We Ordered Delivery From 9 Fast Food Chains. Here’s How They Rank.
We revisit some of America’s most iconic fast food items in the age of social distancing.
When I started writing ‘How You Holding Up?’ in April, the idea was to review delivery orders from as many fast food restaurants as possible, ultimately ranking them. The criteria were simple: initiate each order through the specific restaurant’s website (not a third-party delivery platform), select items in their default form (no customization), and tip extra (as I hope anyone with the extra cash for on-demand French fries would do). That first part was annoying. Repeated logins, disappearing carts, and generally buggy sites often made a process that any reasonable person would allocate just a few minutes to take several times longer. But the only hard part was the ranking -- harder, even, than choosing last year's best new restaurants in NYC.
Calculated a few different ways, many of these nine different fast food chains could have ended up as No. 1. Familiarity -- how much a menu item tasted like the ideal version of itself -- was of paramount importance throughout, but it couldn’t be the only metric. Neither could taste alone: some spots with labyrinthine order forms had the best food, and some of the easiest systems were... less best. And it didn’t seem fair to judge these restaurants solely on, say, my own nostalgia, even though it was fun to reminisce about my attachments, great and small, to each of these locations or their distinctive flavors. So I dialed down the sentiment and tapped an old foe for help: math.
Borrowing from a truly cursed television show I used to run in the background while I was getting ready for brunch on Saturday mornings, I implemented a points system. Each restaurant is ranked on a scale from one to 10 in four categories: ease of order, presentation, taste, and overall experience. Here’s how every fast food chain within my delivery zone (yes, I was unable to order some, like Arby's and White Castle) held up from their freezers, prep tables, grills, fryers, and soda fountains, to my front door.
Items: Chicken sandwich, nuggets, and waffle fries.
Ease of order: 10
Ordering online took 10 minutes; delivery took 20 more.
This is not to imply that my sandwich, nuggets, or fries were aesthetically less appetizing than their advertised or even in-store form. Chick-fil-A’s beige on beige color scheme just isn't much to look at in any iteration.
The chikin zone is conservative with the spices. A different, perhaps more virginal palate than mine might have had a more keen taste for this gentle flavor profile. The most pronounced note I caught from any one item was the sandwich’s unexpected floral aroma.
Overall experience: 4
The ease of order and delivery quickness are doing a lot of heavy lifting here. Flavor-wise, if I never had Chick-fil-A ever again, I probably wouldn’t notice.
Total: 22 points
Items: Cold cut combo, meatball sub, chocolate chip cookies, Diet Coke.
Ease of order: 9
At 18 minutes, this was my third-best ordering time, and the delivery arrived ahead of schedule.
Like with Chick-fil-A, this is not a knock, it’s just what Subway looks like. The subs appeared more-or-less the way they would at the restaurant, which is to say pale, squishy, and not very much like their bursting-with-veggies ads. Subway is not, as we say, a sex food.
The cold cut combo and chocolate chip cookies tasted true to Subway form. The meatball sub was not bad, but it tasted more like travel food -- something you’d get on a plane, train, or at a gas station -- than specific to Subway.
Overall experience: 5
The ordering process was close to seamless. Ironically, most of those 18 minutes were spent choosing my toppings in a manner that would mirror no customization. Subway also had the widest array of beverage options and my Diet Coke came in a handy plastic bottle like you’d get at the bodega when you’re too hungover to stomach coffee. And, although this was not relevant to my purposes, you’ve got as many options to create a bespoke sub online as you would at the sneeze guard.
Total: 23 points
7. Burger King
Items: Whopper, Impossible Whopper, fries, Diet Coke.
Ease of order: 6
Even after an elaborate, multi-layered account set-up, and a truly obnoxious disappearing cart, it took a relatively brisk 21 minutes to place my Burger King order. The food arrived in a respectable 40 minutes.
Everything was wrapped and packed tight, but returned more-or-less to its true form once plated. The fries were too pale for my preference and the sandwiches were a bit floppy, but not without charm.
The Whopper’s flame-grilled flavor was one of the more familiar tastes I experienced for this series. Its nose-walloping scent couldn't be mistaken for anything other than a Whopper. I can’t say the same about the Impossible Whopper, as the plant-based product is newer to Burger King and available elsewhere. Likewise the fries, which were crisped to the color of a rental apartment paint job and could have been from anywhere. The Diet Coke, however, was peak fountain soda form.
Overall experience: 6
This fine delivery option would bring peace to any unsettling mascot Kingdom.
Total: 24 points
Items: Spicy chicken sandwich, Baconator, fries, Frosty, Diet Coke.
Ease of order: 4
Even before the temporary beef shortage, Wendy’s availability in my area was inconsistent. I was only able achieve delivery after a couple of weeks of concerted monitoring and one order that self-canceled 17 minutes after completion. The delivery itself took longer than average, but I was kept abreast of the changing ETA in real time.
Wendy’s traveled particularly well, as evidenced by the still-icy fountain soda and just-melty-enough Frosty that arrived at my door. The snugly-wrapped sandwiches still hugged their filling when unfurled, and the fries remained mostly in their wide-mouthed container.
The spicy chicken sandwich’s subtly kicky, familiar flavor and crunch were most concentrated around its brim. It lost a bit of its texture toward the center. The Baconator’s abnormally shaped and simply seasoned beef patties looked and tasted refreshingly close to homemade. Its eponymous bacon was actually crispy -- a merited actually if you’ve ever had fast food bacon. The flacid fries were underwhelming, but that Frosty was such a delight, and it accounts for a lot of these seven points. It was a joy to sip (rather than eat with a spoon like some kinda millionaire) after I let its slightly melted perimeter further liquify on my kitchen counter, and I wish I had one right now.
Overall experience: 7
Wendy’s delivery had its redeeming qualities, the Frosty being a standout. But ultimately, the spicy chicken sandwich’s enjoyable edges couldn’t make up for its disconcertingly mushy center, the homey Baconator didn’t pair so great with the curiously under-salted fries, and I’m not sure I’d tell a friend it was worth a couple of weeks’ wait for the chance to order.
Total: 25 points
Items: Big Mac, McNuggets, fries, Diet Coke.
Ease of order: 5
Ordering from McDonald’s was a 42-minute ordeal complicated by a choice of delivery platforms rather than an automatic redirect based on location. The subsequent 19 minute delivery time saved the world famous creepy clown from a worse score in this category.
I have not kept my opinion about the Big Mac’s dumb middle bread a secret (it’s dumb!), but the towering, special-sauced sandwich was intact on arrival. Its melty cheese, pickles and lettuce dotted the circumference without spilling over. The McNuggets dutifully had the appearance of any McNugget you’d see anywhere, and, although it’s established that I prefer a more colorful French fry, McDonald’s signature hue met my expectations.
This entire order was among the most true-to-flavor of the bunch. Although it was naturally a little closer to room temperature than what you’d get in-store, McDonald’s delivery is as close to being there as you can get until we enter phase whatever.
Overall experience: 7
For better or worse, McDonald’s is etched in my memory as the nation’s most iconic fast food restaurant. I can remember slogans and ad campaigns going back more years than I’d like to count. It was kind of nice to invite that old corporate friend into my home. And the McNuggets are welcome back any time.
Total: 26 points
4. Taco Bell
Items: Crunchy taco, soft taco supreme, Crunchwrap Supreme.
Ease of order: 5
Loyal readers of ‘How You Holding Up?’ will recall that it took me many weeks to obtain Taco Bell, because it was not available in my area through the website. Once I broke my own rule and went third-party platform, it was (somewhat) smooth sailing via Postmates. It took 20 minutes to order (including time to create a Postmates account) and the delivery landed in advance of its ETA. This would have amounted to a higher score had I been able to initiate the order via Taco Bell’s website.
I don’t know how the soft taco supreme still had all its stuff inside or how the crunchy taco maintained its integrity, (I was never worried about the Crunchwrap; it is its own container), but I am very grateful for the care and handling that made it so. And the generous handfuls of hot and mild sauce that came with my order would make anyone feel like a veritable Scrooge McDuck.
Taco Bell’s signature flavors are transportive, and I would order its tacos any day of the week. The Crunchwrap was good, too, but for its interior tostada to maintain its snap, this item would be better enjoyed on-site.
Overall experience: 8
"I read your Taco Bell story and now I am ordering Taco Bell," a friend texted. The ultimate reward.
Total: 29 points
Items: Spicy chicken sandwich, chicken tenders, fries, mashed potatoes with gravy, biscuit.
Ease of order: 4
This was one of the most challenging orders to place, mostly because it was unclear what would be included in a combo and what would be considered an add-on, so I had to keep a keen eye out for capricious pricing and even go back over the order a few times to make sure I wasn’t needlessly paying extra. While I’d recommend Popeyes’ food to a friend without hesitation, I’d worry a bit that they’d spend the same 27 minutes I did making sure they were getting their money’s worth.
Popeyes’ packaging is top of the line, and each item arrived hot. The sandwich was particularly photogenic, closely followed by the box of strips, fries, and biscuits, and more distantly followed by the container of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Yes, Popeyes’ zippy spicy chicken sandwich is the best in the biz. It’s the one to beat, and nobody comes close. Its expertly battered chicken tenders are better than any nugget alternative, and, in a landscape of beige French fries, Popeyes’ take are vibrantly seasoned to a can’t-stop-eating-them effect. One menu item kept Popeyes from a perfect taste score: the mashed potatoes and gravy were just a touch too synthetic. They still got the job done, but when you’re operating at this high of a level, any deviation from greatness becomes more pronounced.
Overall experience: 9
Even though it’s been the cock of the walk for quite some time, Popeyes' spicy chicken sandwich still feels like event dining, and competitors should take notes on its fries.
Total: 30 points
Items: Cheese Champ, spicy chicken sandwich, fries, Oreo fudge Stacker
Ease of order: 10
I only spent a record six minutes assembling my cart, and the delivery took just 22 more.
Checkers’ seasoned fries sure are prettier than the off-white shoestrings you’ll find elsewhere, and the Cheese Champ’s filling peeked out flirtatiously from under its gleaming bun. An unlinkable image (apparently exclusive to my location) of the spicy chicken sandwich is so comically bad that anything they sent was bound to look better, and it did. The Oreo fudge Stacker was excellently insulated and cold as could be, but looked a little paltry in its oversized cup.
Checkers’ Cheese Champ was the best of the four burgers I ordered for this series, and it tasted a little like In-N-Out. The fries were nicely seasoned with a good crunch, and, while the “spicy” chicken sandwich was not peppery, it was at least noticeably seasoned with a decent texture. The Stacker was as much fun as you can have without chasing down an ice cream truck.
Overall experience: 7
I had never had Checkers before, but that unfamiliarity didn’t cost it any points. What it lacked in nostalgia it made up for in novelty -- a pleasant break from our collective real life Groundhog Day.
Total: 31 points
Items: Eight-piece original recipe bucket, mac & cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, biscuits.
Ease of order: 8
At seven minutes, this was nearly my second best ordering time, but a Grubhub glitch required that I build my cart twice. The delivery made up some time, arriving ahead of schedule.
As I wrote in its dedicated review, KFC delivered a darn banquet. The chicken was golden, steam rose from the mashed potatoes, and the mac & cheese was a pleasant, subdued tone, rather than the radioactive shade of some of its fast food counterparts. The biscuits were photo ready, though I’d come to find they looked better than they tasted.
This would have been a perfect score if it weren’t for those beautiful, brittle biscuits. Everything was hot. The fried chicken’s crispy-to-juicy ratio was impressive, and its 11 “secret” herbs and spices had a high familiarity quotient. The mac & cheese was blessedly tailored to an adult palate, and the mashed potatoes were a nice, fluffy, comforting neutral.
Overall experience: 9
My KFC order was delicious, and even the biscuits weren’t a total wash; my husband used one for a breakfast sandwich the next day, at which point it must have been rock-hard, but that’s husbands for ya. Its unexpected edge was that it kept especially well for a day of leftovers. If we can ever responsibly host another party, I’d be happy for KFC to cater.
Total: 36 points