It’s been almost exactly a year since my highly popular power ranking of fast food chains. Everyone loved it. None of the 113 comments were negative. I definitely didn’t get any angry texts at 2am over it.
It’s time for the sequel. The first edition in this series failed to include many restaurants readers love, and I was soundly criticized for not including Five Guys or Shake Shake in my rankings. That’s not fast food. It’s fast casual. But where is the line?
What is Fast Casual?
After receiving a lot of angry messages last time, I realized I failed to define fast food properly, so I’m going to do a better job this time. “Fast Casual” henceforth is going to be defined as a counter serve restaurant (that means no place with wait service — that includes Waffle House — will be on this list) with a price point for a standard combo meal at about 12 dollars or more. There are a few places like Zaxby’s that are on that border, but since they were included in the fast food ranking, they won’t be here. Panda Express is eligible here because I disqualified it last time, but it’s pretty borderline too. Fast Casual restaurants also have a more upscale feel than their fast food counterparts.
What Qualifies for this List
There are tons of fast casual restaurants, and many are tiny local chains known only to a few. Let’s lay down some ground rules for what qualifies for this list:
- If it was mentioned in my fast food rankings last year, it isn’t eligible to be on this list
- The restaurant must have locations in at least 5 states OR a location in Georgia and one other state. Trying to keep this to places most people here are aware of.
- To qualify, I must have eaten there. Unfortunately, there are a few I want to try but can’t get to. Your favorite may fall into this category.
10. Shake Shack
There were a lot of places in the running for the last spot, but I chose Shake Shack so I could address why it isn’t higher. Shake Shack is fine, but that’s just it — it’s just...fine. The burgers are decent. The fries are disappointing. The Ice Cream is good. At this price point, there are just better options. Getting a concrete or shake, which are the best parts, drive the price up further. There is more bang for your buck elsewhere.
9. Panda Express
While it’s definitely borderline fast food and one of the cheaper options here, Panda Express saved me from eating nothing but Taco Bell and Chick Fil A during grad school. While that would have been delicious, my digestive tract is thankful for Broccoli Beef...... and Orange Chicken.
8. Blaze Pizza
Fast Casual Pizza restaurants seem to be a new trend as custom personal pizzas become more popular and feasible. Blaze is my personal favorite of the ones I’ve been to so far. It’s a good concept. The Blaze I went to did run out of red onions though. Who runs out of red onions?
7. Chipotle Mexican Grill
The Guac-fueled leader in the Big Burrito industry just added Carne Asada (though I really just want Chorizo back). Everyone has their favorite among the Big 3, but Chipotle’s fresh ingredients and guacamole take first prize. The queso is garbage, but there was no need for them to have it anyway. So long as Chipotle keeps the grilled peppers and onions stocked, I can continue to tell myself that a Barbacoa bowl is a vegetable. That’s all I need.
6. Hopdoddy Burger Bar
Ok, back to burgers. Hopdoddy is still expanding, and many of you may not have heard of it, but their burgers are great, they have shakes, and they serve beer on tap and cocktails. Great for any time you’re looking for fast casual that is...less casual.
5. The Habit Burger Grill
While a step below the next 2 burger places that come ahead of it, The Habit makes it all the way to number 5 thanks to the Santa Barbara Char. I didn’t know I needed a burger on sourdough toast until I went to the Habit for the first time. Delicious.
The burgers are fantastic, the rosemary seasoned fries are unique, and the shakes are among the best in this category. It’s fairly basic as far as fast casual places go, but it does what it does well.
3. Five Guys
It’s basic, it’s customizable, it’s delicious. Five Guys has been one of the best fast casual destinations for some time, and really kicked off the explosion of large fast casual burger chains. Many places have popped up to challenge them, but none have succeeded. Five Guys doesn’t just sit on its throne either — they’ve innovated, adding shakes and cajun fries.
Let’s talk about those cajun fries for a second. They’re the best fries — so much spice and not too crispy. And of course, you get 3 pounds of them. Five Guys is great and I apologize to everyone with a peanut allergy who can’t come within 500 yards of one.
2. Torchy’s Tacos
No, Torchy’s doesn’t currently qualify per the rules stated above. However, Torchy’s recently announced plans to expand to 17 states within the next 5 years, which will get them past the 5 state requirement within a year of today. Since this is my football blog where I write about food, I make the rules.
Torchy’s is amazing; I recommend that you learn the secret menu before going, but it’s not required. Get the queso — it’s the best in the business. It has guacamole in it, and it can be ordered with chorizo as well. You can’t go wrong with any of the tacos and the monthly special tacos are always interesting and good. I went to Torchy’s an unhealthy number of times while I was in Dallas, and I miss it already. It’s only bested by:
1. Velvet Taco
There may only a few locations around the country, but there’s one in Atlanta now, so it makes the list. Despite being a taco place, its flavor diverges sharply from Torchy’s. Torchy’s sends you straight to the cardiac ward. Velvet sends you there...eventually, but takes you on a wonderful journey through its flavors first, with many offerings infused from Asian cuisines. Fried paneer tacos and curry queso provide a unique set of menu options I haven’t seen anywhere else.
And then, there’s the tots — the tots are so good. I can’t even describe them to do them justice; just go get some.
What I can describe are the breakfast tacos, specifically the Monte Cristo one. Ever had a French Toasted Tortilla? Well, at Velvet Taco, you can. Put some strawberry jam and ham in there. Need to feed your entire family? Buy an entire chicken. Need craft beer? Yup. It’s got everything you need.
Please send all hate mail to Ben Tankersley. Just get a head start on the hate mail you’re gonna send him tomorrow after you see his Star Wars Rankings.