40 Fast Food Dishes That Defined America
America is a melting pot of foods, flavors, and cultures, so it’s no wonder that American fast food today is heavily influenced by a variety of cuisines. From McDonald’s to Taco Bell to KFC, there’s nothing that screams more American than cheeseburgers, fries, tacos, and fried chicken.
The concept of modern fast food first hit the United States in the 20s with the opening of White Castle and A&W. People flocked to the quick-serve joints for their cheap and tasty cuisine. Ever since then the fast food industry has been constantly churning out new and innovative dishes that have influenced how and what Americans eat. Here are the greatest and most iconic fast food dishes that helped define what American food is and have interwoven themselves into the fabric of American cuisine. And if you’re looking for more food facts, fast food guides, and tips for cutting calories while eating out, you’ll want to subscribe to the new Eat This, Not That! magazine now! For a limited time, you can save 50 percent off the cover price—click here!
McDonald’s Big Mac
Probably one of the most recognizable burgers on the planet, this double burger has been around since the ’60s. Most kids born in the 1970s can still recite the lyrics from the commercial jingle: “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!” But the sheer size of this decadent fast food dish wasn’t the only thing that made it a permanent menu item at the golden arches; the special sauce is what kept people coming back for more.
Subway’s $5 Footlong
This catchy promotion popped up in 2008 and quickly became one of those fast food jingle earworms. Whether you want an Italian B.M.T. or a meatball marinara, you can take your pick from a variety of subs for $5. Although the promotion ended later that year, Subway began offering a $4.99 deal in January 2018 for any of their “Footlong Favorites”: Black Forest Ham, Spicy Italian, Cold Cut Combo, Meatball Marinara, and Veggie Delite.
This iconic dessert was on the menu at the first-ever Wendy’s restaurant in 1969. The first and only flavor of the frozen treat at the time was actually a combo of chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Founder Dave Thomas thought that a pure chocolate flavor would be too overwhelming and blunt the taste of their burgers.
Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins
For those who always wondered what happened to the inner portion of doughnuts, Dunkin’ Donuts brought Munchkin donut holes to market in the ’70s. They are still on Dunkin’s menu today and come in five varieties: glazed, powdered, glazed chocolate, jelly, and glazed blueberry.
Chick-Fil-A’s Waffle Fries
Although McDonald’s boasts some of the most iconic fries in the industry, when Chick-Fil-A started offering their thick and crispy waffle fries in 1985, customers went crazy for them. The unique waffle shape allowed for more ketchup to get into the fries—and into your mouth.
Burger King’s Whopper
Considered by most to be one of the most groundbreaking burgers, the Whopper is a flame-grilled masterpiece that’s over 60 years old. Today, it’s offered in special variations depending on the season and local tastes. But the original Whopper is simple: The wide, four-ounce patty is topped with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup, and sliced onion on a sesame seed bun.
Chipotle Mexican Grill’s Burrito Bowls
In 1993, Chipotle debuted a tortilla-less version of their popular burritos. Fortunately for the Mexican fast food joint, removing the tortilla didn’t affect the heartiness and savory flavors of the dish. Now you see many Mexican fast food joints offering taco and burrito bowls on their menu.
The McRib came into the fast food scene in 1981, but it quickly left four years later. The barbecue pork sandwich popped up again in 1989, staying on the menu at certain stores until 2005. Today, McDonald’s offers the dish for a limited time during the year.
Burger King’s BK Chicken Fries
Think chicken nuggets in French fry form. Chicken fries launched in 2005 and were intended to be a snack geared for adults. But Burger King cut them from their menu after a few years. 10 years later, the King said “have it your way” and brought them back with a series of hilarious commercials.
Arby’s Curly Fries
Arby’s curly fries gave McDonald’s another run for their fry money. Released in 1988, the Curly-Q fries quickly gained popularity for their crispness and distinct, addictive taste. In 2015, the fast food chain released loaded curly fries, in which features cheddar sauce, cheddar cheese, bacon, and ranch dressing.
Pizza Hut’s Meat Lovers Pizza
Aside from their stuffed crusts, the Meat Lovers pie, which is loaded with pepperoni, Italian sausage, ham, bacon, pork, and beef, is probably Pizza Hut’s most legendary creation. It’s become so iconic, in fact, that other chains have tried to replicate it. But the name is seared in grease for pizza lovers.
Auntie Anne’s Pretzels
This pretzel emporium launched in the late ’80s at a humble farmer’s market in Pennsylvania. Now it boasts locations around the globe from Greece to South Africa. In shopping malls, airports, and train stations, the irresistible smell of Auntie Anne’s cinnamon sugar pretzels are beckoning you to dig into their soft, fried dough. Are you salivating yet?
Jack in the Box’s Tacos
Although it’s not a hugely known fast food joint, 554 million tacos from Jack in the Box are reportedly eaten every year. Their mass appeal largely comes from the tacos being deep-fried before lettuce and American cheese are added.
Bojangles’ Cajun Filet Biscuit
This crispy, spicy slab of chicken served in a buttery biscuit is legendary. We think it’s especially tasty after a long night of drinking.
McDonald’s Hash Browns
These golden wafers have been a perfect breakfast pairing with the Egg McMuffin since the 70s. Many other fast food outlets have tried to copy this paragon of hash browns, but none have matched its balance of crispy and pillowy potatoes.
Wendy’s Jr. Bacon Double Cheeseburger
This fast food go-to is made with Wendy’s signature square patty, bacon, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. The small but satisfying cheeseburger debuted on the value menu in the late 80s for $.99.
Waffle House’s Scattered, Smothered, Covered, and Chunked Hash Browns
The Waffle House’s first offerings of their famous hash browns included scattered (plain), smothered (with sautéed onions), covered (with melted cheese) and chunked (with grilled ham). But now you can have them diced (with tomatoes), peppered (with jalapenos), capped (with mushrooms), topped (with chili), and country (with sausage gravy).
McDonald’s Egg McMuffin
McDonald’s introduced this iconic a.m. sandwich on its newly created breakfast in 1975. The sandwich features a perfectly round fried egg on an English muffin with Canadian bacon and a slice of American cheese.
Jersey Mike’s Subs’ Famous Philly Cheese Steak
This sub shop first stepped into the salty New Jersey shores in 1987. One of the subs that helped cement their sandwich success is their take on the Philly cheesesteak. Loaded with thinly sliced steak, grilled onions, peppers, and white American cheese, it’s a taste of Jersey pride.
In-N-Out’s Animal Style Burger
As one of the most legendary fast food burgers out there, the animal-style burger is a monster mash of a grilled beef patty, extra spread (Thousand Island dressing), grilled onions, pickles, lettuce, and tomato. Once part of their secret menu, the mouthwatering offering is now public knowledge.
Arby’s Classic Roast Beef
This not-so-modest sandwich—a pile of hot, thinly sliced roast beef on a toasted sesame seed bun—was one of the few items on Arby’s first menu in 1964. This classic sandwich was the inspiration behind the joint’s nine other roast beef options, including a gyro and French dip version.
Krispy Kreme’s Original Glazed Donut
This North Carolina-based donut shop stormed into the national spotlight in the 2000s after a push for expansion. The melt-in-your-mouth glazed donut is simple but incredibly delicious. Just be sure to pick them up when the neon sign lets you know that they are hot and fresh off the line.
White Castle’s Original Slider
Arguably the grand-daddy of all American fast food, White Castle was founded in 1921 and is widely recognized as making the hamburger popular across the world. The original slider—a two-by-two-inch steamed beef patty with chopped onions and a pickle—is addictive. We bet you can’t have just one.
Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos
The nacho cheese taco shells command about one million sales a day for Taco Bell. It launched in 2012, and now the menu features other Dorito shell options, including Fiery and Cool Ranch.
McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese
This burger is world-famous, although it’s called a Royal Cheese in France because they don’t use the decimal system. From the chopped onions to the tart pickle, these simple burgers are what put McDonald’s overseas.
Domino’s Pepperoni Pizza
Domino’s is the gold standard for hot and delicious delivery pizza. The chain guaranteed delivery in “30 minutes or it’s free” in 1979, but it has since backed out of that claim. Their pepperoni pizza has been a staple at kids’ birthday parties and movie nights at home for decades.
McDonald’s Happy Meal
The Happy Meal has captured the hearts of millions of American kids since 1979. The red carton box with golden arches for handles includes a cheeseburger, fries, a cookie, a drink, and best of all, a toy. Other fast food chains have followed suit and include a toy in their kids’ meals, but nothing beats Micky D’s.
Shake Shack ShackBurger
Ushering in the era of “quality” fast food burgers, the ShackBurger has won numerous accolades for it’s freshly ground, 100% all-natural Angus beef patty. This fantastic fast food spot launched in New York City in 2004, and now it’s gradually expanding to other parts of the country.
Panda Express’ Orange Chicken
Like General Tso’s chicken and chicken chow mein, Panda Express’s orange chicken is a totally American dish that has conquered the palates of Asian fast food diners. Created in 1987 by a Panda Express chef in Hawaii, the all-dark meat chicken is fried and has a lip-smacking sweet and sour sauce that keeps 70 million pounds of the dish going out the door every year.
Burger King Crossan’wich
A breakfast concept that was widely mocked when it came out in 1983 (especially by the French), the Crossan’wich has all the fixings you’d find in an American breakfast sandwich but in a buttery croissant. The tasty morning sandwich now has four varieties on the menu, including ham, sausage, bacon, eggs, and cheese.
Hardee’s Frisco Burger
This monstrous burger is served on slices of buttered and grilled sourdough bread with bacon, Swiss cheese, tomato, and an onion-flavored mayonnaise. It became an instant classic after hitting the menu in the 90s. It retired for a short period in 2003 though, but it was brought back due to high public anxiety in 2005 as the Frisco Thickburger.
Most fast food chains don’t have many noteworthy drinks besides shakes and dessert-style beverages, but the Lemonade at Chick-Fil-A is a special treat. It’s made from scratch every day at each location and features freshly squeezed lemon juice extract. We’d caution against ordering it regularly, as it’s one of the items highest in sugar on the chicken chain’s menu.
KFC’s Original Recipe Fried Chicken
Although there is arguably better-tasting fried chicken out there, KFC’s original fried chicken is still a tough bird to beat. Its supremely crispy crust spiked with savory spices and juicy meat is mighty tasty. The chain made fried chicken a worldwide staple after it spread across the globe in the ’60s.
Subway’s Italian B.M.T.
Subway has more than 45,000 stores across 100 countries. The sub sandwich that made this happen is the Italian B.M.T., its most popular offering. It has salami, pepperoni, ham, and whatever else you’d like from their extensive bar of ingredients. Just make sure to add oregano and oil and vinegar and leave off the mayo!
Little Caesars’ Hot-N-Ready Pizza
Mimicking the ease of buying pizza in big cities, Little Caesars introduced the Hot-N-Ready concept in 2004. You can simply go into any Little Caesars location and get a large pepperoni pizza for $5. The idea became so successful that the company has now begun to focus more on carryout versus delivery.
Taco Bell’s Soft Tacos
So many of Taco Bell’s menu items have become iconic that it’s hard to pick out only a few, but the soft tacos definitely deserve a mention. These warm lunchtime tacos come in four different options. The chain also has a full customization menu that lets you pick from more than 30 upgrades to the standard soft taco.
Chick-Fil-A’s Chicken Sandwich
The Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich is honest perfection. All it consists of is a hand-breaded, boneless chicken breast, bun, and pickles. The secrets behind the chicken joint’s popular sandwich boil down to a science, which is why we found out what makes Chick-fil-A’s chicken tastes so good.
Five Guys Cheeseburger
Five Guys first bursts out of the Washington, D.C. area in 2003, and since then, its cheeseburgers have become extremely popular. In fact, Five Guys beat out In-N-Out as America’s favorite burger chain in 2017. Their burger is unassuming—two slices of American cheese with two grilled freshly-ground beef patties on a toasted bun. Topping options are extensive and include grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, relish, jalapeños, green peppers, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, and A1 sauce.
Dairy Queen’s Blizzards
The Blizzard is an ice cream treat that’s so classic it even has a special test: Twisting the frozen treat upside-down with the spoon it in tests how dense the ice cream actually is. If the ice cream flops over, Dairy Queen will make you a new one on the spot. The Queen has 12 flavors of Blizzards, with a rotating cast of four, depending on the season or holiday.
McDonald’s French Fries
A marvel of modern food science, the light, crispy, and deliciously salty McDonald’s French Fries are one of the best fast food sides ever created. (Perhaps because they used to be fried in beef fat.) Although they have beef flavoring, citric acid, and dextrose sugar, there’s no denying Micky D’s has nailed the taste and mouthfeel of these truly iconic fast food fries.