Increasing Marginal Utility

A blog so good it violates the law of diminishing marginal utility.

Fast Food, Preliminary Rankings

Moving to Texas has allowed me to experience so much culture I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. That includes, um, fast food.

When ranking things like this, you really should consider price. For me, these rankings are not how I would rank the (for instance) best burger, but the best burger considering its price. In other words, I don’t give “credit” to a company for buying more expensive inputs. I give them “credit” for efficiently transforming whatever quality of inputs they buy into the finished product.

Also, some definitions. Just as Potter Stewart knew hardcore pornography when he saw it, I know fast food when I see it. That means I am not counting Chipotle or Panda Express or Fuddrucker’s because I think those are better defined as “fast casual.” I am also consciously avoiding bagels or anything like that because I am not putting that damned Canadian Tim Horton on my list.

Let’s go from worst to best.

—TIER IV – DO NOT WANT —

21. Roy Rogers. Are they still around anymore? All I can remember is soggy hamburgers that taste like ones you might get at a hospital’s cafeteria.

20. White Castle. A few times in undergrad, some of us dared each other to drive to the closest one to Boston, which was supposedly located in the Bronx. Well I never went to that one, but several times I went to a location in Queens after I moved to Long Island. The first time I thought it wasn’t terrible, especially since you could get one of their slider things for $0.49. Subsequently I realized it really is that terrible.

–TIER III – WILL REGRET GETTING —

19. KFC. Once every eighteen months, I’ll convince myself I never gave KFC a fair shot. But I did. I like greasy food more than the next guy, but foul-tasting (certainly not fowl-tasting) grease permeates all of their food regardless whether or not it was fried.

18. Chick-fil-A. They are everywhere in Texas. I understand why some people like them. The chicken’s flavor profile is unique, and I can see how someone who grew up with it might enjoy it. But to me, it tastes culinarily unbalanced, to phrase it as pretentiously as possible.

17. Nathan’s. Why go through all the trouble of cooking a hot dog (???) when you can drive somewhere and have someone make it for you? And if you do want to do that, 7/11′s hot dogs are 80% as good for like 40% of the price. You might doubt that, but Nathan’s isn’t exactly grinding up pork tenderloin to make their hot dogs.

16. Pizza Hut. I am including this because they do a nontrivial amount of their business in the to-go format. If I haven’t had Pizza Hut pizza for awhile, I will sometimes really like the first piece. The second and third then taste terrible and I get a migraine.

15. Taco Bell. See KFC, only I do this to myself once every six month instead of eighteen. I would have a higher opinion of Taco Bell if the employees honored your requests more than half the time.

—TIER 2 – WILL EAT —

14. Long John Silvers. Cheap fried fish. It is what it is and it is marginally better than what you might buy frozen at the supermarket. I also remember liking their hush puppies, which are underrated as a greasy food.

13. Arby’s. I include Arby’s even though I exclude all other sandwich places because Arby’s serves sandwiches in the same sense McDonald’s serves salads. I probably wouldn’t mind Arby’s so much if they were more upfront about what their food is, i.e. cheap roast beef smothered in Eau de Fast Food.

12. Checker’s. I remember them being sorta bland, but I haven’t had it in like seven years so I should probably try it again at some point.

11. Dairy Queen. Yeah, they often serve “real” food. It tends to be surprisingly competent.

10. Jack in the Box. In some ways, Jack in the Box is really scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality, but in others they are skilful in the ways in which they are scraping the bottom of the barrel. If their regular menu was priced as low as their Munchie Meals are, they would rank much higher, as the value you get in the Munchie Meals is a fairly disconcerting testimony to the powers of American capitalism.

9. What-A-Burger. I was very disappointed when I first tried it, because I was led to believe it was a “better burger” place. It’s not. The burgers have a slightly bland or sour taste to them. But I think what you are supposed to get are the weird special kinds of burgers on the menu and the basic burgers are for dumb people who don’t like it when their food has a taste. Their burgers also have more “heft” to them than the typical burger, which counts for something.

8. Wendy’s. Very overrated, but I’ll still go on my own accord on occasion without hating myself for it. I think people are fooled by the square-shaped meat and the quality-oriented advertisement campaigns when the quality really isn’t there and everything tastes a little underseasoned.

7. A&W. Food is no-frills, but I don’t mind it. The theme of the restaurant is hilariously antiquated, which is… a positive?

6. Del Taco. I haven’t been there that much, but it shines in comparison to Taco Bell in terms of competence, without really costing much more.

—TIER I – WANT —

5. In-And-Out Burger. Only got it once and was a little overwhelmed by all the “spread” I asked them to put on my meal. Need further investigation.

4. McDonald’s. They are beginning to price discriminate really hard, but I’m fine with that. Regardless of what anyone tells you, ketchup flavored bread (what they call a “cheeseburger”) tastes good. And even the obnoxious foodie hipsters now admit that McDonald’s makes excellent breakfast. McDonald’s has also done more for bringing the global poor out of poverty than all economic foreign aid in the history of the world combined.

3. Five Guys. I am still entirely incapable of explaining why their burgers taste as good as they do.

2. Smashburger. I thought the quality of food was better than Five Guys and the variety is better. I am not entirely certain that it is worth the price. It may be.

1. Burger King. Underrated by hipsters who want to have something to feel superior to, since they admit they like McDonald’s breakfast. The Whopper is the practically perfect fast food sandwich. Even the stupid temporary promotional things (e.g. Angry Whopper, Burger Shots) are delicious.

On my list of places to try next are Shake Shack, Wienerschnitzel, Zaxby’s, Raising Cane’s, Sonic, Carl’s Jr., and Umami Burger. Umami Burger is the only of those I would need to go out of my way to try.

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8 responses to “Fast Food, Preliminary Rankings

  1. Daniel Kuehn February 9, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Disagree on KFC strongly. Most of the rest of this is good I think although your range is much broader than mine. The explanations were surprisingly burger-centric. Often the fries are a big part of the experience. McDonalds and Five-Guys for example – burgers there are great but the fries merit mention.

    • rhmurphy February 9, 2014 at 4:49 pm

      I actually don’t like Five Guys fries. Fries for me are all about the crisp texture. Five Guys tries really hard at getting certain potatoes, and I guess the fries taste strongly potato-ey, but they’re just mushy. And a little under-salted. I thought about actually criticizing them in this post for that, but it gets canceled out because part of their corporate culture is to give you way too many fries on purpose.

  2. Daniel Kuehn February 9, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    One thing about McDonalds breakfast – I’ve never understood why when their sandwiches are amazing the pancakes are so awful. Eggs I can understand. It makes sense that fast-food eggs won’t be so great. But it seems to me they should be able to pull together a decent pancake.

    Speaking of breakfasts – I’ve taken to dropping by the Dunkin Donuts after dropping Caroline off at daycare for a breakfast sandwich. They’re pretty good. As a Boston man I was curious what you thought of them, or do you principally think of it as a coffee and donut shop?

    • rhmurphy February 9, 2014 at 4:46 pm

      They’re much more than that. If I get a breakfast sandwich, it’s probably sausage egg and cheese on a croissant. The most frequent thing I get from there is actually bagel and cream cheese. It makes me sad how rare they are in the Dallas area.

  3. T.W. February 10, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    I agree with most of this, except Chick-fil-A. Chick-fil-A is overrated, I’ll admit that, but it’s still really good. People think their chicken is the best of anywhere, and it is exceptional but there are a handful of places with better chicken.

    As for Whataburger, go between 11pm and 11am and try the honey butter chicken biscuit. The butter is what makes me like it so you may not, but it’s worth trying. Also, try Dairy Queen breakfast. I think the excessive grease in their breakfast may put that part of their menu in your “TIER III” category.

    Other places to add to your places to try if you venture into other parts of the South: Bojangle’s (a chain that started in Charlotte and has only made it to Mississippi); Guthrie’s Chicken which gives you a crapload of chicken for a fairly low price, but only seems to be an Alabama/Florida panhandle thing.

  4. Kevin Erdmann February 28, 2014 at 12:54 am

    When you go to Sonic, get a hot dog, any of them – Chicago style, chili & cheese, American dog, New York Dog….

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