Regional chains aren't simply side-of-the-road stops: they're a way of life (and sometimes a shortcut to death). Just ask a Texan who woke up in Maine about their Whataburger withdrawals. In the South, chains are about fried chicken, biscuits, tacos, burgers, and addiction. And until these ones expand, they're the reason Southern expats are burning millions of gallons of gas on drive-thru pilgrimages.
16 Southern Chains the Rest of the Country Needs
Where they are: Charlotte-based Bojangles' covers the Southeast (with the exception of Popeyes' stronghold Louisiana) and up into Pennsylvania and DC.
Why you need them: The chain's chicken arrives fresh at every location, and then takes a long marinade bath for 12hrs. Plus, the breading has a heavy dose of lip-tingling cayenne pepper. 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.
What to get: 12 piece & 6 biscuit box -- those buttermilk biscuits do a damn good job complementing the chicken's grease and spice.
Where they are: Texas and Oklahoma
Why you need them: Fresh veggies and a juicy patty let you know this burger is made-to-order, but the lop-sided burger shape and take-a-number serving style are a friendly mom-and-pop reminder. Burger Street also serves too-often ignored curly fries with its combos, and if the Three Stooges proved anything, it's that everything's better with Curly.
What to get: Combo #3: Bacon cheeseburger loaded with fixins and a side of curlies.
Where they are: North Carolina and Virginia
Why you need them: It's not just a clever name. They specialize in buttermilk biscuits made from scratch, which house fried chicken, eggs, bacon, ham, and other deliciousness.
What to get: A fried chicken, egg, and cheese biscuit is good any time of day.
Where they are: Its stronghold is in the South, but Chick-fil-A has spread to so many states that it's this close to not being a Southern chain anymore.
Why you need them: The slightly crisp, amazingly juicy fast-food chicken is pressure cooked (not deep-fried), and whopping chicken breasts are a reminder of why this is the chicken fast-food ideal. Each piece has wonky shapes poking out from a buttery bun as a reminder of what natural chicken looks like. The giant waffle fries were made to scoop up every drop of tangy-sweet Polynesian Sauce -- the best of the seven house staples.
What to get: A chicken sandwich with fries and house-made lemonade or, for breakfast, the Spicy Chicken Biscuit.
Where they are: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia
Why you need them: Cook-Out feels a bit like walking into a really awesome mall food court. Chopped pork BBQ? Sure. Chicken nuggets? Yep. Char-grilled hamburgers? Of course. Salad? Go somewhere else. Corndog? Obviously.
What to get: "The Tray", the chain's mix-and-match style combo meal let's you get a Big Double Burger, onion rings, a corndog, and a Cheerwine float for less than $5.
Where they are: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee
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.
What to get: A Big Jack, the signature with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle and not Nicholson in About Schmidt.
Where they are: Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia
Why you need them: It'd be easy to dive into the square-burger debate (Krystal fans claim superiority over White Castle, touting a better steam, fresh onions, and a dollop of mustard atop the the square patty and pickle), but the Southern chain also fields a strong line-up of Chik's (breaded chicken breasts, filets, and wings), plus a huge selection of breakfast items. No chicken rings, though...
What to get: A bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit with an order of Krystals to reheat for lunch -- because they're advertised as perfect for reheating and you're obviously not concerned with your health.
Where they are: Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, AL
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's a secret, but it's cousins with Russian dressing, BBQ sauce, and steak sauce), and a toasted bun. Every burger has the lunchtime equivalent of a cherry-on-top: a tiny extra square 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.
What to get: The #4: A double cheeseburger combo with sweet tea and fries.
Where they are: Founded in Baton Rouge, the concentration of locations are in Louisiana with a smattering throughout the Southeast and a few in the Southern parts of Ohio, Missouri, and Indiana.
Why you need them: Massive, moist chicken fingers and a huge inch-thick piece of Texas toast ensure you will never finish a meal here. But RC's secret sauce -- this one is heavy on the Worcestershire and mayo -- is so good, you might murder your brother for more.
What to get: Play it safe and go with the least-huge meal -- the 3-Finger Combo still has enough chicken, toast, and fries to go around.
Where they are: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma
Why you need them: We hesitate to give Texas too much credit, but it's impossible to deny that Tex-Mex food -- with all its cheese-soaked, chili-lovin' awesomeness -- is amazing. Everything really is bigger. And because of stuff like this, everyone is too.
What to get: The Bueno Chilada Platter will get you that queso and chili sauce over two ground beef Chiladas (a soft taco-burrito hybrid), plus rice, beans, and fresh guac.
Where they are: The Austin-based chain crushes it in the deli-sparse Southeast, but many states outside the region are home to one or two locations.
Why you need them: If you're in somewhere like New York "we have a deli on every corner and are better than you!" City, then maybe you don't need them. But for everybody else, the mile-high sandwiches are a thing of wonder. Plus, you can eat these suckers without trying to decipher a Brooklyn accent.
What to get: Start basic with The Original: a pile of salami, ham, cheddar, mozzarella, Parm, and the usual sandwich suspects.
Where they are: Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, AL
Why you need them: The Alabama chain combines the dive-atmosphere of Southern Mexican restaurants with a mom-and-pop aura for messy, cheap, and deliciously unhealthy grub. Spicy queso-drowned enchiladas are served in individual styrofoam containers to contain the mess, the Sancho combines the best of a burrito and a soft-shell taco, and the Taco Burger is, well, glorious.
What to get: Combo #5 with
Lou Bega a Sancho, enchilada, rice, frijoles, and chips.
Where they are: Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma
Why you need them: Not satisfied with Tex-ing Mexican food, Texas has also co-opted Philadelphia's addition to the American food landscape -- the Philly Cheesesteak -- and brought it outside Pennsylvania. The founder was a Philly man in a former life, so hopefully The City of Brotherly Love has forgiven the Lone Star version of its creation.
What to get: Chips & queso, because Texas. And then the Founder's Favorite, an onion, mustard, jalapeño, and mushroom-topped angus beef monster.
Where they are: Throughout the Southeast, with locations running into the Midwest up into the lower half of the East Coast.
Why you need them: The (un)official diner of the South -- whose scroll-wrapped china is nearly as identifiable as its yellow-block signage -- has slowly spread its syrupy web further across the country, thanks in no small part to their made-to-order hashbrowns and golden waffles.
What to get: A single waffle and a large hashbrowns, scattered, covered, diced, and peppered (for you WaHo neophytes, that's a double order with cheese, tomatoes, and jalapeños).
Where they are: Arizona, all the Gulf Coast states, and Texas' neighbors New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas
Why you need them: We're committing a cardinal sin by saying this, but the jalapeño cheeseburgers and Monterey Melts make this the real rival (or superior) of In-N-Out.
What to get: The Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit in all its syrup-oozing glory.
Where they are: States with stake in SEC football, plus Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana get this Athens, GA-based chain.
Why you need them: As Southerners have clearly decided, you can never have enough versions of fried chicken, because the more there are, the more often you can justify eating it. Chicken tenders are the menu staple, but wings are also on order. If you're willing to skip the Zax sauce -- its cult-like fanbase will shun you -- the crew can toss your tenders in any of the housemade wing sauces.
What to get: Chicken Finger Plate with three "fingerz," Texas toast, coleslaw, and a tub of Zax sauce.
Liz Childers is a food/drink editorial assistant at Thrillist. Her best friendships were formed at a Waffle House table in Monteagle, TN, and she misses WaHo's hashbrowns enough to make her cry. Send Milo's sweet tea to New York or warm thoughts of Southern food to @lizchilders1.