Remember that excitement we’d get when our mom or dad would announce we were going out for dinner? Even if it was fast food — which has a penchant for getting shit on — our young selves would still be insanely stoked. Even more so, in fact.
We’d all get excited at the prospect of eating out of the house and actually ordering what we wanted. It was familiar, with a side of thrilling.
Childhood extravagances turned into teenage rituals, as fast food joints became the place to have off campus lunch and spend our small earnings on a single burger or that overly addictive Oreo Blizzard. Over the years, our palettes got more refined and our tastes changed and grew — but that love for the salty, fried, sugary specialties of a great fast food spot remained. Now, suddenly, we’re the ones announcing the drive thru run for dinner.
With all that in mind, we asked our writers to look back and pick their favorite, classic fast food items that they still love (and order) to this very day. Let’s jump in!
DAIRY QUEEN’S FRIED BURRITO
First of all, what business did Dairy Queen have making a burrito? In the 80s? What niche did that fill? They were competing with Taco Bell and Taco Time and, besides, their game was desserts.
But they had the burrito nonetheless and it cost exactly $1.00 — so it wasn’t a huge risk to try one. I remember the day I did. It was 1987 at the DQ on Coast Highway in Gearhart, Oregon. I’d arrived on my bike with a gaggle of cousins, all clutching a few dollars. In those days if your mom gave you a fiver for a fast food meal, you were straight up covered. She usually only gave you $3.
The burrito should rightly be called a chimichanga. But who would have ordered that at a burger joint in ’87? Besides, it was a burrito. Sourced from Resers, most likely. The kicker was that DQ dropped it in the deep fryer and served it piping hot, in a little paper sleeve. Their silver salsa packets were outsourced too, and I’d do anything to score one now. I’ve always hated vinegar-forward hot sauce. This was the opposite. It was all tomatoes and spice.
To eat this delectable treat, you squirted some salsa on the fryer-darkened burrito shell and bit the thing like a candy bar. Some sort of meaty-bean mash came squirting out — hot enough to scald the roof of your mouth for a week. But, my god, the flavor: The toasty outer tortilla (there was an inner layer too, which stayed soft and pliable), the tough-to-identify but deeply delicious filling, the kick of the salsa. This was a perfect fast food bite.
The burrito’s gone now. But after years of searching, I’ve found its long lost twin. Disneyland makes the same item. Sometimes I call in media favors and go to the park just to eat one on Splash Mountain, thinking back on my childhood and that first scalding bite, back in ’87.
MCDONALD’S HASH BROWN
My dark secret is that I used to eat lots of McDonald’s. Like 4-5 times a week McDonald’s. While I’ve changed — and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that level of consumption to anyone, even someone with 10-year-old me’s metabolism — the one McDonald’s item I’ve never been able to give up completely is the hash brown. You can get a better burger or fry, and the McNugget isn’t the only nugget in town (though admittedly still pretty damn good), but nothing tastes quite like a McDonald’s hash brown.
Crunchy on the outside, soft and kinda gooey on the inside, it’s like a giant, flat tater tot — the tater tot being bar none America’s single greatest culinary contribution. You simply can’t recreate them at home. At least not without a machine for freeze drying and 100 hours to experiment. Who has the time?! Certainly not me, I’m very important.
Anyway, I still eat McDonald’s breakfast a few times a month, mostly for the hash browns — I remain undeterred, even when they’re oily enough to turn half the bag transparent. Sometimes I lay awake and dream about how good they must’ve been when McDonald’s was still frying with beef tallow. Mmmm…
TACO BELL’S BEAN BURRITO
In the 1960s, you could grab a burrito for 25 cents, which is a-mazing when you overlook the fact that I would have purchased it while wearing polyester slacks on my way home from my job where I made 59 cents for every dollar a man made. Now that I work as a sophisticated writer from home without pants, I am willing to pony up $1.29 for a bean burrito.
I may only be getting cheese, beans, red sauce, and onions in my soft, delicious flour tortilla, but I appreciate the value, the savory molten filling that fills my gut, and the crunchy little onion pieces. Plus, as a vegetarian, fast food can really be hit or miss. Taco Bell always has my back with a bean burrito. Plus, it makes a solid foundation for additions. Add some pico when you want it to be fresher or potato when you need to feel really full.
Yes, Slurpees are probably the most egregiously unhealthy fast foodstuffs on the planet. They’re just ice, sugar, unnatural colors, and flavors. But the Slurpee is also one of the most wonderful foods in the whole of kiddom. It’s literally what every kid wants in the summer: Something cold, sugary, and refreshing.
It is, in its own way, brilliant. It still takes me back to childhood, and I buy one every time I need a little brain freeze as an adult.
IN-N-OUT’S DOUBLE DOUBLE
The most fire food menu item in Southern California isn’t even on the menu. You should know what I’m talking about already. Two words: Animal Style.
This poorly-kept secret from In-N-Out’s equally open “secret menu” options involves a heaping helping of grilled onions and melted cheese, topped with a slather of thousand island spread for the fries — which could use the help, admittedly — and mustard grilled patties, extra pickles, and extra spread for the burgers — which are basically already perfect, but somehow enhanced tremendously by the accoutrements.
Ordering anything at the ubiquitous West Coast chain “Animal Style” automatically makes it better, with the added bonus of impressing the few remaining out-of-towners and children who are still unaware of the glory that is In-N-Out’s worst-kept secret.
MCDONALD’S CHICKEN MCNUGGETS
Few traditional fast food menu items have the power to generate such a strong sense memory as biting into a Chicken McNugget. McDonald’s fries, of course, are probably the be-all, end-all of a taste resulting-in-nostalgia (and there’s much written about that painstaking, chemically-masterminded process in Fast Food Nation, if you’re interested), but McNuggets likely rank a close second.
For the record, as I was growing up, I thought the best chicken nuggets in the world were the ones offered by Kentucky Fried Chicken. But those have been discontinued for decades now, a casualty of the rising trend of strips, tenders, fingers, et al. So the McNuggets are the last nug standing.
As with any processed chicken product, it’s best if you really don’t think much about how it’s made. But especially since Mickey D’s switched to the purportedly all-white-meat versions of the McNuggets, there’s something immensely satisfying about tthem. They’re never overly greasy and never overly bland OR flavorful. They’re designed to be the perfect base to which you can apply your sauce of choice from the now-surprisingly-deep palette of options.
It’s thanks to that sauce variation that the McNuggets can be anything you want or need them to be at any time. You can augment the spectacular savory crunch with everything from spicy to sweet to umami to sour. It’s always a good option if you’re getting fast food, and they come in variable quantities to suit any level of appetite. It’s genius in many ways, a perfect blend of nostalgia and comfort food — and of course always pairs perfectly with those fries you know you’re going to get as a side.
WHATABURGER’S HONEY BUTTER CHICKEN BISCUIT
The Whataburger Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit has honey, butter, chicken, and a biscuit. I really could stop there, but I will go on. If you’ve ever been starving after a night out in a state that is fortunate enough to have Whataburger restaurants, you know that they begin selling breakfast at 11 pm, which means the oven has been hot for a couple of hours before you leave the party.
If you want food that will agree with whatever alcohol you’ve consumed, won’t immediately put you in a sleep coma if your goal is to go home and be productive, and won’t taste like garbage, the HBCB is your sammy. Inside the biscuit is a lightly-breaded, juicy hunk of chicken — not a mere chicken patty. A rich buttermilk biscuit covers it like a hug. Whataburger’s special honey butter is the delicious liquid gold drizzle that makes your hands sticky but your tummy happy.
If there was ever an argument for Whataburger’s superiority among fast food chains, the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit drops the mic.
ARBY’S CURLY FRIES
One of the biggest mysteries around fast food places that serve curly fries is why they even bother serving regular fries on their menu? Sure, there’s nothing wrong with your standard issue french fries, but curly fries beat them all to hell every time. And out of all the franchises that offer these morsels (which isn’t nearly enough), Arby’s holds the crown.
They’re batter-dipped so they’re consistently crispy and well-seasoned to the point they stand on their own without a dipping sauce. Though if you do swing that way, their Three Pepper Sauce is the way to go. The best part about these fries, though, is that you can count on almost every order having the perfect balance of corkscrews and smaller, crunchier c-shaped pieces. All of which makes them one of the most reliable and delicious fast food orders out there today.
IVAR’S FISH AND CHIPS
This one was tough. I’ve gone back and forth several times between Ivar’s Fish and Chips and Taco Time’s Mexi Fries. On the one hand, there’s fish and chips with tangy tartar sauce. On the other hand, it’s tater tots with spicy sauce for dipping. Both play a role in my childhood and both are still go-to fast food items that I eat to this day. But when I look deep down, I know there’s only one answer — it’s gotta be the fish and chips.
What’s so endearing about an order of fish and chips from Ivar’s Seafood Bars is the simplicity of the dish. It’s fish and potatoes. It’s fast but never feels like fast food — that is, what you get actually looks like the picture of what you ordered. The fish is always meaty, flaky, and moist, with just a hint of sea salt brine. It feels and tastes fresh caught (because it is). The breading is always light because Ivar’s adheres breadcrumb coating instead of a beer batter. This means there’s no sogginess from too much oil getting trapped in that batter.
Then there are the fries. The fries at Ivar’s might be my favorite fast food fry of them all. They’re crispy on the outside and softly mushy on the inside in a ratio of one part crispy to two parts soft. There’s a bit of skin left on for extra crunch and the thickness is damn near perfect — not quite a steak fry and not quite a frenched fry either. There’s just the right amount of heft to withstand a vinegar dousing or a good dip in tartar sauce or ketchup. Oh, and don’t get me started on the tangy and lush tartar sauce or we’ll be here all day.
Add a cup of white clam chowder and you’ve got one of the most satisfying fast food meals in the country.