According to a study published in 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 36% of American adults ate fast food on any given day between 2013 and 2016.
However much we might know about the potential health problems caused by the consumption (or at least overconsumption) of fast food, and no matter how vigorously we might claim to disdain such fare, the fact is that a lot of us find it pretty irresistible at least some of the time.
As with most indulgences, the best game plan for enjoying fast food is simply not to overdo it. And an occasional cheeseburger or pizza or bucket of fried chicken will probably not not kill you. (Speaking of burgers, this is the best burger joint in every state.)
If and when you do join the line at McDonald’s or pull up to the Sonic Drive-In window, what should you choose? That’s a matter of personal taste, of course, and there’s plenty of variety out there, even beyond the obvious. But every chain has an iconic offering or two – foods that pretty much define them, and that few people can resist when they place their orders.
Drawing on a number of sources, 24/7 Tempo has used editorial discretion to choose the single most iconic food item at 18 of the nation’s most popular chains. These iconic choices are either the things most ordered or the original offerings that helped make the chain’s reputation – or both. (Here’s a list of the most popular fast food chain in every state.)
> French fries
McDonald’s is arguably the most iconic of all fast food chains, so it’s not surprising that a number of its offerings could be described as iconic – the Big Mac (perhaps the ultimate fast-food burger), the Egg McMuffin (which launched the breakfast sandwich craze when it was introduced back in 1972), maybe even the on-again/off-again McRib (currently on a supposed “farewell tour” of the McDonald’s menu).
But the one thing almost everybody seems to agree on – even people who’d never admit to eating a McDonald’s burger – is that the fries are great, and maybe reason enough in themselves to pull into the drive-thru.
> The Whopper
In 1957, 11 years before the appearance of the Big Mac, Burger King launched this oversize flame-broiled burger, served with mayo, ketchup, and the usual lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions, on a sesame seed bun. There are myriad ways to customize the Whopper (a page on the company website used to claim – jokingly? – that there are 221,184 possible variations).
> Crunchy taco
Though the chain offers a variety of never-in-Mexico offerings like the Crunchwrap Supreme and the Quesarito, the basic essential Taco Bell order is the crunchy taco – a staple of the chain’s menu since founder Glen Bell is said to have invented the pre-formed crispy taco shell in the 1950s and filled it with seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce, and shredded cheddar cheese.
>Footlong turkey sub
Customers of this ubiquitous sandwich shop chain can choose sandwiches made with roast beef, ham, bacon, pepperoni, cheese, and various sauces, among other things – but a representative of the chain told Eat This, Not That that its clientele’s No. 1 favorite was this comparatively healthy offering, containing turkey breast, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and cucumbers.
> Pumpkin Spice Latte
Starbucks is famous for its infinitely customizable specialty coffee drinks – most of all its blended Frappuccinos and its various lattes. But its most iconic creation, the one that launched a thousand (it sometimes seems) offshoots and imitations, is the seasonal PSL, or Pumpkin Spice Latte, introduced by the chain in 2004. Starbucks is said to sell as many as 350 million cups of the cinnamon-flavored stuff annually.
> Classic Roast Beef
Arby’s has experimented with venison sandwiches, and it offers a wide range of chicken, turkey, and pork options. The chain made its reputation with roast beef, though, and while it now offers such variations as Smokehouse Brisket, French Dip & Swiss, and Corned Beef Reuben, it’s the good old original Classic Roast Beef, with thin-sliced meat piled on a toasted sesame bun with ketchupy Arby’s Sauce or the horseradish-flavored Horsey Sauce, that continues to define the place.
Jack in the Box
> Two Tacos
Some people think of Jack in the Box as a hamburger chain, but it’s the chain’s tacos – two to a serving – that are the most often-ordered item on the menu. Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Americans order 554 million of them a year. They’re not dissimilar to the hard-shell tacos at Taco Bell but are made with sliced American cheese instead of shredded cheddar, and they come with the taco sauce already added.
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
> Classic Chicken Sandwich
Popeyes turned the fast food world upside down in the summer of 2019 when it introduced its chicken sandwich – a thick chunk of white meat in crunchy buttermilk batter, served on a brioche bun with pickles and regular or spicy mayo. The item’s introduction launched the so-called chicken sandwich wars with Chick-fil-A and other competitors and spawned countless imitations, and the sandwich remains so popular that there are sometimes temporary shortages.
> Original Recipe chicken
Fast-food menus constantly evolve to match consumer tastes and health concerns. Sometimes, though, the original is best. You could certainly order chicken tenders or chicken pot pie or (ahem, Popeyes) a chicken sandwich here – but why would you? It’s the Original Recipe chicken, seasoned with that famous “secret blend of 11 herbs & spices” that made the chain world-famous, and that remains at the heart of its business.
> Blizzard Treats
Sure, there are burgers, dogs, and chicken sandwiches here, but the “Dairy” part of the chain’s name is key. Its emblematic specialty is undeniably its array of “upsidedownright thick” Blizzard Treats (or simply Blizzards), introduced in 1985. These are dense concoctions of soft-serve ice cream in different varieties, loaded with pieces of various candies, baked goods, and/or miscellaneous sundae toppings. They are indeed so thick that they won’t flow out of the cup when turned upside down.
> Double-Double Burger
This cult-favorite California-born chain, with locations only in the West and Southwest, makes its signature Double-Double with two patties, two slices of American cheese, sliced or grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, and what the company calls its “spread” (blend of mayo, ketchup, and sweet pickle relish). Those in the know often order it “animal style” – with caramelized onions, pickle chips, and patties fried with mustard on the grill.
> Rotisserie chicken
The original name of this chain was Boston Chicken, so you know what its specialty is. Though the chain has added a line of sandwiches plus such dinner items as meatloaf, BBQ ribs, and sometimes baked fish, rotisserie chicken with a choice of sides remains the mainstay.
> The Baconater
The Baconater, introduced in 2007, stands out from other fast food burgers: It consists of two patties with cheese, plus three strips of bacon placed across each of the two burgers – six in all. The chain has periodically featured variation, including one with jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, and chipotle ranch sauce, and another that ramps up the Baconator with three patties and nine strips of bacon.
Dunkin’ puts such emphasis these days on its coffee, its frozen drinks, its bagels, and its sandwiches and wraps that it’s easy to forget about the treats it’s named for. Nobody forgets about Munchkins (otherwise known as donut holes), however. Jelly-filled, glazed, chocolate, and more, these are basically just little bite-sized spheres of doughnut dough – and even those who’d likely never eat a whole doughnut will grab one or two (or more) of these.
This comparative newcomer to the fast-food burger scene, which dates its origins back to a temporary hot dog car in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park in 2001 and now numbers more than 250 locations worldwide, is still known for its dogs and for its super-thick shakes, but its signature dish is this classic burger, made with a hormone- and antibiotic-free beef patty (or two of them if you so desire) on a Martin’s potato roll with lettuce, tomato, and mustardy Shack Sauce – cheese optional..
> Deluxe Chicken Sandwich
This controversial chain – known for its support of anti-LGBTQ measures – tempts many diners to overlook other considerations and order its basic offering: a slab of breaded boneless chicken breast pressure-cooked in peanut oil, served on a toasted buttered bun with dill pickle chips, lettuce, and tomato (a choice of three kinds of cheese is offered at extra cost).
> Pepperoni pizza
Now the largest pizza brand in the United States, Domino’s offers its pies in three sizes, with a choice of five crusts, nine sauces, and 27 toppings, as well as a dozen ready-made combinations (plus chicken dishes, pastas, sandwiches, and more). According to the food delivery app Caviar, among other sources, pepperoni is the nation’s No. 1 favorite pizza topping – and pepperoni pizza gets ordered at Domino’s more than any other variation.
> Pepperoni pizza
Edged out of the No. 1 pizza shop by Domino’s a few years back, Pizza Hut is still a strong No. 2. Like its rival, the chain offers some standard pizza toppings as well as the opportunity to customize, but again it’s the tried and true that rules: a large pepperoni pizza is the most popular order here.