Serious Eats: Kenji’s Best Fast Food Awards

Mar 26, 2015 11:00AM
J. Kenji López-Alt

If going for a drive is like a mini vacation, then fast food is really just an excuse for us to eat outside of our normal diet when we’re on holiday. Who else secretly thinks to themselves, We’re going for a long ride on Saturday? Sweet, In-N-Out for lunch!

I didn’t always love fast food and I wouldn’t put any of it on my desert island list of foods today. I do, however, love driving, and just as you learn to love your siblings from all that forced time spent together, I’ve grown rather fond of the comforting smells, flavors, and textures of various fast food establishments over years of road trips.

I’ve driven across the country a couple of times and have gone out of my way to seek out local fast food spots when I’m traveling, all in the hope that I can one day complete my master compendium of fast food recommendations. The goal: No matter where I am in the country—nay the world—whether it’s at a highway interchange, a shopping mall food court, a train kiosk, or an airport, I want to know what my best bets are for getting decent grub at lightning speed and reasonable prices.

This list is my first stab at it. It is totally, completely, 100% biased and based on my personal taste alone. You will no doubt disagree with me on a few or perhaps every point. I’m happy to fight you to the finish and let the crispest french fry and tastiest burger win.

Let’s get to it.

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The Awards!

Best Burger: The Original Smashburger With Cheese from Smashburger
classic smash serious eats

The smashed burger started in the Midwest, was codified by Steak & Shake, turned into world-wide phenomenon by Shake Shack, and perfected by Smashburger. They’re made by pressing a quarter pound ball of beef onto a screaming hot griddle with a special pressing tool and cooked almost all the way through on the first side, then scraped up, delivering the most insanely well-browned, flavor-packed crust of any chain. They’re always well-seasoned and juicy, with a mustard-y special sauce that enhances the beef without distracting from it. Bonus points for coming with onions and pickles by default. All burgers should come with onions and pickles by default.

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Runner Up #1: Shack Burger With Cheese From Shake Shack


My obsession with burgers can be traced back to a single experience: The first time I tasted a Shack Burger from the Madison Square Park location of the Shake Shack. Back then, it was the only location of what was poised to become a worldwide chain. On a good day, they still deliver the same brown-crusted, smash-style patties served with perfectly melted American cheese, a sweet and salty special sauce, picture-perfect green leaf lettuce and Roma tomato slices, and a butter-griddled Martin’s potato roll, all made with the best beef you’re gonna find in the business. What’s keeping it from the top slot? Consistency: From time to time you’ll find yourself with a under-smashed or under-seasoned patty in your hands, which makes you question whether it was worth that half hour line.

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Runner Up #2: Double Double, Animal Style, With Onions Two Ways and Chopped Chilies From In-N-Out


When it comes to deliciousness-per-dollar ratio, nobody holds a candle to In-N-Out. An Animal-Style Double Double, made with two patties of fresh-never-frozen beef griddled in mustard on a flat top, fused with melted American cheese, and served with special sauce, pickles, crisp iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and caramelized onions on an always-toasted-crisp bun and served with a smile can still be yours for under four bucks (and sometimes under three.) The phrase “onions two ways” will get you raw and caramelized onions, while the phrase “whole grilled onion” will trade the chopped ones for fat slice of sweet onion cooked until browned on the flattop. “Chopped chilies” will add hot pickled peppers pressed right into the meat. Is it the most flavor-packed, highest-quality beef around? Not by a long shot. But it’s a perfectly balanced sandwich and, and where else can you find perfection for a couple bucks and change? (Just make sure to stay away from those things they call fries).

Don’t live near an In-N-Out? No worries: make your own following my recipe here, and make sure to check out our Ultimate In-N-Out Secret Menu Survival Guide.

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Best French Fries: Wendy’s


When Wendy’s changed up their whole menu a few years ago, they got a lot of things right. Their burgers are now consistently the best of the Big Three national chains, but their fries are even better. Crisp and golden crusted, they’re thicker than your average fast food fries with skin-on ends, and they’re fluffier, with more potato-y flavor.

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Runner Up #1: Shoestring Fries From Smashburger


Going the opposite route, Smashburger’s shoestring fries are about 30% skinnier than your average McDonald’s french fry, giving them extra crispness. I like to pick them up by the crunchy bunch.

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Runner Up #2: French Fries From McDonald’s on a Good Day


There’s a reason that the plurality of potatoes consumed in the world are consumed in the form of McDonald’s french fries: They’re addictive as all get out. It’s no surprise that the folks at Mickey D’s spent piles and piles of money and research figuring out how to make them just so.

Here’s a tip: McDonald’s will always give you fresh-from-the-fryer fries if you tell them your first batch of fries tasted stale, no questions asked.

At their best—fresh out of the fryer, seasoned liberally—these fries are the best in the business. Unfortunately, it’s a crap shoot and you’ve got about 50/50 odds that your fries are going to be handed over to you limp and soggy or with not a grain of salt on them. Here’s a tip: McDonald’s will always give you fresh-from-the-fryer fries if you tell them your first batch of fries tasted stale, no questions asked. Or better yet, make better ones at home!

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Best Non-French Fry Sides: Giant Onion Rings From Burger Fi


BurgerFi, the Shake Shack clone from Florida, is inferior in every way to the original with one big exception: those big, fat onion rings. An order of onion rings at BurgerFi only comes with about a half dozen rings, but at nearly two inches thick, these are the fattest rings around. They’ve got more than size going for them. The batter is invariably crisp and well-seasoned and the onions sweet and tender. This is how all onion rings should taste.

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Runner Up: Cheese Curds From Culver’s

There are only three acceptable things to do with cheese curds: Turn them into cheese, drop ’em on your poutine, or bread and fry them. Culver’s, a Wisconsin-based chain, serves above-average smash-griddled burgers topped with more butter than you’d care to think about, but it’s the cheese curds that separate this place from its fast-casual competitors. Those fried curds are crisp, hot, and squeaky, just like true Wisconsin cheese curds should be.