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The Best Side at Every Major Fast-Food Chain

Shake Shack cheese fries
cheese fries | Shake Shack
cheese fries | Shake Shack

"You want fries with that?" It's become part of the American lexicon at this point, so much so that we usually just nod and say yes, zombified by hunger and routine. And as a result, we're being sold short on the next-level fast-food sides lurking beneath the starch. Nobody, after all, ever says "You want cheese sticks with that?" Well, no more. Here are the very best sides at most major chain restaurants. Surprisingly, you won't find very many fries on it.

Arby's mozzarella sticks
Arby's mozzarella sticks | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Arby’s: Mozzarella sticks

You thought we were going to say curly fries, didn’t you? Well, if it was a few years ago, you’d be right. Except Arby’s has the best damned mozz sticks in the fast-food game (also, Arby's might low-key be fast food's biggest and best innovator). We’d put them up against any dive bar’s take, because they’re probably from the same generic frozen-food emporium. And they’re perfect. Even better, you usually get a couple curly fries in the box by mistake. It’s a win-win.

A&W: Cheese curds

This is the first time you’ll see cheese curds on this list, but not the last. Because they’re the perfect, and probably most underrated (outside Wisconsin) side there is: They’re squeaky. They’re salty as hell. And they’re crunchy. It’s basically a poppable mozzarella stick, and they’re perfect pretty much every time, and pair wonderfully with root beer.

Burger King onion rings
Burger King onion rings | Steven Depolo/Flickr

Burger King: Onion rings

Burger King, benevolent ruler that he is, has chicken nuggets listed as a side. And while we appreciate this vision of a pressed-meat utopia, we just haven’t reached an era where we’ll accept the idea of a nugget as a side dish. Instead, we’re going to name the onion rings as the King’s crown jewel, mostly because you don’t see onion rings on nearly enough fast-food menus, and we’re willing to look past the overly thick breading. But we’re definitely making that call while eating a box of chicken nuggets and calling them dessert.

Carl’s Jr.: Crisscut Fries

Props to Carl's for including batter-dipped, deep-fried zucchinis on the menu and giving a loophole to every smartass kid arguing with his or her mom about eating vegetables. But these seasoned waffle fries are too good to sacrifice for anything green. And hey, potatoes are kind of vegetables too, right?

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Chick-fil-A: Waffle fries

If waffle fries have taught us anything, it’s that everything tastes better in waffle form. Everything.

Chipotle Guac
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Chipotle: Chips & guac

Everybody has a friend who complains about guac being extra at Chipotle. Well, tell that friend they should be eating alone if they complain about trivial shit like paying for products at restaurants. Or advise them to get more bang for their buck by ordering chips & guac as a side, saving a little of the green stuff for their burrito, and then enjoying the rest as a dip. Probably alone. Nobody likes a whiner.

Church’s Chicken: Honey Butter Biscuits

The vastly overlooked southern comfort chain rolls deep with a roster of sides just like grandma used to make, if your grandmother was a gigantic fried-chicken chain. The lineup includes standards like crinkle-cut fries and mashed potatoes, but where it gets unexpected (for fast food, anyway) is with seemingly home-cooked offerings like a baked mac & cheese (complete with slightly burned cheddar up top), fried okra, spicy rice, green beans, and corn two ways: on the cob or in little deep-fried creamed corn nuggets. Still, a southern plate's only as good as its biscuit, and Church's famous Honey Butter Biscuits manage a balance between sweet, savory, and salty that pairs up with anything on this surprisingly thick menu. Even better, they're great if you decide to stuff a couple chicken fingers in there for a makeshift sandwich. 

Culver’s: Cheese curds

Everything we said about A&W at the top of this article. But about 38x more enthusiastically. Because Culver’s basically tastes like Wisconsin in a bag -- a bag stained with excess butter. Culver’s keeps expanding. And as it does, so do those who are lucky enough to live in its orbit. Such is the power of Butterburgers and, arguably, the best side in all of fast-fooddom.

 

Del Taco: Cheddar potato poppers

These can be best described as the Mexicanish cousin of Arby's (underrated) potato cakes, but with added cheese and jalapeno chunks. And yes, that's a delicious combo.

Dunkin' breakfast
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Dunkin’: Hash browns

Why Dunkin’ won’t just call these “flat tots” or "crispy crowns" is just another weirdness in its long lineage of confounding semantic decisions that we can’t really care too much about, largely because our brain power has been drained as a direct result of pairing these “hash browns” with miniature donuts.

Five Guys: Fries

There's an old adage that we just made up: "If you're only gonna have one side at a burger place, it had better be damn good." Obviously, this isn't true, because In-N-Out continues to operate deep fryers. But at Five Guys, the fries are pretty great: Hand cut, salty, and served in paper bags that don't stand a chance. Sure, you might trip over a bag of potatoes en route to order them, but that's a small price to pay.

Hardee's: Crispy Curls

There's a lot of confusion about the difference between Carl's Jr. and Hardee's. It's honestly a little confusing. But the most important thing to remember is that Hardee's has these on-point seasoned curly fries. And ham sandwiches. But honestly, the Crispy Curls are the things that matter most. 

In-N-Out Animal Fries
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

In-N-Out: Animal-style fries

Yeah, the fries at In-N-Out are terrible. They’re limp, unless you have the foresight to order them “well done,” in which case they’re burnt. But hey, you could probably drizzle secret sauce, caramelized onions, and cheese on an old bandage and it would be pretty good. And since you can’t just order a cup of that stuff, this will have to do. (Side note: In-N-Out should introduce a new item called Animal Parfait that’s just a cup of sauce and onions.)

Jack in the Box
Kevin Alexander/Thrillist

Jack in the Box: Curly fries

Jack’s sides menu is all over the board, and there’s a temptation to go with the iconic (probably for the wrong reasons) tacos, or stuffed jalapeños, or the egg rolls (?!!). Don’t. Play it safe with curly fries. Trust us. We’ve been burned before.

KFC Potato Wedges
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

KFC: Potato wedges

They’re vegetarian, unless you dip them in gravy. But they’re magnificent on their own, giving a nice crunch to go along with their paprika punch. Even better, if you're at a combination KFC/Taco Bell, you can order them with sides of gravy and nacho cheese to make America's newest food-fusion innovation (as of right now), KenTexi-Mex Poutine

Long John Silver's: Hushpuppies

You're probably thinking, "What else would it be, the coleslaw?" No, wait, actually, you're probably thinking, "Long John Silver's is still a thing?!" It is! And the hushpuppies are still delicious.

McDonald's fries
McDonald's fries | McDonald's

McDonald’s: Fries

It’s seriously amazing that McDonald’s fries taste exactly the same, every single time. When you think of them, you can taste them. When you crave them, you know exactly what they’ll taste like. More importantly, though, if anyone asked you to have a Big Mac with a side salad or a tube of Go-Gurt, you would straight punch them directly in the trachea.

rice and beans
Popeyes red beans and rice | Popeyes

Popeyes: Red beans & rice

Everybody gets Cajun fries, which are just seasoned fries that are about as Cajun as James Carville’s third cousin-in-law. Red beans & rice, that’s pure Louisiana, and Popeyes does them surprisingly well.

Shake Shack: Cheese fries

The crinkle-cut fry is an underrepresented delight of processed potato ingenuity, and Shake Shack's are superlative on their own. But throw some Cheddar sauce on them and you have a masterpiece, one in which the weird little wooden straw staked upright in the middle might as well be a victory flag.

chicken sandwich and tater tots
Chicken sandwich and tater tots | Sonic

Sonic: Tots

More than even the hipster hordes, Sonic deserves some credit for the re-popularization of tots, reclaiming the golden little potato nuggets from the purgatorial trays of high school lunches and bringing them to grown-ups. Hell, you don’t even need to upgrade to cheese tots to make them good. That said, you should upgrade to cheese tots.

https://www.facebook.com/tacobell/photos/a.81097684696/10150966842304697/?type=3&theater
Taco Bell

Taco Bell: Chips and nacho cheese sauce

The key to enjoying T-Bell’s sprawling menu is to stop pretending it’s something it's not. And there are few things in fast food more deliciously honest about what they are than the humble, tiny bag of chips and neon-orange dip. Until the chain stops toying with us and makes Nacho Fries permanent, this will always be the only side at Taco Bell in our minds.

Wendy's: Baked potato with chili

Wendy's has the baked-potato game on lock. They're the only ones who do it, and do it well… especially when you hit it with their signature chili, which is made from discarded burgers that didn't stay square on the grill. There are some who will argue that they don't count as a fast-food side because they're hard to eat in the car. Those people are quitters. You totally can. Just think of it as an Irish burrito.

Whataburger: Onion rings

Sides are understandably an afterthought at Whataburger, but that’s not to say that the fries and onion rings aren’t great. Onion rings get the edge because of their versatility. Which is to say, they’re as good dipped in ketchup as they are stacked on your sandwich.

White Castle: Chicken rings

Whoever got high and thought, “Hey, you know, onion rings are good and all, but shouldn’t they be made of chicken instead?” was robbed of the Nobel. But here they are. Chicken nuggets. Shaped like onion rings. And served as sides alongside cases of White Castle burgers. And with that, the universe was balanced.

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Andy Kryza is a senior editor at Thrillist who is currently developing curly chicken fries. Follow him to the patent office @apkryza.