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While there are dozens of fast-food chains that can be found in just about every major American city, there are also pockets around the U.S. where fast food is inspired by regional cuisine, local traditions, and family recipes. Whether you’re passing through the Midwest or cruising the East Coast, follow the locals and keep your eyes peeled for these six popular regional fast food chains to try something new on your next road trip.
This popular biscuit breakfast joint had an unlikely start as a pizza shop. In 1967, Maurice Jennings opened two Pizzavilles in Burlington, North Carolina, where he also sold his made-from-scratch biscuits. As it turns out, the biscuits were a huge hit. Eight years later, Jennings opened the first Biscuitville in Danville, Virginia — this time, his famous homemade biscuits were the star attraction. Word quickly spread about the flaky biscuits drizzled with gravy and stuffed with eggs, bacon, fried chicken, and sausage, and there are now more than 60 Biscuitville locations. Despite the booming business, the beloved biscuit chain is still family-owned and only operates in North Carolina and Virginia — and continues to use the original biscuit recipe.
Inspired by watching his mother cook for their family in Kastoria, Greece, Nicholas Lambrinides knew that he would introduce the world to his culinary heritage one day. His opportunity came in 1949 after his family immigrated to Cincinnati, and he opened his first restaurant. Skyline Chili gets its name for its position high up on Price Hill and the skyline views overlooking the west side of the city. The restaurant helped popularize Cincinnati-style chili, which uses a Mediterranean-spiced meat sauce as a topping for spaghetti or hot dogs (called “coneys”) along with generous mounds of cheddar cheese. Voted the best chili in Cincinnati by City Beat readers, Skyline Chili now has locations throughout Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Kentucky and has become so popular that it received a shout-out from country band Big & Rich in the song “Comin’ to Your City.”
Hawaii’s go-to place for local comfort food, Zippy’s has been serving up generous portions of Asian fusion and island-inspired cuisine since 1966. The Zip Pac — the diner’s signature meal — showcases the customer favorites with a serving of fried chicken, hoki fish, teri beef, and a slice of Spam atop a bed of Japanese rice. Other popular menu items include chicken katsu, mahi mahi, chili, and the traditional Hawaiian saimin noodle dish. The diner prides itself on its cozy, welcoming, and easygoing ambience at its 24 locations across Hawaii — including the first location on South King Street in Honolulu. Zippy’s has won many awards, including Hawaii’s Best Family Diner and Best Late Night Diner from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in 2019.
Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers
Todd Graves, the founder and CEO of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, is someone who doesn’t take “no” for an answer. After he received a failing grade in college on his business plan to open a chicken finger restaurant and was denied by the bank for a business loan, he worked 90-hour weeks in Los Angeles’ oil refinery sector and fishing sockeye salmon in Alaska to raise enough money to start his passion project himself. Fast forward to 1996, and Graves opened the first of many Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Since then, Raising Cane has drummed up a reputation with its premium white meat chicken tenders, crinkle-cut fries, homestyle coleslaw, and top-secret dipping sauce — so much that it has expanded from regional favorite to locations in more than half of the 50 states.
The Habit Burger Grill
USA Today named Habit Burger the best regional fast food chain in 2019, securing its spot on our list and in our stomachs. There are thousands of burger joints in the U.S., so what’s the big deal about Habit Burger? Setting the chain apart is the Californian flair that’s packed into all its menu offerings — think avocado-topped chicken burgers, chargrilled beef burgers, salads made from locally-sourced produce, and fresh line-caught seafood (featured in a scrumptious grilled ahi sandwich). It all began in Santa Barbara in 1969, when two brothers borrowed money from their mom to launch their entrepreneurial dream, and there are now nearly 300 locations throughout the West and along the East Coast.
By definition, Sheetz is a gas station and convenience store, but anyone from Pennsylvania knows it’s more than just your average grab-n-go shop. The chain originated in 1952 in the small city of Altoona, and has expanded to include 600 stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Unlike the typically subpar gas station food and coffee, Sheetz serves up award-winning, made-to-order food and specialty coffee and espresso drinks — in addition to all your other roadside snacks and staples. There’s a reason why Sheetz has such a loyal following — plus, they’re open 24/7.