Pretty much everyone knows, and has opinions of, the big national chains (you know the ones), and even the big regionals such as In-n-Out, Chick-fil-A, etc. But further down the scale there are many smaller, less well-known, local and regional chains, many of which are serving good food that is worthy of more attention than they typically get.
Here are three picks of the types of chains I’m talking about:
Cook Out: Cook Out is a North Carolina-based burger chain with some additional locations in Va., Tenn., and S.C. Their claim is that their burgers resemble those you’d make yourself at a cook-out. I don’t know about that, although they are good and to me are somewhat reminiscent of the In-n-Out style, even complete with references to biblical passages on the wrappings. But while the burgers are good, their best thing is the huge variety and high quality of milkshakes. For example, if you order a blueberry pie milkshake they literally slice off a piece of pie and mix it into the shake, crust and all. Excellent. Most locations are double drive-throughs with outdoor seating, but some have indoor seating. The company is extremely secretive and has no website of its own. Here is a link to a fan website: http://eatcookout.com/
Runza: Runza is a Nebraska chain, with a few outlets in adjacent states. They serve, well, runzas. A runza is a type of turnover, a yeast pastry crust filled with savory ingredients including meat, cabbage, onions, and sometimes cheese. A very tasty pocket sandwich. Runza the chain serves a variety of runzas, as well as other more typical fast-food items. Well worth checking out if you’re ever in Nebraska. http://www.runza.com/
Pollo Campero: This is a chicken chain (“Country Chicken” in English) from Guatemala, now with many locations in the US, focused in areas where there are large populations of Mexicans and Central Americans such as NY/NJ, DC, Houston, Los Angeles and others. IMO their fried chicken blows away the US chains. It apparently is long-marinated in a spice mixture, and that seems to work. Many of their sides are also excellent – their side of pinto beans, really a soup, is the best restaurant bean soup I know of, and they have fried yucca, plantain, and other treats. http://www.campero.com/
What and where are some below-the-radar chains you know about that you would recommend to a Chowhound passing through?