Foodies name their favorite regional chains

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Whatta-Burger in Russellville, Ark., as part of the Whataburger chain.)

With first-rate barbecue joints opening from Brooklyn to Southern California, you no longer have to go to Texas to get great smoked brisket. Once the monopoly of coastal New England seafood shacks, you can now find specialist Maine lobster roll shops from Manhattan to the Las Vegas Strip. Thanks to an increasingly nationalized food scene, what were once obscure local specialties have proliferated and many formerly regional chains like the South's beloved


and the Middle Atlantic's

Five Guys

have gone national. But there are still plenty of regionally limited standout chains with avid fans, local flair and authentic fare, and they are well worth seeking out - part of the discovery that makes travel special.

"Especially in the South and West, if you go beyond the big five national chains, you can find some interesting choices," said Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor for Bon Appetit magazine. Now based in New York, Knowlton grew up in the South eating at chains like Bojangles', and just worked a 24-hour shift cooking and waiting tables at his personal favorite, Waffle House, for a feature for the magazine. "If you go to Whataburger in Texas or Waffle House anywhere, you get a feel you won't find anyplace else, a fast food terroir."

Whether it's St. Louis' unique style of pizza or Chicago's oddly loaded hot dogs, folks feel very strongly about their local foods and chains, as Knowlton pointed out. "The defensiveness that comes with regional food is second only to that of local sports teams. A lot of them are inexplicably delicious – but only if you are from there."

Knowlton and several other experts on American regional cuisine chimed in to help select the best regional chains across America. All agreed there are some delicious and unique tastes out there, but no one could quite agree how to define region or chain or even fast food. For instance, the favorites of Colman Andrews, editorial director of website TheDailyMeal.com, ranged from Midwestern-born sandwich specialist Jimmy John's, with over 2,000 outlets in 43 states, to The Varsity, with just eight locations – all in Georgia. Some are big and some are tiny, but all are worth trying for their unique spin on road food.

Waffle House

The biggest chain on our list, with over 2,000 outlets, Knowlton's beloved 24-7 Georgia-based Waffle House now reaches as far north as New York, but clings to its Southern flair and hospitality. "I've got nothing against a good Belgian waffle, but the plague of dense, doughy ones is an increasingly troublesome black mark on American breakfast. That is why I treasure thin-tread Waffle House waffles, especially when loaded with butter and drenched with syrup and maybe doubled-up with double bacon on the side," said Michael Stern, co-author of the Roadfood series of books and Roadfood.com, devoted to the best eats along American motorways. While famous for breakfast, which includes regional options like grits and biscuits with sausage gravy, lunch and dinner options such as chili, patty melts and even T-bone steaks are extremely popular. The very first Waffle House, in Decatur, Ga., is now a full-blown museum.

White Castle

Bon Appetit's Knowlton doesn't get why people feel so strongly that its fans have their own nickname ("cravers"), but many other experts do. Said Stern, "It is the aroma at least as much as the taste that makes White Castle so endearing – that distinctive mix of greasy beef and sizzling-soft onion, with a bit of pickle tang and a hint of yeast from the itty-bitty bun." Adam Sachs, editor in chief of Saveur magazine, picked it as his single favorite regional chain, explaining that, "You have to give credit to White Castle for their unwavering commitment to manufacturing a very mushy burger (VMB). I mean, they invented technology – 'steam-grilling' atop a bed of onions - to ensure that the meat of the aptly-named slider stays as consistently sodden as the damp bun on which it is served (and from which it is, in taste and texture, nearly indistinguishable)." One of America's oldest restaurant chains, the place that invented the "slider" is found in a dozen rather randomly separated states across the Northeast, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and South, all of which consider it their local institution.

Lou Malnati's

"There are so many bad and bogus Chicago-style, deep-dish pizzas, it is a special pleasure to eat the real thing at Lou Malnati's. I believe this is as good as it gets – pizza redefined as a whole new food group," said Stern. There is only one truly national deep-dish chain and three more major players in the Chicago area, but of these, Lou Malnati's is the best, set apart by its superior crust, rich and decadent yet light. Buttery and flaky, it's more like pie crust than traditional pizza dough. Its popularity has led to about 40 restaurants, all in Illinois, plus a thriving mail order business for frozen pizzas. While pepperoni is the bestselling topping nationwide, here the two most popular pizzas are the Chicago Classic, with ground patty-style sausage and cheese, and the Lou, a surprising four-cheese blend of mozzarella, cheddar, parmesan and romano with spinach and mushrooms.

Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q & Moe's Original Bar B Que

These two consensus best barbecue chains have a lot in common – both are homespun products of Alabama with a significant presence in mountainous Colorado. Both have about 30 locations in seven and eight states respectively, clustered in the South and Rockies. Jim 'N Nick's was launched by a father and son team in a former dry cleaning shop in Birmingham, Ala., three decades ago. The restaurants are big, sit-down, full-service eateries, more fast casual than fast food, but many have drive-throughs as well. Quality is high, they even have their own heritage pig breeding program in development. Bon Appetit's Knowlton said: "The meat is good and it comes from good places because they have great sources." The barbecue is good across the board, but what makes the chain stand out is its unique slate of Southern-flavored starters, from the signature and highly addictive cheese biscuits to Creamy Collard Green Dip with tortilla chips. Moe's was launched in Vail, Colo., by a trio of University of Alabama buddies turned ski bums, and their folksy growth strategy has been to help more recent alums of their alma mater open branches. The Alabama-centric menu is large and varied, including exceptional fried shrimp po' boys, a trademark of the state's Gulf Coast, along with decadent one-of-a-kind boneless rib sandwiches.

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