Originating in the world’s first hamburger chain, the slider (or “slyder” as they’ve tried to brand it) at White Castle has a strange and strangely addictive flavor resulting from the steaming of cheap ground beef and onions.
Yes, fast food is a great caloric wasteland (we almost wrote “waistline”), but there are some gems stuck here and there among the horse turds. We’re restricting ourselves to chains that have branches in the New York area, so “good” chains like Whataburger and In-N-Out are off limits, and so are foreign chains that peddle sublime exotica — like those Korean chicken places.
The lush Ranchero Soft Taco at Taco Bell.
To make this list, we polled our friends; we rode maybe 100 miles on our bikes and on subways and buses; we spent two weeks tasting and grimacing — all for the purpose of ferreting out the best-tasting fast-food options, leaving the fat and calorie analysis to you. And whether we admit it or not, there comes a time when each of us must gird our loins and walk through the doors of a Wendy’s, White Castle, or KFC.
10. Hamburger at White Castle — This item deserves some respect if only because it was the first fast-food burger in the world, and it was immortalized in a Devo song (“You can buy ’em by the sack.”) While some find the flavor repulsive, there is something intriguing about it — as if kissed with fermented fish sauce in a Southeast Asian café deep in the jungle.
9. Ranchero Soft Taco at Taco Bell — Taco Bell is surely the most repulsive of the chains: It took some doing to turn one of the world’s fieriest and most flavorful cuisines into mushy blandness. But the taco called the Ranchero has balls — plenty of cilantro, spicy chicken tidbits reminiscent of Pueblan tinga, and plenty of greenery to make you feel good about yourself.
8. Chicken Biscuit at Popeyes — Yes, we were tipped to the wonderfulness of Popeyes’ onion rings — except you can’t get them here, and you can’t get crawfish étouffée, either, at least not right now. So we’re left with the sublime Popeyes biscuit, as light and fluffy as it has any right to be. Put a spicy chicken strip on it and eat two, and you have a fine meal.
7. French Fries at McDonald’s — Many things suck at McDonald’s, but the french fries have remained the standard by which all other chains’ are judged. They’re slender, nicely browned (well, usually), made from good potatoes, have just the right amount of salt (well, usually), and are not coated with any dodgy starches (though vegetarians should note that “natural beef flavor” is in their somewhere). Amen.
The Popeyes Chicken Biscuit — in this case, crumbly means good.
Five Guys’ fries are magnifico.
6. Tuna hero at Subway — Aside from being considerably bigger, the Subway tuna isn’t all that different from a tuna salad sandwich you might make at home: pleasantly skanky canned tuna flavored with mercury, more mayo than you should probably eat at one sitting, and your choice of accoutrements, which, in our case, includes raw onions, black olives, pickled hot peppers, and lettuce. Semi-Yum!
5. Wendy’s Chili — Yes, it’s got beans in it, but more meat than beans, so it almost qualifies as authentic Texas chili. What’s more, it tastes like Texas chili, too, laced with cumin and not encompassing much tomato-based material. The crackers constitute the perfect complement, and, at $1.59, the price is right.
4. French Fries at Five Guys — This Washingon, D.C.-based chain has been wildly expanding lately, constituting something of a rip-off of California’s In-N-Out Burger. While the burgers are often dry as the desert wind, the fries — made from fresh Idaho potatoes, bags of which are stacked around the premises in emulation of Pittsburgh’s the O — are wonderful, thick as a finger, brown-crusted, and moist.
3. Whopper at Burger King — Like a dumb kid who gets into an Ivy League school, the Whopper started life with many preferments. It was inspired, for example, by the California “garden burger,” an invention from the ’50s that added fresh veggies and mayonnaise to the hamburger. Another was its very circumference — larger than all its competitors. Its quintessential advantage, though, is the smoky flavor introduced by the cooking method, known by the coined term “flame grilling.”
2. McRib at McDonald’s — I hate the rancid-tasting beef at this world-strangling mega-chain as much as anyone, but there’s something fresh-tasting about the McRib. If you can ignore the dumb shape, it’s really just a pork burger made from meat that has probably been frozen less than a year. In fact, it tastes like it was never frozen at all. Or maybe pork puts up with freezing better than beef.
The McRib — ignore the hype and give it a taste. It’s a plainish pork hamburger, and not dry in the least.
Lots of bacon in the Wendy’s Bacon-and-Cheese Baked Potato.
1. Baked spuds at Wendy’s — This favorite lunch of office workers and vegetarians is mainly gone from the official menu (which lists only the “chive and sour cream potato”), but have faith that the “bacon and cheese” and “broccoli and cheese” still exist. And they’re both damn good.
The broccoli version is a mainstay of vegetarians.