Top 10 Under-Appreciated Food Chains of the USA

Chain food, as a rule, is not primo food. Yet it has to be said, some restaurant chains do food better than others -- sometimes by several factors of taste. The problem is, while some good chains like In-And-Out and Chick-fil-a are celebrated by their fans, others are not.

I am here to change all that. I am your hero.

Some franchises need no write-up: McDonald's or Taco Bell are certainly not underappreciated. Other places like Arby's and White Castle, I'd argue, are way over-appreciated.

Please note: I have not eaten at all of these places. Which means I totally don't appreciate them, obviously. If I haven't been to one, I only included it because more than one person argued quite passionately for it.

Coming up with the first nine was no problem. No. 10, however, proved problematic, and so:

No. 10: Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes
"All you care to eat" chains like Sweet Tomatoes (it's only called Souplantation in Southern California) were huge in the late 80s and early 90s. We called them "salad bars," but you'd find soup, pasta, fresh-baked breads and desserts there, too. 

Then something happened: We noticed a lot of old people hung out there for hours and hours and hours. It got to the point that, at times, you couldn't find a place to sit. And that was the end of that for cool cats like us. I still don't know that these chains are "underappreciated," per se, but they certainly are to the kids who eat burgers and tacos and fried chicken.

No. 9: Dairy Queen
I'm not saying Dairy Queen is all that. But when I want a shake and I'm not in my neighborhood, the next best bet is (usually) to find the local DQ. The website lists only eight flavors, but I've found places that served dozens.

Mmm, a chocolate-marshmallow shake sounds perfect right now, actually...

The downside of the DQ is that the franchises can vary so much, especially in quality and cleanliness. I don't dwell on that, so much. A good milkshake (even soft serve, dammit) is hard thing to beat.

No. 8: Long John Silvers
I wasn't going to include this chain in the list because I'm not a fan. But too many people think otherwise. Funny thing is, though, these fans never agree on why they like LJS:

"I love the popcorn shrimp!" "I hate the popcorn shrimp. The lobster bites rule!" "The lobster bites aren't even lobster but the fish planks are awesome, seriously."

Seriously? Fish planks?

In my mind, "fast food" and "seafood" just don't mix. But then again, Long John Silver's been around for 40 years now, and there's gotta be a reason, right? Personally, I think it's because many people don't like the taste of "fish," which makes LJS all the more palatable.

No. 7: Waffle House
It's late at night, and you've had a few too many. Stumble out of the dive bar, skip the car and head to the Waffle House across the street. Even if you can't see it when you're cross-eyed drunk, you can trust it's there.

Waffle House is always there, waiting for you. And you love it. Why?

"Because their chicken and hashbrowns are teh awesome, not to mention the dining experience that really drives home the whole 'greasy spoon' moniker."

"I've never had a hangover when I've had some WH."

"LOVE IT because they have the best hashbrowns ever, eggs with processed cheese food, and some of the best people-watching of all time."

For best results, don't go before 1:00 A.M. 

No. 6: A&W
Don't you dare tell me A&W isn't underappreciated.

All you have to do is look around you. How many new A&Ws do you see? How many have disappeared? How many have been combined with Pizza Huts and Taco Bells when it should stand alone because it is so awesome.

After 90 years, A&W oughta be the respected granddaddy of fast food. The burgers are decent, the hot dogs are better, and the root-beer floats are the end-all, be-all of the business.

My recommendation? Skip the weird stuff like Corn Dog Nuggets and go with a Coney Dog (with a float, of course). It may not be the same as when you were a kid, but it ain't that far off, either.

No. 5: Popeyes
I knew a guy who told me the following story:

"Me an' my buddy were at a Popeyes after a night out, and I'm eating chicken and he's eating something shrimp thing. He says, 'Hey, how you like that chicken?' and I say 'Love that chicken.' So these two suits sitting next to us, they get all stiff-like and one of them turns and says, 'Excuse me, what did you just say?' And I say, 'Love that chicken.' Next thing I know, I see LOVE THAT CHICKEN FROM POPEYES ads everywhere I go.

"So I created that."

End story.

Anyways, Popeyes' spicy fried chicken is the best fried chicken you'll find from any chain out there, hands down and no discussion about it. Some people will tell you the biscuits are excellent too, but I don't dig that artificial buttery taste.

Skip the biscuits, eat the chicken. GO NOW, GO DO IT!

No. 4. Cracker Barrel
If you're a fan of Cracker Barrel, you wonder why it's on the list. If you've never been to a Cracker Barrel but have heard "all about it," you're probably from California or New York City, and you need to know:

Cracker Barrel is often the only place in the lonelier regions of the United States where you can get a decent meal.

If you're not sure what I mean, go drive down some God-forsaken highway between two ghost towns, and sample the "fare." Cracker Barrel for the win 95 out of 100 times. For reals.

For instance: The pancakes usually range from "great" to "perfect" – I'm talking hot and soft in the middle and crunchier edges. Hmm. And they come with real maple syrup.

The food is more than affordable and comes with plenty of sides. Plan any road trips around Cracker Barrel locations, and you'll be set.

No. 3: Hot Dog on a Stick
Sure, the ridiculous uniform has changed over the years, but I remember the short shorts, even if you no longer inflict them on your employees, Hot Dog on a Stick. (Which doesn't mean they don't – I just haven't seen them lately.)

I remember your ladies turning their backs to me and then bouncing up and down as they created lemonade and strawberry lemonade and whatever-ade you were making at the time. I didn't care which. No sir.

It's funny, because your uniforms actually distract many of us from acknowledging a vital truth: You make the absolute best corndogs, bar none, in the space-time continuum. And yes, you're lemonade is awesome, too.

No. 2: Panda Express
It's easy to dismiss this mall-centric chain as another vendor of crap food. And I did, for many years.

Then one day, I realized something: Panda Express is now the closest thing to the kind of Chinese food with which I grew up. In an age when 70s-style Chinese food has disappeared under an onslaught of authenticity, you can always get your comfort-food fix from Panda Express.

This is not to say Panda Express is perfect. It's still fast food, after all. But as long as you don't stroll in less than an hour before closing (when nearly all their pans are empty), you can get your fill of chow mien, Mongolian beef, sweet n' sour chicken and BBQ pork.

I have only two complaints: The newfangled modern dishes need to disappear. And they ought to be serving chop suey.

I can't count how many times, after a long night out, that I've crawled into a Panda Express to fix all that was wrong with me. It's never, ever let me down.

No. 1: Del Taco
Yes. Del Taco is the No. 1 underappreciated food chain. Here is why:

A) Del Taco serves tacos and cheeseburgers. Nachos and chili-cheddar fries. Churros and cake.

B) Those burritos and cheeseburgers? They are quite tasty. The ingredients are quality. The ingredients are fresh. And the ingredients are plentiful.

C) Most people in this world not only don't know Del Taco, they also despise it for no reason at all.

Point C drives me nuts. People who "drool" over Taco Bell aren't really fans: They're just familiar with that crap – and it's better to torture your tongue with something you're familiar with than to explore something you suspect is basically similar, if not inferior, to crap.

Let me assure you: Del Taco is nothing like Taco Bell. The words "Del Taco" and "Taco Bell" ought not even reside in the same sentence. Sorry, Del Taco.

Look, Del Taco understands that in a market dominated by McDonald's and Taco Bell, they have to deliver a better dining experience to its customer base. I can't say it enough: Del Taco succeeds. Try it.

Just try it.  Now.

Now.  Go!

(What do you think? Let me know of a place you think doesn't get the love and I'll try it!)

dudedrama dudedrama
36-40, M
32 Responses Nov 3, 2009

Most of the places you have listed I have never tried; in fact, many of them are not present here in southern New England. I totally agree with you about Dairy Queen. The food is great when you hit a good one, but consistency between locations is a big problem. No Del Taco, Hot Dog on a Stick, or Waffle House out here...a couple of Popeye's, but few and far between. Not a fish eater myself, and have never tried a Panda Express. My biggest dissapointments in chain restaurant/fast food places have been Chipotle and Quizno's. And yes, I'll admit it...I do like both Arby's and Taco Bell!

so do i , in moderation

I live in the Southeastern U.S. so some of the things you mention I've never tried/heard of. Del Taco? Never heard of it, though the pictures do look infinitely better than Taco Bell. The only reason I've heard of Sweet Tomatoes is because I visited family in Oregon... I might have even eaten at one, but I don't recall. A&W is in stand alone stores? They only reached here IN other restaurants... KFC I think being the main one. "Hot Dog on a Stick" Never heard of it.<br />
Panda Express tastes like almost every tiny chinese restaurant that pops up in just about every other ***** mall.<br />
I oddly first had Popeyes in the Atlanta airport... and that was only a biscuit. They've come to the "city" where I live only with in the last... five years or so, but that's probably more an issue of where I live being really weird as to what chains will come here, which will make it, and which will be in the state but never here.

I love long john silvers! Fish planks, extra fries and crumbs, no cole slaw.

This was interesting and read like something that could be on a semi reputable news site like AOL.

Ok, Red Robin, Cheeburger Cheeburger, and Famous Daves, nuff said.

There are no Del Tacos in NJ but your desc<x>ription makes me curious for when I find one in my travels. We have Taco Bells and I've been there a few times years ago and stay away from them now. The food isn't that great and the wait is horrendous, it's supposed to be fast food!

Oh i also forgot to add that i think all fast food places should have drive thrus, like subways that don't always have this. All of em.

Tell me about it dollofdust meeeee tttooooo :) I would have to add Wendy's to this list. The chili they make is just right and the baked potatoes good too. Like all the rest of their food. The come up with some great salads. Their burgers always taste fresh and they don't add mayo to evvvverything they serve.

you are a genius. i love this list and look forward to visiting places our of my region. and how about that church's fried chicken?

I have only heard of two of these places. DW and Panda Express. I never thought I grew up in a small town until now...

Sweet tomatoes is great. All you can eat -health- food is rare.<br />
<br />
Long John Silver's - possibly the most unhealthy food on the planet. It all tastes the same due to that extremely heavy grease they use.<br />
<br />
Waffle House - good values if you study the menu, good food, usually a great, warm staff.<br />
<br />
A&W - a great break from the everyday joints. I really like their burgers.<br />
<br />
Carcker Barrel - good stuff but I don't think I've ever had commendable service. What is it with these radio-carrying folks that they can't seem to communicate? It's bizarre.<br />
<br />
Panda Express - in this area, if you like your food fuzzy, then this is the place. I went once and will never go back. Horrible quality, horrifically old.<br />
<br />
Del Taco - never been, none in the area.<br />
<br />
No, fast food is not basically good for you. It's nowhere remotely close to being good for you. It's loaded with more crap than a bologna factory after a shitstorm.

Ha ha up here our Waffle House is Dennys, that's usually the best place to go to after a night of drinking even both at night and the next morning.<br />
<br />
Never had Del Taco but that picture just looks so fantastic. <br />
<br />
And now I'm hungry.

I think you left out IHOP... where we live it's international cuisine.<br />
<br />
also Chipotle... They really have taken fast food up a notch.<br />
I like Panera too, but their stuff is really heavily laden with salt and fat. Which is okay if you don't try to create the impression that your food is healthy. <br />
<br />
oh, and great post.. thanks..<br />
<br />
I cannot for the life of me understand the resurgence of Arby's. <br />
I used to work on that account and went to their test kitchens. <br />
The food is awful, but I do like the curly fries

Real Food, as we older folks know it, is the worst food for our health and lifestyle. At the times of our young eating habits, it was Good for us, as we were active and quite frankly, ignorant of our health. But, just think about what's in the food that these Food Chains serve to us! Lots of Lettuce and Tomatoes on the Hamburger, Onions, Pickles, Flame Broiled Meat, and Buns. This is more healthy for me now, than what I ever ate in the past. I would rather go to Burger King than stay home and eat Bacon, Eggs, Biscuits and Gravy, Milk, Rare cooked Pork, Pizza, etc. etc. Second, take the Taco..... many people don't really know what a Real Taco is! We are so used to eating these "Candied Up" Taco's, we can never know what's real. Just go to the Rural parts of Mexico and you will find Real Taco's.<br />
To recapitulate: Today's Fast Food's, are basically good for us, only if, we stay away from the Sugars. I am Trim, well built, in good health, no blood problems, and I eat at most fast food places. They are inspected by the Feds to provide the public with wholesome foods that are healthy, and they do. The opposition complains, only for a piece of the pie. In other words, Money motivates the ones who point the finger at the Fast Food People. Yes, they're Big Business, but they earned it.

ohhh so hungry....

I love Dairy queen. Our "town" eventually became too big and they left. Not sure why cuz they were always busy, but when I go visit my sister, she has one right down the street, so I get my Blizzard on there!

i have only heard of a few of these

The key word in Cracker Barrel is "cracker." <br />
<br />
I'd rather starve. I'm with you on Popeye's, however, and hungry.

I love this food !!! PERFECT-MEDICINE.COM

I am from South Africa and Steers should be on your Nr.10 spot for us ;)

Man I would love to try Del Taco! But yes I have Cracker Barrel and also A%W-THANKS

Dude(drama), I totally LOVE that chicken!!! <br />
<br />
:) :P :)

Very cool and well done post.

Ah, a Macho Combo Burrito! My town had one of the first Del Taco's it used to be called Naugles - super food!

I used to work at a Hotdog on a Stick... oh, the joys of my youth! ;)

LOL, You had to mention Waffle House. When I party with my friends we go clubbing. At the end of the night we get a taxi cab to the Waffle House, make him wait while they fix us scattered hash browns, and then we go back to our hotel room and eat them. The first person that pukes theirs has to pay for the entire hotel room and Waffle House bills. I know that is TMI sorry. At least I didn't tell you how we decided on Waffle House.

I grew up on A&W and this weekend when I was driving up to Napa and had to take the Golden Gate... I noticed one off the freeway and plotted how I could make sure to stop there on my way home!<br />
<br />
Great list... but A&W wins it for me.

I love Del Taco.<br />
I didn't understand it for a long time as I didn't grow up with it... but when I was in LA, there was one right by my old work and one night I was just hungry and it was late...<br />
<br />
Burritos... tacos... fries... they really do belong TOGETHER!

Me too :)

Dude, we could talk all night. <br />
At the Waffle House, of course. If you live in my neighborhood, you might get lucky and Kid Rock will be kicking some *** in the parking lot.<br />
<br />
The first time I walked into a Waffle House, I asked "Do you have a smoking section?"<br />
The waitress replied,<br />
"Honey, we ain't but got two sections. Smokin' and Chain-smokin."

Now I am seriously hungry.