13 Midwestern Fast Food Chains the Entire Country Needs
Da burgers, da dogs, da… loose meat sandwiches?
You should know by now that the Midwest is no slouch in terms of national food contributions. It’s known as a meat-and-potatoes kind of place—not a bad thing, mind you—and from Wendy’s to White Castle, the region has birthed casual dining establishments now known from sea to proverbial shining sea. Yet for the wide-reaching influence of these global sensations, there remains a handful of culinary treasures lurking mostly, if not entirely, within our loosely-defined regional boundaries. Our goal here is to change that—or, at least, provide you with a few additional must-stop destinations along your next cross-country road trip.
A note on the selections: We tried to limit the list to chains that started in the Midwest but haven’t yet achieved national ubiquity. You’ll see some midwest-adjacent states on this list, as well as straight-up outliers like Florida and California, but that only indicates that our plan is already working! Now, let’s talk food.
Where they are: Ohio, Michigan, and, curiously, New Hampshire
Why you need them: In a field crowded by gringo taco joints, Barrio sets itself apart by maintaining the attractive authenticity of a taco truck operation but in brick-and-mortar form: Food that’s inexpensive, quickly produced, and damn delicious. Guests build their own tacos from the tortilla up, though they’re also welcome (even encouraged) to choose from a chef’s selection of prepared options. And while menu items like the “Stoner Shell” might make you roll your eyes, the contents—a soft and hard shell united by layers of queso and chorizo—surely will not. Add a respectable selection of tequila, whiskey, and draft beer (take-out margaritas, anyone?), and you get an experience even the deepest taco cynic can enjoy.
What to get: La Tierra brings together Barrio’s Coca-Cola marinated steak (who knew?) with portobellos, caramelized peppers and onions, and a classed-up Taco Bell-style shell incorporating queso and bacon.
Where they are: The Greater Cleveland area
Why you need them: If you’ve so much as passed through Cleveland, you’re likely to have seen the crooked H of the Mr. Hero logo somewhere along the way. Specializing in subs—heroes, if you’re angling for that New York cred—Mr. Hero is best known for the mighty Romanburger. This unique headliner is more sub than traditional bun-and-meat burger, though it draws upon both enticing styles with flourish. Two plump burger patties act as a foundation for mounds of grilled salami and other Italian deli meats plus American-Swiss cheese, mayo, and house dressing. Only one word truly defines this concoction: delicious.
What to get: Romanburger with waffle fries, and make it a BTE (AKA double the ingredients) if you think you’re up for it.
Where they are: Throughout the entire Midwest plus a few locations in the Southeast, Texas, and out West
Why you need them: Perhaps the most widespread player on this list, Culver’s has yet to make inroads into several Northeast and West Coast markets—perhaps, in the latter case, due to In-N-Out’s regional stronghold. With all due respect to California’s burger giant (okay, maybe not that much respect), Culver’s undoubtedly has those meaty coastal elites good and beat. They boast not only the crispy-edged, endlessly juicy perfection that is the Butterburger (named for its butter-brushed buns, of course), but also distinctly Midwesterns stalwarts like fried cheese curds and frozen custard. We’ll take those over pale, limp, undersalted French fries any day.
What to get: Butterburger cheese, an order of cheese curds, and the frozen custard flavor of the day, all washed down with a signature root beer.
Where they are: Cleveland, Columbus, Akron, and the surrounding areas
Why you need them: When the Cavs brought home Cleveland’s first championship trophy in decades, Lebron James wrapped celebrations with an order from Swenson’s, his favorite hometown burger joint. One might ask, who are we to argue with King James? Once named America’s Best Burger by Forbes, Swenson’s is most famous for the Galley Boy, a double cheeseburger made with two sauces. No one is quite sure what those sauces are—barbecue? tartar?—but no one can argue with the results. Add 18 combine-able milkshake varieties and you’ve attained drive-in dining nirvana.
What to get: Galley Boy, onion rings (put them inside your burger if you’re feeling frisky) and a Mint Whip.
Where they are: Wisconsin
Why you need them: You never know what you’re going to get walking into Kopp’s—unless, of course, you cheated and checked out the online flavor preview ahead of time. Founded by Elsa Kopp in 1950 as a first-time business venture, Kopp’s is an immigrant and women entrepreneur success story rolled into one. It’s a place that possesses a commitment to craft that’s virtually unknown in the mass-produced world of frozen desserts, offering not one but two flavors of the day every single day plus a whole slew of savory options like burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, fries, and onion rings in a charmingly throwback setting. With so few locations (for now), it’s well worth a trip up to the glorious dairy haven of Wisconsin to see for yourself.
What to get: Go with your gut—when it comes to double cheeseburgers and frozen custard, there are no wrong answers.
Where they are: Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin
Why you need them: Cousins, a Milwaukee institution, traces its culinary roots to the East Coast sub scene. We won’t hold that against them too much, mostly since merging the cheeses of their adopted home state Wisconsin with New Jersey’s meaty originals is a particularly charming combo. Plus, their bread, baked fresh on the daily, scores them a lot of points. If your timing is right, you may hit Cousins when they have their limited-run Wisconsin Brat subs on the menu—a poetic, flavorful marriage of East meets (Mid)West.
What to get: Italian Special (capicola ham, cotechino bologna, Genoa salami, provolone, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, salt, oregano, oil) with a side of cheese curds to keep things local.
Where they are: Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Texas, and Colorado
Why you need it: Besides the fact that they sport the most adorable name on the list, Erbert and Gerbert’s is part of a mounting case that the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin, has a burgeoning sub tradition that may just rival the East Coast’s longtime frontrunner status. Erbert and Gerbert’s stands apart from its contemporaries in some notable ways. First off, there’s goofy, sci-fi-inspired sandwiches called Girf, Narmer, and Bornk alongside offerings that stray a little more adventurous than most chains are willing to go like chicken and cranberry wasabi or barbecue brisket and mac ‘n cheese. All that plus the soups are beyond on point, helping diners brave the coldest of Wisconsin winters.
What to get: The Spartan, with thinly-sliced chicken, bacon, and spicy Peppadew mustard, paired with a bowl of creamy broccoli cheddar soup.
Where they are: The Chicagoland area plus elsewhere in Illinois and Indiana, with a few satellite locations in Atlanta, Vegas, and LA
Why you need them: If you’re craving fried chicken in Chicago, it’s basically absurd to go anywhere but Harold’s. Harold’s started as a single South Side location and spent 70 years cementing its reputation as the Chi’s most beloved fried chicken purveyor. Common and Kanye have sung its praises. Chance the Rapper introduced Katie Couric to its delights. And even LA’s own Kendrick Lamar claims to have chartered a jet from Rome to Chicago just to get his Harold’s fix. Once you’ve had a chicken dinner with some mild sauce on the side, you’ll be willing to do the same.
What to get: Chicken dinner (dark or white, your pick), complete with slaw, fries, and grease-mopping bread. Whatever you do, don’t forget the sauce.
Where they are: Mostly Missouri, with a little Illinois and Kansas mixed in
Why you need it: Much as we love a good Midwestern hamburger—and this list should make it apparent that we do—there’s a lot to be said for the simple pleasures of slow-cooked, thinly-sliced roast beef, and that’s exactly where Lion’s Choice comes in. A Show Me State treat since 1967, Lion’s Choice keeps it simple: High quality top round beef, cooked medium-rare and sliced razor thin, piled atop a toasted buttery bun and dusted with secret seasoning. No gimmicks, no BS, no need to mess with perfection. Chase it with a thicker-than-thick frozen custard concrete for the ultimate Mizzourah’ meal.
What to get: An original Famous Roast Beef alongside natural-cut fries and an Oreo concrete.
Where they are: Primarily Iowa, with some locations in Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio
Why you need them: A real visionary, this nearly century-old Iowa chain was not only the first in the country to offer drive-in service, they also singularly invented the ever-popular loose meat sandwich—which, for Hawkeye State outsiders, is pretty much exactly what you think it is. A mound of seasoned, specially-ground beef sets up shop between warm, soft buns, much like an unsauced Sloppy Joe or a hamburger without the patty-packing effort. Add a squirt of sharp mustard, a few pickle chips, and some refreshing chopped white onion and the result, while a challenge to hold together, is one of life’s simplest delights (or, should we say, de-lite?).
What to get: Rookies should opt for an Original Maid-Rite while more advanced loose meat enthusiasts might consider the Jalapeño-Rite, made with melted cheddar cheese sauce and fiery jalapeños.
Where it is: The Chicagoland area, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota plus a few locations in Arizona, Florida, and California
Why you need it: Thrillist readers should be familiar with the esteemed Chicago-style hot dog, an all-beef tube smothered formidably in a diverse but balanced array of mouthwatering ingredients (ketchup, ahem, is not one of them). Portillo’s is the most famous of its purveyors, giving the standard dog joint the comically old-school theme park treatment with red brick interiors, cabby-hatted servers, and a plethora of Chicago sports memorabilia splayed across the walls. But it’s not all for show—Portillo’s meticulous take on the sausage classic is the best you’ll find outside the Second City, or, according to its many devotees, even inside it.
What to get: A Jumbo Hot Dog “dragged through the garden” (i.e. dressed to impress with mustard, relish, celery salt, chopped onions, sliced tomatoes, a pickle, and sport peppers on a steamed poppy seed bun) alongside a dipped Italian beef, a chocolate cake shake, and an extra large bottle of antacid.
Where they are: Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Colorado
Why you need them: Runza is best known for the curiously oblong stuffed sandwiches that give the establishment its name. The runza sandwich is made by carving out space inside a fist-sized loaf of bread then filling it burrito-style with a mixture of ground beef, spices, onions, and cabbage. It’s German-Russian in origin and overwhelmingly delicious in execution. Runza has deliberately stayed regional in its reach, and, in turn, has developed a rabid fan base. There may be no better testament to this chain’s identity-driven popularity than the fact that no matter where you live, you can get a box of a dozen frozen Runzas shipped straight to your door for a mere $130.
What to get: The classic Cheese Runza with a side of Frings, a winning combination of crinkle cut fries and crunchy onion rings.
Where they are: Parts of Indiana and Illinois
Why you need it: Schoop’s comes firmly from the smashed school of hamburglary, which is A-OK in our book. The crispy edges and flavorful interior of Schoop’s pressed-down patties is a thing of pure, unadulterated beauty. Plus, there’s a genuine ‘50s diner feel stemming largely from the fact that Schoop’s has been crushing the game since, well, the 1950s. As Shake Shack and Steak ‘n Shake continue their march across the US, it’s refreshing to see a chain remain as insistently and proudly regional as Schoop’s. (But seriously, guys, Ohio and Michigan are begging for you.)
What to get: The Mickey (a single patty drowning in two gooey slices of American Cheese) served atop a freshly-baked pretzel bun (worth the 70 cent upcharge), curly fries, and a cult favorite Green River soda on draft.
Where they are: Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Florida
Why you need them: Mass hatred for Cincinnati’s signature chili dish looms large throughout the country, with Skyline Chili perched defiantly on the front lines of this heated cultural battle. And we’ll admit that at first blush it’s a weird, maybe even alarming concept. There’s a hint of sweetness to the meat (cinnamon, maybe nutmeg), and if you order “two way” or higher, it arrives like a steamy, mahogany-hued blanket overtop an unassuming tangle of spaghetti. Our take. The Southwest green pepper snobs and beefy Tex-Mex purists need to chill out. America, get your 2 am dining pants on and embrace Skyline’s adventurous departure from the norm—just be sure to bring some Tums.
What to order: Go all the way with the 5-Way, a platter of noodles swimming in secret-recipe chili, diced onions, beans, and a small mountain of shredded cheddar. Oyster crackers are optional, but encouraged.