In the face of farm-raised turkeys and homemade trimmings involving organic cranberries, I'm sitting on Park Place in a Monopoly board of chain restaurants from my childhood home in Columbus, Ohio.* If you turn right out of my neighborhood towards the mall, you will come across a Skyline Chili, Waffle House, Arby's, Tim Horton's, Brio, Potbellies, Ruby Tuesday, Chipotle, Pizza Hut, Red Robin, P.F. Chang's, Jimmy John's, Quiznos, and no less than three Starbucks within a two mile radius. If you venture left, there's a Jeni's Ice Cream (it's the tony part of town), City BBQ, Panera, McDonald's (a new one with WiFi, a fireplace and muted color scheme), Subway, another Starbucks, another Arby's, and the godsend that is Graeter's Ice Cream within close proximity. And that's just going by memory.
If you find yourself in a similar situation this holiday season or are just a straight-up true American believing in the transformative power of 2-for-1 appetizers, may we point you in the direction of First We Feast's list honoring the 25 best dishes from chain restaurants across the country. To this, our staff offers some personal favorites deserving to have made the cut because turkey is great (or tofu turkey, for some of you creeps), but things that are crispy from Chili's can be even better if the mood is right. (In Columbus, Ohio, the mood is often right.) Let's do this.
*Go, Bucks, beat Michigan
Firecracker Salmon Rolls at the Cheesecake Factory
These are spicy and salty with a sweet, sticky honey chili dipping sauce all packed into a deep-fried egg roll wrapper. All the opposites come together so pleasantly: hot and sweet, soft and crispy.
The Shroom Burger at Shake Shack
Because it is a ball of deep-fried cheesy deliciousness held together by a bun. You can never go wrong with deep-fried cheese. Until you've had too much, that is. I also love anything having to do with mushrooms.
Ashley Minette, creative director of promotions
The Patty Melt at Waffle House
Growing up in New York, I never experienced a Waffle House until visiting my college roommate in her hometown of Hazard, Kentucky, the summer after our freshman year. A lot of strange things happened on that trip. I saw a little girl who kept a raccoon as a pet. A boy asked me if I had ever seen a "chicken heart" and then showed me his testicles, which he had squeezed through the fly of his pants.
But the real highlight was going to my first Waffle House and getting a patty melt. Greasy and hot, the cheese melted into the burger while the mustard and onions added just the right amount of bite. The bread was crispy and superior to any old squishy traditional roll. I might have audibly groaned while eating it. Recently though, I stopped at another Waffle House while driving through rural central Pennsylvania. I wasn't even hungry but I had to have a patty melt. It was, sadly, disappointing. The bread is much thicker now—some abomination called "Texas Toast"—and it ruined the balance of the sandwich as I remember it. Yet another example of how you can't go back again.
Kristin Iversen, associate editor
Spicy Anasazi Bean Burger with a Side of Sweet Potato Fries and a Root Beer at Burgerville (39 Locations Throughout the Northwest):
Fast food: When it's not being ethically hideous towards animals, it's being ethically hideous towards human beings (Chick-fil-A, I'm looking straight at you). But if you find yourself driving around the Portland, Oregon area this Thanksgiving, and you're just craving the comfort of the drive-thru, Burgerville is the place for you. The "guilt" in the guilty pleasure of fast food is made a little more palatable by Burgerville's commitment to locally sourced products and renewable energy. And to top it all off, their veggie burger is the best fast food burger I've ever had. So, basically, what I'm saying is: Burgerville Brooklyn, please?
Tyler Menzel, account executive
The "Texas Sized" Margarita at Dallas BBQ
Not necessarily a food, per se, but having an umbrella (and, for an extra dollar, a chemistry vial full of tequila) in your drink is really, really fun sometimes. Also, compared to a lot of places in Manhattan, this is actually a pretty good deal. If you want actual food at Dallas BBQ, I don't really know what to tell you, though. Fries? Can't go wrong with fries.
Virginia Smith, assistant editor
Chicken Fajita at McDonald's
Personal favorite would be the McDonald's Chicken Fajita—no longer on the menu, although I did find one "off the menu" in Western Massachusetts a few years back. Does McD's have other off-the-menu items? [There's your] next blog post!
Daniel Stedman, president
7-Layer Burrito at Taco Bell (with a Vegan Twist)
My favorite Taco Bell menu item is the seven-layer burrito but not for the reasons you may think. It's one of the easiest fast food meals to veganize—just order it without cheese and sour cream and *poof* you have a relatively healthy meal on the go (if you count translucent lettuce as a vegetable and a floppy tortilla wrap as a "complex carb"). It's worth noting, though, do not confuse this with the five-layer burrito. The number of layers may be the same, but I learned the hard way that one of said layers is beef, and that is decidedly not vegan. And of course, wash it down with a (large) Baja Blast because it's the only soda in the world that tastes so good and so blue.
Deirdre Hering, marketing and promotions coordinator
Chicken McNuggets and Oreo McFlurry at McDonald's
Every now and I again, I can be coaxed into a McNugget. And by "every now and again" and "coaxed," I mean that on my 21st birthday, I was found shouting in the streets of Montreal, to no one in particular, "I want six nuggets! Six nuggets IN MY MOUTH!." On repeat.
Also, I stand by the merits of an Oreo McFlurry. Day or night. No shame in it.
Danielle DiPaolo, senior account executive
Spicy Garlic Boneless Wings at Buffalo Wild Wings
Combine those with a Blue Moon on NFL Sunday, and it's heaven in culinary form. Perfection.
Nicole Conner, assistant to the publisher
Honey Chipotle Chicken Crispers at Chili's
There is now no way I'm not going there today...
Mike Conklin, managing editor
Follow Lauren Beck on Twitter @heylaurenbeck.