15 Pacific Northwest Fast Food Chains the Entire Country Needs
Banh mi drive-thrus, Indian nachos, and more.
Much of serving food fast comes from consistency and bulk sourcing, things that go against the very ethos of Pacific Northwest cuisine. It’s hard to imagine how places that pride themselves on using Oregon beef in their burgers and meeting the seafood standards of Seattleites could translate to South Carolina and South America the way Burger King does. But it wouldn’t be the Northwest way to keep the delightfully fresh fruit shakes and sodas to ourselves, and so we hope that someday everyone lives within craving-distance of fresh-baked banh mi drive-thrus, affordable Indian nachos with a side of social justice, and clam chowder sold by legendarily cute copywriting. Until they master how to spread out without spreading themselves thinner than a White Castle patty, though, here are the places we hope to someday see serving fast food across the entire country.
Where they are: Puget Sound metropolitan corridor
Why you need them: Ivar’s threads the difficult needle of seafood in a fast food setting: It takes itself only just seriously enough that you trust them with all of your chowder needs, but also recognizes that clams are just inherently funny. Since 1938, Washingtonians have depended on Ivar Haglund’s restaurants for silly seafood puns, creative marketing that embraced the quirky Northwest, and a steaming, delicious bowl of clam chowder at a moment’s notice. While the company’s two full-service establishments serve tourist-friendly fare with a view and price tag that wow, the 19 seafood bars (concession stands in local stadiums) keep the locals happy as clams.
What to get: You’re here for the chowder. Beyond that, the fish and chips with Alaska true cod or the clams show off the chain’s strengths.
Where they are: Greater Seattle area
Why you need them: Fast food restaurants love to brag about innovation—Jack-in-the-Box and Taco Bell basically built their brands on it—but in reality, few truly do anything creative with their burgers. Katsu Burger, however, upends the category with their incredible, enormous, fried-patty burgers. Marrying the Japanese breading technique of katsu with the classic American burger and a riot of toppings drawing from both cuisines, the burgers dwarf most fast-food versions in size and flavor.
What to get: The Godzilla attack puts their grass-fed beef in the katsu crust and adds spice at every turn—in the crust, with jalapeños, in the pepper jack cheese, and with the mayo. And you’ll always want to add an order of their seaweed-sprinkled nori fries.
Where they are: Seattle (and Japan!)
Why you need them: The beasts of the bagel chains like Einstein’s and Bruegger’s traffic in big, doughy specimens with a focus on the kinds of sandwiches that would make your Jewish uncle sigh and say “Oy vey!” Eltana’s wood-fired bagels show off a different type of bagel, smaller and more flavorful, lightly inspired by Montreal bagels. They work as well with the classic lox and cream cheese as with the café’s Middle Eastern-flavored spreads like ras el hanout butter and harissa hummus.
What to get: The sesame bagel works particularly well with the rest of Eltana’s offerings, whether you pick the za’atar scallion cream cheese or dip it in your shakshuka.
Where they are: Seattle area
Why you need them: Lil Woody’s always serves up a consistently great burger—flavorful meat, cooked to tender, toasted buns—so when we mention their Burger Month as a highlight of the culinary calendar, it’s not that they aren’t otherwise good. It’s just that Burger Month is incredible and unlike anything you get elsewhere. The annual event brings in chefs from around the city to design burgers that run on the menu for a week each—previous years included folks from fine-dining, Mexican, Filipino, and seafood restaurants. Spice Waala, from this same list, participated earlier this year with a fried chicken burger topped with garlic chili crunch and cilantro chutney.
What to get: If it’s not burger month, go with the New Mexican, which adds Hatch green chilies and their queso sauce to the grass-fed beef burger.
Where they are: Seattle area
Why you need them: More than a half-dozen Nasai Teriyakis pepper the city and suburbs, with the original still on The Ave in the U-District. The connection between the different shops—each has its own owner—is little more than the name, but all serve some of the best versions of the classic Seattle teriyaki meal in town, complete with well-charred chicken, sticky white rice, and that beguilingly sweet salad dressing.
What to get: The only good reason for straying from the classic chicken teriyaki meals if you want to go with the chicken and gyoza option, which adds a half-order of the dumplings.
Where they are: Throughout the Pacific Northwest
Why you need them: If the chicken is good enough for Oprah, it’s good enough for you. Okay, they’ve been riding the high from Oprah’s lavish praise for more than three decades, but her endorsement remains earned: the fresh chicken, fried crispy, served with real mashed potatoes and what can only be described as magically fluffy muffin-shaped rolls.
What to get: A two-piece chicken dinner combo gets you the chicken you want, a roll, those potatoes, and one more side of your choice. Throw on an extra order of those rolls, though, you’ll need at least one more to help mop up the gravy.
Where they are: Northern Oregon and southern Washington
Why you need them: The words local and seasonal rarely appear on fast food menus, yet this 60-year-old large regional chain manages to keep them front and center, embodying the Pacific Northwest culinary mindset, even as they sling burgers and fries to the masses. More than 70% of their product comes from within 400 miles of their Vancouver, Washington headquarters (a range that does go south to about Redding, California, east to Boise, Idaho, and north well past the Canadian border), but even better, they call out local farms, aim for sustainability, and serve food that tastes as good as their corporate talking points imply.
What to get: Along with a Northwest cheeseburger, grab the seasonal shake, particularly summer’s renowned Oregon marionberry version, and any seasonal side dishes like the Walla Walla onion rings and Yakima asparagus fries.
Where they are: Portland
Why you need them: Portland entrepreneur Micah Camden spins restaurants into gold, it seems, having found success with Little Big Burger, Blue Star Donuts, and Boxer Ramen. Now, he’s slinging burgers modeled after In-n-Out’s and betting on drive-through traffic in the hopes of rapid expansion. The dark crust and tender innards of the chicken sandwich, though, ends up the sleeper hit, along with the fizzy fruit waters, which are like house-made la croix meets agua fresca.
What to get: The burgers always take the spotlight, but the move here is that crispy chicken deluxe sandwich washed down with the famous fizzy fruit water.
Where they are: Seattle area
Why you need them: While certain national sandwich chains boast about speed, price, or healthfulness, these quiet Seattle shops don’t need to boast about anything—if you know about Tubs, then you know they rely on their reputation for crafting over-the-top sandwiches that toe the line of absurdity but never fall over it. Fresh bread, strong enough to stand up to meats piled high even when garlic mayo and barbecue sauce, along with others, get slathered on with abandon, stays gentle enough to keep the whole mess in balance.
What to get: The firecracker brings all the hits, anchoring the chicken and bacon with garlic mayo, and something called firecracker seasoning, along with jalapeños, Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and ranch dressing. If that seems like a lot for one baguette, don’t worry, it also comes with hot barbecue sauce, the way a French dip comes with jus.
Where they are: Western Washington and Wenatchee
Why you need them: The first thing to know about Taco Time NW is that if you’ve been to a Taco Time anywhere besides Western Washington, you have been to a different restaurant. A weird quirk of the corporate rights means that there are two entirely separate companies, and the one we’re here to talk about is Taco Time NW. It’s a company full of weird quirks, including that it used to call its tater tots “Mexi-Fries” until sometime last year, when they abruptly (and probably rightly) stopped, and that the original White Center location is a time capsule ode to mid-century fast food restaurant architecture that you need to see to understand. But Taco Time NW is also still owned by the fourth generation of the original family, they use lots of local ingredients, and is where you’ll find the greatest fast-food innovation on the planet, the crisp bean burrito, which is more like a flauta than any burrito, with a hint of chimichanga.
What to get: Mexi—excuse us, Tater-Fries and a crisp bean burrito.
Where they are: Seattle
Why you need them: An academic and a brand manager serving up Indian street food with a side of social justice mission might be just the kind of thing that would show up in a parody of Seattle, but it turns out that the lamb kebab kathi roll tastes even better when you know that the employs get fair compensation and the owners make sure to take care of the community as well.
What to get: Though the main focus are the kathi rolls—roti wrapped around meat, cheese, or veg—the snacks show off the best of the street food mission, particularly the papdi chaat, which they describe as Indian nachos, and the bhel puri.
Where they are: Portland area
Why you need them: Vietnamese sandwiches deserved to be a massive chain ages ago—the affordable, fresh, and versatile sandwiches loan themselves well to quick service and boast far more flavor and less grease than a burger. This Oregon mini-chain cranks them out in foot-long size on light, crisp, freshly baked bread and even has a drive-through location, showing what the dream could be: boba and banh mi going toe to toe with the Golden Arches for America’s dining dollars.
What to get: The Best Baguette special for the traditionalist, which comes spread with pate and stacked with ham, pork roll, and head cheese, a Vietnamese taco—banh mi fillings folded into a tortilla instead of bread—for the curious consumer.
Where they are: Portland area
Why you need them: Portland has long been a quiet hub of American pizza, with stiff competition for dining dollars, but this group has kept locals happy with the wide variety of pie options, particularly vegan and gluten-free ones. Part of that comes by putting the “fast” in fast food: Hot Lips shops are a destination for a quick slice and a soda. But another part comes from that range of vegetarian and vegan pizzas. Fast food has never been kind to vegans and a chain that offers a whole selection of meat-free options right alongside the cheesy meaty ones deserves a move to the mainstream, including big-flavored vegetable combinations. Plus, they have their own eponymous fruit-based soda brand.
What to get: The vegan supreme pie, which comes loaded with chickpea and couscous balls, roasted red peppers, squash, and a cilantro pesto base, and a few of their fruit-flavored sodas.
Where they are: Seattle and points north up to Mount Vernon
Why you need them: The novelty of eating in your car might have worn off a little during the pandemic, but Burgermaster still reminds you of what it was like to consider that the coolest thing. The family-owned drive-up—not drive-through—restaurants throwback to a previous era in other ways, too, including using fresh, local grass-fed beef in their smash patty-style burgers, malted shakes, and hot apple pie.
What to get: Stick with the classics here—a Burgermaster, fries, and chocolate milkshake.
Where they are: Portland
Why you need them: The rest of the food world might have left sliders in a previous decade, but there’s a lot that works well with a smaller burger: It leaves open the option for more sides, trying a wider variety of flavors, or having one as an appropriate-sized snack. But don’t start thinking like Harold and Kumar: These are beefy burgers, in flavor even when not in stature. The many options, named for Portland’s bridges, come loaded with assertive toppings like caramelized onions, goat cheese, and roasted roma tomatoes.
What to get: The Sellwood, which comes with bacon, Beecher’s aged Cheddar cheese, and caramelized onions, and the Loaded Broadway, which brings back another food from the slider era—truffle fries. But this time, under a load of braised pork and spicy peppers.