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