A year ago, my first “Top 25 Fast-Food Power Rankings” were announced on VSiN for amusement purposes on a slow summer day. The reactions, ranging from love to hate, spread like wildfire. Obviously, it’s a topic many people take seriously.
For those of us who have no interest in cooking and cleaning, fast food is a lifestyle. I own no silverware and use paper plates. Breakfast, lunch and dinner — lunch and dinner each happen twice as I eat at least five times a day — come out of a paper bag while driving around town or sitting on the couch watching games.
Sports bettors tend to fail in the kitchen and trend toward fast food, which is why this is a relevant subject for “Point Spread Weekly.” Just as we develop power rankings for basketball and football teams, I’m doing it for fast food.
Restaurants are judged on the quality of food first and foremost, but other factors to consider include menu variety, service efficiency and availability. Any spot that stays open 24 hours a day earns bonus points.
To be considered true fast food, a drive-thru window is a necessity. Denny’s is known as “America’s Diner” and is open around the clock, but with no drive-thru it does not qualify for the fast-food rankings. The same goes for most pizza places.
Anyone can rank fast-food franchises and proclaim their ratings to be the best. With more than 45 years’ experience in the fast-food arena, I have earned unique credibility researching this subject, starting when I was about 2.
Last year’s rankings were more like lifetime achievement awards, or how I ranked my favorite fast-food franchises of all time. Steak ’n Shake got the initial No. 1 spot. In the 1990s while living in the Chicago area, I went through its 24-hour drive-thru 38 days in a row.
Unfortunately, Steak ’n Shake is losing steam and recently announced the closure of several locations around the country. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and other franchises are gaining steam. My new rankings are all about the franchise standings for 2020, so there’s a new No. 1 and a different look throughout the top 25.
Ten years ago, I rarely ate chicken sandwiches. People can change. The home of the original chicken sandwich (spicy is preferred) has surged in popularity by ditching its archaic business traditions and expanding to markets such as Las Vegas. Incredible customer service and drive-thru efficiency make it the gold standard for how to deal fast food. No franchise is perfect — if you want burgers or need something on a Sunday, go elsewhere — but this spot is as good as it gets today.
Hot dogs, chili, Italian beef sandwiches and more. I’m not a big fry guy, which might be surprising, but the fries are good. This is one of the few things I miss about the Midwest, but the Chicago-based chain has locations in Arizona and California.
3. Freddy's Steakburgers
Remember how great Steak ’n Shake used to be? Freddy’s, up from No. 9 last year, is that great now. It’s the best thing to come out of Wichita since the Shockers reached the Final Four seven years ago.
It would be nice to have the legendary McRib as a year-round menu item, but like a beautiful woman, if she’s around every day, you never miss her. The hamburger is a simple classic, a Big Mac still is great once in a while, the quality of the Quarter Pounder is much improved and the fries, if toasted brown, can be irresistible. The dollar menu is a decent option if you’re having a bad run at the sportsbooks.
Say aloha and welcome this Hawaiian barbecue franchise to the top five. Zippy’s has more than 20 locations in Hawaii, including one near the Maui airport, and a planned 2020 fall opening in Las Vegas has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s coming here eventually, and it’s open 24 hours.
6. Raising Cane’s
Specializing in chicken fingers, this Baton Rouge, La., chain is riding a Joe Burrow-like rise. The menu includes Texas toast, coleslaw and good fries. The sauce is the boss, as they say.
7. Steak ’n Shake
It’s still a classic. South Point owner Michael Gaughan wisely put a franchise inside the casino, and lines worthy of an amusement park formed for good reason.
8. In-N-Out Burger
It’s hard to knock the burgers or fries, and the late-night drive-thru service is typically exceptional. The drink choices include 7Up, a bonus for those of us who prefer that over Sprite and other lesser imitations.
How about a joint that offers burgers, chicken and much more while staying open 24 hours? It’s no surprise this spot is a favorite stop for Texas-based football handicapper Paul Stone.
You never forget your first time. The first time I had Chick-fil-A was in the media room before a UNLV-Houston basketball game in 2006. I discovered Qdoba in the Air Force Academy media room later that season. I love hard-shell ground beef and steak tacos. This franchise gets a slight edge over Taco Cabana and Taco John’s and a big edge over Chipotle.
Acclaimed for hamburgers, the franchise’s spicy chicken sandwich rivals Chick-fil-A and the other elites. The Breakfast Baconator is a big-time recent addition. But the fries are a flop and prevent a top-10 ranking.
The chicken sandwich is very good, though overhyped. Do not underrate the spicy fried chicken, Cajun fish, mashed potatoes and red beans and rice.
13. Panda Express
Orange chicken topped with chili sauce is my best bet on the American Chinese menu.
14. Taco Cabana
Up for some late-night Tex-Mex? Most locations in Texas and the Southwest are open 24 hours, and the menu includes breakfast tacos, burritos, fajitas, quesadillas and nachos.
15. Taco John’s
Based in Wyoming and now in more than 25 states, I found this underrated franchise on a Mountain West basketball trip to Laramie. It puts Taco Bell to shame. The crispy beef tacos and potato oles are sensational. VSiN’s Mitch Moss raves about it, and he’s right.
16. El Pollo Loco
Spanish for “The Crazy Chicken,” El Pollo Loco has excellent Mexican-style grilled chicken with a good side of mashed potatoes.
17. Tim Hortons
Almost as popular as hockey in Canada, Tim Hortons was foreign to me until visiting Montreal about 10 years ago. It’s similar to Starbucks, but the food is far superior.
The ButterBurgers are outstanding, and if you like ice cream, that’s a bonus. Wisconsin is this franchise’s hot spot, but locations near Las Vegas include St. George, Utah, and Lake Havasu, Ariz.
Roast beef sandwiches offer a good break from burgers and chicken. Arby’s has expanded its menu and could rank higher, but its recent unveiling of an Alaskan fish sandwich was a failure, and company execs made a mind-bogglingly bad decision by discontinuing an amazing pot roast sandwich in the early 2000s.
20. Burger King
One Whopper a week is not a bad idea. The fish sandwich is arguably the best in the industry, according to VSiN’s Paul Howard, who’s on to something.
I recommend the spicy jalapeno baja burger, and you can thank me later.
22. Jersey Mike's Subs
The Big Kahuna Cheese Steak with jalapenos is worth the trip. Mike Trout should have an endorsement deal with this place, which blows away Subway.
23. Mad Greek Cafe
On the drive to California, stop at the Mad Greek in Primm or Baker for the lamb gyro with cucumber sauce.
Fried chicken hits the spot some days. This is still the world’s second-largest restaurant chain behind McDonald’s and is still good.
25. Del Taco
The menu is solid with nothing spectacular, but the spicy chicken burrito is one of my new favorites. William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich knows how to pick winners and calls this 24-hour stop a “sleeper.”
Honorable mention: Fuddruckers, Shake Shack, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dairy Queen, Taco Time, Long John Silver’s, American Coney Island, Boston Market, Panera Bread, Bojangles, Starbucks, Sonic, Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s, Jack in the Box, White Castle.
Top 12 Restaurants “For the Common Man”
This list excludes the most expensive steakhouses and restaurants many will tout.
2. Texas Roadhouse
5. Dom Demarco's Pizzeria
6. Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria
7. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
8. P.F. Chang’s
10. Famous Dave’s
11. Waffle House
12. Buffalo Wild Wings