This year has really turned things upside down.
In April, I took a ghostly road trip up the west coast witnessing firsthand how quiet the country had gotten. Open signs were replaced with boarded windows and once-thriving food destinations were forced to offer socially distanced carryout options. It was a sad but necessary evil.
Things haven’t changed much and a lot of places we would normally visit are still closed down, awaiting a chance to reopen and return to normal. The one thing that hasn’t slowed down is the need to travel. The holidays are coming and many of us are returning to the highways and byways to get to grandmother’s house this year.
I love road trips. I love Sinclair gas stations, sprawling travel centers, and I love fast food burgers while road tripping.
Arguably there are some that are better than others. Some I’ve tried and will never go back to again. Live and learn in the world of fast burgers I guess.
So in the spirit of goodwill, I will share what I’ve learned when it comes to where to stop on that long holiday road trip so you don’t have to learn the hard way.
The North East
A good fast-food burger isn’t as easy to find up here, but the big one, the “In-N-Out killer” is found in the north. Then again, there’s always Wendy’s and Hardees.
For the good stuff, hunt these guys down:
We’re going to rile some feathers here but this sure ain’t In-N-Out. However, it IS an amazingly fresh burger. With the option to double up on all the toppings, add a few extras like bacon, these thicker-than-most burgers make it a valid option while on the road.
However, with long lines and a burger that isn’t really as large as other fast food options, it might not be worth the detour. Still, it is a very delicious burger.
In the Boston area, options are a bit more limited but this is the one stand out that isn’t a mega-chain.
Its locations have a retro vibe, with a bright red sign and neon calling you in. Their menu is extensive, with lots of options with some retro prices. This is the kind of burger joint you can get a sack of burgers and be set the rest of the ride.
All their burgers are good, well seasoned, and fresh. For me it was the Spicy Jalapeno, being a glutton for punishment and heat. From the cheese to the aioli this patty will light you up. Delicious.
Also, don’t forget the mini pie!
When driving in the south, there’s no wrong turn that won’t yield great food. From Hardee’s to Central Park, there is a glut of good grub in the south. However for those that need to hop on and hop off the highway and get back at it, here’s what to look for:
Cookout is a southeast staple. It is a small chain, a little bit of a detour most of the time but absolutely worth a stop.
The menu has everything. Read that again. Everything. Barbecue, burgers, milkshakes, the list goes on. But the absolute best value is always the combo.
For a “Tray” you pick one entree (examples include two hot dogs, a double burger, quesadillas) and then two sides and a drink. All for around $5. Affordable, insanely delicious and you can get chicken nuggets as a side item!
If we can recommend anything, it would be to get the Cheerwine Float.
This southern chain was started in Chattanooga, TN around the same time as the rest of the fast-food burger boom in the early 1900s. Like the more popular White Castle, these tiny square burgers come in multiples of many. One won’t fill you up.
What makes Krystal different is their selection. You can order them a few at a time or get a massive sackful of twelve or twenty-four. They are topped with mustard, diced white onions, and a pickle and cheese if you want.
Aside from the burgers, they have tiny chili dogs and mini chicken sandwiches. I’ve eaten too many of these for one lifetime and I’m not ashamed one bit.
For the road, stay away from their chili cheese fries and chili cheese pups for the one reason that no matter how careful you might be, that chili finds a way to make a mess.
The midwest has some really great food options. While some of these choices might be off the beaten path they are worth searching out when you don’t want the typical.
Culver’s is heralded by some as the best fast food burger in the world and once you try it you might be hard-pressed to disagree.
It is a simple burger freshly (proudly never frozen) hand pattied, made with crisp ingredients, on a tasty buttered bun. Toss in their amazing fries and fast service, unless you are particularly particular, you'll love this burger. And they have that good, crunchy ice.
If you’re doing a burger tour around the country (we aren’t the only ones that do that are we?) this is a must-have.
Drive up and park and a carhop will run to your car. Literally, run. That’s the Swenson’s way.
The Swenson's way is also to serve up delicious simple burgers with no frills. The standard toppings -- mustard, onion, and pickles -- combine with the cheese and slightly sweet patty into an amalgamation of flavors that take you back to those backyard barbeques and hot summer days.
For the best experience just order The Galley Boy.
Service is fast, the food is fresh and authentic. You will leave happy.
Harder to find these days, but still around White Castle is the most famous of the tiny burgers by the bagful. Square patties cooked with grilled onions and steamed buns.
I am lumping everything from Texas to Nevada in this category. Whenever I am driving through or visiting Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona I search out one place for my fast food fix.
I have taken detours and alternate routes and side streets just to get my Whataburger fix. On my personal, super-secret guilty confession burger ranking, Whataburger is in the top three.
Why? Giant, well-seasoned patties with insanely customizable options from jalapenos to avocado to thick texas sized bacon means I can get the exact burger I am craving. They also have a pretty stellar breakfast and a damn good patty melt.
The best part is that they aren’t shy with their spicy ketchup. A perfect bite for their delicious fries.
West Coast and PNW
When most people think of the west coast, only one burger chain comes to mind, and rightfully so. For me, it is STILL a required stop at least once every few months. But LA has this weird burger fascination going on anyways.
Anyways, when road tripping out west, here’s what to look for when craving that burger:
Still my favorite. Coast-to-coast rivalries be damned, for me, this is the best fast-food burger.
Everything here is about the freshness. Despite lines around the block nearly every day, In-N-Out cuts the veggies fresh, cooks the patties to order and fries the fries when you want them. Nothing beats that freshness when you take a bite. Crisp cool toppings, a little secret sauce, and a hot well-seasoned patty. Rawr. And if you don’t know about the secret menu by now, you’ve not been paying attention.
Double double, grilled onions and get your fries animal style. You’re welcome.
Fatburger’s retro-inspired logo always calls to me. Their logo calls them “the last great hamburger stand” and they’ve been surviving up mouthwatering patties since 1952. It became a tradition to stop into Fatburger on the way to Six Flags, stuffing our faces before screaming our heads off. It was always a good day.
Fatburgers come in a range of sizes, all the way up to the XXXL weighing in at a hefty 1.5lbs. The toppings are always fresh and the burgers are made to order how you want them.
Fatburger also has an impressive array of alternatives, like a hearty veggie burger and one of the best tasting Impossible burgers I have ever tasted.
Pair it up with their “fat fries”, extra-thick fries (or healthy with their sweet potato crinkle fries) and you are set for the day. Worth a stop for sure, and the service is always fast.
This isn’t a definitive guide on where to stop on the road. We’d never do that to you, especially since road tripping is about the adventure. Nor is this the definitive shakedown on fast food burgers. That will be here. This is merely a list of suggestions for when you’re on that holiday road trip and really want something different. Something delicious on a bun.
Yes, we do have a burger problem here at Brewhoppin, but thanks to that affliction you can trust us when you take the next exit.
Now it’s your turn. Use the comment section below to tell us why we’re wrong. Or why we need to eat a burger in a place we didn’t list. We will ALWAYS try a new burger.