On the morning of July 9, as our flight headed to Long Beach, Calif., for an unusual mission, thoughts of Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away” came to mind.
It’s an intriguing movie I have watched a few times, and it always makes me ponder -- or have nightmares about -- a life without the availability of fast food. How long would I be able to survive if stranded on an uninhabited island?
The FedEx plane carrying Hanks plummeted into the South Pacific during a violent storm and he washed up on the island of Monuriki, surviving for four years by spearing fish and drinking coconut milk, among other things. I bet he had dreams of a Big Mac.
Our journey to the Los Angeles area was a fast-food field trip to Portillo’s, a Chicago street food chain with a location in Buena Park. It’s near Disneyland, but Portillo’s is much more enjoyable for a group of guys who love to eat.
I joined VSiN’s “Follow The Money” crew of Paul Howard, Mitch Moss and Dustin Swedelson on the fact-finding venture. The trio had never experienced Portillo’s and wanted answers. The tour guide who picked us up at the airport, Patrick McLaughlin, said he once ate at Portillo’s 42 days in a row. When living in Chicago in the 1990s, I went there about five times a week, so McLaughlin and I knew what Howard, Moss and Swedelson were about to discover.
Ten minutes into lunch, as Howard devoured an Italian beef and sausage sandwich, onion rings and a chocolate cake shake, he was asked to rate Portillo’s on a scale of 1 to 10 and said, “9.5.”
Moss could be a competitive eater. I always say the fat guys are often overrated and the skinny guys are the sleeper picks in eating contests. Moss wiped out several items on the menu and said, “Matt, you nailed this one.”
Swedelson was asked if he wanted to go for seconds. “I’m stuffed,” he said, and that was saying a lot because he’s no small man.
I went with the Italian beef with sport peppers, Chicago dog, Maxwell Street Polish, half a burger, fries and onion rings. The five of us posed for a photo outside and I looked like a boa constrictor that just swallowed a deer.
The restaurant was packed and the drive-thru was jammed, but the service was efficient and the food quality outstanding. “The Dog House” was Dick Portillo’s first hot dog stand in Villa Park, Ill., in 1963. He eventually sold Portillo’s to Berkshire Partners in 2014 and made millions. It’s a true American success story.
Portillo’s has expanded to locations all over the country, including the L.A. and Phoenix areas, but is suspiciously absent in Las Vegas, and that needs to change.
Still, in my fourth annual “Fast Food Top 50 Power Rankings” for VSiN, Portillo’s is the new top dog, rising from No. 3 last year to No. 1.
There’s a method to this madness. I create power ratings for fast-food franchises using a formula similar to the one that produces my numbers on college football and basketball teams. There are five categories with each worth a maximum of 10 points. Restaurants are judged on the quality of food, menu variety, service efficiency, availability (any spot that stays open 24 hours earns bonus points) and intangibles.
The definition of fast food can get tricky, but a drive-thru window should be a necessity. However, in life there are exceptions to every rule and gray areas exist, so some franchises on my list might offer drive-thru service at only a small percentage of locations. It’s OK to occasionally bend the rules a little and lean on common sense. I’m a big fan of Denny’s, but there are no diners and no pizza places on my list.
As always, there will be a few crusty critics who say, why is this topic relevant and what makes you the expert?
It seems a majority of sports bettors tend to fail in the kitchen and trend toward fast food, making stops as we move from one sportsbook to another. On the brink of football season, fast food and football handicapping are the top priorities each day. I’m not watching movies or TV shows. These months are all about watching games and eating on the go.
With more than 45 years of experience in the fast food arena, starting as a toddler at a now-defunct chain called Burger Chef in Indianapolis, I have earned unrivaled credibility by living this subject. It’s a lifestyle, not a diversion or a hobby. My rankings are based on decades of research and supported by the aforementioned mathematical formula.
Similar to Howard, I absolutely hate broccoli and most vegetables and have no interest or skills in the areas of cooking and cleaning. I own no silverware or real plates and have a towering stack of paper plates in a kitchen cabinet next to a drawer stuffed with countless plastic forks, knives and spoons.
Most amatuer doctors will say this is an unhealthy existence, but I have been employed full time for more than 25 years and have never used a sick day, so you can live and live well on fast food.
This is my Top 50 list, love it or hate it. The past few years have shown there will be many disagreements because we all have unique tastes and different opinions, so let the debates begin.
If stranded on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific, I might not last long. But if I did survive, Portillo’s would be my first stop.
2. Freddy's Steakburgers
For the second straight year, this chain based in Wichita, Kan., checks in second. Freddy’s, famous for steakburgers, Chicago dogs, chicken sandwiches and frozen custard, ranked No. 9 in 2019 and No. 3 in 2020. On every stop here, I recall the Wichita State basketball team that was 35-0 before losing to Kentucky 78-76 in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, when Fred Van Vleet missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. A better spicy chicken sandwich could make the case to get Freddy’s to No. 1.
After back-to-back years in the top spot, Chick-fil-A falls after a tweak to the power ratings to emphasize the importance of burgers. This franchise has the best spicy chicken sandwich in the business and impeccable customer service, but the menu is still too limited. Sponsoring a college football bowl game is worth a point in the intangibles category. As the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno said, “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
Wisconsin has produced an abundance of VSiN talent, including Moss, Greg “Hoops” Peterson, Erin Rynning and Ben Wilson. It also launched Culver’s, which was underrated at No. 18 in 2020 before surging to No. 4 last year. The lack of availability is disturbing — the only locations near Las Vegas are in St. George, Utah and Bullhead City, Ariz. — but the menu versatility is impressive. The ButterBurgers lead the way, followed by chicken, fish, beef pot roast, chopped steak and frozen custard.
5. Shake Shack
Only the Yankees’ Aaron Judge is more popular in New York. The Shack expanded to Vegas in recent years and took a corresponding leap in the rankings, from No. 27 in 2020 to No. 8 last year. The burgers are excellent, and the dogs and chicken rate slightly above average.
It’s no fluke this is the world’s largest restaurant chain, yet this lofty ranking is sure to draw a lot of complaints. McD’s has a better Big 3 (Big Mac, McRib, Quarter Pounder) than what the Lakers put on the floor last season with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. The McRib, arguably the greatest fast food sandwich of all time, is worth about a 10-spot boost in my rankings.
Up from No. 17, where it was underrated last year, Arby’s gets credit for being aggressive and gambling on new items. The Wagyu burger, which actually contained 48 percent regular angus beef, was a good attempt. Roast beef sandwiches headline an extensive menu, and curly fries are a bonus. Who else remembers the great pot roast sandwich from the early 2000s?
8. In-N-Out Burger
The In-N-Out drive-thru is almost always a traffic jam, but the line moves fast enough. I go for the double-double once a week. Similar to McDonald’s, order the fries “well done” because they are far better when cooked golden brown. In June 2021, competitive eating legend Joey Chestnut was a guest on “Follow The Money” and expressed his love for In-N-Out. If you don’t believe me, take it from the king of eating food fast.
While the Texas Longhorns have gone Under their season win total in nine of the past 10 football seasons, Whataburger trends as an overachiever. Texas-based handicapper Paul Stone admits to a regional bias and calls this his favorite fast-food burger. In addition to the green chile double burger, there’s chicken and fish on a solid menu. The undercooked fries are a negative, but the 24-hour drive thru is a big plus.
10. Raising Cane's
Down a few spots from No. 7, Cane’s has been drawing complaints for allegedly downsizing the chicken fingers, with two professional bettors I know recently saying the fingers look more like nuggets now. The Texas toast is legit, and the sauce is the boss. “Pistol” Pete Maravich will always be my highest-ranked star to come out of Baton Rouge, La., but this chain which originated near the LSU campus deserves a shot.
This under-the-radar Hawaiian barbeque spot is open 24 hours but is not yet on the mainland, with the COVID-19 pandemic stalling a planned 2020 fall expansion to Las Vegas. I always go for the loco moco minutes after arriving at the Maui airport. Also try the fried chicken, Portuguese sausage and teriyaki beef.
The Breakfast Baconator with potato wedges is your best bet early in the morning. I always contend the best spicy chicken sandwiches have the spices baked in, as opposed to slapping sauce on top of the chicken, and Wendy’s does it right. The burgers never disappoint.
If there’s a slower drive-thru lane in fast food, I never want to be stuck in it. Still, Popeyes is worth touting for the spicy fried chicken, Cajun fish, mashed potatoes and red beans & rice. The chicken sandwich, which too many people mysteriously lined up for hours to get, is no longer such a hot commodity and is way overrated.
14. Steak 'n Shake
South Point owner Michael Gaughan has made a lot of shrewd moves, and putting this franchise inside his casino was one. When living in the Chicago area, this was my top spot and I hit the 24-hour drive-thru 38 days (or late nights) in a row in the late 1990s. The franchise has lost steam in recent years, but the burgers and shakes still put it in my Sweet 16.
15. Burger King
There are days when the Whopper, a first-ballot inductee in the Fast Food Hall of Fame, is an offer I can’t refuse. The rest of the BK menu is relatively ordinary, though the sausage biscuit and hash browns make a good breakfast.
I would never wear a white suit, but late Raiders owner Al Davis and Colonel Harland Sanders each wore one well. Little known fact: Sanders opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1952. He died in 1980 at age 90, but his legacy lives on through superb fried chicken.
17. The Habit Burger
As the UNLV basketball beat writer, I covered a couple of great games between the Rebels and UCSB Gauchos in the Thunderdome in Santa Barbara, where this franchise originated. The Habit does have drive-thru windows and it also has a sensational tenderloin steak sandwich and quality char burger. This hot spot is a major riser, up from No. 36 last year, mostly due to my increased habit of going for the steak sandwich.
18. Taco John’s
The crispy beef tacos and potato oles blow away what you get at Taco Bell, so this is a value play. The Wyoming-based franchise is found in more than 20 states, and famous North Dakota gambler Randy McKay is hooked on it after trying it for the first time last year.
19. Dairy Queen
The burgers and chili dogs are legit and probably better than you remember. I’m not a big ice cream guy, but DQ serves up great Blizzards and an old classic, the Peanut Buster Parfait.
20. El Pollo Loco
As an alternative to fried chicken, try the Mexican-style grilled chicken. Spanish for “The Crazy Chicken,” El Pollo Loco is what I consider a truly healthy meal. Maybe I’m crazy.
Eddie Murphy turned in a classic performance as Axel Foley in the 1984 movie “Beverly Hills Cop.” If it’s a classic burger you want, hit the “The Last Great Hamburger Stand” out of Beverly Hills — there are locations next to the Red Rock and Sunset Station sportsbooks.
22. Taco Cabana
I discovered the Cabana on a stop in El Paso, and it’s a regional franchise popular in Texas and New Mexico. For those up for late-night Tex-Mex, most locations are open 24 hours and feature burritos, fajitas, quesadillas and top-notch tacos.
We have a run on taco spots, but still no Taco Bell. I love hard shell ground beef tacos, and these seasoned ground beef and steak tacos rank among the best. The bad news is my favorite Qdoba location in Las Vegas closed and the franchise is much harder to find, so it’s down from No. 15 last year yet easily tops its fierce competitor, Chipotle.
24. Nathan’s Famous
The chili dog and fries are a winning parlay. Nathan’s is obviously most famous for its July 4 contest on Coney Island in New York, but the franchise offers more than hot dogs on a surprisingly strong menu.
A build-your-own-toppings bar is a bonus for a place that serves big burgers. Yes, it’s a restaurant more suited for sitdown dining than carry-out orders, but there are select spots with drive-thru service, so this counts as fast food.
In SEC football country, Bojangles, loved mostly for fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits, is about as popular as laying the points with Alabama. VSiN’s Stormy Buonantony angrily claimed this franchise was underrated at No. 32 last year, so I sent a trusted scout for a second opinion at a North Carolina location and he backed up my non-Top 25 ranking. It is better than Zaxby’s, another Southern chain that just missed my Top 50.
27. Jersey Mike's Subs
This is the first sub shop on the list. The Big Kahuna cheese steak with jalapenos is my go-to sandwich. It always seems wrong that Angels star Mike Trout, who grew up in New Jersey, has been a spokesman for Subway, which is far inferior to Jersey Mike’s.
The spicy jalapeno baja burger is a smashing success, so to speak, and better than anything I have had at Five Guys.
29. Panda Express
Panda has fallen 16 spots from last year simply because I lost some interest. This is a change-of-pace option for those who favor an American Chinese menu. The best bet is the Orange chicken topped with chili sauce, and it’s also worth trying the Angus steak, Beijing beef and grilled teriyaki chicken.
30. Firehouse Subs
This is a solid No. 2 in the sub shop business. I have recently warmed up to Firehouse and its Hook & Ladder, meatball and steak & cheese sandwiches.
31. Tim Hortons
Canada’s largest quick-service chain is based in Toronto and more popular than the Blue Jays. I stumbled into Tim’s about 15 years ago in Montreal and was immediately impressed. It’s a solid breakfast and lunch stop with sandwich options that are superior to what is served at Starbucks.
32. Five Guys
Many fans rave about Five Guys, but I’m not one of those guys. The hamburgers, hot dogs and fries are good but fall short of great. The franchise has plans to add drive-thru service at some locations, and common sense dictates this is fast food.
33. Del Taco
My assessment of this place runs hot and cold, and the bottom line is I’m not crazy about it. The crispy beef tacos are decent and the same goes for the chicken soft tacos and spicy chicken burrito. The Del does get extra credit for staying open 24 hours.
34. Boston Market
When on the East Coast, check out the half chicken, the chicken carver sandwich or the half-order of ribs and rotisserie chicken. It’s high-quality food, though it’s not always served fast and few locations have drive-thru windows.
35. Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s
These two franchises have operated as one brand for a long time, although they have separate identities in different parts of the country. The consistency is in the menu variety and solid burgers. Carl’s Jr. also offers the Green Burrito menu at many locations, and the hard shell ground beef tacos are this handicapper’s top pick.
36. Long John Silver's
My regular order is chicken planks and hush puppies, with both smothered in tartar sauce. Several LJS locations are combined with KFC, but there still are some classic buildings that resemble an old fish house, including one in Barstow, Calif.
37. Dunkin’ Donuts
Dunkin’ is not just a breakfast stop. Swing by the drive-thru for lunch, too, and try the bacon, egg & cheese sandwich. Always order the hash browns.
38. La Bamba
If you attended a Big Ten school in the 1990s or lived in Chicago, you probably know La Bamba. There might be no better Mexican fast food, especially the chorizo burritos and tortas. It’s still possible to find “Burritos as Big as Your Head” in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
39. American Coney Island
As a dog player, I have to recommend “Detroit’s Original Coney.” ACI has a Las Vegas location downtown at The D, where you could run into celebrities such as Mike Palm and Derek Stevens.
40. Panera Bread
For a healthier option, consider the Panera sandwiches and soups. The sausage-and-pepperoni flatbread pizza was a strong recent addition. This is not one of my preferred stops, but the menu is unique and it’s quality food that is served fast.
41. White Castle
You probably either love it or hate it. My opinion slides somewhere in the middle. ESPN’s Chris “The Bear” Fallica said he loves White Castle, which offers mini-burgers and chicken-with-cheese sandwiches and features a late-night drive-thru.
Burgers and coney dogs highlight the “All American Food” lineup, with draft root beer as a bonus. This is actually the oldest restaurant chain in America, founded 99 years ago.
43. Earl of Sandwich
There’s an Earl location about 20 yards from the Palms sportsbook. Most of the hot sandwiches are good, and I prefer the Montagu with roast beef, turkey and Swiss.
It had been a while, so I drove through one of these last weekend in Oceanside, Calif., on the way to Goat Hill Park Golf Club. The golf was more memorable than the chili dog, corn dog and Chicago dog, but the franchise that claims to offer the “World’s Most Wanted Weiner” is a small winner.
45. Church’s Chicken
As far as chicken franchise hype, Church’s gets little and is often overlooked. But it has some redeeming qualities, including the Texas tenders with hot sauce.
A need to hit the reset button is never a good sign. Subway started an “Eat Fresh, Refresh” menu overhaul last year and the results are not remarkable. I still like the steak and cheese sandwich occasionally, but this franchise continues to slip. It was so desperate for a new image it signed Tom Brady, Stephen Curry, Rob Gronkowski, Derek Jeter and Serena Williams to commercial deals.
47. Taco Bell
The recent Mexican pizza fiasco is the latest setback for a once-proud franchise. The popular pizza, which had been dropped during a needless trimming of the menu, returned, sold out in a few weeks and still is missing. The Bell was elite in the 1980s and ‘90s, but it has declined along with the Dallas Cowboys. There are countless better burrito/taco shops.
There are worse burger chains. The Big Buford is the star of a respectable lineup, which includes chicken sandwiches and chili dogs.
49. Taco Time
The crispy ground beef tacos, Mexi-fries (another word for tater tots) and top-notch hot sauce crush what Taco Bell offers, but this small, West Coast franchise is too tough to find.
50. Jack in the Box
Jack is a late-night desperation option. No menu item is a standout, but the franchise is at least widely available with more than 2,000 joints located primarily on the West Coast.