Take a drive through America, and you'll find it dotted with familiar signage: "McDonald's," "Wendy's," "Taco Bell," "Caution: Unfinished Bridge." Rarely will you come across a chain restaurant you haven't seen before. But unless you've toured around the world (from London to the Bay), you probably haven't seen any of these hugely popular international chains.
With that in mind, we polled our international friends to find the best chains most Americans have never heard of -- and then we ranked them from worst to best. Sorry, blini-lovers.
Russia What they serve: Russian crepes (blini), soups, porridge What their deal is: Forget the International House of Pancakes -- Teremok is essentially Russia’s national house of pancakes, except the pancakes are, in this case, traditional Russian crepes called blini. And they’re usually served with caviar. Teremok is based in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but has around 150 popular locations divided between those two areas. Rumor has it that they’re planning on expanding into the US before the end of 2014, but we don't know how receptive folks will be to eating fish eggs on their pancakes.
Singapore What they serve: Curry, toast What their deal is: It doesn’t take a lot to dominate the market of Singapore (it’s a city-state -- remember your geography, dawg!), but Toast Box comes damn close with its 66 outlets. It’s owned by local bakery chain BreadTalk, but Toast Box has a character all its own; it serves a variety of toasts with coconut and other jams, in addition to curry, eggs, and all sorts of other lunch fare that you can wash down with their beloved coffee. But while toasted bread might still be catching on over there, we know that even the laziest of Dads can whip it up for breakfast.
Germany What they serve: Seafood (raw, cooked, and smoked), sandwiches What their deal is: The US has Long John Silver’s and Red Lobster, and Germany has Nordsee. While it’s less of a fast-food joint and more of a sit-down concept, Nordsee has been packing in hungry customers since it first opened back in 1986, and has expanded from a single location in Bremen to more than 400 around Europe (and even into Africa and the Middle East). Their specialties are smoked and steamed fish, especially cod, sided with a mix of distinctively German dishes. We kinda wish they had nautically-themed fish sticks though.
China What they serve: Steamed dishes, soups, noodles What their deal is: Kungfu, a Chinese chain serving up stews, rice, noodles, and other traditional dishes using natural, readily available ingredients, has Bruce Lee as its official logo, and while that may not be the most copyright-appropriate practice, it’s still kinda awesome. They’re committed to making healthier fast-food fare, ostensibly to help people get into (Kungfu Fighting) shape, but we're deferring judgment until they fight with Chuck Norris's noodle shop.
France What they serve: Burgers, sandwiches What their deal is: While most Parisians will swear by McDo or KFC, there’s a sizable contingent of French people that prefer Belgian-born fast-food chain Quick. It’s got a menu similar to McDonald’s (burgers, chicken & bacon sandwiches, fries, something called the “Long Fish”) and is actually majority-owned by the French government, so you know it’s good -- and Carla Bruni probably has a thing for it.
Israel What they serve: Burgers, chicken sandwiches, fries What their deal is: Take a McDonald’s, transplant it in Israel, and lose all the cheese (this is kosher territory, son), and you’ve got Burger Ranch -- Israel’s most popular homegrown fast-food franchise. They’ve got around 100 locations in a country approximately the size of New Jersey, and their biggest competition in Israel is McDonald’s itself. They distinguish themselves by selling schnitzel sandwiches and burgers with spicy “Spanish” sauce, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but we'll go with it.
Spain What they serve: Pizza, salads What their deal is: As you might have been able to gather from the name, Telepizza is a Spanish pizza chain that delivers 'za to over-the-phone customers. It started in Madrid back in 1986, but has expanded all over Spain, the rest of Europe, and even Central America since then. They even started doing online-based ordering (and were one of the first European pizza places to do so, even if America got there first), which means it might have to change its name. ePizza? Whatever, we’ll workshop it.
United Kingdom What they serve: Noodles, curries What their deal is: A number of fast-food joints probably come to mind when you think of the UK -- Wimpy, Nando’s, Pizza Express -- but Wagamama ventured into a territory most chains hadn’t touched yet: noodles. It was founded by the guy behind London/Vegas' acclaimed Hakkasan, and serves fast-casual pan-Asian noodle dishes to patrons all over the UK and several other countries, of which the US is one. Four shops have already popped up around Boston. Prepare for another British invasion, this time with bowls instead of bowl cuts.
Ireland What they serve: Burgers, fish, pizza, ice cream What their deal is: Around since 1978, Supermac’s is Ireland’s largest “indigenous” fast-food chain, and has teamed up with Papa John’s to offer people all over the country the chance to get whatever comfort food they so desire, from burgers to pizza and everything in-between (though they sadly lack a pizza burger). All their patties are made with 100% Irish beef, they have an entire section of their menu devoted to “buckets” of food, and -- true to Irish form -- they’ve got a full breakfast.
Brazil What they serve: Steaks, burgers, stroganoffs What their deal is: Giraffas was one of Brazil’s first homegrown fast-food restaurants -- getting its start back in 1981 -- and although it’s expanded into the States with some higher-brow slow-food fare (steak!), it remains a staple in most Brazilian cities for its fast comfort food done right. That means hearty burgers and stroganoffs with a variety of side dishes such as rice, fries, and cassava.
South Africa What they serve: Burgers, “chips,” hero rolls, ribs What their deal is: As so much of our food is borrowed from other cultures, it can be pretty flattering when new countries are inspired by our “original” food concepts. That’s exactly what happened to George Halamandaris when he was on vacation in the US in the 1960s -- he saw that America’s burgers were awesome, and he wanted in on it. He initially experimented with steakhouses before the first Steers burger joint was opened, and now there are over 500 locations serving up flame-grilled burgers and the most award-winningest chips in South Africa. That means fries, folks, and they're damn good.
Colombia What they serve: Hamburgers, milkshakes, fries What their deal is: Spanish for “Hamburgers The Corral,” which probably makes more sense not in English, Hamburguesas El Corral is the Colombian Shake Shack, and serves up a variety of creative char-grilled burgers (Italian w/ mozzarella cheese and marinara, Texana w/ American cheese, onion rings, and BBQ sauce) in addition to fries, milkshakes, and ice cream. It was founded in 1983 and has even made a foray in the United States, with two locations in Miami.
Australia What they serve: Portuguese-style chicken, burgers, wraps What their deal is: For anyone who's spent any time abroad in Australia, Oporto is a beacon of sandwich happiness. The Sydney chain first opened in 1986 on Bondi Beach, with its founder Antonio Cerqueira serving up Portuguese-style chicken sandwiches and flame-grilled whole chickens marinated in secret magic sauce, and the place has caught fire since, with hundreds of shops dotting everywhere from Perth and Townsville, to Tuggeranong, which is really a place. The Bondi Burger -- a triple chicken fillet with cheese, mayo, and their amazing chili sauce -- is quite literally addicting (maybe the FDA needs to look into that chili sauce?).
Saudi Arabia What they serve: “Broasted” chicken, seafood What their deal is: When Al Baik first opened in Jeddah in 1974, there weren’t too many fast-food joints in the country. The fried/broasted chicken shop quickly distinguished itself through exceptional service and delicious, pressure-fried chicken that always keeps their locations packed and buzzing with activity. In fact, they were growing so fast that the government had to step in and limit what regions they could expand into -- the franchising laws literally couldn’t keep up with them. Now that’s some good chicken.
Japan What they serve: Ramen What their deal is: Japan might be known to some as the land of absolutely crazy burger experiments, but ramen is definitely their favorite fast food, and Ippudo’s one ramen chain that most people can get behind. Founded back in 1985, they've since opened locations all over the islands, selling veritable oodles of noodles to happy customers. You might even know Ippudo from their overseas locations -- their outposts in NYC are some of the city’s most popular restaurants, even though ramen places are on almost every single block now.
Philippines What they serve: Fried chicken, burger steaks, spaghetti What their deal is: In the pantheon of nationally treasured fast-food mascots, Ronald McDonald will always take the cake. Followed by Grimace, because that guy’s chill as f*ck. But in a close third, it’s Jollibee -- basically, he’s a giant anthropomorphic red bee who’s one of the most recognizable figures in the Philippines, and with good reason. This guy slings Filipino comfort food (tuna pies!! SPAM sandwiches!! Spicy fried chicken!!) at over 2,000 locations worldwide, including a few locations stateside. Look out, Grimace.
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Adam Lapetina is a Food/Drink staff writer for Thrillist, and he'll start a petition if you guys want in on any of these. Read his musings on Twitter at @adamlapetina.