18 West Coast Restaurant Chains the Entire Country Needs
The West Coast is commonly referred to as the best coast, and with good reason. Beyond all its physical beauty, it's also home to some of the best regional restaurant chains in America. Yet for most folks outside the area, the conversation 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 the West Coast are so much more than Animal Style Double-Doubles. From specialty Japanese curry shops, to handcrafted donuts, artisanal ice cream, burgers, and Mexican food galore, here are our favorite West Coast chains that should do everyone in this country a favor and start popping up everywhere.
A note on selection: While we love big spots like El Pollo Loco, we decided to only include restaurants with less than 100 locations. And while we certainly love that one sandwich shop with two locations, we also decided to only include places with seven or more locations.
Why you need them: Blue Star was founded by a team that knows a thing or two about how to plant the seed for a beloved chain -- they're also behind Little Big Burger, the Boxer Ramen chainlet, and the fledgling SuperDeluxe drive-in -- but it was their ability to turn donut-obsessed Portland on its head that really changed the game. Blue Star's 11 locations in Portland and LA slings their brioche-style donuts from opening until they sell out, which is frequently before dawn. So what makes them such a commodity? Well, they're kind of meals unto themselves, and also aperitifs in the case of a creme brulee take on Boston cream that comes with a pipette of Cointreau syrup sticking out of the top. There's a blueberry/bourbon basil, a chocolate crunch covered in some weird and decadent hybridized Cocoa Puff, and a ring topped with horchata icing. Still, even the old-fashioned is a showstopper. Many people balk at the idea of a $3 donut. They stop balking after the first bite.
Where they are: Oregon and Washington
Why you need them: This Vancouver, Washington-founded chain -- which dominates southern Washington and Northern Oregon -- has been obsessed with local ingredients since well before Portland hipsters began listing farms and ingredients on menus at their small-plate New American restaurants. Sure, you can get your standard flat-top fast-food burgers here, but you can also get bigger versions festooned with beloved Tillamook cheese. Yet it's the seasonal stuff that really makes this place shine: Thick-cut sweet onion rings come but once a year from Walla-Walla. Fried asparagus is shipped from local farms. The standard fish sandwich is actually wild Alaskan halibut. And the shakes are made with fresh, in-season fruits: Seriously, where else can you get a fresh marionberry shake at a fast food joint? Trick question. The marionberry isn't just exclusive to Oregon, it was engineered in the state. You don't get much more locally focused than that.
Why you need them: A menchi katsu curry plate from Curry House -- composed of fried ground beef patties, rice, and rich curry -- is the ultimate carb-loaded dinner and our staff writer's personal death-row meal. But Curry House is a deep-dive into Japanese indulgence: There's panko-crusted fried cutlets of meat, fluffy rice, and flavorful and aromatic Japanese-style curry, which is a bit different from other curries you may be thinking of, like Indian and Thai. It’s runnier, quite savory, and doesn’t intend to overwhelm the palate with spiciness. It's a star, though don't skimp on the supporting players: The corn potage is creamy and delectable while the starter salad is tossed in a delicious, homemade sesame dressing. If curry isn’t your thing, they even have an entire section of their menu devoted to their Japanese-style spaghetti, which emphasizes quality ingredients, but tends to be lighter (and perhaps fishier) than its Italian counterparts. The dishes under that section include a spicy shrimp and spinach spaghetti as well as a squid pasta tossed in a cod roe sauce. That's ai-more!
Why you need them: Dick's is one of the smallest chains on this list with a scant seven locations, but in the hearts of Seattleites it's an absolute juggernaut, and has been since it opened up in the '50s, making it one of Seattle's first fast food joints. Dick's serves the kind of old-school, quick, and remarkably cheap burgers that McDonald's would eventually take over the world with. It's since evolved a bit -- there's a Deluxe that puts the Big Mac to shame, for one -- but not a hell of a lot. This is a place that's defined the fast-food experience for generations, one bag of Dick's at a time. And while that nostalgia for a basic, well-made burger can be satisfied at hometown burger stands countrywide, there's really no substitute for a chain that does it this well.
Where they are: Washington
Why you need them: You know Popeyes. You maybe love Krispy Krunchy, if you know where to find it. But unless you live in Seattle or the surrounding areas, you probably don't know Ezell's, which is a damn shame. Founded in the '80s, Ezell's has been supplying the Emerald City with the best damn fried chicken this side of the Mason-Dixon -- or, if true believers are to be believed, anywhere. Here, locally sourced chickens take a bath in a crispy, flavorful batter before swimming in the fryer, and the result is a bird fine enough to give the Colonel pause. The sides are destination-worthy unto themselves: gizzards explode with flavor, the okra is enough to bring even the most ardent southerner to her knees, and those rolls… holy shit, those fresh-baked rolls are enough to tempt Robert Atkins himself. But it starts and stops with that chicken. Just like the hearts of the Seattleites who have spent three decades succumbing to it.
Why you need them: Homegrown operates under the banner of "slow food, served fast," and while that is all sorts of juxtapositional, they work it wonderfully. Like so many sustainability-minded restaurants, Homegrown proudly flaunts a list of the local farms, creameries, and roasters that provides its goods. Unlike most of those places, this is a counter-service joint trafficking largely in sandwiches, and oh what sandwiches they are. Here, the humble steak sandwich is grass-fed and loaded with greens and blue cheese, pastrami is smoked in-house and covered in white Cheddar, and vegetarians get extra love in the form of a succulent broccoli melt and a smashed chickpea number piled with beets, avocado, and lemon harissa tahini. Salads get just as much love, with a matcha chicken avocado creation standing out thanks to the incorporation of warm ancient greens. Even the humble bacon, egg & cheese is highlighted by applewood bacon and roasted garlic aioli. It's fast-ish food you can feel really, really good about.
Where they are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington… plus international locations
Why you need them: Like In-N-Out, but with shorter lines and a little more wait time for the order, Fatburger has established itself as a paragon of the California-style burger, which is… well, just a burger, but a damn good one. And the name's no joke: these things are absolute beasts even before you start loading them with bacon, eggs, and onion rings. There are wings and hot dogs too, but let's be real: Fatburger didn't establish itself as a key ingredient toward giving Ice Cube a legendarily good day by serving The Predator himself a chili dog at 2am.
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: LP excels on the strength of its health-conscious hippie burritos, which are stuffed with locally grown smart beans and brown rice, plus other fillings like grilled chicken (go with the mole), tempeh, yams, pulled pork, and more. There are also bowls made that rotate monthly based on seasonal ingredients -- think baked tofu with Brussels sprouts, Korean BBQ sauce, and miso yams -- plus great margaritas and housemade agua fresca. Oh, and there are dinosaurs: The place has a reputation as a healthy place to feed kids, thanks in large part to the army of toy dinosaurs that are available to play with while you stuff your face like an environmentally conscious spinosaurus.
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 Brazilian-style steak comes covered in chimichurri on a pretzel. These are next-level sandwiches -- and salads… it's California -- where every ingredient seems to be chosen with the utmost care. 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: The Organic Coup became a chicken-sandwich sensation in the Bay Area almost immediately upon opening, and it was only a matter of time before it started making its way north, arriving now in Washington, where sustainability is quickly joining napkins as something restaurants are all but required to provide. There are no GMOs or hormones in the house at the first USDA-certified organic fast-food joint, and the environmentally conscious answer to Chick-Fil-a has the goods to back up its philosophy. Air-chilled, buttermilk-soaked chicken sandwiches and tenders of the highest order show that you can have your fried chicken and have your ethical satisfaction, too. Get the Coup Signature Sandwich, a tower of fried chicken and spicy 'slaw, which all but demands to be paired with the joint’s garlic tots.
Why you need them: It's not really that tough to find a good bowl of pho in Seattle, but Pho Than Brothers has ensured that 12 Emerald City neighborhoods never need to wonder where they'll get their fix for rich, delicate beef noodle soup. And in a city where it's cold and rainy as often as Seattle is, that's a gift. You won't find hipsterfied takes on the classics here so much as comfort done right, with that anise-kissed broth serving as a perfect vessel for brisket, flank, tripe, and soft tendon soups, with the requisite springy meatballs providing a carnivorous textural balance. There's a shredded chicken variant for sick days, too, plus a killer vegetable take that manages all the flavor with none of the beef.
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.
Why you need them: Not that long ago, Salt & Straw was a humble push-cart startup offering up chef-driven ice cream -- a description that defied all logic until people actually got a taste and realized, "Holy shit, chef-driven ice cream is outstanding." They blazed a trail out of the cart and into a series of perpetually queued-up stands, where people flocked for a taste of excitingly unexpected flavors like pear & blue cheese, strawberry honey balsamic with pepper, and even limited-time experimental meat-based ice-creams like blood pudding… then likely chickened out and settled for the also-great almond brittle or double-fold vanilla. The empire's since grown: You can now get Salt & Straw in Seattle and all over Southern California, including at Disney. But that hasn't stopped the founders from keeping it playful: Their latest concept, the artisan soft-serve bar Wiz Bang, is constantly packed with the same people who were drawn to the oddity of chef-driven ice cream before realizing it could be the norm.
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.
Why you need them: Salad chains represent a unique niche in the fast-casual world, but when you've got the dude behind Shake Shack on your squad, you can bet that people are going to drop their burgers and take notice. Founded in Culver City and since exploding around Southern California -- with satellites in Massachusetts and New York, making this expansion something of a reverse Shake Shack -- Tender Greens is all about sourcing, from the farm-fresh greens that serve as the base of the build-your-own salad to the salami from SoCal legend P. Balistreri. The tuna nicoise has grilled rare albacore and a freakin' quail egg on top. Lest that sound too fancy, there are more straightforward -- but equally delicious -- offerings like a fried chicken-loaded number with spinach and butter lettuce. When you can make a salad that doesn't look or taste like a salad, you're doing something right. And for the salad averse, there are sandwiches too. Everybody wins.
Wahoo's is one of those heartwarming, American-dream-in-action stories: It was started by three Chinese brothers who grew up in Brazil, moved to California, and opened up a Mexican-Asian fusion joint. The brothers still run the place, and while it may have a rep for being a fish taco-focused establishment, the menu has much more to offer. Sure, there's still wild salmon, wahoo (it's the name of a fish too!), and shrimp tacos, but even more eye-opening are the menu items you'll certainly not find at any other restaurant in this rundown: a Maui Steak Bowl with teriyaki steak, chicken, and rice and beans; cream cheese Baja Rolls; tortas with citrus slaw; and Cajun chicken burritos, which will warm your heart just as thoroughly as the story of the guys who created it.
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.