12 California Restaurant Chains the Entire Country Needs
The best coast also has the best fast-casual chains.
The West Coast is commonly referred to as the best coast, and with good reason—in addition to the perennial sunny weather and laidback residents, it’s also home to some of the best restaurant chains in the country. Yet for most people outside the region, the conversation surrounding fast casual chains within the Golden State starts and stops with In-N-Out. It makes sense. In-N-Out's largely considered one of the greatest burger chains out there (by a lot of people, anyway), and most people have seen The Big Lebowski.
But the chains of California are so much more than Animal Style Double-Doubles. From specialty chili cheese burgers to loaded carne asada fries, here are our favorite California chains that should do everyone in this country a favor and start popping up everywhere.
Why you need them: King Taco has consistently been feeding Angelenos delicious Mexican fare since 1974. What began as a converted ice cream truck has flourished into 22 brick-and-mortar locations featuring burritos and tacos composed of juicy meats (the al pastor is essential and cooked on a traditional rotating spit) and freshly made salsa, including a salsa verde so smoky, tangy, and bright you’d be forgiven for drinking it as a post-meal shot. If those King Taco staples don’t pique your interest, their nachos, quesadillas, sopes, and tamales are solid options as well, with rotisserie chicken at select locations. The best part is King Taco is open late (one of their LA locations is 24 hours for a large portion of the week), making it the perfect late-night meal to sop up your liquor intake after a night out.
Why you need them; When Mendocino Farms took up shop in a failed Starbucks way back in 2005, the husband-and-wife owners simply sought to up LA's sandwich game with carefully sourced ingredients, attention to detail, and a commitment to offering up higher-end takes on classics at an affordable price. Nearly 15 years later they've evolved to… doing just that, only at way more locations. This is a place that has cultivated a veritable religion around their "Not So Fried" chicken sandwich topped with what's basically fancy Rice Krispies, where pork belly banh mi reigns supreme and oyster mushrooms come roasted and shwarma-spiced. A place where eaters of any walk—it's vegan and gluten-averse friendly too—can feel like they've indulged without tipping the scales or worrying about overdraft protection.
Why you need them: Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles is a Los Angeles institution. Herb Hudson, a Harlem native, founded the joint back in 1975; since then, its popularity has only grown, and it's largely credited as being instrumental in America's now-omnipresent chicken & waffles obsession. Is there a greater combination than crispy chicken wings, Louisiana hot sauce, and a fluffy, steaming waffle that turns to pure, magical bliss when it gets soaked in hot syrup? The chicken—fried up in a cast-iron skillet, as God intended—is the perfect combination of crispy skin on the outside, and juicy meat on the inside. If this signature combination isn’t your thing for some seriously odd reason, the widely celebrated soul food chain also serves up other Southern classics that include hot water cornbread, mac & cheese, greens, and red beans and rice. For those going through withdrawals due to lack of a nearby restaurant, Roscoe's has started selling those wings in grocery store freezers, though we're guessing that pairing them with Eggos wouldn't create the same culinary alchemy as the real thing.
Super Duper Burgers was an early adopter in the new-ish wave of burger joints that's fully committed to sustainability, from its locally sourced meats to its fully compostable packaging. But that doesn't mean you're here getting a baked tofu burger on whole wheat. These burgers are huge, juicy, and highly addictive, with the signature burger stacking two 4-ounce patties high and dripping in cheese and juices courtesy of medium-cooked patties (don't skimp on the housemade pickles, either). These are messy burgers that inevitably become part of your outfit for the day, and they're glorious. Pair them up with garlic fries and a side of housemade mayo and chase them with a spiked organic shake or some fresh donuts and you'll realize that that whole Super Duper thing isn't just a clever name.
Where they are: Greater Los Angeles
Why you need them: Zankou is a family-owned chain that is small but mighty, holding a special place in the hearts of hungry Angelenos and proudly holding the crown in a rotisserie chicken-obsessed city. They’ve got a whole slate of Middle Eastern faves —spitted tri-tip shawarma, chicken tarna, kebabs, pita wraps—which they've been slinging to LA since 1984, but first began serving the family chicken and garlic sauce recipe in Beirut, Lebanon back in 1962. All is good here, but if it’s your first time, you absolutely have to get the succulent, explosively flavored chicken, and definitely ask for extra garlic sauce, a creamy emulsification of garlic, lemon juice, and oil. You can get a whole chicken with two large sides—think tabbouleh salad, buttery basmati rice, hummus, and mutabbal—plus a whole package of pita and pickled fixins for less than $25. No wonder it's the meal of choice when Beck's seducing JCPenney employees.
Where they are: Southern California and Las Vegas
Why you need them: If you love chili, you’ll love Tommy’s. Their signature chili recipe—prepared daily—is served on burgers, hot dogs, french fries, wrapped in the folds of a stuffed breakfast burrito, and even atop tamales. The chain has been operating since 1946 and has completely nailed down the rich umami flavor of chili with the right texture to work in tandem with the rest of the menu. That means it’s not too wet, not too clumpy, but perfectly salty and rich. Grab some napkins, though, because you’ll need them.
Where they are: All over California and Las Vegas, with a single location in Gilbert, Arizona
Why you need them: Farmer Boys is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. That means 40 years of juicy burgers, all-day breakfast, and fried zucchini sticks. Despite having nearly 100 locations, Farmer Boys manages to serve comforting meals in a cozy, family-approved environment. And because the founders of the chain are literally farmer boys—who understand the importance of quality produce—the ingredients are fresh and sourced locally and the food is always made-to-order.
Where they are: Inland Empire
Why you need them: Baker’s has been serving the Inland Empire since 1952 and specializes in having a dual menu for both American and Mexican fare—operating what they call a “Twin Kitchen.” That means if you’re craving tacos and cheesy bean burritos but also want a burger or chicken sandwich, you don’t have to venture to two different spots to have both. Beyond the versatility of its menu, Baker has incredible value and family meals to choose from. No one will be disappointed if you pull up to the function with their Baker’s Dozen—the choice of 13 tacos, burritos, or a combination of both.
Where they are: Southern California
Why you need them: Two words: pastrami dip. And a couple more words—gravy fries, freshly grilled burgers, onion rings. Although The Hat specializes in generous portions of melt-in-your-mouth pastrami with a perfectly salty crust, its classic menu has something for everyone. The best part is unlimited pepperoncinis to put on your sandwiches, fries, and whatever else needs a spicy kick.
Where they are: Southern California
Why you need them: Alberto’s is scattered all across Southern California and stumbling across one means feeling the gravitational pull of carne asada fries. Scoops of beef, generous dollops of guacamole, a drizzle of sour cream, and cheese make for a perfect topping to a bed of hot, fresh french fries. And although that’s one of the more popular menu items at Alberto’s, their expansive menu hits all the right notes. For breakfast, there’s huevos rancheros and chilaquiles. For the lunch, dinner, and munchies crowd, there’s everything else: tacos, enchiladas, combination plates, burritos, tortas. Expect fast and efficient service and quality Mexican eats at an affordable price.
Where they are: Los Angeles
Why you need them: Whether you refer to them as Dino’s Famous Chicken, Dino’s Chicken and Burgers (their former name), or just Dino’s, this is the spot to get a styrofoam boxed lunch crammed with chicken, freshly cut fries, and a side of sharp garlic paste that ties the whole thing together. The famously red chicken, drowned in a seasoning blend dreamt up by founder Demetrios Pantazis that infuses both his Greek heritage and the Latin ingredients found around the original Pico-Union location, has been served since the ‘80s and remains an iconic Los Angeles plate lunch. Underneath the juicy grilled chicken that comes with flecks of char, the fries soak up the remaining tangy flavors of the marinade to perfection. There are other options on the menu—burritos, hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches—but the star of this family-runned chain remains the chicken and fries.
Where they are: All over California
Why you need them: In true Californian fashion, Lemonade is the spot to go after a hike or for a bit of healthy, California-inspired cooking. The chain has a rotating seasonal menu with comforting favorites—like a white truffle mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches—as well as Morrocan-style meatballs, poke bowls, and miso short rib. The best part is due to its cafeteria design, you can go down the row and select whatever you want—including lemon bars, macarons, and brownies for dessert. And no trip to Lemonade is complete without an order of actual refreshing lemonade, of which there are plenty of options to choose from: pink dragonfruit, lavender elderflower, and blood-orange are three of 12 options.