Fast Food Top 50 Power Rankings: A new No. 1?

Chick

A tantalizing fragrance wafted from the kitchen Saturday night as my wife walked into the hallway and announced the Chilean sea bass and lobster ravioli were ready for dinner. She pulled the fine china out of the cupboard and lit candles to enhance the atmosphere.

OK, let’s get real. The paragraph you just read is fiction. No scene of that sort has happened in my life, and it’s not even a dream scenario. No wife, no plates, no silverware, no homemade meals — and that’s great.

This was reality Saturday night: While sweating out the day’s final NFL preseason bet — Chargers -3.5 against the Rams — I drove a few blocks to KFC and ordered a two-piece meal in the drive-thru line while checking score updates on the phone.

It’s football season. Fast food and sports handicapping are my top priorities.

Where will I eat? Which games will I bet? Those are the biggest questions to face each day. Will it be Burger King, Chick-fil-A or Wendy’s for breakfast?

It seems most sports bettors tend to fail in the kitchen and trend toward fast food, which is why this is a hot topic for Point Spread Weekly. It is relevant, as we learned last year.

In 2019, my first Fast Food Top 25 was announced on VSiN for amusement purposes on a slow summer day.

In June 2020, during the sports world shutdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I released new rankings on the “Follow the Money” show with Mitch Moss and Paul Howard, who also happen to be fast-food fans.

The rankings sparked hot takes on Twitter, with reactions ranging from love to hate. It was a ridiculously debated feature and a subject many people take seriously, so it’s coming back by popular demand.

It’s finally time to unveil the Fast Food Top 50 Power Rankings, an expanded list that is the most thorough you have ever seen. It’s also guaranteed to disappoint some people.

As philosophical author Dan Brown once said, “There is a fine line between insanity and genius.”

This exercise is admittedly more insanity than genius, but there is a method to the madness of these rankings. Just as many handicappers develop power rankings for basketball and football teams, I do it for fast food. Restaurants are judged on the quality of food first and foremost, but the other categories to rate are menu variety, service efficiency, availability — any spot that stays open 24 hours a day earns bonus points — and intangibles. Each of the five categories is worth a maximum of 10 points, and quality of food is always the tiebreaker.

To be defined as true fast food, a drive-thru window should be a necessity. However, real life has exceptions to every rule and gray areas exist, so some franchises on this list might offer drive-thru service at only a small percentage of their locations. Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little and lean on common sense.

If I could eat at only one franchise every day for the rest of my years, it would be Denny’s due to its 24-hour operations and sensational menu variety. (You can bet the previous sentence will trigger Waffle House fans, who will call me crazy -- and worse.) But “America’s Diner” has no drive-thru window, and the sit-down atmosphere dictates it does not qualify for the fast-food rankings. The same goes for most pizza places, so those will be excluded.

We all have unique tastes and different opinions on fast-food franchises. Some love McDonald’s and others loathe it. I love the McRib and absolutely hate broccoli and most vegetables.

This is my list — and feel free to disagree all you want — but my credentials might be unrivaled. With more than 45 years of experience in the fast-food arena, starting as a toddler, I have earned credibility researching this subject.

For those who have no interest or skills in cooking and cleaning, fast food is a lifestyle. I own no silverware or real plates, and the next time I wash dishes will be the first. I have a stack of about 200 paper plates in a kitchen cabinet, and a drawer is stuffed with countless plastic forks, knives, spoons and sporks. Basically every meal comes out of a paper bag while driving around town or sitting at a desk watching games.

Some might view it as a sad, unhealthy existence, but I’m happy and healthy, so it works for me. I have been employed full time for 25 years and never used one sick day, so you can live -- and live well -- on fast food. My rankings are based on decades of research, supported by the aforementioned mathematical formula.

Here are my Top 50 fast food restaurants:

1. Chick-fil-A

A new No. 1 nearly emerged this year, but Chick-fil-A remains in the top spot due mostly to the best spicy chicken sandwich in the world and impeccable customer service. As stated last year, this franchise’s drive-thru efficiency makes it the gold standard for how to serve fast food. Similar to the NHL, Chick-fil-A surged in popularity when it ditched archaic business traditions and expanded to the Las Vegas market. But this franchise is imperfect — the menu is restricted and business is closed on Sundays — so its hold on No. 1 is tenuous. Sponsoring a college football bowl game is worth a point to intangibles. Ten years ago, I laughed at the idea of eating chicken sandwiches on a regular basis. As Rocky Balboa once told the Russians, “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.”

2. Freddy’s Steakburgers

The emergence of this franchise from Wichita should be no shocker. Menu variety and quality of food have launched Freddy’s on a meteoric rise, up from No. 9 in 2019 and No. 3 last year. This is what Steak ’n Shake was in the 1990s. Steakburgers, Chicago dogs, chicken sandwiches and frozen custard (try the turtle sundae) highlight an all-star lineup. Freddy’s power rating is only 1.5 points behind Chick-fil-A.

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3. Portillo’s

“Unrivaled Chicago street food” is what this mostly under-the-radar franchise touts, and it fulfills the promise. Italian beef and sausage sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, chili, fish and chicken sandwiches, ribs, pasta and much more. This is no joke. The fries are good too. The only problem is limited availability because the closest locations to Las Vegas are in Arizona and California. If this franchise expands, it has the potential to reach No. 1.

4. Culver’s

At No. 18 a year ago, this Wisconsin-based franchise was mistakenly underrated. It’s hard to find — the only nearby locations are in St. George, Utah, and Lake Havasu, Ariz. — and loses points in availability, yet the greatness of the menu is undeniable. The ButterBurgers grab the headlines, but never overlook the other sandwiches (chicken, fish, beef pot roast, grilled reuben melt) in addition to the chopped steak dinner and frozen custard. It’s incredible, and arguably still underrated.

5. McDonald's

Several critics will dispute this controversial lofty ranking, but it’s the world’s largest restaurant chain and features a Big 3 (Big Mac, McRib, Quarter Pounder) that no NBA superteam can top. It would be great to have the McRib as a year-round menu item. Pro tip: Order the fries “well done” and thank me later. The hot mustard sauce is worth points for intangibles. The hamburger is a simple classic, and the new chicken sandwich is decent. The spicy chicken sandwich on the dollar menu becomes valuable when you hit a bad run with football betting.

6. In-N-Out Burger

In late June, competitive eating legend Joey Chestnut joined us on “Follow the Money” and expressed his love for In-N-Out. Who’s arguing with the king of eating food fast? The drive-thru is always a traffic jam for good reason. The double-double and fries, when cooked golden brown, are rock solid. Add a point for menu variety due to drink choices including 7 Up.

7. Raising Cane's

When listing the best things to come out of Baton Rouge, La. — “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Shaquille O’Neal and the 2019 LSU football team are at the top — add this chain that specializes in chicken fingers. The sauce is the boss. The menu is thin, including Texas toast, coleslaw and good fries, but there’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well. Circa Sports oddsmaker Jeff Davis recently tweeted, “Am I the only person in Las Vegas that doesn’t think Raising Cane’s is any good?” No, he’s not alone. But Davis’ wife cooks for him, and maybe that means he’s not a fast-food diehard anymore.

8. Shake Shack

The biggest riser on the list, up from No. 27 last year, has wisely expanded from New York to Las Vegas. The burgers, dogs and crinkle-cut fries are excellent, the chicken is OK and frozen custard rounds out an impressive menu.

9. Zippy’s

I would eat at this Hawaiian barbecue spot almost every day if I could. Pro tip: Try the loco moco. There are about 20 locations in Hawaii, including one near the Maui airport, but a planned 2020 fall expansion to Las Vegas was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a top-five franchise if it comes to the mainland. Even where there’s no drive-thru window, an employee will quickly bring the food to your car. Limited availability is the biggest negative, but this franchise is elite in every other category and is open 24 hours.

Zippy

10. Whataburger

You stop for the burgers, including the green chile double, but the menu also offers chicken, fish and more. The 24-hour drive-thru is a big plus. The biggest negative is the fries are often undercooked. “I might have a regional bias, but a Whataburger is my favorite fast-food burger,” Texas-based football handicapper Paul Stone said.

11. Wendy's

The best spicy chicken sandwiches have the spices baked in, as opposed to slapping spicy sauce on top of the chicken. The Wendy’s version is in the elite class just below Chick-fil-A. Dave’s all-natural lemonade is outstanding and a smart alternative to soda. The hamburgers are dependable and, while the fries remain a disappointing flop, the addition of the Breakfast Baconator has helped elevate this franchise to the fringe of the top 10.

12. Popeyes

Remember when fools waited hours for the new chicken sandwich? There is too much breading on the sandwich, which is worth the trip yet overhyped. I prefer to tout the spicy fried chicken, Cajun fish, mashed potatoes and red beans and rice.

13. Panda Express

Here’s a change-of-pace option and a good one for those who favor an American Chinese menu. I stop in occasionally for the orange chicken topped with chili sauce. Other best bets are the Angus steak, Beijing beef and grilled teriyaki chicken.

14. Steak 'n Shake

In the 1990s, this was my go-to spot. I hit the 24-hour drive-thru 38 days (or late nights) in a row while living in the Chicago area. The franchise has been mismanaged in recent years and closed several locations around the country, so it lost steam and dropped in the rankings. Still, the menu variety is impressive, led by the burgers and spicy chicken sandwich, and this place gets bonus points if you like shakes. It was a wise move by South Point owner Michael Gaughan to put this franchise inside his casino.

15. Qdoba

I could go for hard-shell ground beef tacos every day. The seasoned ground beef and steak tacos rank among the best, and get queso and chips on the side. Unfortunately, my favorite Qdoba spot in Las Vegas has closed, and the franchise is hard to locate.

16. Burger King

The Whopper is a first-ballot inductee into the Fast Food Hall of Fame. Hook up a fish sandwich once in a while too. The sausage biscuit and hash browns make a good breakfast. BK was underrated last year at No. 20 and moves into my Sweet 16.

17. Arby's

An expansive menu means this franchise deserves the benefit of the doubt because Arby’s is aggressive and never shies from introducing new items. Roast beef sandwiches offer a tempting alternative to burgers and chicken.

18. Taco John’s

Those who tout Taco Bell probably have not found Taco John’s yet. I go for the crispy beef tacos and potato oles, yet the menu has depth and blows away the Bell. It’s a Wyoming-based franchise that can be found in more than 20 states.

TacoJohn

19. Dairy Queen

Nobody will claim the food is phenomenal, but the burgers, chili dogs and chicken are solid enough to warrant a good ranking. If you like Blizzards and ice cream — the Peanut Buster Parfait was one of my favorites as a kid — you probably love this place.

20. KFC

Colonel Harland Sanders, who died in 1980, would be proud of his legacy. KFC is the world’s second-largest restaurant chain behind McDonald’s. The new spicy chicken sandwich is somewhat disappointing, but the fried chicken hits the spot.

21. El Pollo Loco

A good lunch and dinner spot featuring Mexican-style grilled chicken with a side of mashed potatoes. Spanish for “The Crazy Chicken,” El Pollo Loco offers what seems like a healthier alternative to fried chicken.

22. Jersey Mike's Subs

A sub shop must make the top 25, and only this one is worthy. The Big Kahuna cheesesteak with jalapenos is my go-to sandwich. I find it odd that baseball star Mike Trout, who grew up in New Jersey, has an endorsement deal with Subway, which is far inferior to Jersey Mike’s.

23. Tim Hortons

Canada’s largest quick-service chain is almost as popular as hockey. It’s a good breakfast and lunch stop with food options that are far superior to what is served at Starbucks.

24. Fatburger

“The Last Great Hamburger Stand” out of Beverly Hills also serves chicken sandwiches and wings, but you go for the burgers, which are above average but not quite great.

25. Taco Cabana

The truth is most taco joints are better than Taco Bell but just nowhere near as widespread. This is another one, a regional franchise with more than 150 locations in Texas and New Mexico. If you are up for late-night Tex-Mex, several Cabana spots are open 24 hours and feature burritos, fajitas, quesadillas, nachos and, of course, tacos.

26. Dunkin’ Donuts

Swing by the drive-thru for breakfast or lunch because this is another franchise with food options superior to Starbucks. Start with the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and always order the hash browns, which are some of the best in the business.

27. Del Taco

To be honest, I’m not crazy about this place but adjusted my ratings a little due to knowing a lot of people, including Caesars sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich, who frequent it. It does get credit for staying open 24 hours, and the chicken soft tacos and spicy chicken burrito are worth a shot sometimes.

28. Firehouse Subs

I have been warming up to Firehouse and a few of its subs, namely the Hook and Ladder, meatball and steak and cheese sandwiches.

29. Five Guys

It’s hard to knock the hamburgers, hot dogs and fries, though this is bending the rules because there are no known drive-thru windows at any Five Guys. It’s good enough to be higher on this list yet maybe not fast food by a strict definition.

30. White Castle

Asked to name his top five spots, ESPN’s Chris Fallica reeled off Chick-fil-A, Qdoba, Taco Bell, Five Guys and White Castle. “The Bear” also mentioned McDonald’s, for what it’s worth. He said he loves White Castle, and it seems people either love it or hate it. I slide somewhere in the middle and do like the chicken with cheese sandwiches and the burgers on rare occasions.

31. Fuddruckers

This is another restaurant that is more suited for sit-down dining than carryout orders, but the hamburgers are elite and the build-your-own-toppings bar is a bonus.

32. Bojangles

In North Carolina and parts of SEC country, most fans would claim this franchise is underrated on this list. Bojangles is wildly popular in that region, mostly for fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits. (The same is probably true of Zaxby’s, another hot chicken spot, but I’ve never been there and will avoid ranking it.)

33. Boston Market

Check out the half-chicken, the chicken carver sandwich or the half-order of ribs and quarter-order of rotisserie chicken. The food quality is outstanding. It’s not always served fast, and few locations have drive-thru windows, however.

34. Long John Silver’s

Believe it or not, I never stop here for the seafood. I always order the chicken planks and hush puppies and smother both in tartar sauce.

35. La Bamba

You might not find better Mexican fast food on the planet, but you need to hire a search party to find La Bamba these days. The first store opened in 1987, and the franchise expanded to Chicago and several Big Ten campuses. It has dwindled to eight locations, and you still can find “Burritos as Big as Your Head” in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Wisconsin. I actually have dreams about the chorizo torta.

36. Habit Burger

The tenderloin steak sandwich is the best call on the menu — get it and you won’t regret it. The second-best option is the Santa Barbara char burger.

37. Sonic

While the burgers are mediocre, the menu variety is strong and it’s occasionally worth driving in for a chicken sandwich or hot dog and tater tots.

38. Panera Bread

If you feel the need to eat healthy, try the sandwiches and soups. As a blue-collar fast-food grinder, this is not one of my preferred stops, but the menu is unique and it’s quality food that is served fast.

39. Church’s Chicken

KFC and Popeyes are rivals that attract most of the chicken franchise hype. Church’s is often overlooked and is a sleeper. Try the Texas tenders.

40. Taco Bell

In this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, this franchise has only declined lately. A nonsensical trimming of the menu eliminated the Mexican pizza. This was one of my top spots in the 1990s, but the Bell now tolls, and much better burrito/taco shops are available. Circa owner Derek Stevens loves the Bell and will hate this low rating, but it’s reality for me.

41. Smashburger

This Denver-based chain sometimes gets lost in the burger franchise shuffle. I always order the spicy jalapeno baja burger.

42. Wienerschnitzel

It’s unproven that this franchise offers the “World’s Most Wanted Wiener” as claimed, but I’m good with any dog house that deals chili cheese dogs and Chicago dogs.

43. Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s

The breakfast menu is a decent way to start the day, and the burgers and chicken rate slightly better than average.

44. American Coney Island

I would be remiss not to include “Detroit’s Original Coney,” which has a Las Vegas location downtown at The D. It’s doggone good, and the menu has depth.

45. Starbucks

Yes, this is legit fast food, not just a coffee shop. Sandwiches are offered for breakfast and lunch. While I never drink coffee, the unsweetened iced tea is probably the best in the business. The chocolate chip cookie is recommended.

46. Subway

I still like the steak and cheese sandwich occasionally, but this franchise has slipped. Recent allegations that the tuna is not actually tuna, but rather a mixture of various concoctions, is a black eye. And Subway will be forever stained by the disgraceful “Jared” ad campaign.

47. Mad Greek Cafe

It’s a must on the drive to or from California to stop at the Mad Greek in Baker for the lamb gyro with cucumber sauce. The location in Primm closed early in the pandemic, causing the popular spot’s rating to plummet. Will the doors ever open again in Primm?

48. Jack in the Box

This is a late-night desperation stop, and I find it difficult to promote any one menu item, but it’s widely available with more than 2,000 locations primarily on the West Coast.

49. Tommy’s

The quarter-pound chili cheeseburger is world famous, according to Tommy’s, and the chili cheese dog is legit. Overeating may cause heartburn or worse, but I do like it. There are more than 30 spots in Las Vegas and Southern California.

50. Taco Time

The crispy ground beef tacos, top-notch hot sauce, burritos and Mexi-fries (another word for tater tots) help this small West Coast franchise sneak into the final spot.

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