Tuesday Top 5: Top National Fast Food Chains

Every Tuesday, Jack & John rank their top 5 somethings, and the categories have no bounds.  Then, they take the discussion to the air Wednesdays starting at 8:20.  Your input is encouraged both on the blog and on-air.  Share your own top 5, criticize theirs, or get in-depth with the discussion.

Jack & John frequently will have a healthy lunch together. While John continues to feed his face, Jack points to an adjacent table and asks if the customer is "gonna eat that?"

OK, so back in March we did “Munch Madness”, and local favorites like Amigos, Val’s and Runza did battle for the crown of the best signature culinary item in the city.  Well, on today’s Tuesday Top 5, we’re going national.  We want to hear your top 5 favorite nationwide fast food chains.  If there’s any confusion about where the line should be drawn between ‘regional’ and ‘national’ or ‘casual dining’ and ‘fast food’, we’ll use this page as a resource.  If your favorite is under the listing for the U.S., it can be ranked.

Now, Bish is on vacation this week, so Jack’s top five are posted below, and we’ll have Chris Whitney weigh in on both the blog and on-air on Wednesday.

Jack’s Top 5:

1.  Chipotle: I don’t know if it’s the sleek decor, the trendy loud music, the assembly line-like nature of ordering, or the fact that the burritos are as big as my 2-week old daughter, but I’m more than willing to put up with the long lines downtown and the general messiness that goes along with eating here whenever possible.

2.  Culver’s: I often ask myself if I’d like Culvers as much if it weren’t for the custard.  I still don’t have an answer to that.  I think the thing that keeps bringing me back is that at Culver’s, unlike most restaurants, I don’t have that one go-to order that I get every time I’m there.  For some reason, this place actually gives me and my set-in-my-ways style freedom to mix it up a little bit.  Plus, I know we’re talking instant heart attack, but I’ll pretty much take fried cheese curds anytime, anyplace.

3.  Raising Cane’s: I don’t think there are a lot of people that would deny this is the best any fast food restaurant has done with the concept of chicken fingers by leaps and bounds, but the thing that I really love (and didn’t even like at first) is the pure simplicity of the ordering process.  There’s not 27 value meals to pick from or 4 different “dollar menus” of which you need to keep track.  There are 4 different things you can get.  That’s it.  It makes the lines go quicker, makes me less stressed out, and it just works.

4.  Jimmy John’s: While I’m still put off everytime I walk in one of these places and the 37 teenagers working there all say “hi” in unison, there’s something to be said for knowing you’re going to get your food in less than 2 minutes from walking in the door.  Plus, sandwich shops are a dime a dozen, and again, I’m not a big fan of the complicated ordering situations, particularly at sandwich shops, so I actually like that I don’t have to go through and tell them every single ingredient I want.

5.  Burger King: This is kind of a novelty spot because it only a very small portion of BK’s offering.  Breakfast.  I’m pretty sure that when the Croissanwich debuted in the early 80s, it was one of the greatest things ever, ushering in the concept of breakfast through the drive-through (I think McDonalds was first, but their offerings don’t hold a candle to BK’s).  They’ve also added in the little hash brown bites which are superior to the single checkbook-sized hash brown McDonald’s offers in every way.  I can’t tell you how many times on  fall Saturday mornings during in my early 20s the very first thing I did was hit the local BK and spend the next hour slowly eating a Sausage Croissanwich or two while watching College Gameday.

John’s Top 5:

Vacation or not, I’m not one to let a food debate go unchecked.  Besides, this one is a real toughy.  While the cereal top 5 was easy to come up with, this one is not so easy.  First, there isn’t a “bad” fast food that I have had.  Sure I’ve had some bad experiences at certain stores, but they have been made up for with several trips to good stores.  I am ruling out pizza places right off the bat.  To me “fast food” is burgers, sandwiches, chicken and tacos.  I am also disqualifying a few places that appear on the list Jack provided.  If a waitress comes to your table to take your order, that is NOT fast food.  You go to a counter, you order and you generally receive your food in less than 5 minutes.  That may be a liberal definition, but that will qualify as “fast food.”  So even though I clamor for these two restaurants to come to Lincoln, Waffle House and my beloved Steak n Shake do not make the cut using this criteria.  But they are still damn good.  I am also not going to rate solely on the taste of the food, for reasons that will be apparent as you read along.

1) Schlotzsky’s.  There is bias here.  This was the first job I held after moving to Lincoln and a place where I met some great, lifelong friends, one of whom still runs the only remaining Schlotzsky’s in town (27th & Holdrege.)  But it is also, hands down, the best tasting sandwich in Lincoln.  Subway?  Ok, but tastes like it’s made on an assembly line.  Jimmy John’s?  Good, but I’ve had that sandwich before.  It’s called Little King.   But Schlotzsky’s is unique.  The sourdough buns are fantastic (I recommend the rye.)  Most of your meats, cheeses and veggies are the same so for a sandwich, the bread is the difference-maker.  The other difference-maker is how you assemble the sandwich.  Schlotzsky’s was toasting their “Original” long before most places figured out that a hot sandwich combines the flavors of the meat, cheese and bread better than slapping things together cold.  I’ve never had a bad Schlotzsky’s.  Even the vegetarian sandwich.  But I highly recommend an Original on rye with a splash of their hot sauce.  Awesome.

2) Wendy’s.  Best “fast food” burger.  I always thought a burger was more than ketchup, mustard, pickles.  Give me tomatoes!  Give me onions!  Give me lettuce!  I remember when Wendy’s first came to Fremont.  I was probably the only 8 year old who liked his single with “everything.”  I can also remember complaining when the “extras” started sliding out from between the buns.  But with maturity (and larger hands), I have since controlled my hamburger.  Then add their thick-cut fries and the kick-ass Frosty.  Boom!  Fast food perfection.

3) Taco John’s.  Since coming to Lincoln, Amigos has taken over as my choice for fast food Mexican (with Taco Inn a close second).  But because these two are “local” fast food, they are DQ’ed from this list.  That doesn’t diminish from Taco John’s.  Sure the tacos are thin and flimsy.  Sometimes they are overly greasy.  For some reason, they are very tasty.  I think a lot of that comes from their hot sauce which, along with Arby’s Sauce, is as close to crack cocaine as is legally possible.  Then you add in the Potato Oles, which gave tator tots new life.  Once in a while, I’ll go with a burrito or nachos, but the best meal is the Six Pack & a Pound.  Back in college, this was Sunday dinner.  Kick back with six hardshells, a buttload of Oles and some ESPN Sunday Night Football.  Yeah!  Today, I might be able to do four tacos and a half-buttload of Oles.  Just make sure I have at least 8 packs of hot sauce.

4) Dairy Queen.  Like Jack’s selection of BK, this pick is done on one thing only.  Perhaps the simplest, yet most addicting dessert known to mankind.  It is sweet treat perfection in just three words.  Peanut.  Buster.  Parfait.  Blizzards are fine.  Banana Splits are great.  Everyone loves a good malt or shake.  But if DQ just sold the PBP, that’s all they ever need.  DQ’s famous soft serve, topped with Spanish peanuts, topped with hot fudge.  Holy crap, I’m drooling…..

5) McDonald’s.  This choice was very difficult.  Wendy’s has the better burger.  Burger King has a better burger (but their fries are atrocious.)  But McD’s makes the cut because there’s not a fast food I have had more times than theirs.  It’s the power of marketing and of having one seemingly located at just the right place at the right time.  Seriously.  When I am in a hurry or on a road trip, it seems like the Golden Arches are always right there when you need them.  While I still prefer the Wendy’s have-a-salad-bar-on-top-of-your-burger concept, McDonalds works without the “extras.”  In fact, every time they try to copy the Wendy’s single or the BK Whopper (see Arch Deluxe or McDLT), it falls flat.  There’s something about a McDonald’s hamburger that just has to be simple.  A Quarter Pounder is just as good today as it was 20 years ago.  For that, Ronald McDonald gets extra credit.

Chris’s Top 5:

5) WAFFLE HOUSE
Ok, this might catch a lot of grief—and rightfully so, but hear me out. We don’t have any Waffle Houses near Lincoln for quite a distance—the closest is in Kansas City I think. But once you get south of Kansas City, you can’t shake a stick without seeing them. The menu is pretty simple, but it’s a place that has heart. You’ll see people from everywhere—and I mean everywhere—at a Waffle House, no matter what time of day you’re there. It’s a little kitschy, but the jukebox, the ordering process, and the kindness of the waitresses have always made for a good dining experience for this guy. That and they have awesome omelettes.

4) QDOBA
I will preface this by saying I have only been to Qdoba once, it was after a grueling day of ultimate last summer in Omaha. I’d heard all about it from my Omaha friends so I figured it was worth a shot. To this day, the quesadilla I scarfed down was a thing they write novels about. The flavors were just right, the dipping sauce was fantastic and the guacamole was perfect. Granted a quesadilla isn’t too hard to perfect–or at least do well–but Qdoba did the job and then some. I fear if I go back it will spoil what was one of the better dining experiences in recent memory. Am I over the top here? Maybe. But it was good. Number four good.

3) SONIC
I rarely go to Sonic, but when I’ve gone, I’ve never been disappointed and always thought to myself “I should really be going here more often.” First off, the menu is incredible. They used to have this ‘Hickory Burger’ that was loaded up with BBQ sauce that was a sure get every time. Plus, their shakes, malts, slushies are always good on a hot day. And I haven’t even gotten to the coney dogs yet. Very solid entry at number three, I look at it as a special occasion when I go for some reason since their Lincoln locations are pretty far from my neck of the woods.

2) GODFATHER’S PIZZA
We discussed putting them up for the Munch Madness extravaganza, but alas they fell short. I used to work at Hy-Vee making pizzas and for awhile, Godfather’s was the only one I would eat besides the ones I’d make for myself at the V. They have a great large  one-topping pizza special on Mondays/Tuesdays for $5.50 that is one of the better deals around in terms of quantity and quality. My reason for the #2 ranking? The taco pizza. It has stood the test of time and it always hits the spot. While it is a chain, it kind of had the neighborhood feel to it as well whether it was going in my days growing up or even going back now as an adult.

1) JIMMY JOHN’S
I tried not to duplicate anything Jack had put up here since there’s a ton to choose from, but Jimmy John’s proved to be undeniable. Yes, they really do make sandwiches so fast you’ll freak. A buddy of mine worked there for a spell in college and it was incredible to see the sandwich artists go to work. Even if it’s busy, you’ll get a sandwich in good time and I’ve yet to find a sandwich I don’t like from their menu. Plus they deliver. That, and now that they have a ton of Lincoln locations, it’s like a reward for frequenting their then-only location at 14th and O for so long.

WEDNESDAY MORNING EDIT (from Jack):  I realize the list I provided from wikipedia is flawed.  Not only does Bish make some valid criticisms, but it appears that a few original Lincoln joints (Runza, Amigos) are on the list, and the goal was to stay away from those.  My new criteria is that in order to be a “national” fast food chain, it needs to appear in half of the United States.  I realize people generally don’t have that data, but it provides a general guideline.

3 Responses to Tuesday Top 5: Top National Fast Food Chains

  1. Bob VK says:

    1) Fatburger, hands down the best burger in the biz.
    2) Runza, (it’s on your national list), great burgers and fries, and DEFINITELY the best onion rings anywhere.
    3) Taco Bueno, no longer in Lincoln but where else will you get a deep fried cheesecake chimichanga?
    4) Waffle House, whenever I’m down South I just have to slide in on the grease for a fix of good ol’ diner food.
    5) Taco Bell, overall the best American/Mexican.

  2. Doug says:

    Runza would have been #1, but Jack put the Kibosh on them (hater).

    1. Fazoli’s – two words Bread Sticks
    2. Godfather’s Pizza – Cheap and close to home
    3. Long John Silver’s – I hate to admit this one, but once in a while isn’t bad, is it?
    4. Burger King -meh, OK in a hurry
    5. Subway – decent meatball sandwich

  3. Nikki says:

    After all of the hoopla about Five Guys coming to town, I’m surprised not to see that on here. Good call on Chipotle. Might I add: Backyard Burgers.

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