A tall bottle of Saratoga Still natural spring water stands on the table in front of Barry Dakake, who’s extremely selective about what he drinks and eats. He’s respected across the country and has been one of the top chefs in Las Vegas for more than 20 years.
Dakake is sitting in a dark booth as a packed restaurant buzzes around him. This is his restaurant — he’s an owner of Barry’s Downtown Prime, located in the heart of the Circa Resort & Casino — and he’s extolling the virtues of the filet mignon, lobster and Wagyu beef on the menu. He grabs his special bottle of water and praises it, too.
In the arena of fine food, Dakake is a superstar. Across the table from Dakake is one of America’s foremost fast food fanatics, and I’m expecting this first question to offend him.
“Do you ever eat fast food and, if so, what are your favorite spots?”
Dakake looks up, with a serious glare, and drops a bombshell.
“Every once in a while, I like to sneak out to a White Castle,” he says. “That’s my cheat, and I don’t mind saying it. I’m human.”
So there is the proof. A passion for fast food permeates all areas of our society, from sports bettors with mustard stains on a T-shirt to top chefs who deal high-end filet and lobster.
When he sneaks to White Castle, Dakake said, the order is a 10-pack of cheeseburger sliders.
Fox Sports betting analyst Chris “The Bear” Fallica, who won last season’s inaugural Circa Friday Football Invitational handicapping contest, agrees with Dakake on a best bet.
“Walking into White Castle just brings a smile to my face,” Fallica said. “It takes me back to my youth on Long Island where ‘The Castle’ served as a pregame meal on the way to an Islanders or Yankees game. The smell of onions upon walking in puts my senses on alert as to what’s coming.”
Dakake ranked his top five fast-food stops in Las Vegas: 1. Freddy’s Steakburgers, 2. In-N-Out Burger, 3. White Castle, 4. Chick-fil-A and 5. El Pollo Loco.
“I do love (bleeping) White Castle,” Dakake said. “I hate McDonald’s and Burger King. I’ve never had Subway in my life. I never had Taco Bell or Del Taco … How can I eat that (bleep) when I’ve got the best cooks in the kitchen?”
Circa owner Derek Stevens loves Taco Bell, for the record. Stevens might want to visit Barry’s kitchen, where the cooks make Wagyu beef tacos.
“Do you call pizza fast food?” said Dakake, whose top-ranked pizza place is Good Pie. “Pizza is its own category.”
The definition of fast food is tricky, but a drive-thru window should be a necessity. However, there are exceptions to every rule and gray areas exist, so some franchises on my list might offer drive-thru service at only a small percentage of locations. It’s OK to occasionally bend the rules a little and lean on common sense. I’m a Denny’s enthusiast and pizza is one of my favorites, but diners and pizza places are not categorized as fast food.
This is my fifth annual “Fast Food Top 50 Power Rankings” list for VSiN, a feature that became popular during the pandemic summer of 2020, when I hosted “Follow The Money” shows with Mitch Moss and Paul Howard and we needed to create content while the sports world was shut down. Moss’ wife is a chef, but he still consumes a lot of fast food. Howard and I share a hate for vegetables, especially broccoli, and cooking at home.
There’s a method to this madness. I create power ratings for fast-food franchises using an abbreviated but similar formula that produces my numbers on college football and basketball teams. There are five categories with each worth a maximum of 10 points. Restaurants are judged on the food quality, menu variety, drive-thru service efficiency, availability (any spot that stays open 24 hours earns bonus points) and intangibles.
For the first-time readers who might question my credibility and wonder why these rankings are relevant, some background information is important.
A majority of sports bettors —especially those of us who are single — tend to fail in the kitchen and trend toward fast food, making stops as we move from one sportsbook to another. On the brink of football season, fast food and football handicapping are the top priorities each day. I’m not watching movies or TV shows, and the coming months are all about watching games and eating on the go.
With almost 50 years of experience in the fast food arena, starting as a toddler at a now-defunct chain called Burger Chef in Indianapolis, I have earned unrivaled credibility by living this subject. It’s a lifestyle, not a hobby solely meant to amuse you. The rankings are based on decades of daily experiences and research and supported by my mathematical formula. I stop for fast food three to five times per day, own no silverware and have a towering stack of paper plates in a kitchen cabinet next to a drawer stuffed with countless plastic forks, knives and spoons.
Some amateur doctors and critics out there will mock me and say this is an unhealthy existence, but many of the same critics are calling in sick and sleeping all day. I exercise regularly, sleep sparingly, rarely see a doctor, COVID never got to me and I’ve been employed full time for more than 25 years while never using one sick day. You can live well on fast food.
Dakake said he has a rare “splurge day” and hits Freddy’s for the burgers and frozen custard or White Castle for sliders. My splurges might be an occasional late-night trip to Barry’s, Benihana or Texas Roadhouse.
So this is my Top 50 list of fast food franchises, love it or hate it. The only lock is there will be several debates and disagreements — there are plenty of White Castle haters out there — because we all have unique tastes and different opinions. For the third year in a row, there’s a new No. 1.
Aaron Rodgers is gone from Green Bay, but this still will be a big year in Wisconsin. I bet the Packers Over 7.5 wins and the Badgers Over 8.5 wins and to win the Big Ten West. On top of that, Culver’s, which opened in Sauk City, Wisconsin in July 1984, surged to 46 points in my ratings to claim the No. 1 spot by one point.
Wisconsin has produced an abundance of VSiN talent, including hosts Mitch Moss, Greg “Hoops” Peterson and Ben Wilson. Culver’s is up from No. 4 last year, boosted by a recent overwhelming trip I had to the location in Bullhead City, Arizona. The menu versatility is impressive, led by the ButterBurgers and followed by chicken, fish, beef pot roast, chopped steak and frozen custard. The lack of availability is the only significant negative.
As South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said after stopping for ButterBurgers in St. George, Utah, “I wish they had Culver’s in Nevada, that would be nice.”
Mitch’s Pro Tip: This goes for the customer who doesn’t have a Joey Chestnut appetite. Skip the fries and order two sandwiches. Get the Butterburger and a chicken or fish sandwich. It’s rare for a fast food restaurant to thrive with both burgers and poultry. Culver’s does just that. If you have a sweet tooth, go with your normal order but save room for the frozen custard.
The Midwest region dominates the top of the rankings. This was my favorite stop while living in Chicago. “The Dog House” was Dick Portillo’s first hot dog stand in Villa Park, Illinois, in 1963. Portillo’s has expanded to locations all over the country, including the Los Angeles and Phoenix areas, but is conspicuous by its absence in Las Vegas.
Paul Howard devoured an Italian beef and sausage sandwich, onion rings and a chocolate cake shake on our trip to Buena Park near Disneyland a year ago, when he rated Portillo’s 9.5 on a scale of one to 10. The service is efficient and the food quality — including the Italian beef with sport peppers, Chicago dog, Maxwell Street Polish, burger and fries — is always outstanding.
Portillo’s was last year’s new top dog, rising from No. 3 to No. 1, but it slipped in a photo finish.
Pauly’s Pro Tip: Save room for the chocolate cake shake. Incredible. Portillos got A+ last year.
After back-to-back years in the top spot, Chick-fil-A fell after a tweak to the power ratings to emphasize the importance of burgers. This Georgia-based franchise has the best spicy chicken sandwich in the business, solid breakfast options and fast, impeccable customer service, but the menu could use a big addition.
For too many years, Chick-fil-A executives considered Las Vegas taboo, but they wisely came around, just like the NHL and NFL, and hit the jackpot here.
Mitch’s Pro Tip: Don’t sleep on the breakfast. It’s the best in the industry. The chicken breakfast burrito is the catalyst of the early-morning menu. Order it without potatoes and replace it with extra chicken. It’s a tad more expensive, but you won’t regret it. Filling and delicious.
4) Freddy’s Steakburgers
If Barry Dakake loves it, and you don’t, what’s wrong with you? This franchise from Wichita, Kansas has been on the rise along with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Freddy’s ranked No. 9 in 2019, No. 3 in 2020 and No. 2 each of the past two years. It is famous for steakburgers and and frozen custard but also offers dogs and chicken. Freddy’s slipped two spots only because the competition at the top is fierce and the franchise does need a better spicy chicken sandwich and improved fries.
5) In-N-Out Burger
Few franchises are more polarizing than In-N-Out, which is either loved or hated. It’s mostly loved on the West Coast. The drive-thru lane is almost always a traffic jam, but the line usually moves fast enough. I go for the double-double about once a week.
In June 2021, competitive eating legend Joey Chestnut was a guest on “Follow The Money” and expressed his passion for In-N-Out, so believe the endorsement from the king of eating food fast. VSiN senior reporter Dave Tuley, arguably the network’s top competitive eater, said he’s “tried all the the burger joints over the years and I keep going back to In-N-Out as the best.” Tuley’s play is a triple-triple.
My Pro Tip: Similar to McDonald’s, order the fries “well done” or “light well” because they are far better when cooked crispy and golden brown.
6) Shake Shack
The Mets have been a bust, and the Yankees are headed in that direction, but Aaron Judge still is as popular as the New York City-based Shack. This franchise, which started in 2001 as a hot dog cart, features excellent burgers and fries and decent dogs and chicken. It expanded to Vegas in recent years and took a corresponding leap in the rankings.
All gamblers should credit this franchise for rolling the dice on new menu items. The Wagyu burger, which actually contains 48% regular angus beef, is a good addition to roast beef sandwiches and an extensive menu that includes curly fries. I still miss the experimental pot roast sandwich from the early 2000s.
Sure, the haters are many, but the numbers don’t lie. According to Statisticsanddata.org, McDonald’s is the world’s top fast food chain with more than 40,000 stores in 2021 and sales of more than $21 billion in 2020. Still, this high ranking will attract a lot of complaints.
McD’s has a superteam-like Big 3 (Big Mac, McRib, Quarter Pounder). However, the franchise’s threats to discontinue the McRib, arguably the greatest fast food sandwich of all time, could cause a fall from the Top 10 if that mistake becomes reality.
Chris Fallica’s Pro Tip: Go for the Quarter Pounder with cheese, which I’ll take over In-N-Out any day of the week.
9) Dairy Queen
As prices inflate almost everywhere, DQ keeps it real with the $7 meal deal — hamburger (or sub a chili cheese dog or three chicken fingers), fries, drink and a sundae. The burgers and chili dogs are solid. This family-friendly franchise serves up great Blizzards and an old classic, the Peanut Buster Parfait. I grew up with a DQ two miles from home and still go about once a week.
Dave Tuley’s Pro Tip: I recommend the chicken strip basket with fries. If going with family, it’s usually for an ice cream cone or Blizzard.
The burgers are always legit. The best spicy chicken sandwiches have the spices baked in, as opposed to slapping sauce on top of the chicken, and Wendy’s does it right. For early risers, the Breakfast Baconator with potato wedges is your best bet.
11) Raising Cane’s
Falling out of the Top 10 yet still highly respected, Cane’s is drawing a few complaints for allegedly downsizing the chicken fingers, with one Vegas professional bettor claiming the fingers look more like nuggets now. The sauce is the boss, and the Texas toast is a plus. This chain, which originated near the LSU campus, is as hot as Joe Burrow and my favorite thing to come out of Baton Rouge since “Pistol” Pete Maravich.
Say “Mahalo” to me later. This under-the-radar Hawaiian barbeque spot is close to hitting the radar in Las Vegas, where its first mainland location is opening soon. I go for the loco moco minutes after arriving at the Maui airport. Zip in to try the outstanding fried chicken, Portuguese sausage and teriyaki beef. The menu is incredible. It was a 24-hour franchise prior to the pandemic and needs to return to those hours.
Texas-based handicapper Paul Stone, who has a regional bias, calls this his favorite fast-food burger. I like the burgers, especially the green chile double, but don’t be too quick to believe all the hype — similar to the Texas Longhorns, who have gone Under their posted win total in 10 of the past 11 football seasons. The chicken and fish options are just OK and the fries are weak. My favorite aspect to Whataburger is its 24-hour drive thru.
Mitch’s Pro Tip: I finally made my first trip here earlier this summer, and they have an excellent offering of sauces. You must get the spicy ketchup.
14) Steak ‘n Shake
I’ll always respect South Point owner Michael Gaughan, who for decades has made the right moves in Las Vegas. He was shrewd to make his casino a launching pad for VSiN almost seven years ago, and he was wise to put a Steak ‘n Shake franchise a football throw away. When living in the Chicago area, this was my top spot and I hit the 24-hour drive-thru 38 days (or late nights) in a row in the late 1990s. The franchise has lost steam in recent years, but the burgers and shakes still put it in my Sweet 16.
15) Burger King
Start with the Whopper, a first-ballot inductee in my fictional Fast Food Hall of Fame. The rest of the BK menu is hit and miss, similar to the service at various locations. The sausage biscuit and hash browns form an affordable, above-average breakfast.
Pauly’s Pro Tip: BK has stepped it up with the chicken selection, there are lots of options, and is doing a lot of 2-for-$5 deals to keep up with McDonald’s. Good value prices, and the burgers are better than McDonald’s. Underrated fries.
Amid the recent fast-food chicken wars, never forget that KFC was the calm before the storm by setting the standard for superb fried chicken. A little known fact: Colonel Harland Sanders opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Salt Lake City in 1952. “Utah Fried Chicken” just would not sound right.
17) The Habit Burger
When the UCSB Gauchos are good, the Thunderdome in Santa Barbara can be a great college basketball atmosphere. I’ve seen a few classic UNLV games there. The Habit, which originated in Santa Barbara, has a classic tenderloin steak sandwich, a quality char burger and drive-thru windows at some locations. I have a habit of going for the steak sandwich.
18) Taco John’s
If you think Taco Bell is better, you need to get out more often. The crispy beef tacos and potato oles blow away what you get at the Bell. The Wyoming-based franchise is found in more than 20 states. North Dakota gambling legend Randy McKay agreed with me after he got hooked on it last year.
“The Last Great Hamburger Stand” out of Beverly Hills is not cheap and the service is not always fast, but the quality makes it worth it. Inside info: there are locations in the food courts by the Red Rock and Sunset Station sportsbooks.
20) El Pollo Loco
Try the Mexican-style grilled chicken as an alternative to fried chicken. Spanish for “The Crazy Chicken,” El Pollo Loco deals what I consider a truly healthy meal.
21) Jersey Mike’s Subs
Finally, a sub shop appears on the list. The Big Kahuna cheese steak with jalapenos is my go-to sandwich. It always has seemed wrong that Angels star Mike Trout, who grew up in New Jersey, was a spokesman for Subway, which is far inferior to Jersey Mike’s.
This place is so good, Paul Howard will make the 30-minute drive from Vegas to Boulder City for a root beer float, burger and onion rings. Burgers and coney dogs highlight the “All American Food” lineup at the oldest restaurant chain in America, founded 100 years ago by Roy Allen and Frank Wright in Sacramento, Calif. “I love A&W,” Howard said.
Founded in Denver, home of the NBA champion Nuggets, this franchise opened in 2007 and has experienced steady growth and popularity. Barbeque brisket and chicken are on the menu, but the burgers are a smashing success. My go-to menu item is the spicy jalapeno baja burger.
It’s not easy to find Qdoba locations, but the quality overcomes the lack of quantity. I like hard shell ground beef tacos, and these seasoned beef and steak tacos rank among the best. This place easily tops its fierce competitor, Chipotle, which just missed the Top 50.
In SEC football country, Alabama, Georgia and Bojangles always rank highly, and not necessarily in that order. VSiN’s Stormy Buonantony is a big-time booster for Bojangles, loved mostly for fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits. It is better than Zaxby’s, another Southern chain that landed outside of the rankings, and “Bo” gets bonus points for announcing a planned expansion to Las vegas.
26) Nathan’s Famous
Obviously most famous for its July 4 contest on Coney Island in New York, Nathan’s offers more than hot dogs on a surprisingly strong menu. The chili dog and fries are a winning parlay.
27) Firehouse Subs
Jersey Mike’s is the best, but Firehouse is becoming a hot spot and ranks a solid No. 2 in the sub shop business. I have warmed up to its Hook & Ladder, meatball and steak & cheese sandwiches.
The Pit in New Mexico is my favorite college basketball venue, and on every visit to Albuquerque my first stop is Fuddruckers. A build-your-own-toppings bar complements the big burgers. It’s a restaurant more suited for sit-down dining than carry-out orders, but there are select spots with drive-thru service so this counts as fast food.
29) Taco Cabana
I discovered the Cabana on a trip to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, and it’s a regional franchise popular in Texas and New Mexico. For those up for late-night Tex-Mex, most locations are open 24 hours and feature burritos, fajitas, quesadillas and terrific tacos.
30) Long John Silver’s
In the old days, Long John’s had a classic structural setting that resembled a fish house, and there’s still one standing in Barstow, California. Now, most LJS locations are combined with KFC in a corporate building with no character. My regular order is chicken planks and hush puppies, with both smothered in tartar sauce. The fish is good, but chicken planks are the star of the menu.
For inquiring minds — and few are probably wondering about this — the brand name comes from the novel “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson. The pirate Long John Silver is a main character in the novel.
31) Tim Hortons
Around 15 years ago, while covering a UNLV basketball exhibition tour in Montreal, I walked into Tim’s with low expectations, thinking it was a cheap knockoff of Starbucks. I was wrong, and it was impressive. Canada’s largest quick-service chain is based in Toronto and more popular than the Blue Jays and Raptors. It’s a solid breakfast and lunch stop with sandwich options that are far superior to what is served at Starbucks.
32) Boston Market
If you ever visit ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, you will pass about 10 Boston Market locations on the drive from the airport. When on the East Coast, check out the half chicken, the chicken carver sandwich or the half-order of ribs and rotisserie chicken. It’s high-quality food, though it’s not always served fast and few locations have drive-thrus.
33) Five Guys
While many fans rave about Five Guys, I’m not one of those guys. The hamburgers, hot dogs and fries are good, but fall short of great. Love it, hate it or fall somewhere in the middle like me.
34) Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s
Carl’s Jr. was founded in Anaheim and its star can be seen all over Southern California. The Carl’s and Hardee’s franchises have operated as one brand for a long time, although they have separate identities in different parts of the country. The consistency is in the menu variety and solid burgers. Carl’s Jr. also offers the Green Burrito menu at many locations, and the hard shell ground beef tacos are this handicapper’s pick, along with the chocolate ice cream shake.
The drive-thru lane might as well be lined with cones while the road construction workers are nowhere to be found. This has to be the slowest drive-thru lane in fast food. Still, Popeyes is worth praising for the spicy fried chicken, Cajun fish, mashed potatoes and red beans & rice. The chicken sandwich, which once created amusement park-like lines for some mysterious reason, is no longer such a hot commodity and way overrated.
36) Panera Bread
It’s out of character for me to tout this, but for a healthier option, consider the Panera sandwiches and soups. The menu is unique and it’s good food. Try the toasted steak & white cheddar sandwich, and Panera has the top tuna sandwich in the business.
37) White Castle
You probably either love it or hate it. My opinion slides somewhere in the middle. I do go for the sliders and chicken-with-cheese sandwiches. “The Castle” seems to have no bigger fan than Chris “The Bear” Fallica, who loves the mini-cheeseburgers and fish sandwiches. The late-night drive-thru was a regular stop for me in the Midwest.
Fallica’s Pro Tip: I always go for an order of double cheeseburgers, bacon double cheeseburgers and the sneakiest good item on the menu — the filet of fish sandwich. Is it frozen fish straight out of the Hudson River? I really don’t care. I’m always a sucker for the mozzarella sticks, too.
38) Taco Bell
The recent return of the Mexican pizza triggered a bump in this ranking. While the Bell is wildly popular with many, the truth is there are countless better burrito/taco shops. I like to say this once-proud franchise enjoyed its glory days in the 1980s and 90s before its decline corresponded with the demise of the Dallas Cowboys, who have not appeared in the NFC Championship game since 1996.
Fallica called it “borderline criminal” that Taco Bell eliminated the chilito and Meximelt during a senseless trimming of the menu.
Mitch’s Pro Tip: I suggest you get the grilled version of their many burritos on the menu. The tortilla comes perfectly charred. The grilled chicken cheese burrito is the best of the bunch. It’s not always on the menu, but from my experience most locations will still make it.
39) Dunkin’ Donuts
Always order the hash browns. Dunkin’ is mainly known as a breakfast stop with coffee and doughnuts, but I never drink coffee and rarely eat doughnuts. It is worth swinging by this drive-thru for lunch for the bacon, egg & cheese sandwich — and hash browns.
40) Cook Out
If you follow NASCAR, you know about Cook Out, which sponsored a recent race. The burgers, BBQ, hot dogs and shakes are popular in the South due to the franchise being in North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and few other surrounding states. I’ll admit to never going to Cook Out, so I asked two trusted scouts in the region for a report — one said it’s worthy of the top 20 and the other said it’s “terrible” — and formed this estimated rating.
41) Earl of Sandwich
Earl’s is not always easy to find, but there’s a location about a Stephen Curry 3-point shot from the Palms sportsbook. Most of the hot sandwiches are good, and I prefer the Montagu with roast beef, turkey and Swiss.
I have been to this spot only once in the past year. Last summer, I drove through one in Oceanside, California on the way to Goat Hill Park Golf Club. I highly recommend the golf course and only lightly tout the chili dog, corn dog and Chicago dog at the franchise that claims to offer the “World’s Most Wanted Weiner.”
43) Church’s Chicken
There are countless chicken franchises, and most are regional and tough to rank. In terms of chicken franchise hype, Church’s gets little and is often overlooked, but it has some redeeming qualities, including the Texas tenders with hot sauce.
44) American Coney Island
Celebrity endorsers Derek Stevens and Mike Palm wisely planted ACI downtown at The D. This is a good late-night option, and as a dog player, I recommend “Detroit’s Original Coney.” I do not recommend the fries, but the service is always fast.
45) Panda Express
Panda has more than 2,200 locations, so it’s popular, but just not wildly popular with me. It’s a change-of-pace option for those who favor an American Chinese menu. The best bet is the Orange chicken topped with chili sauce, and it’s also worth trying the Angus steak, Beijing beef and grilled teriyaki chicken.
46) Del Taco
The Los Angeles Clippers run hot and cold and never win championships, and it’s the same story with California-based Del Taco, which is never hot enough to win any awards. The crispy beef tacos are a decent value bet, but the chicken soft tacos and spicy chicken burrito are better bets. The Del does get credit for staying open 24 hours.
You probably forgot this franchise exists. It’s actually in 28 states and has a classic American fast-food menu with burgers, chicken sandwiches, chili dogs, fries and shakes. A solid burger lineup features the Big Buford.
Oklahoma City is the headquarters of Sonic Drive-In, where burgers, chicken tenders and corn dogs can be delivered via a roller-skating waiter/waitress to your car. It’s not bad, but Sonic is not booming, either.
If I hear someone loves Subway, I drop that person’s power rating by five points. (I make the same deduction for any guy who has a cat as a pet.) The steak and cheese sandwich is respectable, but this franchise is as boring as the Chicago Bears’ passing attack and was disgraced by the Jared ad campaign several years ago. Subway was so desperate for a new image it signed Patrick Mahomes, among other stars, to commercial deals, but it’s too late.
50) Jack in the Box
Jack is a clever marketer, but his restaurant is just a late-night desperation option. While no menu item is a standout, the franchise founded in San Diego has a smart game plan and is widely available with more than 2,000 joints located primarily on the West Coast.