The Best Fast-Food Value Menus, Ranked

taco bell
Courtesy of Taco Bell

Fast-food value menus have evolved rapidly since Wendy's introduced the concept way back in the day. We now live in a world where a chicken sandwich is considered a side, and where the number of $1 items has hit the double digits. But not all value menus are created equal. Behold: Here are the best budget menus at fast-food chains, ranked based on value, quality, variety, heft, and other hard science mixed with personal bias.

12. Arby's

Arby’s might be among the most underrated and misunderstood fast-food joints in the game, but ever since it ditched its actual value menu and started marketing its budget menu as sliders, it fell out of favor on the value-menu game. They’re just tiny versions of the original sandwiches -- roast beef, ham, corned beef, chicken -- that have way too much bun for the amount of meat. At $1.49, the value is about $.50 per bite. Keep an eye out for its excellent specials (the two-for-$5 rotates, ebbs, and flows), but steer clear of this budget menu in disguise.

11. Sonic

On the plus side, Sonic's got an extremely robust everyday value menu featuring their great tots, their OK burgers, corn dogs, slushies, and even a breakfast burrito. On the negative side, you have to figure out where the hell the Sonic actually is, and in the more rural parts of America, the gas you burn seeking the drive-in cancels out the value. Those tots though!

10. Dunkin' Donuts

Taking a cue from McDonald's, Dunkin' has adopted a brand-new tier system, with a $2, $3, $5 menu featuring two weird little egg tacos, two English muffins, and two bodega-style bacon, egg & cheese croissants. It's also all-day breakfast! But it's also, you know, egg sandwiches from Dunkin'.

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

9. McDonald's

The new 1-2-3 menu at Mickey D’s seems to have shown up with a bit more fanfare than it deserves. They’ve got a few things each for $1, $2, and $3, though none are that impressive. “Soft drink” finds itself on the $1 menu, and I fundamentally disagree with the idea of soda being included on the value menu at all. The Bacon McDouble at $2 is solid, but the rest isn’t wonderful -- especially a small coffee on the $2 menu. NAH, SON. JUST NAH.

8. Carl's Jr.

Look, we’re not even sure if all of these fancy newfangled $5 box meals count as a value menu, but Carl’s has nary a thing under $2, so we’re including them. Their array of $5 All-Star Meals aren’t bad, so they get points for range of options. The problem is, nothing in them is thaaaaat tasty. The double cheeseburger & chicken sandwich duo is alright (we’ll ignore the fact that one of these meals comes with a hot dog because Carl’s has no business selling such a thing), but the real issue here is that Carl’s Jr. is one of the biggest perpetrators of the ol' the-food-looks-way-different-in-real-life scheme. Take a place like Taco Bell, for example. You pretty much know what your food is going to look like, and it resembles the commercial. At Carl’s Jr., the food looks nothing like the pictures or the commercials. The sandwiches are small and dinky, and the cheese is creepy. Sure, all the pieces are in place for a good value menu, but at this point, the quality of the food holds Carl’s Jr. back.

7. Dairy Queen

There isn’t a bunch of creativity on the DQ $5 and $6 lunch menu, but there are two things that help it stand out. First, the three-piece chicken strips come with gravy, and that’s the kind of coup we can get behind. Second, it comes with a sundae rocking that cute little Gerber Baby swirl on top. Skip the burgers, get the strips, drink the gravy, and inhale the sundae.

6. Kentucky Fried Chicken

Oddly enough KFC sneaks itself into contention here, simply because of their $5 Fill-Ups. I like the cut of KFC’s jib on this one -- there are five options and they are all pretty solid. The Colonel is lining up some tasty treats like a leg & thigh deal, tenders deal, and even a Famous Bowl. None of them seem like a throwaway, and that right there is the mark of a strong value menu. Shout out to the inclusion of the pot pie, which I’ve never had -- and never will -- but I just like that it’s there.

Burger King
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

5. Burger King

Burger King has some stuff going on, for sure. They’ve got a few cheeseburgers for around $2, soft serve for a buck, onion rings, sundaes, side salads, and other little goodies. The real problem is: How good are these things? Burger King really isn’t the pinnacle of fast food. The range of items and good prices got them this far, but the fact that Burger King isn’t, well, very good will not allow them to move on any further.

4. Jack in the Box

Jack gets it. There’s a lot going on in the value department at J-in-the-B. For starters, they’ve got those famous tacos. Running you about a dollar, this two taco deal is an absolute titan of the fast-food value-menu world. It’s a first-round draft pick. You’d think that’s where Jack would fall apart, but he’s got more tricks up his sleeve: The Monster Taco is only $1. You can get an entire breakfast combo for $3. And of course, let’s not forget about Jack’s Munchie Meals, designed for stoney baloneys and post-bar eaters, all running about $6. In terms of quality of food to price, Jack in the Box is killing the value menu game.

3. Wendy's

Ah, Wendy’s. The supreme shit-talker of the fast food world. Wendy ain’t afraid of nothin’. Her value menu is a stone-cold killer, too. In addition to a bunch of $1-$2 burgers, chicken wraps, and Frostys (the mother of all fast-food milkshakes), Wendy’s has gone absolutely berserk with a slew of $4 meals. Eight, to be exact. Alongside your fries, nuggies, and drink, you can choose between four types of burgers, two different chicken sandwiches, and two different chicken wraps. Sure Wendy talks the talk, but it turns out that she can most certainly walk the walk.

2. Taco Bell

It’s not easy, ranking Taco Bell in the second slot. T-Bell fans are scary, like Raiders fans, and this seems like a death wish. But truth is truth, and Taco Bell just doesn’t have what it takes to nail the No. 1 position. They have a lot of stuff on their Dollar Cravings menu: the supremely over-advertised nacho fries, a couple of burritos, some desserts, the shredded chicken quesadilla (which might be the crown jewel), and even some nachos. Really, all the pieces are in place here. It’s just too bad that somebody beat them at their own game...

1. Del Taco

I love Del Taco. I really do. But when I started writing this, I wholeheartedly agreed to give everything an equal and fair shot. I tried so many different times to find a reason not to give Del Taco the top spot. But look, science is science. The sheer range of options DT offers at around $1 is absolutely impossible to ignore.

You can grab the following for a buck or under at Del Taco: (*sharp inward breath*) the grilled chicken taco, the Value Taco, the Jacked Up BRC Burrito, the half-pound lb bean & cheese burrito (with your choice of two sauces!!), four types of Chicken Rollers, two types of mini quesadillas, the salsa chicken taco, the CrunchTada Tostada, three types of Breakfast Rollers, three types of breakfast tacos, the Bean & Cheese Cup, hashbrown sticks, and mini shakes.

You can assemble some HEFTY meals out of the stuff Del Taco has to offer. Add to that the fact that ingredient quality is much higher than Taco Bell, and we’ve got ourselves a winner. Del Taco is the value menu heavyweight champion. It has been for a while… and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.

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Wilder Shaw is a regular Thrillist contributor who should probably go to the hospital after doing all this “research.” Check in on his vitals on Instagram and Twitter.