14 Southern Fast Food Chains the Entire Country Needs
Biscuits are involved.
If something’s good, dipping said good thing in batter, dropping it into the deep fryer, and serving it with some kind of condiment or dipping sauce will make it exponentially better. That’s the unofficial mantra of Southern cooks, including those at fast-food restaurants throughout this part of the United States. But fried goodness aside, regional fast food joints have cultural importance as one of the ways our Southern cities distinguish themselves from the rest of the country. So next time you’re in a Southern state, keep an eye out for one of these spots serving everything from top-notch tacos and killer cheeseburgers to just about anything you can dream of stacking on a biscuit.
Why you need them: Take the same kind of fanatical behavior associated with aficionados of California-based In-N-Out Burger, intensify that by a factor of 100 (everything’s bigger in Texas, you know), and you’ll have adequate comprehension of the love for this Lone Star State-based institution felt by locals in any of the states it now serves. Sure, they’re famous for the gigantic burgers that inspired the restaurant’s name, but fans have an equal if not bigger devotion to their late-night-through-breakfast-hours taquitos made with fluffy scrambled eggs and sausage, bacon, or hashbrowns rolled into a tortilla and served with red or green salsa. Make sure to get a Dr Pepper shake, too, because it doesn’t get much more Southern-comforting than that.
Where they are: Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Nevada
Why you need them: There’s no denying the deliciousness of fried chicken, but chowing down on a drumstick while driving can be a messy endeavor that we don’t recommend for even the most skilled mobile diner. But ever since some culinary genius decided to take the bone out of the equation, Americans have been obsessed with the fried chicken strip. And this chain’s Golden Tenders are among the all-time greats, thanks to marinated chicken that’s hand-dipped and fried until delectably crunchy—ready to be dipped in peppery cream gravy or nestled inside a hot, freshly baked yeast roll for an impromptu sandwich. Ask for your tenders spicy and they’ll come dusted in a bright red spice mixture that really livens things up. And don’t worry, if you’re not going 55 mph down the road, their bone-in fried and roasted chicken have a near-equal appeal.
Where they are: Texas
Why you need them: Fast food tacos too often taste like, well, fast food tacos. But Taco Cabana figured out a way to successfully capture the authentic flavors of full-service-restaurant Tex-Mex fare and serve it up in a drive-thru. Or on the patio. Or indoors at a table if you absolutely must. Beef and chicken fajitas with a stack of freshly made flour tortillas, crispy tacos made with fried-on-site corn tortillas filled with seasoned ground beef (not some mystery meat spread), chicken flautas dipped into ooey-gooey queso, scratch-made salsas, and even enchiladas can all be procured along with strong, cheap, frozen margaritas in a wide variety of flavors.
Why you need them: That Bojangles -- the biggest chain on this list -- started in Charlotte should already instill confidence in their chicken, but this is a joint that does its diligence. The chain's chicken arrives fresh at every location, and then takes a long marinade bath for 12 hours. Plus, the breading has a heavy dose of lip-tingling cayenne pepper. Go all in and grab a 12-piece & six biscuit box -- those buttermilk biscuits do a damn good job complementing the chicken's grease and spice. Bo's is also famous for its seductively sweet tea and all-day breakfast service -- so you can snag a Cajun Filet Biscuit to ease hangover pains whenever you decide to wake up.
Why you need them: Fresh veggies and a juicy patty let you know this burger is made-to-order, but the lopsided burger shape and take-a-number serving style are a friendly mom-and-pop reminder. This place offers up a briny olive burger, something few chains roll with (shout out to Halo Burger in Flint, Michigan!), in addition to an oh-so-Texas version topped with chili and Fritos, plus killer curly fries and a line of frozen lemonades to give Del’s a run for its money. It’s an iconic restaurant founded by a dude who made iconic Southern staples his business: The same guy launched Taco Bueno and the South Park-famous Casa Bonita.
Where they are: North Carolina and Virginia
Why you need them: It's not just a clever name. These little hand-held pockets of joy are made from scratch and served up fresh from the oven every 15 minutes (you can even watch the entire process through the “biscuit window.” Depending on your proclivities, your biscuit arrives doused in Dixieland specialties including crispy fried pork chops or steak, country ham, or a blanket of sausage gravy, or flaky fried catfish. If you can take the heat, we recommend testing out the spicy cayenne-dipped spicy chicken and honey. And, as if that's not enough, get even comfier with countrified sides like cheesy grits or carb load a bit more with stacks of fluffy pancakes, available by themselves or with eggs and meat for a full, very hearty breakfast.
Where they are: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia
Why you need them: Cook Out feels a bit like walking into an incredible mall food court. Chopped pork BBQ? Sure. Chicken nuggets? Yep. Char-grilled hamburgers? Of course. Salad? Go somewhere else. Corn dog? Obviously. And look, it may seem like a tall order to fit a milkshake in after all that, but just make it work, OK? Go with “The Tray,” the chain's mix-and-match-style combo meal lets you get a Big Double Burger and two sides (where else but the South would corn dogs, chicken nuggets, and bacon wraps be considered side dishes along with the usual onion rings and fries?). Make sure your combo includes a Cheerwine float, a sweet and creamy combo of cherry soda, and vanilla soft serve.
Where they are: Louisiana
Why you need them: Dat Dog’s probably the smallest chain on this list, and that’s a damn shame because in a country that claims to love hot dogs but has a serious lack of hot dog-focused franchises, Dat Dog should be everywhere. New Orleans is a city that knows how to eat well, so if they're obsessed with Dat Dog's encased meat creations, from more familiar porcine options to less expected local flavors like alligator and crawfish, it's a safe bet that you will be, too. We all need a duck sausage covered in crawfish étouffée. We just don’t know it. They even offer an impressive four types of vegan sausages, should the thought of eating a cuddly gator lacks appeal.
Why you need them: Founded in 2012 by an aspiring lawyer who traded tort reform for torta reform (sorry, we had to), East Hampton was a longtime fixture on our list of best sandwich shops in America. So what happened? Well, it became one of the best sandwich chainlets in the country through fast expansion, and our list is reserved for smaller shops. But we annually reconsider our thinking, because these things are insane. Southern fried chicken is a star here, showing up Buffalo-style or loaded with avocado mash, pepper jack, greens, and cured bacon with a jalapeño cream sauce. But there are decidedly un-southern flourishes here, too, like rich lobster rolls covered in Old Bay mayo, hand-carved French ham and cheese sandwiches, and a fantastic prosciutto di parma. It’s a collision of southern hospitality and east coast flavor, and the world needs more of that, especially given the joy of hearing somebody order “chowdah” in a southern drawl.
Why you need them: A burger chain that doesn't pull any punches -- this is a classic cheeseburger, and the recipe probably hasn't changed since it was served up at the original, walk-up counter in Birmingham back in 1960. In other words, it's a welcome reminder of why a simple burger is always awesome. Get the Big Jack, the signature with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures, as is the crispy fried chicken, served with mashed potatoes, green beans, and a killer biscuit, as southern law dictates.
Where they are: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia
Why you need them: Yes, they look almost exactly like White Castle, and are prepared similarly. But 1) there are hardly any White Castles in the South, unless you count the freezer at 7-Eleven as a restaurant (it’s debatable) and 2) Southerners claim Krystal’s way better, touting a better steam, fresh onions, and a dollop of mustard atop the square patty and pickle. But the Southern chain also fields a strong line-up of Chiks (breaded chicken breasts, filets, and wings), plus itty bitty hot dogs (called pups) and a huge selection of breakfast items. No chicken rings, though…
Where they are: Alabama
Why you need them: Milo's sweet tea is famous throughout the Southeast and up into parts of the Midwest, where grocery stores peddle jugs of the liquid sugar, but the lucky folks in central Alabama get to enjoy that tea in blissful harmony with a crisp square burger, melted cheese, tangy Milo's sauce (the recipe is a secret, but it's cousins with Russian dressing, BBQ sauce, and steak sauce), and a bun toasted on both sides. Every burger has the lunchtime equivalent of a cherry-on-top: a tiny extra piece of a patty in the middle of a bigger burger. And, because Milo's likes secrets, the crinkle-cut fries are covered in an orange-tinted spice mixture.
Where they are: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma
Why you need them: It's impossible to deny that Tex-Mex food—with all its cheese-soaked, chili-lovin' awesomeness—is amazing. Taco Bueno has your requisite tacos, burritos, nachos, and quesadillas, but the real move is to go with the Wholotta Platter, which gets you golden queso or meaty chili sauce poured over a chicken or beef Chilada (a soft taco-enchilada hybrid), a beef Muchacho (a fried flat-bread taco), a crispy beef taco, an extra cup of queso and chips for dipping, plus rice, beans, sour cream, and fresh guac. It’s almost a full day’s calories on one platter, but a great way to sample a little bit of everything Taco Bueno has to offer.
Why you need them: Has this list reached peak biscuits? No. There’s no such thing as too many biscuits. Especially in the south, where this West Virginia chain has made a name for itself on the strength of its fluffy biscuits, even taking a foothold in that weird part of Ohio where people speak with accents and pretend the Buckeye state is part of the south. Anyway, the biscuits here are the stars of 19 fantastic breakfast sandwiches, including a stellar Shaved Ham Melt; the Miner with bacon, potato, and cheese; and the hilariously named Politician, which is full of bologna. But lest you think this is all hand held, they also do big-ass dinner platters with all the fixins, including chopped steak, country-fried steak, pork chops, and fried chicken. All come with biscuits. That should be implied.