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  • Writer's pictureMike Bechtol

America's FIVE BEST Regional Fast Food Chains

Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits is as ubiquitous in the South as McDonald's and Burger King. Same for Whataburger in Texas. In-N-Out Burger has a California cult following, but they have just a handful of western restaurants beyond the Golden State. While these restaurants have a strong regional following, they are little-known across most of the country. Discovering a mom and pop restaurant with regional cuisine is always a treat. Experiencing a new regional restaurant chain for the first time is also beyond cool. Except for #1, this short list includes restaurant chains that have little or no presence in my native Ohio. This deliberately short list only includes restaurants that I have experienced. Feel free to add a comment with YOUR regional favorites.

#5. Del Taco (California and Southwest US) - Del Taco's food quality is adequate. However, the size of their menu is quite remarkable. They have all sorts of Mexican choices, including many different tacos, burritos and quesadillas. They also have traditional American fast food like burgers and fries. They offer fresca bowls, salads, premium shakes and a sizable breakfast menu. As might be expected from a California-based chain, avocados are a prominent ingredient. My kids and I visited a Palm Springs Del Taco. Fish tacos for me... Burgers and fries for the youngsters.

#4. Tudor's Biscuit World (West Virginia) - Tudor's Biscuit World is a no-nonsense blue-collar breakfast chain. They feature traditional country breakfast items... bacon, eggs, sausage, pancakes, omelets, along with their namesake flaky biscuits. They also offer a wide variety of hearty sandwiches (e.g. burgers, stacked ham, chicken, bologna). Their dinner menu includes classic country favorites like meat loaf, fried chicken, country fried steak and hot roast beef. Your made-to-order meal is brought to your table on a solid plate with real metal silverware. The food quality is quite good especially when their low prices are considered. It's an old-fashioned, unpretentious concept meant to appeal to Appalachian sensibilities. Tudor's locations are very highly concentrated in southern West Virginia. At it's densest, there are about 25 Tudor's restaurants on or around the 45-mile stretch between Charleston and Huntington. They have a few locations in southern Ohio, eastern Kentucky and western Virginia. In 2018, they opened a store in Panama City, Florida... their first outside of Appalachia.

#3. Whataburger (Texas) - Over 3/4 of Whataburger's 800+ restaurants are located in Texas, but they also have a significant presence in other parts of the South and Southwest. A la Howard Johnson's, Whataburger has a distinctive orange and white striped A-framed building exterior making it easy to spot from a distance. The sandwiches are large by fast food standards. The Whataburger sandwich comes in single, double and triple varieties. Some of the sandwiches include chiles and/or avocado. Whataburger is distinguished by their attention to condiment quality. ALL of their condiments, including mustard and ketchup are packaged in dippable containers similar to McDonalds' nugget sauces. They have two kinds of ketchup as well a several dipping sauces. The standard Whataburger is made with mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and diced onions on a toasted five-inch bun, but customized toppings are happily welcomed. Whataburger is a source of regional pride (as if Texans need another icon of regional pride), and is worth a stop for any roadtripping Yankee.

#2. Blake's Lotaburger (New Mexico) - This chain's menu is uniquely in tune with New Mexico's regional cuisine. Blake's burger's are their signature menu item. The made-to-order burgers are seasoned angus beef, topped with pickles, mustard, lettuce, onions and tomato. One additional ingredient sets the Lotaburger apart... New Mexico grown, Hatch Valley chile peppers. While you may certainly order your burger without peppers, these spicy chiles add a level of spicy heat seldom found at a chain restaurant aiming at the lowest common denominator. National Geographic has named the Lotaburger "the world's best green chile cheeseburger". In addition to their signature burgers, Blake's Lotaburger offers Nathan's hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, chili con carne, fries and onion rings. They offer chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and cherry shakes year round, and oddball seasonal shake flavors such as biscochito, birthday cake, pumpkin pie, and green chile lime. Each store's sign contains the 10-15 foot tall "Blake's Man", a smiling, moderately creepy looking dude with blue poles for legs, a blue hat and bowtie, and a jacket with white and red stripes.

#1. White Castle (Midwest + NYC metro area) - First, I need to acknowledge my White Castle bias. I have been a huge White Castle fan since my first bite decades ago. A coupon distributed at Ohio State promised 10 White Castles for $2. I've been a fan aver since. Although the chain has more stores here in Ohio than any other state, the closest one to me is 40 miles away... quite inconvenient when a hankering arises. Founded in Wichita in 1921 (now headquartered in Columbus, Ohio), White Castle became America's first fast food chain. Although hundreds of restaurant chains have come and gone since then, White Castle keeps chugging along. Despite the company's longevity and growth, it has not yet escaped "regional" status. The nearly 400 White Castles are concentrated in the Midwest, New York City metro area and a few other small eastern enclaves. Except for two Las Vegas stores, a White Castle cannot be found west of Missouri, nor south of Tennessee. The castle-looking restaurants have earned a reputation for impeccable cleanliness. Originally named "White Castles" or simply "castles", the tiny addictive, perforated square burgers are steam grilled and topped with grilled diced onions and a pickle slice. Order them "with everything", and they'll add mustard and ketchup. For most, a White Castle burger is gone in 3 or 4 bites. For me, it takes 6-10 burgers to satisfy the itch! For decades, White Castle burgers have endured some good natured, and not so good natured nicknames. For example... "belly busters", "gut bombs", and "barfburgers". In the 1980s, my college buddies commonly referred to the burgers as "sliders" (presumably because of the tiny greasy burgers' propensity for sliding through one's digestive system). At that time, White Castle did not use the word "slider" in their marketing. But a few years later, they adopted, embraced and trademarked the name "slider". The term is now used regularly in the company's menu and marketing. Today, "slider" is a synonym for " any tiny sandwich on a bun". True to the "slider" nickname, White Castle burgers notoriously and profoundly impact the human digestive system. You can virtually feel the burgers pass from one digestive organ to another... all the way to the end, resulting in an exceptionally noxious unholy combination of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. There's nothing like washing down a dozen sliders and a bag of onion nuggets with a couple of cold beers. This is part of the White Castle allure.

That's my top 5 regional fast food chains. A few others are worth a mention. Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits (Southeast US) has enjoyed explosive growth over the last two decades. Waffle House (Southeast US) has over 2100 restaurants, mostly in the south. Krystal (Southeast US), a.k.a. "White Castle of the South" has over 300 locations. Krystal's is the most successful and longest lived of White Castle's many imitators. Viva Chicken (North Carolina) is a very young and very small Peruvian chain . 8 of their 12 stores are in the Charlotte metro area. The Peruvian chicken and exotic side dishes outstanding and worth a detour. As featured in The Big Lebowski, In-N-Out Burger (California) has a semi-cult following. Arctic Circle (Utah, Pacific Northwest) invented the regional condiment, fry sauce, and claims to have invented fast food kids' meals. Skyline Chili (Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida) features cinnamon-tinged chili atop a bed of spaghetti and covered with cheese. Pal's Sudden Service (NE Tennessee, SW Virginia) is a burger restaurant with very distinctive architecture. Pal's has about 30 locations in a relatively small region in the northeast tip of Tennessee and the southwest tip of Virginia.

There are many more chains to discover. Which ones would you add to this list? Which ones would you remove? What has been your experience at any of these restaurant chains?

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