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A ranked list of the best fast food shakes in America
The popular chain makes its own addictive style of soft serve called Icedream, and offers four regular flavors: chocolate, strawberry, cookies and cream, and vanilla. However, it’s the peach shake they offer in the summertime that lands them on this list. The peaches are a nod to the company’s Georgia roots, and this sweet warm weather treat is a favorite in the South.
#9 Dairy Queen
DQ’s founders invented soft serve, so it’s no wonder that their soft serve shakes are the perfect balance of creamy and thick. Plus their shakes come in decadent flavors like caramel cheesecake and Oreo — in case you need an extra incentive to give in to temptation.
#8 Freddy’s Frozen Custard
On its own, Freddy’s frozen custard is habit-forming. Blending chocolate or vanilla custard with milk for a drinkable dessert is downright dangerous.
The Frosty is legendary, and nearly a milkshake by itself, but did you know that Frosty shakes come in chocolate fudge, caramel, and strawberry flavors? Proof that even a classic can be improved upon.
#6 The Habit Burger Grill
The Habit Burger is the best chain that no one has ever heard of, but that might be about to change. The California chain was recently named Best Burger in America by Consumer Reports, toppling reigning champ In-N-Out, and there are almost as many rave Yelp reviews about their thick-enough-to-need-a-spoon shakes as there are about the burgers.
#5 Super Duper
This San Francisco Bay area chain serves fast food with a conscience, and their shakes are a testament to their commitment to quality food. Each shake is made with Straus organic soft serve, which contains simple ingredients and no thickeners, additives, or artificial colors.
ID 61042207 © Ken Wolter | Dreamstime.com
It’s no surprise that the company that bills itself as “America’s drive-in” offers a huge spectrum of shakes from standard to slightly offbeat fare, like lemon pie and pineapple, to completely bizarre flavors you’d never think to mix up — stop in and try a chocolate jalapeño shake if you find yourself sick of plain-Jane vanilla.
#3 Steak and Shake
Steak 'n Shake/Yelp
When you’ve got the word “shake” right in your moniker, you’d better deliver, and Steak and Shake does. Their shakes are thick and creamy like a good milkshake should be, but they land on this list for sheer audacity. With flavors like birthday cake, Snickers, and chocolate-covered strawberry, who needs the steak? Just bring on the shake.
#2 Shake Shack
This Northeastern chain hand spins its custard daily, and the shakes are all the better for it. Plus, in addition to the standard strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate, you can get caramel or peanut butter. They’re so good locals find themselves craving a Shake Shack fix even in the dead of winter.
#1 In-N-Out Burger
Hey, it’s hard to argue with celebrity chef Alton Brown, who voted In-N-Out Esquire’s best fast food spot in America, raving “the shake tastes the way shakes tasted back when I was a kid. It makes me tear up just thinkin' about it.”
The Best Fast Food in Every State
The ritual will be repeated, time and again, countless times by countless numbers of California-bound travelers. They will leave the airport, whether in Los Angeles, or Oakland, or any of the others in between, they will have been on an airplane for far too long, coming from somewhere far away, and they are hungry. All they can think of now, besides how pleased they are to be here, where the weather is most likely better, or at least more temperate, where the air just smells that good, how does California manage it, all they want is that first In-N-Out burger.
The hour may be late, the streets quiet, but the Golden State’s most iconic fast food restaurant will have left the lights on, typically well into the darkest hours, welcoming all comers with characteristic cheerfulness, taking into account their many and varied customization requests, ready to make them feel good, all for the cost of just a few dollars.
Reasonable people might shy away from the barely-contained chaos that defines late night at a popular fast food restaurant, but there aren’t too many chaotic scenes quite as entertaining, and often downright wholesome as the ones you will typically encounter at an In-N-Out Burger in California, from El Centro along the Mexican border, all the way up to Redding. Brace yourself, and dive in. Walk through those doors, place your order, then take a seat on the bench facing the counter. Breathe deeply, meditatively. Feel the army of boisterous strangers just beyond your elbows and toes slipping further away in your mind, marvel at the squad of fresh-faced youths in the kitchen, working at lightning speed, nearly always in admirable sync, as if their only purpose in life were to feed the masses with a smile, the masses who have suddenly figured out, for whatever reason, that they are starving, even at the stroke of midnight on a Tuesday.
The waits can be excruciating to outsiders, but everybody in California knows, or very nearly everybody, that at In-N-Out, anticipation is part of the experience. Finally, your number is called, and there it comes, that classic, familiar burger, wrapped tightly in its paper nest, with half a head of iceberg lettuce somehow crammed in there, along with the tomato, your choice of raw or grilled onions, or both if you’re clever, perfectly-melty American cheese, the burger of course, typically perfectly cooked, two of them ideally, plus plenty of the house spread. It’s the same, every time, this is the taste of home for millions, the taste of welcome back for millions more. Welcome back, to the good life. There are other burgers, there are certainly better fries, but this is just about as close as a fast food restaurant could ever come to being the happiest place on earth.
In-N-Out is far from the only fast food chain linked tightly with its home territory𠅊ll over the United States, scores of lower-profile, but equally worthy gems, some generously shared with other parts of the country, others tightly-held by their respective microregions, add up to one of the most iconic, sometimes under-appreciated dining sub-cultures in the world. Fast, easy, typically quite affordable, but nearly always imbued with a deep sense of place, these restaurants often end up pulling double duty as ambassadors for their place of origin—they can be a great introduction to an unfamiliar place, the perfect place to tune in to the local vibe. Let’s go see America, shall we?
For the freshest pizza around, take-and-bake the Gourmet Delite, Stuffed, or Signature pies—or opt for creating your own—at any of Papa Murphy's 1,483 locations.
Hardee's ceased operating in tandem with its sister brand, Carl's Jr. in 2018, claiming its own stake on this list. Now that Hardee's is on its own, it goes to show that people love biting into the juicy charbroiled burgers on 1,864 menus across the nation.
Grossest thing about it: McDonald's is a classic. McDonald's is the Walmart of food. You go there too much and you feel kind bad about it but it's the easiest thing to do sometimes.
Why it's great anyways: There are two kinds of people in this world: People who understand that they have the best fast-food French fries and people who are lying about how McDonald's doesn't have the best fast-food French fries.
Courtesy of Dairy Queen
Majority rules! Customers raved that the fast-food chain is "good quality," "never gets old," and is a "good value for money." That sounds like a winning combo to us! DQ even sold more than 175 million Blizzards the first year they introduced them in 1985—who knew? For more, check out these 108 most popular sodas ranked by how toxic they are.
This Is America's Best Fast Food Fried Chicken
Think about the best fried chicken you’ve ever had in your life. You probably started drooling involuntarily, and I don’t blame you one bit.
OK, now throw away that thought. This is a story about the best fast food fried chicken.
So while it’s not going to be the best you’ve ever had, when you need a quick fix around various parts of the country, this fried chicken will be there for you.
For the purposes of this story, I ate fried chicken from five chains that do it well ― Church’s Chicken, Popeye’s, Shake Shack, Chick-fil-A and KFC ― and ranked them. I selected these chains in particular because they’re in most areas of the country (sorry, regional chains like Bojangles).
Why did I include outliers like Shake Shack and Chick-fil-A, even though they don’t make traditional fried chicken? First of all, they might not offer chicken as part of a two-piece meal, but they do serve fried chicken, which makes them eligible. And secondly, I judged their chicken on its own merit and not the sandwich as a whole. I didn’t want certain elements of the sandwich like a fantastic bun (hello, Chick-fil-A!) to distract from the main event: the chicken. And this is all about the fried chicken.
If you think that’s unfair or stupid, you’ve probably not read this sentence, and have already skipped to writing about how unfair and stupid this article is in the comments.
Here is America’s best (fast food) fried chicken, from good to great.
Trust me, I’m as surprised as you that Popeye’s didn’t fare so well. It’s a beloved chain (even beloved by respected chefs) born and raised in Louisiana that grew so popular it got snapped up by the company that owns Burger King.
Their following is due, in part, to their spicy chicken. And because of the completely arbitrary rules I set for this ranking, I couldn’t order the spicy chicken, because that’d be unfair to the other non-spicy chicken from everywhere else. It’s like comparing fried apples to fried oranges! I judged all the fried chicken on the “fried” and the “chicken” parts. And Popeye’s really let me down.
I ordered a two-piece with wings and was served. three wings. I wasn't complaining about the extra wing. I also ordered a soda with a side of cajun rice because as the saying goes, "When in Popeye's!"
While the meat was well-seasoned, the chicken was barely warm. Even if it came directly out of the fryer and was served hot, I don’t think it would take higher than fifth place in this ranking. The chicken was uninviting and dry. But that buttery biscuit? I’d eat it a million times. Can they make biscuits in the shape of fried chicken?! I’d come back for that.
I hadn’t stepped foot in a KFC in a year or two, and was surprised by the decidedly farm-to-table touches in the location I visited in the Denver suburbs. There was a blackboard telling me where my chicken came from today (Cassville, Missouri) and who made my chicken (shoutout to Mike, Pam and Skyler!). Oh, and a huge light fixture was in the shape of a bucket of chicken! But all of those fun touches are nothing if the chicken sucks. And this chicken decidedly did not suck.
The two-piece ran me about five bucks, which meant I got a decent serving of chicken, mashed potatoes, a Mountain Dew and a biscuit that tasted way better than it looked, all for very little dough. As for the chicken, my drumstick was meaty, albeit a little dry, and the breading had a decent crunch.
Do I think that’s because the chicken was free-range on that Cassville farm? This entire meal cost me about $5, so you can probably figure out the answer!Even though the Original Recipe chicken has those famous 11 herbs and spices, I was more impressed by the crisp outer layer of the drumstick than any of the flavors from it. Still, at $5, this fried chicken meal is quite a steal. KFC has been in the franchise fried chicken game since the ’50s for a reason.
I’ve been to church maybe two times in my life, but after going to Church’s for the first time, I’m technically up to three. And this was quite an unexpected and pleasant surprise!
A friend warned me that as delicious as Church’s is, it’s basically a poor man’s Bojangles. But if you don’t live in the Carolinas, Georgia, or Tennessee ― where Bojangles outlets are primarily located ― this will have to be a fine substitute.
In order to keep the offerings similar to what I ordered at the other restaurants, I ordered the white meat, which cost a bit more (but not too much ― it was $8 for a two-piece). One of the wings was so enormous, I asked two employees if this was unusual. The teenage guys behind the counter laughed and said it wasn’t. After devouring a few bites, all I could write in my notes was, “So much chicken. Meaty!” Even better, the chicken was juicy, the crunch from the breading was satisfying, and while the seasoning didn’t add much, you get so much chicken in every bite that it’s tough to complain about anything.
No matter how you feel about the Georgia-based chicken chain for reasons that have nothing to do with fowl, it’s an undeniable powerhouse in fast food. I’m sitting in my local outpost at 4 p.m. on a Saturday, and everyone is here getting in their last bites of chicken before the company’s day of rest on Sunday.
I order the #1, since that comes with the original chicken sandwich, waffle fries and a sweet tea (or soda, if you’re boring). Though I like the sandwich bun and the pickles, I dutifully take the patty out and get to work/eating.
A woman is definitely giving me a weird look for grabbing the patty in one hand and shoving it into my mouth, but I was too focused on the chicken to care. It’s a perfectly breaded, hot, juicy piece of chicken. There’s not as much of a crunch from the breading as there is at Church’s, but it’s satisfying nonetheless. I love its distinct, peppery bite. This is a special piece of fried chicken. But it’s not my favorite.
I’ve been to the original Shake Shack in NYC plenty of times. My old job had an office down the street from the park where it was based, and we’d watch on the Shake Shack webcam to gauge when the line short enough to get a shake or burger. We always had to wait for it to rain to get food in a reasonable period of time. It wasn’t raining when I went to the one in Denver, and there still wasn’t much of a line at 5 p.m. Still, the place was busy.
I ordered the Chick’n Shack and crinkle cut fries. It took some time for the buzzer they handed me to ring and for my sandwich to be ready -- it’s made to order. Even though the restaurant was half full, it took at least five minutes. But I didn’t mind the wait -- the cashier told me it was the best thing on the menu. I would have to see if she was right.
The chicken came hot out of the fryer and had a beautiful crunch to it. It was well-seasoned with pepper. And it’s a thick patty -- if you eat it with the bun and lettuce, you may need to unhinge your jaw like, umm, one of those animals that unhinges their jaw to eat. Like a snake! Well, call me a cobra because I could chomp on this fried chicken all night. It’s juicy, crunchy, and did I mention super hot? That’s a critical reason for why this is so damn good. This fried chicken is everything you want out of a slab of meat. And if you have room in your stomach and/or budget, get the crinkle cut fries, too.
10 Most Famous American Fast Foods
It's a fast paced world we live in. Thanks to the Internet, information is available in an instant, stocks can be traded in real time with the click of a button and you can buy just about anything you can think of on the spot (with overnight delivery). Digital cameras render crystal clear photographs ready for viewing in a single second. Cell phones put us in touch with anyone we want nearly instantly. Americans simply don't like to wait. The same can be said for how we eat. Since the first fast-food chain, White Castle, opened in 1921, Americans have grown accustomed to getting the food we want in short order.
Fast-food has since spread, with more than 30,000 McDonald's restaurants alone located around the world. McDonald's is the undisputed king of fast-food, serving 52 million people a day in more than 100 countries [source: McDonald's]. That's a lot of Chicken McNuggets. In an article in Rolling Stone magazine in 1998, a survey of American schoolchildren revealed that 96 percent of them could identify Ronald McDonald -- only Santa Claus ranked higher at the time. The same article claimed that McDonald's famous "Golden Arches" had become more widely recognized around the world than the Christian cross [source: Schlosser].
Of course, all this fast-food has led to a problem -- obesity. In 2004, the National Center for Health published a study on obesity in the United States. Between 1962 and 2000, the percentage of obese Americans swelled from 13 percent to 31 percent [source: CDC]. It's probably no coincidence that fast-food restaurants saw tremendous growth as well. The National Bureau for Economic Research published a report in November 2008 that stated that childhood obesity could be cut by as much as 18 percent if fast-food ads were banned [source: Reuter's].
Obese or not, people love their fast-food favorites. That's why we're going to take a look at 10 of the biggest selling fast-food menu items in America on the following pages.
It may feel like a newer franchise, but Subway actually started out in 1965 as a means for co-founder Fred DeLuca to help pay for college. Since then, DeLuca has been able to pay for a lot more than tuition fees. In 2006, he was named by Forbes Magazine as number 242 on the list of richest Americans, with a net worth of about $1.5 billion [source: Forbes]. In 2008, Subway celebrated being in business for 43 years. The sandwich chain has grown from a single shop to more than 30,000 franchises in 88 countries around the world [source: Subway].
Subway stands alone as the largest sandwich chain in the world and operates more stores in the United States, Canada and Australia than McDonald's does. How does this kind of growth translate into sub sales? In the United States alone, Subway sells almost 2,800 sandwiches and salads every minute. The company's Web site also touts another interesting fact -- if all the sandwiches made by every Subway store in a year were placed end-to-end, they would wrap around the Earth at least six times. No word on how many millions of gallons of mayonnaise that means.
9: Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich
Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy is probably best known for two things: He's credited with inventing the boneless chicken sandwich and his restaurant chain is closed on Sunday. It's unthinkable today to imagine a life without the chicken sandwich, but in 1946 it was all about the hamburger. It's also hard to believe that a corporation that has annual sales of more than $2 billion each year would close down one day a week. Cathy's dedication to his Christian faith has kept the Sabbath wide open for his employees since day one.
Originally a shopping-mall-only restaurant, Chick-fil-A expanded to freestanding stores in 1986 and now operates more than 1,300 franchises in 37 states. The menu has branched out somewhat over the years, adding salads, nuggets and wraps, but the restaurant's bread and butter (literally) is still the original chicken sandwich. Its beauty is in its simplicity -- a pressure-fried chicken breast with pickle slices on top, served between a buttered bun [source: Chick-fil-A].
Pizza may be Italian in origin, but it has become a truly American food because of how popular it is in the United States. In 2007, the total pizza sales in America nearly hit $37 billion and as of July 2008, there were more than 75,000 pizza stores sliding pies into the oven. Independently operated pizzerias make up a slim majority of these totals. The chain Pizza Hut stands as the largest and most successful franchise with almost 14 percent of the total chain sales at a total of $5.1 billion in 2007 [source: Pmq.com].
The original Pizza Hut was opened on campus at Wichita State University in 1958, but didn't become a franchise until the following year. The company now operates almost 15,000 units in the United States alone. The chain is known for its all-you-can-eat pizza and salad buffet and for putting some unusual spins on the classic pie -- crusts stuffed with cheese that you're supposed to eat backwards, "The Insider," which is kind of like a pizza sandwich and another concoction called "The P'Zone." Pizza Hut is the number one seller of pizzas in the United States.
Fried chicken is known as a staple food of the Southern United States, but its appeal is clear all over the world. In 1930, in the throws of the Great Depression, a man named Harland Sanders opened a fried chicken restaurant in the front room of a gas station in Corbin, Ky. The Sanders' Court & Café would grow and expand as the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchise and become the most popular chicken restaurant on Earth.
As of 2008, KFC operates more than 11,000 restaurants in more than 80 countries. Founder Colonel (honorary) Harlan Sanders first began selling his famous "Original Recipe" chicken with its 11 herbs and spices in 1940, and the iconic bucket came along about 17 years later. In 1969, KFC became a publicly traded company, and in 2006, the company sold more than one billion chicken dinners [source: KFC]. Even though KFC was doing well on its own, it joined YUM! Brands, Inc., in 2002 to become part of the largest restaurant group in the world. KFC's partner chains include Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, both listed on this top 10.
If small, square hamburgers are your thing, then you're probably a fan of either Krystal or White Castle. Both fast-food chains are known for the small hamburgers that customers gobble down several at a time. Since White Castle is the original, we'll give them the nod in this case. Walter Anderson and Billy Ingram partnered up in 1921 to create the first fast-food hamburger restaurant, selling their signature "Slyders" for five cents each. The restaurant's name matches the look -- each White Castle restaurant looks like a white castle.
In 1949, White Castle made a change that would end up being its legacy. It made five holes in each square patty and cooked the meat on top of a bed of diced onions. The burger never makes contact with the griddle and is cooked by the steaming onion. The holes allow for a faster, more even cook. The buns are placed on top of the meat to soak up extra flavor as well. Add a slice of dill pickle and you have an American institution -- the Slyder.
Even though White Castle only has 382 stores as of 2009, it sells 500,000,000 Slyders a year and has served 16 billion since 1949. It was the first to reach one million burgers sold and then the first to reach one billion [source: White Castle].
Not many fast-food restaurant founders have been as visible as Wendy's Dave Thomas was. In a bold marketing move, Thomas became the face of the franchise on TV commercials in 1989, and continued doing so until he passed away in 2002. The first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant was opened by Thomas and co-founder John Schuessler in 1969 in Columbus, Ohio. It was important for Dave from the beginning that Wendy's be a cut above its competitors in terms of food quality. If you look closely at the famous logo, you'll see the words "Quality is our Recipe" above the red-haired pigtails the company's mascot "Wendy" wears.
You won't find a heat lamp with a rack of burgers sitting beneath it at a Wendy's. Each "single" hamburger is made-to-order. The classic burger is a 4-ounce, square patty served on a bun with your choice of toppings -- lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and whatever condiment you fancy. Wendy's ranks third on the burger chain list behind Burger King and McDonald's, with more than 6,500 locations worldwide. In 2006, Wendy's had total revenues of almost $2.5 billion and employed 57,000 people [source: Wendy's].
The chain is also famous for its chocolate version of the milkshake, the Frosty. It was one of the original five menu items and remains a top seller. Dave Thomas wanted to make a milkshake so thick you had to eat it with a spoon and he was pretty successful -- Wendy's sells about 300 million each year [source: Hentges].
4: Arby's Roast Beef Sandwich
Each category of fast-food chain restaurant has its "best in show." There can be only one best selling sub sandwich, one best burger, one best taco. In the middle of the hamburger craze in 1964, Arby's found its niche in the land of roast beef. The Raffel brothers opened the first Arby's Roast Beef Restaurants in Boardman, Ohio. Beef was a big hit with the burger chains, so the Raffels decide that instead of grinding it up, they'd slow roast it and slice it thin. The name Arby's comes from spelling out the initials R.B. -- for Raffel brothers, not "roast beef."
Arby's operates more than 3,500 restaurants in the United States and Canada, and the chain's most popular sandwich is still the signature roast beef sandwich. The beef is sliced fresh for each sandwich and customers can top it themselves with the famous Arby's and Horsey sauces. In 2008, Arby's purchased Wendy's for $2.34 billion, forming the third largest fast-food company in the world.
Just like Arby's cornered the roast beef market, Taco Bell has carved out a spot as the number one Mexican fast-food restaurant chain. If you've ever stopped and wondered just what the heck a "taco bell" is, you'll be glad to know that a man named Glen Bell started the franchise and named it after himself. He started the chain in 1962 in California at a time when Mexican food was pretty out of the ordinary in America. The first franchise opened in 1964 and now, the company boasts more than 5,800 restaurants in the United States, Canada, Guam, Aruba, Dominican Republic, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Asia, Europe and the Philippines [source: Taco Bell].
The popular chain serves about 2 billion customers a year and perhaps not coincidentally, also sells roughly 2 billion of its signature tacos. The franchise plows through 3.8 billion tortillas, 62 million pounds of pinto beans, 106 million pounds of cheese and 295 million pounds of ground beef a year [source: Taco Bell]. It made revenues of $6.8 billion in 2005, part of that coming from the million burritos it sells each year. Add in quesadillas, nachos and some signature spins on Mexican classics, like double-decker tacos (a soft flour tortilla wrapped around a hard shell corn tortilla taco) and odd items like the "Crunchwrap Supreme" and you've got a gut pleasing late-night drive-thru destination.
Burger King isn't quite the king -- that distinction resides with McDonald's. But BK has a solid grip on the number two spot, with 11,200 franchises. You can find Burger King franchises in the United States and 69 other countries around the world. Burger loving entrepreneurs James McLamore and David Edgerton started BK in Miami, Fla., in 1954. The Whopper became their signature burger in 1957. One thing that distinguishes Burger King from its competitors is the fact that the burgers are flame broiled instead of cooked on a griddle. The idea was to give the meat that home-grilled taste.
The Whopper is a one-quarter pound beef patty between a sesame seed bun with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup and sliced onion. Of course, it is Burger King, so you can always "have it your way." This is the advertising slogan from 1974 that the chain is still most well-known for. The BK Web site claims that there are actually 221,184 possible ways you can have it your way. Even though it's a distant second place to McDonald's, total sales of all the Burger Kings are still massive BK restaurants in 2007 surpassed the $13 billion mark [source: Burger King].
There can be only one. One top dog, one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. One that transcends the mundaneness of a mere fast-food chain to become something else altogether -- the symbol of a country, the face of an industry: McDonald's. If you're American, the name itself conjures up an embarrassingly high number of familiar images and memories.
The McDonald brothers started the franchise as a hot dog stand in 1937 and changed things up in 1948 by making the switch to burgers and fries made using a speedy and efficient assembly line system. Things took a fortuitous turn when the McDonald brothers met a milkshake machine salesman named Ray Kroc. Kroc was impressed with the operation and asked to be included as a franchise agent, splitting profits with the brothers for growing the chain. Kroc opened the first franchise in 1955 in Des Plaines, Ill., and the rest is fast-food history. He bought the brothers out for $2.7 million in 1961, and the franchise has grown to operate more than 31,000 stores in over 100 countries [source: McDonald's].
The Big Mac is the most popular fast-food item on Earth. The famous jingle from the 1975 TV commercial taught Americans the ingredients for the Big Mac -- two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion on a sesame seed bun. In 2004, Mickey D's celebrated the fortieth birthday of the iconic burger. The company sells an astonishing 560 million Big Macs each year, even though they're only available in 13,700 of the franchises [source: Friedman]. People love the Big Mac, some so much that it's become almost an obsession. A man in Fond Du Lac, Wis., claimed he ate two Big Macs a day, every day since 1972. That makes 21,292 Big Macs as of August 2004. And, how many trips to the cardiologist?
1. Wendy’s Vanilla AND Chocolate (aka “Black and White”) Frosty
First, there’s the practical aspect that makes the Frosty truly great: It’s a multi-use dessert. Regardless of the flavor, either the iconic chocolate or the stealthily excellent vanilla, the Frosty starts out as a conduit for fry or nugget dunking as the soft serve nearly spills over, then changes into a spoonable treat as it warms, and finally transforms into cool, drinkable dairy as one’s road trip enters its second hour.
But the Frosty proves its versatility in more ways than one. Either flavor would place it in contention for the country’s best quick-serve dessert. Put them together — by asking for a “black and white” version, it won’t be listed on the menu proper — and it’s no contest.
Wendy’s vanilla Frosty, devoid of any actual vanilla or vanilla flavoring, is a silky-smooth soft serve version of fior di latte, a milky, mozzarella-like cheese and a common gelato flavor. It’s a simple, sweet dairy that mimics the taste of fresh, chilled cream. The vanilla Frosty has no need for the illusory flavor of vanilla (or vanillin, its terrible facsimile), because it contains both non-fat milk (in dried form) and whey, a byproduct from cheesemaking that, on the tongue and in conjunction with sugar, heightens the perception of dairy flavor. It’s a trick so effective that pastry chef Christina Tosi regularly uses it in her confections at Milk Bar.
The addition of the chocolate Frosty, then, acts as a yin to the vanilla’s yang. This isn’t new-wave chocolate it’s far from a study in single-origin beans or intoxicating fruitiness. But the cocoa rather acts as a foil, using its astringent tannins to reign in the sweet dairy. That marbled, white and tan cold cream is better than either flavor on its own. It’s truly the quintessential American fast-food dessert.
2. Taco Bell Cinnamon Twists
Taco Bell’s twists are one of America’s finest and most iconic fast-food desserts. Not so much a churro as they are a hot, deep-fried take on cheap breakfast cereal (they offer the same satisfying crunch), Taco Bell’s twists are rotini-shaped puffs of rice, corn, and flour dusted with cinnamon and sugar. There’s no melting or oozing or drippage, and though a far cry from the spice of real cinnamon, there’s just enough cinnamon flavor to give eaters a sense of spice.
As a bonus, they’re not too sweet and would be nice with a milky cup of coffee: They’re the fast-food equivalent of movie theater popcorn or ballpark peanuts, which is to say they can be consumed ad infinitum, with one hand, without thinking too much about them, and without overburdening your system.
3. Sonic Green Apple Ice Cream Slush | Sonic Fresh Banana Shake
Ryan Sutton: These desserts represent the two-sided nature of Sonic Drive-In, a purveyor of food so earnest one wouldn’t be surprised to find it at a sit-down diner, as well as a hawker of garbage that makes you wonder if the sugar lobby doesn’t fund this chain. And yet both sides are undeniably excellent.
The banana shake, for example, is one of the cleanest expressions of any fruit in a non-restaurant setting, a seamless blend of cool ice cream and tropical perfume. Serve this in a health-food store and it would outsell a smoothie. The green apple ice cream slush, in turn, conveys a quick hit of liquefied, verdant Jolly Rancher packed full of citric acid balance, followed by the mellowing calm of natural-ish soft serve. Serve this at a bar with vodka and it would be hailed as an improved appletini. They are both spectacular.
Daniela Galarza: Cosign the fervor for the banana shake: It tastes like the chain throws a whole fresh banana in a blender with a couple scoops of ice cream. (A staffer at the North Bergen, New Jersey, location confirms that each shake contains those two ingredients plus a splash of two-percent milk.) That — and the fact that the banana wasn’t overpowering and the shake tasted like it was sweetened with actual sugar instead of corn syrup — was a pleasant surprise. I don’t even really like banana, but would order this again. I don’t share Sutton’s nostalgia for artificial green apple, but I enjoyed the reminder of trading Jolly Ranchers in junior high.
4. Popeyes Hand Pies
These are what you wished a McDonald’s hand pie tasted like: crackly, with the burnished golden exterior of a gentle fry (and no freezer burn). Served warm, Popeyes’s pies taste like fried danishes and are, when cooked in fresh oil, fairly addictive the fats and sugar help quell the palate after a battering of Popeyes’s distinctively salty-spicy chicken seasoning. Best of all was the limited-offering Raspberry N’Cream Cheese Pie, which smelled markedly of the fragrantly sour fruit. The Cinnamon Apple Pie — warm, and filled with coin-sized tart apple pieces — is not just an excellent dessert, it doubles as a near-perfect fast-food breakfast.
5. Dairy Queen Orange Julius Original
One of the country’s original smoothies, supposedly first served in 1926, the Julius is a frothy blend of orange juice concentrate, egg white powder, whey, sugar, vanilla, and ice: It’s a pioneering feat of beverage engineering: One has to respect the skill that went into developing a flavor that tastes like crushed-up whole oranges, unlike the facsimile of orange one gets in a Creamsicle. If a Creamsicle shake uses just a whiff of orange to add fragrance and tartness to ice cream, the Julius uses just a touch of dairy to tone down the acidity of orange juice. The beverage packs an intense aromatic tang and a fluid drinkability that makes it infinitely more food-friendly than a heavy shake.
6. Sonic Oreo Blast
The king of the fast-food Oreo concretes, this blend feels less dense and more natural than the factory-like McDonald’s version, with a flavor that more closely recalls Breyers’ cookies and cream. Sonic’s ice cream base looks almost exactly like the texture and color of Oreo’s creme filling, tricking the brain into believing you were eating frozen blended Oreo cream with bits of chocolate wafer. The cool cream is soft — it actually melts naturally-ish — and doesn’t leave a coating on the tongue. Speckles of cookie particulate are balanced with larger, more toothsome chunks. We finished the whole thing.
7. Shake Shack Malted Shake
DG: In general, I assumed Shake Shack’s sweet offerings would blow the competition out of the water. Unfortunately, after eating a spicy fried chicken sandwich (two thumbs up) and fries (RIP hand-cut fries) I couldn’t stomach a concrete or classic shake. There’s something about the malted, though, that eases the weight of the beast’s dairy fat. Maybe I’m just a sucker for that flavor after growing up with Malta, one of Latin America’s favorite drinks.
RS: Agree, the true star of Shake Shack’s ample dessert collection is the malted shake, which involves diluting down the frozen custard with milk, and adding a touch of malt, that gently pungent ingredient that recalls a Whopper. It drinks more quickly and easily than most fast-food shakes, which are essentially ice cream in a cup this softer and looser mouthfeel is closer to a diner variety.
8. Chick-fil-A Icedream Cone
Without a doubt, Chick-fil-A’s “Icedream” is the best fast-food soft serve, a gently icy and exceedingly light product that’s the epitome of frozen dairy: clean, cooling, and milky, with an ethereal texture. To be fair, Chick-fil-A’s product, which never actually uses the words “soft serve” or “ice cream” in its description, is as packed with as many polysyllabic stabilizers and emulsifiers as at McDonald’s — it lasted more than 10 minutes in direct sun. Thing is, Chick-fil-A’s cone is simply better than McD’s.
And it’s the best fast-food soft serve not just because of its intrinsic deliciousness, but rather because it’s a perfect pairing with lunch: Since the dairy seems to have been cut with water, this is a cone that can easily be consumed after a fried chicken sandwich.
9. Domino’s Cinnamon Bread Twists
Not unlike a Cinnabon without the excess sugar glaze, these nuggets of fried dough were unevenly dipped in butter and cinnamon sugar — and when is that bad?
10. Domino’s Marbled Blondie Cookie and Brownie
Most of the desserts at pizza delivery spots are such afterthoughts that we almost didn’t even go there. But this brownie and blondie combination recalled Ghirardelli’s boxed brownie mix — which is pretty good! It’s chewy and chocolatey, and the blondie bits added some salty, butter-like flavor, for added interest.
11. Dairy Queen Funnel Cake
Not as soft or fluffy as a state fair cake — yet with sufficient powdery sugar to render useless whatever dark-colored garment you’re wearing — if this had been served hot and crisp, it would have made it into our top 10. Instead, it was served lukewarm, as though it had been sitting under a heat lamp for a few hours. But the best and biggest surprise was that though the cake had clearly been deep-fried, the pastry didn’t taste of rancid oil: Thanks for regularly changing your fryer oil, DQ. Overall, not bad.
12. Sonic Cinnabon Bites
RS: These are essentially Totino’s Pizza Rolls, but instead of being stuffed with pepperoni and mozz, the Cinnabon bites are filled with a gooey cinnamon paste. Pro tip: Squeeze out half of the paste, which packs a gently tannic sting, and use it for cinnamon toast the next morning. Eat the remainder, and discard the chalky tin of iced frosting.
DG: This was an extremely intense experience, but offered the best parts of a Cinnabon — the gooey interior — without all of the commitment. The temperature was perfect (hot), making these especially enjoyable on a cold day. On the other hand, just like a Cinnabon, they tasted a bit like a pile of hydrogenated fat.
We ate 53 different fast-food menu items for this experiment. Here’s a look at some items that didn’t make either the best or worst lists:
- Taco Bell Cinnabon Delights: Let’s just say Sonic got the better end of the stick when it comes to Cinnabon licensing deals.
- Taco Bell Strawberry Skittles Freeze: Oddly not terrible! Tastes like a slightly more chemical Kool-Aid.
- Taco Bell Orange Cream Pop Freeze: Like a cream-laced Fanta, heavy on the slush texture. Compelling acidity would make it a decent pairing with a Dorito Locos Taco.
- Chick-fil-A Frosted Lemonade: Not bad actually!
- Pizza Hut Cinnamon Sticks: Dry, and coated in something akin to movie theater fake butter.
- Domino’s Chocolate Lava Crunch Cakes: The Jean-Georges masterpiece has gone to the fast-food culinary graveyard, where it doesn’t even ooze or taste like chocolate.
- Sonic Caramel Sundae: Doesn’t transform into a weird puddle of melted plastic stabilizers — even under the heat of the (too sweet) caramel — but there are still better sundaes than this one.
- Arby’s Apple Turnover: About as average as any danish left out an hour too long at a hotel’s free continental breakfast.
- Arby’s Oreo Bites: Imagine wet, spongy, microwave doughnut bites, but without the firm cream or chocolatey taste of an actual Oreo. An abject failure in cross branding.
- Arby’s Andes Shake: This cooling riff on the delicious 1950s after-dinner mint is epically perfect for curly fry dunking, but it didn’t make the top 12 list because it’s a limited-time-only offer.
- Shake Shack Concrete: Too dense! Too heavy!
- Shake Shack Purple Cow: The “purple” flavor of grape soda needs more acidity to tame its artificial muskiness and rampant sweetness.
- White Castle Cheesecake on a Stick: The chocolate’s texture overwhelmed the cheesecake, which had a slight taste of freezer burn.
- Papa John’s Cinnamon Pull Aparts: Musty. The faux butter on these tasted rancid.
- Papa John’s Chocolate Chip Cookie: Excessively sweet.
- Papa John’s Double Chocolate Chip Brownie: Dry, and it smelled like old grease.
- Dairy Queen Butterfinger Blizzard Treat: Bouillon-sized cubes of salty peanut butter confection, softened by cool, somewhat bland dairy it’s a veritable candy stew that almost made the best-of list.
- Dairy Queen Chocolate Dipped Cone: That little curl at the top of these cones is so, so charming. But the waxiness of the chocolate coating is not for everyone.
- Dairy Queen Peanut Buster Parfait: As an in-between-meals snack, this is a near-perfect combination of salty and sweet. But ultimately, after a meal, it’s too much.
Homemade Cheese Straws
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