If you eat a French fry without dipping it into a sauce first, you have wasted a literally golden opportunity to add flavor to your fast food meal. How dare you! French fries -- and, in fact, chicken tenders -- are perfect canvases on which to slather on the sauce of your choice, whether it be honey mustard, BBQ, ranch, or one of the more original sauces found at our nation’s top chains.
With that in mind, we swung by every major fast food restaurant to sample its dipping sauces, and ranked them based on originality, dippability, and overall flavor.
The History of Ketchup
18. Carl’s Jr. Sweet & Bold BBQ
I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed when I found out Carl’s Jr.’s CrissCut Fries weren’t endorsed by Criss Angel with a slogan like, “Eat one and then watch them disappear!” Nevertheless, these fries are heavily seasoned waffle fries that are like if Arby’s curlies and Chick-fil-A’s waffles had a baby. And they pair well with CJ’s best dipping sauce: the Sweet & Bold BBQ. Strong tomato paste and Worcestershire flavors clear the way for a sugary finish, and pair great with said fries or chicken tenders. The Honey Mustard is more mustard than honey, which I’m not opposed to, but it’s fairly plain. The Buffalo Sauce has some heat to it, but it’s entirely chemical, lacks any flavor, and should be shot into space. Go with the Sweet & Bold.
17. In-N-Out Burger Spread
Two menu items In-N-Out does not carry: bacon and dipping sauce. It makes sense that with the Cali-based chain’s super limited menu that it doesn’t need a thousand different dipping sauce flavors to make its food taste good. (Though with all due respect to its fantastic burgers, those fries could use some help.) The spread tastes like Thousand Island dressing, which is… fine. It’s a tad boring. It’s tasty, but is it exceptional? Considering the tons of inventive, bold flavors in the dipping sauce pantheon, would this be worth discussing if it wasn’t made by In-N-Out? Also, is it even a dipping sauce? Unless you order Animal Style fries, which comes with a heap of Spread on top, the only way to truly dip these is to give yourself carpal tunnel and squeeze out five packets to get enough Spread to actually shovel some fries into. It might not be worth the effort.
16. Burger King Ranch
Don’t order the Zesty. Even if you like horseradish. Horseradish deserves better (see: Sauce, Horsey at Arby’s). On the plus side, thumbs-up to BK’s Ranch for being so incredibly rich and creamy -- buttermilk is the second ingredient, but it tastes like it’s the first one -- that I’d just as soon drizzle it on a salad as dip a chicken tender into it. I kept dipping fries into it waiting for it to taste watered-down or have an off-note in the finish, but it never came. In fact, I’d say Burger King Ranch is the best Ranch of the OG fast food spots, like McDonald’s and Wendy’s. The Buffalo is also quite good, with a smooth burn from the cayenne pepper sauce. Honey mustard and BBQ are solid, but not noteworthy otherwise.
15. KFC Finger Lickin’ Good Sauce
I’ve never once wanted to lick my fingers after eating anything. Granted, I’m your one friend who is always palming a bottle of hand sanitizer. So the name Finger Lickin’ Good Sauce didn’t sound too appetizing. But then I tried it. It smells a little like tartar sauce -- perhaps because of its pickle juice -- but tastes like if Thousand Island and honey mustard had a sauce child. If you hate mayo, this will not be your favorite. But it equally goes great with KFC’s potato wedges as it does with its tenders. And it wins huge points for originality, as only In-N-Out’s spread comes close to this flavor. If you’re looking for non-mayo flavors at the Colonel’s spot, the Sweet ‘N Tangy is a fun play on Chinese takeout sweet and sour sauce. Sadly, Buttermilk Ranch, Creamy Buffalo, Honey BBQ, and Honey Mustard aren’t worth dipping your wedges into.
14. White Castle Zesty Zing
If you’re lucky enough to have a White Castle near you, its crinkle cut fries are a joy. Those fried potatoes dutifully sopped up the brand’s four dipping sauces: Honey Mustard, Ranch, BBQ, and Zesty Zing. Sadly, the Honey Mustard is overly sweet -- a huge swing and a miss. The Ranch overpowers everything in its path, which is a shame when White Castle’s menu is so strong. The BBQ is an artificial flavor bomb and unworthy of the fries you’d dip into it. But the Zesty Zing offers a dose of horseradish without smacking you over the head with it. It’s not as zesty or as zingy as a sauce with two z’s in it should be, but it’s worth eating nonetheless.
13. Long John Silver’s Cocktail Sauce
I wanted to open a container of LJS’s tartar sauce and be blown away. But it was all pickle relish flavor and not much else, which put a real damper on things. The good news is that the cocktail sauce is worth your time. Sure, it’s not the best cocktail sauce in the entire world, but when you’re bored of dipping tenders into honey mustard containers, it’s nice to switch things up with this horseradish-forward cocktail sauce. It pairs so well with Long John’s seafood battered chicken tenders you’ll wonder why you never thought to dip chicken into cocktail sauce before right now. Cocktail sauce isn’t just for shrimp anymore. You heard it here first.
12. Taco Bell Nacho Cheese Sauce
Menu items at Taco Bell that are not dipping sauces: Mild, Hot, Fire, and Diablo hot sauces. Hot sauce is not a dipping sauce, and is disqualified. Nacho cheese is a dipping sauce, however, and I’ve long loved TB’s take on the Tex-Mex staple. When it’s served hot, it’s a worthy dipping sauce whether you’re dunking in tortilla chips or the chain’s beloved Nacho Fries. Strangely, I’d drink this for a pick-me-up over Taco Bell’s actual coffee.
11. Wendy’s Creamy Sriracha
The way food trends work is that a couple years after the trend is dead, fast food restaurants come out with their take on things. Sriracha has long been chewed up and spit out by permahungry foodies desperate for a new ingredient to get excited about. And you know what? Wendy’s took the Vietnamese hot sauce and turned it into the best damn dipping sauce Dave Thomas never got to try (RIP to a man who left quite a legacy). This sauce delivers on the promised creaminess and heat -- the kick lingers long enough to entertain your tastebuds until the next bite of a 6-piece or its natural cut fries. Everything from the BBQ to the honey mustard to the buttermilk ranch pales in comparison, though the side of S’Awesome Sauce does its best to mimic Chick-fil-A sauce, but feels a bit watered-down.
10. Sonic Drive-In BBQ Sauce
When you visit a Sonic, you might notice the restaurant’s music mix (Sonic Radio, for those in the know) plays upbeat music you can jam to while you eat tater tots to from the comfort of your car. Now, I’m not saying that the country music playing from the speakers helped me enjoy the BBQ more than I would have otherwise, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. It also helps that I love a vinegar-based sauce, and that the BBQ’s first two ingredients are water and distilled white vinegar, whereas it can often be “high fructose corn syrup” or “soybean oil” at other fast food spots. The Honey Mustard has a delightful Dijon finish and clings to anything you dip into it quite well, while the Ranch cuts through the saltiness of the fries with relative ease. But the BBQ stands alone as Sonic’s top sauce.
9. Jack in the Box Frank’s RedHot Buffalo Dipping Sauce
First of all, hats off to Jack in the Box for refrigerating all its dipping sauces. I’ve eaten more unrefrigerated ranch than anyone should ever have to. Now to the bad news: the teriyaki tastes like 99% chemicals and 1% soy sauce, the ranch is like eating the inside of a chemical plant, and the honey mustard is… fine. The BBQ sauce is surprisingly legit, with a depth of flavor from the tomato paste and strong brown sugar notes, making it a fine pairing for Jack’s seasoned curly fries.
Speaking of sauces worth dipping your curly fries into: Frank’s RedHot Buffalo Dipping Sauce. Most chains have a version of buffalo dipping sauce, and none of them come close to touching Frank’s. It has a strong vinegar punch up front and a nice burn from the aged cayenne red pepper. It gives your chicken tenders a wings-y feel, adds another layer of flavor to your curly fries, and is even worth spreading a bit onto your burger bun. Fast food dipping sauces commonly taste like they’ve been manufactured in a test tube. Frank’s is an undeniable dose of realness the fast food sauce game desperately needs.
8. Popeyes Mardi Gras Mustard
The brand that easily won the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019 has a dipping sauce roster that highlights its Cajun roots. To wit, the Blackened Ranch cuts through the sameness of every other fast food’s ranch by adding a hit of paprika to wake up your tastebuds. The Bayou Buffalo is the first buffalo sauce that holds a candle to Frank’s RedHot, with its searing, lingering heat, and BoldBQ is a BBQ worth dipping into. Sweet Heat (ew) and Buttermilk Ranch (yawn) are rare misses. But nothing beats Mardi Gras Mustard in the originality department. It looks like a regular honey mustard, but tastes like a horseradish-filled take on the classic, with pleasant mustard notes in the finish. And it pairs equally well with the heavily seasoned Cajun fries and tenders. It’d be a cliche to write Mardi Gras Mustard is a party in your mouth… yep, I’m already mad at myself for typing that.
7. Arby’s Horsey Sauce
Plenty of fast food joints have a dipping sauce spiked with horseradish. The good majority of them are not pleasant to eat, and I say that as someone with first-hand experience. My tastebuds still haven’t forgiven me. And while I love Arby’s Sauce -- a blend of BBQ sauce and ketchup with lovely onion and tomato notes -- there’s no horseradish sauce that comes close to this masterpiece. It looks like mayo and tastes like pure, unadulterated horseradish, which sounds like a nightmare but tastes like a dream. I admit that it’s not the most ideal fit for its curly fries (Arby’s Sauce wins handily there), but I could dip chicken into this stuff all day long. It’s one of the most unusual chicken tender dipping sauces, and one of the best. Arby’s can do away forever with its weak Spicy Buffalo, somehow both bizarre and boring Bronco Berry Sauce, and bland Honey Dijon, and I wouldn’t miss them. Arby’s unsurprisingly solid BBQ (considering how good Arby’s sauce is, that isn’t much of a surprise) is worth eating, but Horsey Sauce is a true original and a treasure. Long live Horsey Sauce!
6. Jollibee Gravy
There will not be any discussion of the honey mustard or ranch at Jollibee because it is completely inconsequential to a meal at Jollibee. If you’ve ever dined at the Filipino fast food delight, you’ve probably had plenty of gravy. You’re making it as much a part of the meal as the Chickenjoy, rice, or fries. It’s such a joy to saturate everything in gravy that it’s bewildering why so few other fast food chains make it an option (with all due respect to KFC, which does). And yeah, this is not the best homemade gravy you’ve ever had. It’s fast food gravy -- a little watery, but served piping hot and in a container big enough to fit any big hunk of chicken, fries, or mashed potato you can get your fork on. The gravy levels up one of the more unique fast food meals in America.
5. Whataburger Spicy Ketchup
There’s no award for “least amount of ingredients in a fast food dipping sauce,” but based on a super unscientific eye test, it’s pretty clear Whataburger would win. The ingredients don’t include a ton of preservatives that are hard to pronounce, and most importantly, all its dipping sauces are quite delicious. Take the Jalapeno Ranch, one of the spicier dipping sauces around, a creamy condiment with a smooth burn that lacks that foul chemical aftertaste common to spicier dipping options. The ultra tomato-y Honey BBQ has a sweetness in the finish that begs you to take another swipe with a shoestring fry or Whatachick’n strips.
But it’s the Spicy Ketchup that truly deserves all the accolades. It looks like regular ketchup and tastes like regular ketchup, at least for a bit. The heat hits you out of nowhere like an Acme cartoon anvil, but it makes sure not to overpower anything you dip into it. The red jalapeno pepper puree is the ketchup’s secret weapon, and it’s not a surprise that an innovative chain like Whataburger released it. It’s only a wonder why more chains haven’t ripped it off.
4. McDonald's Honey Mustard
Mickey D’s has plenty of sauces (Hot Mustard, Spicy Buffalo, Tangy BBQ, Sweet & Sour, Buttermilk Ranch), but true fans of the fast food spot know there is only one dipping sauce worth asking the cashier if they can throw a couple more in the bag: Honey Mustard. The Hot Mustard and Spicy Buffalo both leave me wanting more heat. The Tangy BBQ is limp. I want the Sweet & Sour to be both sweeter and more sour, dammit. The Buttermilk Ranch is admittedly solid, what with its legit onion and black pepper notes. But the Honey Mustard is easily the best -- it’s super mustardy up front and finishes a little sweet.
It’s the perfect dipping sauce for fries and chicken equally. If you don’t ask for one Honey Mustard for your fries and another your chicken, you didn’t get enough. The dipping sauce is as essential to the meal as everything else in the No. 7. Forget to order Honey Mustard and your meal is ruined. It’s the best dipping sauce at McDonald’s, and easily the best dipping sauce at any OG fast food joint.
3. Raising Cane’s Cane’s Sauce
This chicken finger Valhalla has honey mustard. It’s not advertised, but it’s available if you ask for it, and it’s a smooth, delicious addition to everything on the menu. Don’t you dare get it. Instead, load up on Cane’s Sauce, which is said to be mayo, ketchup, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and black pepper. It's an infinitely more complex version of Thousand Island dressing (thanks to the depth of flavor from the Worcestershire) and it’s one of the most perfect sauces to dip chicken in that’s ever been created. Not to mention how well it pairs with the brand’s exemplary crinkle-cut fries. I’d give up my lifetime love affair with honey mustard to exclusively eat Cane’s Sauce.
2. Chick-fil-A Sauce
There’s a reason Chick-fil-A is one of the most beloved chains in America -- all the food that comes out of the kitchen is top-notch. The sauces are no exception. Polynesian has a unique tropical flavor profile that lends a pineapple-y sweetness to your meal. Zesty Buffalo is serviceable, but we live in a world where Frank’s RedHot exists, and this isn’t winning any awards. The Garden Herb is well-seasoned and herbaceous enough to earn the name. The Honey Mustard is mustard-forward and goes great with its waffle fries, but it’s worth skipping in favor of the best the brand has to offer: Chick-fil-A Sauce.
This sauce was originally conceived when an employee in the ‘80s accidentally combined BBQ and honey mustard. Thank heavens they did. It’s a more substantial play on honey mustard, almost aioli-like in its thickness. It clings to nuggets, strips, and waffle fries and shows no signs of breaking free. And why would you want it to? It’s like Honey Mustard 2.0, and it makes everything it touches taste better.
1. Culver’s Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Sauce
"The cheese sauce is good, but it’s not like nacho cheese sauce," explained the Culver’s cashier. He said he could give me honey mustard sauce for the crinkle cut fries and tenders if I wanted, but he said it in a way like, “Why even bother?” And while the honey mustard had some of the most intense garlic, onion, and mustard seed flavors (in a good way!), you shouldn’t waste your tastebuds on it. Get the cheese sauce and only the cheese sauce.
The cashier was right: it’s not like nacho cheese sauce. It’s better. It’s hearty, comes out hot, and tastes every bit like primo Wisconsin sharp cheddar. This Midwest-style queso is melty goodness that you’ll want to dunk every bit of food on your tray into. Everything from the fries to the tenders to onion rings. And if you’re going to Culver’s with friends, every person at your table will need to order their own side of sauce. It’s as essential to your meal as a napkin.
Introducing The Fasties, Thrillist's first fast food awards. Think glitzy TV and movie award show, but to honor the best things that came out of fast food restaurants in 2019. We rolled out the ketchup carpet for fast food’s biggest names and handed out golden burger trophies in 16 categories. Watch the full awards show and check out the winners here.
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