun is getting a metric shitload of them. A sack would suffice, sure, but why do that when you can get an entire suitcase full of them. Will you be able to finish it? Probably not. But imagine the joy you can bring to the world by loping down the street delivering tiny, five-holed burgers to the hungry masses. That's White Castle: a cure for the drunchies and a tool for altruism. It's the overcompensatory fast-food order America really needs right now. -- AK

Wendy's

The Double Stack
The Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger on the original value menu gets a lot of love, but it's but a glimpse of the potential that Dave Thomas birthed when he made the perfectly square burger his trademark. This is meat as architecture, and it demands to be stacked. Three is too much. One is too little. And when it's not a quarter-pound like in the JBC, the patty is an afterthought. Two quarter-pound patties is just right, allowing the cheese to melt in between like the world's most delicious glue (sorry, Elmer). It's a half a pound of symmetrical, architecturally sound engineering just waiting to stain your shirt. -- AK

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Wil Fulton only eats Jersey Mike's while listening to Darkness on the Edge of Town. Follow his quest for Mike's Way in the Promised Land @wilfulton.
Andy Kryza got his first job at age 13, working at a small-town A&W in mid-Michigan. He looked fantastic in a poodle skirt. Follow him to roller skating mishaps @apkryza.
Matt Lynch only harmed one Frisco Melt in the reporting for this story. Follow him to Steak 'n Shake @mlynchchi.