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I Tried 6 Fast-Food Vanilla Ice Creams & the Best Was Thick and Creamy

You can grab a cool cone or cup at almost any fast-food joint, but which one serves the tastiest treat?

There's nothing on the planet like a good, old-fashioned bite of vanilla ice cream—especially with summer about to heat up. Whether it's a delicious swipe licked straight off a swirled cone, or a hearty bite spooned from a frosty scoop, the reliability of vanilla ice cream is nostalgia at its sweetest. It's a little hit of childhood that tastes just as good when you're older, and comes pretty cheap, too. (Adulting is all about budgeting, after all).

For a quick fix, it's hard to beat the icy treats at your favorite fast-food joint, where a vanilla cone or cup usually costs less than $5—oftentimes, a lot less. But, which chain will give you the best bang for your buck? Figuring this out was a tough job, but somebody had to do it!

I recently visited six major fast-food chains in search of the most delicious vanilla dessert around. The one drawback to conducting this taste test right now is that Wendy's just debuted its Dreamsicle Frosty, meaning the chain's popular vanilla flavor is currently unavailable and therefore disqualified from these rankings. Other than that, I hit all the major players, so check out the most up-to-date ranking of the best fast-food vanilla ice cream below.


an ice cream cone on a table at chick-fil-a
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Serving):
Calories: 180
Fat: 15 g (Saturated Fat: 9 g)
Sodium: 180 mg
Carbs: 30 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 30 g)
Protein: 4 g

They might be great at chicken, but Chick-Fil-A came in dead last in the vanilla ice cream department. The cone was pretty, and about the same size as direct competitors like Burger King and McDonalds, but in terms of flavor it fell short. It's still pretty cheap, though. I paid just $2.51. So, you're not out a lot of money if you're in a pinch and just want the happiness of a cone for an after lunch pick-me-up.

The look: Very traditional soft serve swirl with ridges and a great gradual triangular shape on the cone. The cone is small and beige, which was pretty standard across the board, but the chipping/breakage on the edge wasn't cute. The color is close to true white but veers a little toward cream, more like the color of milk itself.

The taste: This ice cream has a very strange aftertaste. It's not the sweet, creamy light taste that I've come to associate with soft serve vanilla over the years, and it's actually not very sweet at all. It almost tastes buttery and a little salty, which is nice until the aftertaste kicks in. The cone is called "Icedream" instead of ice cream, and a little internet research revealed that's because it technically can't be called ice cream. According to the Daily Meal, it lacks the appropriate "butterfat" to qualify. Since it did taste buttery, there's still some of that fatty flavor due to the cream. But, if you're looking for a classic vanilla ice cream experience, this just isn't it.

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ice cream from sonic in a cup on a table outdoors
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Serving):
Calories: 300
Fat: 10 g (Saturated Fat: 7 g)
Sodium: 300 mg
Carbs: 47 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 40 g)
Protein: 7 g

Since the whole shtick behind Sonic has always been that it's "America's Drive-In," it makes sense that the ice cream format would come very car-ready. The chain doesn't offer a cone, but it does offer plain ice cream in a dish, and it comes packed to the brim. It also comes with a plastic lid that stops any ice cream from spilling, but is still wide enough to fit a spoon inside. Pretty genius. This one cost me $2.19, which was tied with Burger King as the cheapest option.

The look: So, vanilla ice cream is never going to be quite as cute when it's not swirled into a cone, but this dish is still appetizing. As mentioned above, the protective lid goes with Sonic's car-centric positioning, and the ice cream is packed to the top of the cup. The color is super bleached-out white, with no creamy undertones.

The taste: While this might be Sonic's "plain" ice cream, it doesn't really taste like vanilla. Actually, it kind of tastes like Cool Whip—but in a good way. It's very fluffy and sweet, and has a super pleasing, thick texture. It reminds me of the marshmallow cream you would use in homemade fudge, and almost exactly what it tastes like when you freeze whipped cream (an underrated, cheap sweet treat). This ice cream also melted super slowly, which I appreciate because I'm a slow eater. It's definitely good, but I'm docking points because it's really hard to taste any vanilla.

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Shake Shack

shake shack hard ice cream in a dish on a table
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Serving):
Calories: 280
Fat: 4 g (Saturated Fat: 2.5 g)
Sodium: 90 mg
Carbs: 32 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 25 g)
Protein: 7 g

Shake Shack is on the higher-end of the fast-food world, so it's not surprising that its ice cream was the most expensive option. The only size offered for the Shack's standard serving of vanilla was $5.50, which is twice as much as some of the cone options at other joints! The Shack doesn't offer a cone, but the dish does come with two hearty scoops. It is technically "frozen custard" and not ice cream, so the texture and the taste is pretty different.

The look: Again, you can't beat the poetic beauty of a cone, but these are nice round scoops and they're stacked neatly on top of each other for an aesthetically pleasing presentation. Because it's custard, the dessert in question is cream-colored, and more of an off-white. Since custard has more eggs in it than ice cream, that's presumably why.

The taste: The custard is really coming through in the flavor! It's velvety and eggy with a nice vanilla level. It's not super creamy but it is thick. The flavor is almost eggnog-like, but without the cinnamon and nutmeg spices, and the texture is much denser as opposed to the silkiness of soft serve. It's not a typical vanilla option by any means, but interesting as an alternative. And for what it's worth, the price was much higher, but the serving was also quite a bit bigger.

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Burger King

a vanilla soft serve cone on a table at burger king
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Serving):
Calories: 190
Fat: 5 g (Saturated Fat: 3 g)
Sodium: 150 mg
Carbs: 32 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 24 g)
Protein: 5 g

Tied with Chick-fil-A as the cheapest option, Burger King's cone was head and shoulders above anything on the list so far. Chick-fil-A had the presentation, but was basically a zero on flavor, and Burger King gets full marks on both. It's the perfect, snack-sized sweet treat—and for just $2.18, it's something that kids could even save up their pennies to get. This one is getting more into the nostalgic soft-serve cones of my childhood memories.

The look: The soft serve pour may be a little thin, but it sits almost perfectly in the cone and has a great twisted tip at the top. Like Chick-fil-A, the cone was chipped on the edge. The color is creamy and white, and as you can see in the photo, it wasn't quite frozen solid and started melting almost immediately. This can be the downside of soft serve, if it's not fully frozen.

The taste: Creamy and sweet—almost exactly my platonic ideal. I would say one of the few drawbacks is the actual ice cream shape in the cone is very thin, which makes it harder to lick and therefore less enjoyable. It also melted so fast I could only eat about half of it before it was too messy to go on. Flavorwise, it was very good. Presentation-wise, it needed a little work.

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a soft serve vanilla ice cream cone on a table at mcdonalds
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Serving):
Calories: 200
Fat: 5 g (Saturated Fat: 3 g)
Sodium: 80 mg
Carbs: 33 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 23 g)
Protein: 5 g

I might be biased toward this cone because it's the one I had the most in my childhood, but I really thought this one would be the winner going in. It only cost me $2.62 and the serving size is a bit more substantial than the Burger King option, so I'm guessing the price evens out on these two in the end.

The look: Great presentation. This ice cream is a pure white, not cream-colored. In fact, it's so white it's almost blueish. I love the way the ice cream is thicker and rounder at the bottom of the cone, and gradually thins out at the top, and it still has that little twisted tip. It's nice when a cone is a bit top heavy, too, with more ice cream than cone in the ratio.

The taste: Absolutely excellent—very milky and sweet with just a hint of the salty and buttery flavor you want to balance things out. It had a strong vanilla taste, stronger than Burger King, which is part of why it placed higher, and more of a whipped texture. It didn't even start to melt for the first two to three minutes, which was a big win. I would order this cone any day, it was a very rewarding experience that hit all the nostalgia marks flawlessly.

Even so, there's still one cone that I ended up preferring over my childhood fave and presumed victor.

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Dairy Queen

a soft serve vanilla cone on a table at dairy queen
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Serving):
Calories: 220
Fat: 7 g (Saturated Fat: 4.5 g)
Sodium: 90 mg
Carbs: 34 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 40 g)
Protein: 7 g

It's possible I haven't been to a Dairy Queen since I was in high school. I've been living in New York and Los Angeles since then, and DQ isn't as prominent in either city. I actually had to trek out a ways into the suburbs to find one (the same goes for Sonic), but wow, I'm glad I did. As much as I loved the McDonald's cone, nothing even holds a candle to what DQ has going on! When I did frequent this spot more as a teenager, I was a Blizzard girl, so I don't know that I've ever had the classic vanilla soft serve straight up. It's… simply divine. A small cone cost me $4.89.

The look: This cone has a beautiful, old-fashioned shape. It's oval and not swirled at all, just a perfect cylinder that stays cold and doesn't drip, as if by magic. It's not the swirl shape, but it still has a gorgeous twisted top. I'm not sure if I've seen a cone this shape before but I immediately loved it.

The taste: It's very creamy, but also more balanced than anything else. It's not overly sweet and though the closest competitor is McDonald's, no one else can compete with this very thick texture. Sonic's ice cream in a dish had a similar thickness, but not as much flavor, and actually, even in the dish that ice cream melted before this one. I sat in the shop eating it all the way down to the cone and it never once dripped. No melting at all! It stayed very cold but that never numbed out the taste, which felt magical. There's no competition, Dairy Queen remains top of the heap of plain vanilla ice cream!

Caitlin White
Caitlin White is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle reporter with an expertise in food and travel. Read more about Caitlin