Regional Chain Restaurants We Wish Were National
January 23, 2019
These chains really need to expand!
America is a country of chain restaurants. Some chains are mediocre, some are fine but nothing special, and some are so good that we think it’s a tragedy that some people get to experience them while others in other parts of the country don’t.
In the United States, there are thousands of restaurants that can be considered “chains.” The smaller ones, those with only a handful of outposts, tend not to stray too far from the original locations; even if a chain has 20 locations, most of them seem to only stay in one state or expand only into adjoining states, generally in order to maintain quality control.
While there’s no shortage of chains with national (and international) presences, there’s something about those small(ish) regional chains that can be sources of serious pride and devotion. And not only are these chains the source of plenty of local pride, they also happen to serve legitimately good food. Some have been around for decades, some are newcomers that seem primed for a national expansion, and some are content to be a small-town favorite, but they all have one thing in common: We wish they had locations all over the country.
Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits can only be found in the Southeastern U.S., with its northernmost location in Reading, Pennsylvania. In the race for fast food fried chicken superiority with chains like KFC and Popeyes, Bojangles acolytes will tell you that there’s no competition: Chicken shows up at every location fresh and never frozen, is marinated on-premises for 12 hours, then gets breaded with a slightly spicy mixture before its bath in the deep-fryer. Extra points for its insanely good biscuits, dirty rice, sweet tea, and all-day breakfast.
Vancouver, Washington-based Burgerville got its start in 1961 and today has more than 40 locations in Oregon and Washington. Along with very respectable old-school burgers (made with free-range, hormone and antibiotic free beef) and milkshakes, they also offer breakfast sandwiches, creative salads, and fish and chips. What sets Burgerville apart from the pack is its use of local and seasonal ingredients (like Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue cheese, Tillamook Cheddar, and Oregon marionberries); it’s also the largest chain in the country to power its stores exclusively through wind power.
With six locations, Dick’s is a Seattle institution, and its owners know that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For over 60 years, Dick’s has been serving an unchanging menu of never-frozen, one-eighth-pound burgers that are delivered daily; hand-cut fries; and milkshakes. The Double Deluxe is the Platonic ideal of a hamburger: two patties, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickle relish on a soft, squishy bun, sold for a whopping $2.90. Want onions? That’ll cost you an extra 5 cents, please. Dick’s is family-owned, and they treat all employees like family as well, offering full benefits, scholarships, child-care assistance, paid community service, and a starting hourly wage of $10.
El Taco Tote
Headquartered in El Paso, Texas, with 20 locations, El Taco Tote is one of those rare Mexican restaurant chains that is actually Mexican; it was founded in 1988 in Ciudad Juarez and there’s still a handful of locations in the country. Everything at El Taco Tote is handmade fresh daily on-premises, from its six signature salsas to the flour and corn tortillas. As opposed to the quasi-Mexican fare you’ll find at most chain Mexican restaurants, El Taco Tote is Mexican to the core; where else can you find tripitas and menudo?
In-N-Out Burger is a cult-favorite West Coast chain that’s best known for its high-quality burgers, no-frills menu, and low prices. There are nearly 350 locations of the chain in America, mostly in California, with a handful in Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Arizona, and Texas. Sadly, owner Lynsi Torres refuses to franchise the business or to expand any further east for a couple reasons: Franchises throw too many variables into the mix and can lower the overall quality; and because no locations have freezers or microwaves, all locations need to be within a day’s drive from their Texas and California distribution centers.
Jack’s was founded in Birmingham, Alabama in 1960, and today has about 150 locations in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee. This southern classic is a burger chain the way it should be: Its burgers are simple, tasty, and made with high-quality fresh beef; and its fried chicken is also surprisingly good.
Jim’s has been a San Antonio staple for nearly 70 years, and today there are locations of this family restaurant scattered throughout the city as well as Austin. The vast majority of locations are open 24-7, and the expansive menu includes everything from chicken-fried steak to huevos rancheros, tortilla soup, fried chicken, steaks, burgers, and homemade pies.
It’s fiercely debated whether Krystal or White Castle is the superior chain, because they both specialize in tiny little square burgers, but you don’t see White Castle offering free wifi at every location and topping its burgers with fresh onions and a little mustard. Krystal’s breakfast is also legendary, with popular items including sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits, and “Scramblers,” a bowl of grits topped with fresh scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheese. The chili is great, too. Krystal was founded in 1932, making it the South’s oldest burger chain.
Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles
Roscoe’s does two things, and they do them very, very well: chicken and waffles. Founded in 1975 by Harlem native Herb Hudson, and now with seven locations throughout the Los Angeles area, Roscoe’s helped to popularize a culinary combination that many consider strange until they try it. The wide and flat waffles pair perfectly with syrup-drenched fried chicken, which is fried according to a secret recipe until it’s light and crispy. Often imitated, never duplicated, Roscoe’s is the true original, and a Los Angeles institution.
For more than 50 years, Sonny’s has been serving real-deal Southern-style barbecue, and is up there with the best barbecue chains in America. The barbecue joint got its start in Gainesville, Florida, when Sonny Tillman and his wife Lucille opened the first restaurant in 1968; they began to franchise nine years later. Today, there are more than 150 locations across eight states. Pork is served pulled or sliced; ribs are served wet, dry, St. Louis-style, or baby back; and all the meats, including beef brisket, chicken, and turkey breast, are smoked for up to 12 hours at each location. A bottomless salad bar, burgers, wings, pulled pork egg rolls, sides including baked beans and three cheese macaroni and cheese, and desserts like homemade fruit cobbler and banana pudding round out the menu.
Texadelphia, which has 14 locations in Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Oklahoma City, and South Texas, is home of “The Original Texas Cheesesteak,” and that fact alone makes us fans. Founded in Austin in 1981, its signature cheesesteaks are made with Texas Black Angus beef, and we’d suggest topping yours with some of the housemade queso, because Texas. Every cheesesteak comes with fresh tortilla chips, too — a nice touch.
Yelp/ Marmar Q.
Tommy’s has been a Southern California legend since it first opened in 1946, and today there are 29 locations in the state and three in Nevada. Burgers, hot dogs, tamales, fries, breakfast burritos, and other fast food staples are all prepared fresh to order, with portion sizes that are extremely generous for the price. But Tommy’s real claim to fame is its all-beef chili, a generous ladle of which tops nearly every item on the menu. It ain’t pretty, but it sure is tasty.
At Torchy’s, which has locations throughout Texas (as well as ones in Colorado, Arkansas, and Oklahoma), owner Michael Rypka has created tortilla-bound concoctions that are nothing short of devilish, and made fresh every day. There’s the Brush Fire (Jamaican jerk chicken, grilled jalapeños, and mango), the Dirty Sanchez (scrambled eggs with fried poblano chile, guacamole, escabeche carrots, and shredded cheese) and The Republican (grilled jalapeño sausage with shredded cheese and pico de gallo), but the wildest and most delicious creation on the menu is the Trailer Park, a massive battered and fried hunk of chicken breast, topped with sautéed green chiles, lettuce, pico de gallo, and shredded mixed cheese on a flour tortilla from El Milagro, topped with poblano sauce. If you prefer to "get it trashy," they’ll remove the lettuce and replace it with cheese sauce. And who needs lettuce when cheese sauce is an option?
What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about Waffle House? It’s open 24/7, a jukebox is playing Waffle House-themed songs like “Waffle House Hashbrowns,” the hash browns have their own lingo (scattered, smothered, and peppered, please), and the waffles are made-to-order and things of beauty.
Mostly centered in Texas and its neighboring states, Whataburger has been going strong since 1950. Its burgers are plenty tasty, and the patty melts and green chile doubles are also worth ordering. It really excels at breakfast, though; the biscuits, cinnamon rolls, and taquitos with cheese are decidedly crave-worthy, and its honey butter chicken biscuit is nothing short of legendary. But don't forget about those burgers — some say that they're right up there with the best in America.