More than 36% of American adults ate fast food on a given day between 2013 and 2016, according to a report on fast food consumption by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there’s no reason to think that our intake has decreased.
However much we might claim to disdain the chains that purvey fast food on nutritional and/or aesthetic grounds, the fact is that a lot of us find it pretty irresistible.
As with most indulgences, the best game plan for enjoying it is simply not to indulge too much. Eating fast food every day is clearly not a good strategy for a long and healthy life. On the other hand, will an occasional cheeseburger or pizza or bucket of fried chicken kill you? Probably not.
If and when you do join the line at McDonald’s or pull up to the Sonic Drive-In window, what should you choose? That’s a matter of personal taste, of course, and there’s plenty of variety out there, even beyond the obvious. In addition to their core menus, pizza chains sell chicken wings; burger chains sell fish sandwiches; doughnut chains sell bagels.
But every chain has an iconic offering or two – foods that pretty much define them, and that few people can resist when they place their orders.
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24/7 Tempo has chosen the single most iconic food item at each of the nation’s top 20 fast food chains in annual sales as determined by the restaurant industry trade publication QSR. These are the chains whose units are apt to be most accessible to the largest number of us, even though they may sometimes be less interesting or unusual than America’s favorite regional fast food chains.
The iconic items on this list are often the things most often ordered, but sometimes they’re the original offerings that helped make the chain’s reputation – or just the ones that people are most likely to bring to mind when the name of the chain is mentioned.
All these iconic foods (and in two cases drinks) are items that the operations in question do particularly well. That certainly doesn’t mean that that they’re among the choices health experts would recommend – these are the healthiest food options at every fast food restaurant.
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• French fries
You could argue that the Big Mac – perhaps the ultimate fast-food burger, with its double patty, sesame bun, American cheese, and pickles, lettuce, and onions – is the icon here. Or maybe it’s the Egg McMuffin, which launched the breakfast sandwich craze when it was introduced back in 1972. But the one thing almost everybody seems to agree on – even people who’d never admit to eating a McDonald’s burger – is that the fries are great, and maybe reason enough in themselves to pull into the drive-thru.
Their secret? Good potatoes, to begin with. But the spuds are treated with dextrose and sodium acid pyrophosphate for color, various preservatives, and “natural beef flavor.” Whatever they do to them, it seems to work.
• Pumpkin Spice Latte
Starbucks is famous for its many specialty coffee drinks, most of all its blended Frappuccinos and its various lattes. But the one item most strongly associated with the chain – the one it first offered in 2004, and the one that has gone on to become its most copied creation by far – is the autumnal specialty called the Pumpkin Spice Latte, or PSL. The day on which this drink, with its cinnamon-based spice mix, goes on sale each year is eagerly anticipated, and Starbucks is said to sell as many as 350 million cups of it annually.
• Italian BMT
This combination of Genoa salami, spicy pepperoni, and Black Forest ham, typically served on Italian bread and garnished with various vegetable additions (lettuce, onions, pickles, tomatoes, etc.) is Subway’s best-selling sandwich. BMT originally stood for Brooklyn Manhattan Transit, the name of one of New York City’s original subway (get it?) lines. Now, says the chain, it stands for “Bigger, Meatier, Tastier.”
4. Burger King
• The Whopper
In 1957, 11 years before the appearance of the Big Mac, Burger King launched this oversize flame-broiled burger, served with mayo, ketchup, and the usual lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions, on a sesame seed bun. There are myriad ways to customize the Whopper by adding or subtracting ingredients, asking for light or heavy servings of the additions, choosing a variety of sides, etc. (the company website says there are 221,184 possible variations, though that seems unlikely).
The size and packaging of the burger have changed several times since its birth, but the Whopper remains Burger King’s trademark item.
5. Taco Bell
• Crunchy taco
Authentic Mexican food is becoming easier and easier to find around the U.S. these days. This isn’t it. But Taco Bell has brought at least some hints of Mexican flavors and ways of presenting food to a wide audience across America, even if they are in the form of such never-in-Mexico offerings as the Crunchwrap Supreme, the Quesarito, and the Fiery Doritos Locos Taco Supreme.
The basic Taco Bell order, though, is the crunchy taco – a staple of the chain’s menu since founder Glen Bell is said to have invented the pre-formed crispy taco shell in the 1950 and filled it with seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce, and shredded cheddar cheese.
• The Baconater
Some Wendy’s fans might consider the Double Stack – two burger patties with cheese, ketchup, mustard, pickle, and onion – to be the chain’s most essential item. It’s a little too similar to other fast-food burgers, though. That can’t be said of the Baconater, introduced in 2007. This one also has two patties and cheese, but what makes the difference is three strips of bacon placed across each of the two burgers – six in all. The only other things on the bun are mayo and ketchup – no vegetables or mustard (though these may be ordered specially).
The chain has periodically featured variations on the Baconator, including one with jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, and chipotle ranch sauce, and another that is a regular Baconator but with three patties and nine strips of bacon.
7. Dunkin’ Donuts
Dunkin’ puts such emphasis these days on its coffee, its frozen drinks, its bagels, and its sandwiches and wraps that it’s easy to forget about the eponymous doughnuts. Nobody forgets about Munchkins, though – otherwise known as “Donut Holes.” Jelly-filled, glazed, chocolate, and more, these are little spheres of doughnut dough, one-or-two-bite-size. Even people who might never eat a whole doughnut will grab one or two (or more) of these.
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• Deluxe Chicken Sandwich
Named America’s favorite fast-food chain year after year, Chick-fil-A recently introduced such innovations as Spicy Chick-n-Strips, Chick-n-Sliders, and the Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap. The bedrock here, however, is this basic offering: a slab of breaded boneless chicken breast pressure-cooked in peanut oil, served on a toasted buttered bun with dill pickle chips, lettuce, and tomato (a choice of three kinds of cheese is offered at extra cost).
• Pepperoni pizza
Now the largest pizza brand in the United States., Domino’s offers its popular and ubiquitous specialty with a customizable choice of three sizes, five crusts, nine sauces, and 27 toppings, as well as a dozen ready-made combinations (plus chicken dishes, pastas, sandwiches, and more). According to the food delivery app Caviar, among other sources, pepperoni is the nation’s number-one favorite pizza topping – and pepperoni pizza gets ordered at Domino’s more than any other variation.
10. Pizza Hut
• Pepperoni pizza
Edged out of the number-one pizza shop by Domino’s a few years back, Pizza Hut is still a strong number-two. Like its rival, the chain offers some standard pizza toppings as well as the opportunity to customize, but again it’s the tried and true that rules: a large pepperoni pizza is the most popular order here.
11. Panera Bread
• Broccoli cheddar soup
“Bread” might be part of this chain’s name, and sandwiches are definitely featured on the extensive menu, but soups are also offered – and this creamy specialty, available daily, is said to be the most popular item ordered around the country (and the internet is full of copycat recipes).
• Chicken bowl
This make-your-own-sorta-Mexican-food chain continues to thrive. Bowls (instead of burritos or tacos) are the most popular item here – and the definitive order (apparently also the most popular) includes white rice, black beans, chicken, mild salsa, lettuce, and cheese.
• Original Recipe chicken
Fast food menus constantly evolve to match consumer tastes and health concerns. Sometimes, though, the original – the item that made a chain’s reputation in the first place – is best. You could certainly order some Nashville Hot tenders here, or a Smoky Mountain BBQ chicken sandwich, but why would you? It’s the Original Recipe chicken, seasoned with that famous “secret blend of 11 herbs & spices” that made the chain world-famous.
14. Sonic Drive-In
• Cherry limeade
Sonic fans love the cheeseburgers, the chicken sandwiches, the potato tots, the jalapeño-popper-like Ched ‘R’ Peppers, and more, but it’s the drinks that really seem to stir passions. And it’s the cherry limeade – made with fresh-squeezed lime juice and poured over pellet ice – that wins raves again and again. There is also a diet version, and Sonic periodically offers such limited-time variations as the Cherry Limeade Red Bull Slush.
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15. Dairy Queen
• Blizzard Treats
Sure, there are burgers, dogs, and chicken sandwiches here, not to mention fries and onion rings and such. But the “Dairy” part of the name is key. The chain’s “upsidedownright thick” Blizzard Treats (or simply Blizzards) – introduced in 1985 – have become its veritable emblem. These are dense concoctions of soft-serve ice cream loaded with pieces of various candies, baked goods, and/or miscellaneous sundae toppings. They are indeed so thick that they won’t flow out of the cup when turned upside down. There are always at least 15 varieties available, and they may be customized. A current favorite is the Peanut Butter Pie Blizzard, made with Snickers.
• Classic Roast Beef
Arby’s has experimented with venison sandwiches, and offers a wide range of chicken, turkey, and pork options. The chain made its reputation with roast beef, though, and while it now offers such variations as Bourbon BBQ Barrel Stack, Bacon Beef ‘N Cheddar, and Jalapeño Roast Beef Slider, it’s the good old original Classic Roast Beef, with thin-sliced meat piled on a toasted sesame bun and anointed with ketchupy Arby’s Sauce or the horseradish-flavored Horsey Sauce, that continues to define the place.
17. Little Caesars
• Crazy Bread
This is basically a pizza chain, of course, so it’s not surprising that items like its Hot-N-Ready Extramostbestest Stuffed Crust pizza and other specialty pies are the main focus. It’s a non-pizza that has become most symbolic of Little Caesars, though: its Crazy Bread – soft breadsticks full of butter and garlic and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. These are best ordered with a side of Crazy Sauce, which is basically tomato sauce jacked up with various herbs and spices, perfect for dipping.
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18. Jack in the Box
• Two Tacos
Some people think of Jack in the Box as a hamburger place but the chain’s take on tacos – two to a serving – is the most often-ordered item on the menu. The Wall Street Journal reports that Americans eat 554 million of them a year. While they’re filled with seasoned ground beef and shredded lettuce like the ones at Taco Bell, they get a slice of American cheese inside instead of that other chain’s shredded cheddar, and the taco sauce is already added.
These tacos have been called everything from “a wet envelope of cat food” to “vile and amazing.” Whatever they are, it’s impossible to imagine Jack in the Box without them.
19. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
Popeyes makes good fried chicken and a credible version of Louisiana-style popcorn shrimp, among other things, but chances are that if you mention the chain to Popeyes fans, the first thing they’ll say is “Biscuits!” They’re unusually good for mass-produced examples of this classic American specialty – substantial but also flaky and light, with buttery flavor and a slight tang of buttermilk.
20. Papa John’s
• Cheese pizza
Papa John’s has come under fire over the past few years for founder John Schnatter’s racial comments and the subsequent departure of franchisee and spokesman Peyton Manning from the operation. It’s still the nation’s fourth-largest pizza chain, though, and while it offers numerous options – including a John’s Favorite Pizza with two meats and a six-cheese blend that has been described as “grease on top of grease” – it’s the cheese pizza that keeps a lot of people coming back. Hailed for its “solid-looking crust and glistening cheese,” it can be ordered with one of eight dipping sauces, from ranch to honey mustard to blue cheese.
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