The Best Chain Restaurants in California to Whet Your Appetite

These fast-casual restaurants are the new frontier of California fast food chains, from burger joints to taquerias, fried chicken to Sichuan noodles.

Mendocino Farms | Flickr/John Dyke
Mendocino Farms | Flickr/John Dyke

Kids love chain restaurants and for good reason. If you strip away your adult cynicism, your wellness anxiety, and your ethical concerns, you are left with one remarkable fact: The best chain restaurants are designed to deliver pure pleasure. All of those corporate resources, the research power, the investment, the massive access to capital, the weird ingredients, and the corner-cutting are dedicated to giving you the most delicious food and the most pleasant experience at the most affordable price. At their core, chain restaurants are gratification factories. And California has some of the best chain restaurants in the country.

California is, after all, the state that gave the nation the first-ever drive-thru burgers, the state that lays claim to the invention of the cheeseburger, and the state that gave the country its first fast food crunchy tacos. There are the iconic California burger chains that we all know and the fast food tacos that have conquered the world, but that’s far from the end of it. There are also a ton of other chain restaurants in California that deserve greater acclaim and a broader reach. The rest of the world should be so lucky as to have access to these—the best chain restaurants in California that the entire country needs:

Where they are: Southern California
Why you need them: In 2011, the late legend Jonathan Gold described the Guisados fiery charred Chiles Torreados Taco as “a taco that could go 15 rounds with Oscar De La Hoya. It is a taco that could play badass trumpet in a mariachi band and sing sweet love songs to your girlfriend.” In the 12 years since that review, Guisados has seen stunning success and expansion, and the De La Torre family now owns some eight locations spread across LA and into Orange County. Those Chiles Torreados are a marvel, of course, but the mini-empire’s growth has been built on the back of its eponymous guisados, stewed proteins like Chicharron simmered in chile verde, Bistek en Salsa Roja, and an interpretation of the Yucatan-style Cochinita Pibil. They’re loaded onto thick, fresh corn tortillas—the real star of the show—and served in either standard size or in miniature to make a sampler platter. On a national scale, Guisados would be an excellent way for folks to find Mexican cuisine beyond the burrito.

Where they are: Los Angeles
Why you need them: A good cafe is an incredibly valuable resource, and the growing LA chain Go Get Em Tiger is a collection of particularly good cafes. Like the best in the category, GGET’s outposts are versatile and practical, both comforting and exciting, places to host a fun brunch or a job interview, an overdue catch-up session, or an early date. The chain grew out of a commitment to coffee first, and Go Get Em Tigers now roasts all its own beans, which are unsurprisingly excellent. But don’t overlook the food, either. The exacting attention to detail that makes the espresso program outstanding carries over to the menu. Dishes are simple but precise, and almost everything is made in-house, including the jams, hot sauce, and English muffins. Menus vary by location, but there’s usually a killer breakfast burrito, great pastries, and a perfect California burger. Like any incredibly valuable resource, the worst part about good cafes across the country is their scarcity. More Go Get Em Tigers could really aid that crisis.

Where they are: The greater LA area, with one location each in Honolulu, Las Vegas, and Houston
Why you need them: No shade at Panda Express, but it is deeply unjust that it’s the only option for familiar, reliable Chinese fast food in many places across the country. If you replaced even one-tenth of Panda Express locations with Mian, Chef Tony Xu’s Sichuan-style noodle restaurant, the world would be better and happier. To be clear, Mian is a rapidly expanding chain, and it is both quick and affordable, but it is not old-school Chinese-American, and it’s not fast food. There is serious Sichuanese cooking going into each dish. From the delicate-skinned dumplings to the bouncy, chewy bowls of noodles that make up the heart of the menu, great skill and care go into each item. Despite Xu and company’s broad ambitions, they have not shied away from the signature Sichuanese shiver of mala that courses through the menu and all the sharp and funky pickled things you could want. It would be a hell of a fun thing to find next to sandwich shops and burger joints in a small-town shopping mall.

Flickr/John Dyke

Where they are: California and Texas
Why you need them: When Mendocino Farms took up shop in a failed Starbucks 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 do just that, only at way more locations. This is a place that has cultivated a veritable religion around its "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.

Where they are: The Bay Area
Why you need them: Super Duper Burgers was an early adopter in the new-ish wave of burger joints fully committed to sustainability, from locally sourced meats to 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. The signature burger stacks two 4-ounce patties high and dripping in cheese and juices courtesy of medium-cooked patties, and it doesn'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 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 have a slate of Middle Eastern faves, including spitted tri-tip shawarma, chicken tarna, kebabs, and pita wraps. They’ve been slinging these delicacies in LA since 1984 but first began serving the family chicken and garlic sauce recipe in Beirut, Lebanon 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 also get a whole chicken with two large sides, such as tabbouleh salad, buttery basmati rice, hummus, and mutabbal, plus a package of pita and pickled fixings for less than $25.

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 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 a Baker’s Dozen, the choice of 13 tacos, burritos, or a combination of both.

Flickr/Dale Cruse

Where they are: Greater Los Angeles
Why you need them: Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles is a Los Angeles institution. Herb Hudson, a Harlem native, founded the joint 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 ’n cheese, greens, and red beans and rice.

Where they are: Los Angeles
Why you need them: Whether you refer to them as Dino’s Famous Chicken, Dino’s Chicken and Burgers (the chain’s 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, such as burritos, hot dogs, burgers, and sandwiches, but the star of this family-run chain remains the chicken and fries.

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 Alberto’s more popular menu items, the expansive menu hits all the right notes. For breakfast, there are huevos rancheros and chilaquiles. For the lunch, dinner, and the munchies crowd, there’s everything else, including tacos, enchiladas, combination plates, burritos, and tortas. Expect fast and efficient service and quality Mexican eats at an affordable price.

Where they are: Southern California and Las Vegas
Why you need them: If you love chili, you’ll love Tommy’s. The chain’s signature chili recipe, which is prepared daily, is served on burgers, hot dogs, and french fries, wrapped in the folds of a stuffed breakfast burrito, and poured 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 or clumpy but perfectly salty and rich. Grab some napkins, though, because you’ll need them.

pastrami sandwich

Where they are: Southern California
Why you need them: Two words: pastrami dip. And a couple more words: gravy fries, freshly grilled burgers, and 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 pepperoncini to put on your sandwiches, fries, and whatever else needs a spicy kick.

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Ben Mesirow is a Staff Writer at Thrillist.