Despite some progress, “chain” is still considered a dirty word in the food world—and for good reason. From to sea to shining sea, our country is littered with restaurant franchises that specialize in serving up mediocrity, peddlers of insipid sandwiches and mega-sized portions of grease-slicked carbs on carbs on carbs. But there is some hope. Take Shake Shack, which offers quality burgers, dogs, and frozen custard at over 200 locations. What started as a kiosk in a Manhattan park quickly became a New York City staple and ultimately a worldwide phenomenon. In fact, throughout the U.S. there are a number of regional chains with strong culinary game that are poised to become the next Shake Shack. From trending newcomers to local legends that have been around for decades, here are some chains that for the sake of our great nation need a bigger footprint.
This Northern Chinese purveyor has come a long way since its humble beginnings in a cramped basement of a Queens mall. Thanks to a legion of devoted fans (the late, great Anthony Bourdain was among the faithful) Xi’an Famous Foods has spread the gospel of spicy and addictive hand-ripped noodles, dumplings, and other affordable options to 14 locations across New York City. Panda Express this is not.
Over the last few years, Detroit-style pizza has (finally) earned a following beyond the Motor City, so it only makes sense that the place that started it all get in on the action. Since 1946, Buddy’s Pizza has been serving up their iconic steel pan-cooked, crispy-edged rectangle pies covered in Wisconsin brick cheese and assorted toppings—sauce always on top. While the family-owned institution continues to expand across Michigan, the other 49 states patiently await their slice of the pie.
If you love that chicken from Popeye’s, then Crack Shack is bound to steal your heart. The SoCal sensation comes from perfectly quaffed “Top Chef” winner Richard Blais, who has created a fowl-centric menu of elevated comfort food including everything from deviled eggs topped with French toast crumble and candied bacon to a bubbe-meets-abuelita matzo ball pozole. Chicken is available every which way—grilled, smoked, BBQ’d, sausage’d. But the main attraction is the signature cracklin’ fried bird, particularly the crispy, pickle-brined oysters—not the bivalve, but rather the coveted pair of juicy meat discs found along the chicken’s backbone. (Check out our 2017 interview with Richard Blais, including some recipes from the chef.)
Homegrown epitomizes the future of fast-casual dining, incorporating sustainability (they source from their own farm!), charity (one percent of proceeds goes to environmental organizations!), and low-impact design (stores are constructed with FSC-certified materials and use energy efficient lighting!) into its business model. Most importantly, the Seattle-based chain serves up some seriously tasty grub, mostly of the sandwich and bowl variety. There’s something for everyone whether you’re gluten-free, vegan or a lover of bread and animal flesh.
Houston’s Vietnamese food scene is an embarrassment of riches and Pho Saigon is a notable standout with eight locations across the city. No surprise that the go-to order is the namesake pho, steaming bowls of flavor-packed chicken or beef noodle soup—the sound of slurping echoes through the air. The restaurant has also set up shop in Austin and Lafayette. Here’s hoping the expansion will continue.
Chilicates became an instant success when it opened in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood back in 2015. Since then the Mexican street food favorite has set up shops across the city offering a build-your-own model reminiscent of another pepper-named chain, only with more options and less food poisoning. Start your order with a “canvas” which includes tacos and burritos (both are prepared with handmade tortillas) as well as tortas, tostadas, and enchiladas. Next comes the hard part—the fillings. The chicken tinga and lengua are both top notch. Then again, so are the papas con chorizo and smoky al pastor. As a native New Yorker, I’m prone to shun anything from Boston, but I’ll make this my one exception.
There’s no better way to beat the Maui heat than a stop at Hawaiian shave ice specialist Uluani’s, which has six popular outposts on the island (another is located in Kona). From the ice—a fluffy cloud of frozen perfection, to the syrups, of which there dozens of options all crafted from high-quality ingredients, everything here is top notch. Can shave ice succeed poke as the next Hawaiian food craze on the mainland? If Uluani’s is blazing the trail, then the answer is a resounding yes.
Breakfast is the meal of choice at Biscuitville, which has been satisfying the hungry masses across Virginia and North Carolina for over 50 years. You can expect ample portions of southern classics including country ham, grits, and, of course, biscuits—which are made from scratch and baked fresh every 15 minutes. Hopefully, this will serve as a wake-up call to spread that Southern hospitality beyond ACC country.
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Header image courtesy of The Crack Shack