New recipes

What Is America’s Best Food Truck? Take Our Survey

What Is America’s Best Food Truck? Take Our Survey


Help us decide what food trucks are America's best.

Which mobile kitchen serves the best nosh in America? It’s an easy enough question to ask, but with the plethora of phenomenal food trucks in our great nation, it is not so easy to answer. Now, we need your help to rank them.

Take The Daily Meal’s Survey for the 101 Best Food Trucks in America 2015

For our previous lists of the best food trucks in America — from 2014, 2013, and 2012 — we relied on research and the opinions of editors and notable figures in the food industry. This year, we want it to be all about the people’s choices. After all, if there were ever a dining institution that’s for the people, by the people, it’s a food truck.

A few notes: Only trucks will be considered. If it’s a trailer or a cart, if it isn’t on four wheels and can’t move on its own power from parking ticket to parking spot, it won’t be considered. Some cities (especially much-beloved Portland, Ore.) pain us: many of their food "trucks" won’t make the cut because they aren’t well, trucks. Also, this is a list of food trucks. Trucks that just make cupcakes or coffee are cupcake or coffee trucks, not food trucks. Dessert trucks will also not be considered.

Take a look at last year’s 101 Best Food Trucks in America, and help us shake up our ranking. This year, the list is in your hands.


Secrets of America's Best Sandwiches

There's a place in Austin, Texas, called Noble Pig, and these guys all have fine-dining training, and they're so over the corporate structure and the ass-kissing, and they founded this place. They bake their own bread &mdash the only thing they don't make is the potato chips. I had gone there to try the duck pastrami. I said, "What do you guys love?" And they said, "The seared beef tongue." I said, "Really?" But they do. They braise it for seven to nine hours, and it's extraordinary. Then they take green onions and throw them in their smoker, and smoke them at the same time as the duck and the pork belly, so they caramelize. I never thought to do smoked green onion. And I'm so jaded, I'm like, Oh, I've had that flavor, whatever. But there's nothing like it on the planet. And on home-baked bread? It's ridiculous.

When I came up with the idea, I sort of knew where I wanted to go, but there were some places that I had spent limited time in. I'm not gonna lie to you &mdash there was pressure from the network. I really do think that, as a host, your word and your integrity &mdash that's your commerce.

Granted, I haven't really seen my abs since about '93.

It's funny. Menu descriptions are deceiving. I tried this one sandwich &mdash I don't want to throw the place under the bus &mdash where I said, "Oh, this is it," and it was one of the worst sandwiches I've ever had. It literally had all the things I love: avocado, fried egg &mdash these great, unctuous, luscious sort of ingredients. Crap-o-rama.

Of our three finalists, I don't think there are more than five ingredients in each sandwich. One sandwich has three ingredients. The meat, though, takes over a day to prepare &mdash the brining, the seasoning, the pomp and circumstance.

The three biggest failings of the show &mdash and I think it's a really good show, but I'll be honest &mdash we didn't get a chance to do a breakfast sandwich. We didn't do a Banh Mi &mdash and that might be my favorite type of sandwich. And we didn't get a tuna melt. It's not like I think these things are deal-breakers, but they're classics.

The other big bummer is that there was a place I wanted to do in the Gulf Coast, and it burned down, like, two weeks before we were going to come. It was a place called the Shed in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. It was so great. They have other locations, but it wasn't the same thing. They do a rib-tip sandwich with their homemade slaw, and it is the essence of Gulf Coast barbecue. Just sweet enough, just smoky enough, a little bit of heat.

We've got BLT sandwiches in there, we've got grilled cheese, we've got cheese steaks, pulled pork, brisket. And then we've got some weird shit.

Breakfast sandwiches are a hangover cure as much as they are a way to start the day. My director and I had this dialogue about them. We had bacon, egg, and cheese on a Kaiser roll, fries. It really came down to the choice of beverage. I said fountain Coke. He said, "No, it's gotta be a Vitamin Water." I was like, I can't even talk to you anymore.

That's the beautiful thing about growing up in New York. With the bacon, egg, and cheese, sometimes it's the greasier the grill, the shadier the place, the better, where they have the little bacon weight that looks like a trowel that they drop on the bacon like a brick, and the bacon has long since given up the ghost. It's not even American cheese &mdash it says "cheese food" on there or something.

The sandwich porn I've accrued on this phone.

I couldn't always pick the sandwiches I wanted to, simply from a production standpoint. I found this kickass sandwich in Austin, but it was from a food cart that could fit [pointing] from the end of this table to the wall, so then I tried to imagine six of my crewmembers, two cameras, and the lighting instruments in a wood-fired truck in Austin at the end of May. Why don't I just fucking kill them?

I get offers from people to partner in restaurants, left, right, and center. I'm not gonna put my head in the guillotine quite yet because, having worked in the industry since I was thirteen, I now know that owning a restaurant is. It's worse than having a Chihuahua. Probably a metaphor that's never been made, but I mean, you gotta be on top of that thing.

At the end of the day, I found that, at its best, the sandwich is your imagination bound by two pieces of bread.


America's Best Cook

Sixteen of the country's best amateur cooks arrive in New York for their chance at $50,000 and the title of America's Best Cook. But first, they must compete to represent their region, in one of two spots on a Superstar Chef Mentor's team. Iron Chef Michael Symon will be choosing from the North, Iron Chef Cat Cora takes the South, Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli is heading up the East and Food Network star Chef Tyler Florence is representing the West. The Mentors will be choosing wisely, as they will also be out of the competition if both of their cooks are eliminated.

The Games Begin

Now that the mentors have selected their teams, the real competition begins. In their first challenge, the cooks are tasked with elevating kitchen classics. Guest judge Chef Anne Burrell will decide which cooks will go to the elimination challenge, The Pressure Cooker, where they must turn a plain chicken breast into an amazing dish if they want to stay in the competition.

Sugar Rush

This week, the seven remaining cooks face the most dreaded challenge in cooking competitions — dessert. Chef Ron Ben-Israel will join as a guest judge, but one cook's trip to the emergency room may also determine who is going home.

Mentor Meltdown

This week, the cooks face the hottest food trend, brunch, and their most intimidating judge yet, Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. One of the mentors has a very strong reaction when a cook ignores their direction during the challenge.

Seven Deadly Dishes

With just one week before the finale, the five cooks remaining in the competition are challenged to cook with intimidating ingredients that can stump even professional chefs, like quail, octopus and chicken livers. Guest Judge, Chef Marcel Vigneron will determine who faces elimination.

Thunderdome Finale

The final four cooks will compete in three challenges to determine who is America's Best Cook and will win the $50,000 grand prize. After each challenge, guest judge Chef Bobby Flay will eliminate a cook until just one cook and one mentor stand victorious.


Boston

A new crop of farm-to-fork chefs has breathed life into a food scene once limited to a few bold-face franchisers amid the chowder joints. The cache of cool-kid Cambridge dining rooms includes Shepard (pictured) with its ever-changing seasonal menu Jason Bond’s twinkly, 28-seat Bondir and Alden & Harlow, where chef Michael Scelfo shows self-aware wit with his “Ubiquitous Kale Salad.” A multi-course meal of modernist dishes awaits at Somerville’s Tasting Counter, co-owned by classically trained Peter Ungár and his wife Ginhee. If all the fuss and finesse have you hankering for a simple Beantown classic, hit waterfront shanty James Hook + Co. for a buttery lobster roll (the city’s best, per Boston magazine).


This Is the Most Hated Fast Food Chain in America

Despite its ubiquity, Americans say this is their least favorite convenience restaurant.

Shutterstock/frantic00

Americans disagree on innumerable issues, from politics to sports to the correct pronunciation of the word "caramel." However, there's one issue Americans are more than willing to come together on: proclaiming their disdain for one particularly maligned fast food restaurant. A new poll, which was compiled by data from The Daring Kitchen, scanned mentions of hated fast food restaurants in over 180,000 geotagged tweets. The results, posted by CBS affiliate KUTV, found that there was one fast food chain in particular that drew the most backlash from customers: Burger King. In fact, the burger chain, which has more than 7,200 locations in the U.S., was found to be the most hated fast food chain in 15 separate states.

However, Burger King was far from the only fast food chain to earn some considerable ire from its patrons. The poll tracked mentions of Burger King, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Arby's, KFC, Jack in the Box, and White Castle, revealing which chain scored the lowest marks in each state. Read on to discover which fast food chain is the least popular where you live. And for the store people get frustrated with the most, check out This Store Has the Worst Customer Service in America.

Read the original article on Best Life.

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

iStock

Most hated fast food chain: Jack in the Box

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Arby's

iStock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

And for more great stories delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Arby's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Arby's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Wendy's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Arby's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Wendy's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Taco Bell

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: KFC

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

Shutterstock/Real Window Creative

Most hated fast food chain: Taco Bell

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Taco Bell

iStock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

iStock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Wendy's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Wendy's

iStock

Most hated fast food chain: Taco Bell

iStock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

iStock

Most hated fast food chain: White Castle

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Taco Bell

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Taco Bell

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: KFC

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Taco Bell

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

iStock

Most hated fast food chain: KFC

And if you're wondering where folks may have a serious hankering for some comfort food, This Is the Most Stoned State in America.

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Taco Bell

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: KFC

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: McDonald's

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Burger King

Shutterstock

Most hated fast food chain: Wendy's

Shutterstock

America&rsquos Best Cities for Foodies 2015

When she&rsquos visiting Los Angeles, Las Vegas restaurateur Elizabeth Blau&mdashrecently nominated for a James Beard award&mdashdoes not concern herself with A-list seating at restaurants. &ldquoThe first time I went to Gjelina,&rdquo she says of the acclaimed Venice café, &ldquowe got pizza and salads in the to-go area, then ate them while sitting on milk crates in the alley. It was so good.&rdquo

No surprise, Blau says that she plans her trips around restaurants, bakeries and markets, though many Travel+Leisure readers would attest that you don&rsquot have to be a restaurateur to travel by your stomach. As part of the magazine&rsquos America&rsquos Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 38 cities for qualities like walkable streets, historic appeal and art galleries&mdashwhich, for some travelers, are just pleasant time-killers between meals.

Readers also ranked the 10 most crave-worthy features of a city, from the relatively low-cost indulgences of street food, coffee and bakeries to specialty gourmet markets, wine bars and high-end, chef-driven restaurants. (And throwing in plenty of burgers, pizza, craft beers and sandwiches.)

Among the winners&mdashsome perhaps boosted in the polls by their enthusiastic locals&mdashwe found a number of James Beard winners and nominees, as well as some fabulously creative twists on classics: &ldquohot chicken&rdquo in Nashville, bison tartare in Minneapolis and pickle tasting plates in Chicago.


10 Favourite American Foods of All Time

Here are the 10 most popular American foods of all time.When we think of American classics our minds jump to the comforting standbys we grew up with: hot dogs, fried chicken and chocolate chip cookies. Over the years, this cuisine has made such a mark on us that it seems like at some point or the other, everyone has a little love affair with it. With the splash of American grubs all over, it has transformed from delicious to glorious in India too. And this 4th of July weekend, an all-American feast is just what you need to celebrate the nation’s endless culinary creativities. We present our list of their 10 most delicious food items of all time. This selection covers the gamut from summertime staples to comfort food favourites. (You might want to read this with a burger in hand). ('Comfort Food' Soothes, but At the Cost Of Health)10. Breakfast SausageLove waking up to the smell of sausages in the morning? Hands down, it's the best way to kickstart the day. Calling all pork lovers, this American staple goes well with apples, onion, mustard, cabbage and tomatoes. It originated as a way for farmers to make use of as much of their livestock as possible, with dried sage as the key ingredient along with an assortment of spices. Low effort yet luxurious, it’s perfect for a hearty breakfast or a Sunday brunch. Watch out for: Fruity Sausages, Scrapple, Sausage with Crumbled Eggs or Gravy(Barbecued Sausages)9. Chocolate Chip Cookies“A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand”. So let’s take a moment to thank Ruth Wakefield of Massachusetts, who came up with the brilliant idea of adding chocolate to her butter cookies sometime in the 1930s. If you’re crazy about cookies just like us, bake a batch of chewy and crunchy cookies to get your dose of chocolate, and take this comfort treat to a whole new level. Can you feel the serotonin releasing?Watch out for: Our Chocolate Chip Cookies8. S’moresGooey, melty, warm and sweet -- nothing evokes family vacations and carefree camping under the stars quite like this classic American food. S’mores are basically roasted marshmallows and a layer of chocolate sandwiched between 2 pieces of graham cracker. It’s the simplest of the desserts, messy and mouth-watering. S’more please! (We bet you can’t get enough.) So get those marshmallow sticks sharpened and celebrate America’s birthday.Watch out for: Hershey’s S’mores and Pop Tarts(Marshmallows)7. CronutWhat do you get when you cross a croissant with a doughnut? Introducing: Cronut. The current gastronomic craze about the cronut makes it the most sought-after snack in the world! Made with laminated dough, it is first proofed and then fried in grape seed oil at a controlled temperature. The fried pastry is then sugared, filled and glazed. The cronut was the unique creation of French pastry chef Dominique Ansel and was launched in May 2013 in New York. With the crispiness of croissants and goodness of doughnuts, it just doesn’t get better than this.Watch out for: Chef Dominique Ansel’s classic cronuts(A Crodough With Your Tea? London Eats up New Baking Craze)6. Chicken and WafflesMany years ago, some unknown genius decided to combine all the greatest parts of a fried chicken dinner with all the greatest parts of a waffle stack to create this ultimate sweet-savory breakfast staple. Their brainchild continues to delight stomachs all over the world. Originated in America, fried chicken is the crispiest, most delicious thing you'll ever put on top of waffles. A sinful delight you surely can’t miss!Watch out for: Fried Chicken combined with Waffles, butter and syrup (highly popular in Baltimore, Maryland)(Waffles for Breakfast and Beyond)5. PancakesWhen it comes to typical American breakfasts, there's one front-runner: pancakes. Variations abound, but you can't go wrong with a short stack of fluffy flapjacks. Pancakes are basically flat cakes, often thin and round in shape, prepared from starch based butter and cooked on a hot surface. They can be topped off with a variety of condiments like maple syrup, fruits, bacon, egg and of course, chocolate sauce. Yes, pancakes make people happy.Watch out for: Buttermilk Pancakes, Banana & Nutella Pancakes, American Blueberry Pancakes(The best pancakes in the world)4. Mac and CheeseIt's creamy, it's cheesy, it's downright divine — it's macaroni and cheese. This casserole baked in the oven is considered America’s ultimate comfort food. Tip: Use a good mix of different cheeses to get the most flavourful macaroni and cheese. Also, top it off with a shaving of Parmesan. Oh so delicious and too good to be true, mac and cheese is a perfectly complementary concoction. It gained its popularity after being introduced by Thomas Jefferson to The United States. While no single inventor can lay claim to the classic mac and cheese recipe, everyone has a favourite version of the dish.Watch out for: Mac and Cheese with vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, peas and carrots), Mac and Cheese with ham(Love Macaroni 'n Cheese? Tips to Get it Right)3. Hot DogsIt doesn’t get more American than a basic hot dog, sandwiched between a sliced bun, topped with a squiggle of ketchup and mustard. The sausage was created in the late 1600’s by John Geoghehner, a butcher from Germany. They were popularised in Chicago in 1893. Everyone’s favourite hot dog is basically a cooked sausage which is traditionally grilled or steamed. Garnish with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, onions, relish, cheese and chilli.Watch out for: New York Hot Dogs with chilli and slaw, Chilli Dogs(How to eat: hotdogs)2. CheesecakeCreamy, smooth, divine… Yes, the adjectives that describe the taste of a cheesecake are hunger provoking. This melt-in-your-mouth dessert brings a bright finish to any meal. Thank God for William Lawrence, who ‘accidentally’ made cream cheese. The buttery biscuit base topped with cream cheese and tons of condiments will leave you longing for more. Spruce it up with fruits, whipped cream, nuts or even chocolate syrup.Watch out for: New York Cheesecake, Blueberry Cheesecake, Philadelphia Cheesecake1. BurgerThis is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Let’s face it - who doesn’t crave a really good, juicy patty in a fresh bun? It's on nearly every American restaurant's menu. It boasts gooey cheese, tomato, lettuce, and a zippy pickle sauce. Ask for the meat to be medium rare and customise your toppings just the way you like it, with caramelised onions, mustard, mayonnaise, and relish. Americans contend to be the first to combine two slices of bread and a steak of ground beef into a hamburger ‘sandwich’.Watch out for: Lamb Burger, Cheeseburger, Chicken Burger, Tofu Burger(What makes the perfect burger?)

#6: You Need to Set Your Culture

When opening a restaurant, you need to know that it’s better to set your company culture from the onset than to let it evolve over time.

For example, if you want to instill a culture of customer service, this needs to come from you in the very beginning. You don’t want a few employees to dictate this for you.

You also want to decide how you’ll treat your staff. This is important because how you treat your staff trickles down into how they treat your customers. (tweet this)

Putting your customers first is vital to your success, and this often starts with your team.


Custard pies feature an egg-thickened filling that&rsquos a bit firmer than pastry cream. A mixture of eggs, dairy, and sugar bakes until set within a single crust. Once cooled, the custard is a creamy, lightly eggy filling that coheres with the crust. A custard pie is done when the center still wobbles gently (165 degrees is typically the sweet spot for doneness). Overcooked custard pies can have rubbery, grainy fillings. Sometimes we cook the custard in a saucepan before adding it to the pie to give it a head start this ensures it bakes quickly so the edges of the custard don&rsquot overcook before the center sets. The custard can be infused with just about any flavor you can dream up.

From left: Chocolate Angel Pie (meringue pie), Plum and Raspberry Fruit Tart (tart), and Strawberry Galette with Candied Basil and Balsamic (galette).


You will now receive updates from Traveller Newsletter

Get the latest news and updates emailed straight to your inbox.

By submitting your email you are agreeing to Fairfax Media's terms and conditions and privacy policy.

The saddest meals of my entire year? Nothing can touch lunch and dinner at the sports bar that can't even get its signature dish right. I'm not sure which is more of a travesty, the scrawny wings (pick your poison: traditional or boneless) or the woody carrot sticks that accompany them. Sauces vary from fair (Caribbean jerk) to grim (Parmesan-garlic), and I can't help but think of them as masks rather than enhancements. Then again, the factory-issue fried boneless wings could use a lift as is, they taste like KFC sans every single one of those secret 11 herbs and spices, save for salt. It gets worse. "Street tacos" - tasteless soft flour tortillas encasing bland grilled erasers (chicken, per the menu) splashed with ranch dressing - do a disservice to food trucks everywhere. There are a lot of bad black bean burgers out there, but this place takes the trophy - for worst - for the crusty black puck that bends when you bite. The dozens of TVs, most turned to sports, force you to look away from the food, a good thing given whatever glop - mostly beige, mostly fried, don't even think of ordering a salad - is on the table. The only moment that gave me any relief during the endurance contest is the time I walk past a guy wearing an all-too-familiar red cap whose message takes me aback: "Make racists afraid again." Bottom line: Better to miss a meal than to find yourself in this loud, garish and thoroughly soulless restaurant-in-name-only.

Claim to fame: Sauces and seasonings offering endless customisation.

Best of the bunch: Getting the cheque.

Steer clear of: Everything but the beer.

Tidbit: The number of TVs varies by the size of the branch. Most are equipped with 50 or so.

Defining moment: Figuring out where to go for a real meal afterward.

9. IHOP​

A stack at the International House of Pancakes. Photo: Alamy

Probably the best that can be said about the food in one of the most generic backdrops around is that the pancakes are fluffy (if a dash salty) the vegetable omelet is as green with fresh spinach as it is yellow from eggs and marbled rye bread can turn even an unfortunate beef patty and barely melted cheese into a fair-enough sandwich.

Ultimately, the service leaves a better taste in my mouth, even though I once have to go outside to find my server to pay my cheque. (She was on a smoke break.) I salute the honesty, as on the night I ask about the day's soup and am told it is "potato, but we're at the end of it, and I wouldn't do that to you." And I admire a server who can read a table in a hurry, as the morning one pours "some nice hot coffee for you gentlemen. You look like you need to get back to the office." Two of us order enough for four, a cross-section of the plastic menu. "If you eat all that food," the server cracks, "I'm going to give you a hug." Ten minutes later, a companion and I are biting into a dry cheeseburger served in a cottony bun, hoisting a leathery soft tortilla crammed with fish that appeared to be fried in a straitjacket and trying to decide which was more of a salt bomb: the thin batter-fried steak or the cream gravy covering it. Our table, in other words, has turned into a minefield. No hugs for us!

Slogan: "Eat up every moment."

Best of the bunch: Patty melt, spinach-mushroom omelet (hold the flat hollandaise).

Steer clear of: Burgers, fried fish tacos, country-fried steak.

Tidbit: Four syrups (typically old-fashioned, butter pecan, blueberry and strawberry) are always offered. Franchisees can opt to swap in real maple syrup and boysenberry.

Defining moment: Eating pancakes and wishing I were enjoying them at Denny's.

8. Outback Steakhouse

Grade: D

Let me just get it out of the way: The piece de resistance here is one of the most vulgar creations any chain has ever whipped up. The Bloomin' Onion packs in more fat, more salt, more guilt than just about any single signature I can think of. So why is my party denuding the baseball-size vegetable of its greasy petals as if we're in a race, even though we know we're going to feel like beached whales afterward? Because Americans can't resist over-the-top fair food, even in their restaurants. Also because strips of hot onions dunked in something cool and creamy (imagine ketchup-tinted mayonnaise with a slight bite) is a pretty addictive combination.

People come here for steak. They shouldn't. While the beef looks the part of steak you want to slice in to, the cuts I try taste tame. The alternatives to beef here - bready crab cakes, arid pork ribs - are almost as sad. An exception to the rule is chicken, specifically the moist grilled chicken with an herbed Parmesan crust and a garnish of tomatoes and basil - everything fresher-tasting than the woody carrots riding shotgun. Don't let the menu or the outdoorsy decor fool you. Outback Steakhouse has as much in common with Australia as Olive Garden has with Italy. The single-best dish turns out to be dessert: spiced carrot cake with actual threads of carrot in each big slice and a veneer of icing.

Cuisine: Steak, and a pretend notion of what's cooking Down Under.

Claim to fame: The 1,950-calorie, enough-for-six Bloomin' Onion.

Best of the bunch: Wine by the glass poured from individual carafes, garlicky mashed potatoes, Parmesan-herbed chicken, spiced carrot cake.

Steer clear of: Crab cakes, fish tacos in leathery tortillas, pork ribs, not-so-hot and batter-heavy "volcano" shrimp.

Tidbit: The free-spirited Australian theme was chosen in part based on the success of the 1986 Hollywood splash "Crocodile Dundee."

Defining moment: Gratis brown bread shows up with a steak knife plunged into the vaguely caramelly loaf.

7. Red Lobster

Red Lobster Photo: Shutterstock

Red lobster makes for blue diners, at least here, where the headliner can be found scattered on a thin but doughy pizza with a binder of mozzarella, and steamed and split to reveal seafood that tastes like . . . not much without melted butter, lots of it. Clams make a poor impression, too, be they the few in a bowl of pasty chowder with mealy potatoes or offered as chewy fried strips. Salmon might just as well have swum in from a banquet. Sometimes, the most nautical part of my visits are the garnishes on the walls: paintings of lighthouses and framed signal flags. Maybe I'd feel differently in the company of Beyonce, who shouted out to the chain in "Formation."

Exceptions give me hope. If snow crab claws require some work to tackle, at least their yield is sweet. And Yucatan shrimp, among the chain's new "tasting" plates, benefit from diced caramelised pineapple and the heat of jalapenos. In the end, though, the choice parts of a meal are apt to be the warm and fluffy biscuits that launch every meal and the freshly creamy coleslaw you can request as a side. Anyone for a salad sandwich?

Claim to fame: Biscuits so popular their mix is for sale in supermarkets.

Slogan: "Now this is seafood."

Best of the bunch: Cheese biscuits, Yucatan shrimp, coconut shrimp, crab legs.

Steer clear of: Doughy lobster pizza, fried clams, maple-glazed chicken that tastes like an airline issue, steamed lobster, achingly sweet and dense Key lime pie.

Tidbit: The chain sells 395 million cheddar biscuits a year.

Defining moment: "Do you ever get tired of the biscuits?" I asked a veteran waiter who told me he danced on the side. "I don't," he replied, turning his hips. "Because I have to watch out for this!" he said, playfully slapping his backside.

6. Chili's Grill & Bar

If all you were to eat were the ribs that spawned one of the most popular restaurant jingles of all time (don't start singing it!), you would wonder what all the fuss is about. No amount of barbecue sauce hides the fact that the flesh is dry. (Like french fries, ribs are a dish that chains seem to have a hard time nailing.) As is true of a lot of restaurants higher up on the food chain, your best bet is to front-load, or focus on appetisers. Chili's makes it easy with its Triple Dipper, your choice of three snacks. Zero in on the tasty mini-burgers, the spiced onion rings and the kicky Southwestern egg rolls filled with corn and black beans.

Elsewhere on the menu, Chili's tries and fails to deliver on a few food fashions. The mushy ear of corn slathered with mayo and pops of harsh spices is a poor way to replicate the Mexican street food staple elote loco (crazy corn), and a cloying salted caramel molten cake in the shape of a volcano appears to use pancake batter in its base. As for the Cajun pasta, penne with chicken or shrimp in cream sauce is salty with Parmesan - a gummy bore. Simple is better. Rib-eye comes with a nice beefiness and a scoop of mashed potatoes loaded with bacon, cheese and scallions. Trying to eat healthfully lands you disappointments, including a "Caribbean" salad strewn with Mandarin oranges, pineapple and red bell peppers, along with a honey-lime dressing that tastes more like a dessert topping. I have to say, though, that the stinging citrus-chile sauce on the overcooked salmon, from the "Guiltless Grill" section of the menu, keeps the dish from being served DOA.

Cuisine: American with a Southwest touch.

Claim to fame: The earworm to promote Chili's baby back ribs.

Slogan: "Like no place else."

Best of the bunch: Southwestern egg rolls, mini-burgers, panko onion rings, rib-eye.

Steer clear of: Caribbean salad, Cajun pasta, salted caramel cake.

Tidbit: The creative director behind the chain's song (brought back this year) says he's never eaten Chili's ribs.

Defining moment: Ice-cold "tableside" guacamole is simply dropped off at, well, the side of our table.

5. Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar

Eat out in enough full-service chains, and the similarities become clear: None of them can cook broccoli right. Salmon is almost always overdone. Napkins are doled out like club passes on the Strip in Vegas. Bigger is often perceived as better. (When a friend's sangria, a ringer for spiked apple juice, shows up in a glass the size of a bird bath, I hear Miss Piggy in my head: Never eat anything bigger than your head, a rule that could also apply to drinks.) Also, if you don't feel like talking, you can often play games on the tabletop tablets, a distraction that also allows you to pay, even split bills, without interacting with your server.

All of the above is true at Applebee's, which nevertheless offers sufficient choices on its multiple plastic menus in its rec-room-dressed dining rooms to keep the brand interesting for discerning eaters. Skeptics can warm up to the mildly zesty Sriracha shrimp presented on tortilla strips and agreeable chicken tacos, the filling tucked into its wonton shells with a light slaw. Forget the arid ribs with their vaguely sweet glaze and the whiskey-bacon burger, best for its fried onion ringlets. Better than you might expect are the juicy-enough steak on the surf-and-turf combo and slices of lemony grilled chicken arranged on quinoa jazzed up with dried cranberries. The latter is a rarity among the chains: something relatively healthful that you could imagine actually finishing.

Claim to fame: $1 margaritas (Dollaritas) and Long Island Iced Teas.

Slogan: "Eatin' good in the neighborhood."

Best of the bunch: Sriracha shrimp, crunchy-spicy chicken wings, steak quesadillas, skin-on mashed potatoes, grilled chicken with quinoa and cranberries.

Steer clear of: Ribs, salmon, apple chimicheesecake (caramel apples and cheesecake wrapped in a tortilla and fried).

Tidbit: The original 1980 menu included quiche and quail.

Defining moment: A server says he won't charge us for playing games on our table screen, but then adds the cost ($1.99) to our bill.

4. Olive Garden

Unlike some of its competition, Olive Garden smells as if actual cooking is going on: The scents of Parmesan and garlic hang in the air when I walk in. I'm further charmed by the honesty of the bartender when I ask her for the best white wine, and she says, "I'm supposed to say Porto Vita, our house white," then suggests an unoaked chardonnay, Seven Suns, is superior. Of all the chain restaurants I surveyed, this one aspires to a modicum of sophistication servers are more than happy to proffer tastes of wines.

Brick arches and sepia photographs play up an Italian theme, but the popular breadsticks - pillowy wands seasoned with garlic salt, brushed with margarine and palatable only when warm - are wholly American, as is the kitchen's tendency to overcook its pastas. Steer clear of the three-dishes-on-one-platter Tour of Italy, whose chicken parmigiana and gloppy fettuccine Alfredo taste like nothing I've encountered in the Old World. (The herbed lasagna on the plate makes a better port of call.) A new item, citrus-glazed salmon served on "creamy citrus" Alfredo sauce, is by turns sweet and dull. You don't have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the fresh-tasting minestrone, thick with beans and tomato, and serious comfort can be found on a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, a "create your own pasta" selection. "More salad? More soup?" the friendly severs repeatedly ask. What the restaurant lacks in finesse it makes up with generosity.

Claim to fame: Unlimited breadsticks and bottomless salad bowls.

Slogan: "We're all family here."

Best of the bunch: Gratis wine tastes, minestrone, spaghetti with meatballs, tiramisu.

Steer clear of: Sangria that tastes like Kool-Aid for adults, Tour of Italy (not!).

Tidbit: The first restaurant was opened in 1982 by General Mills.

Defining moment: The menu suggests you wash back fried lasagna bites with Blue Moon on draft.

3. Texas Roadhouse

Texas Roadhouse Photo: Shutterstock

Talk about a howdy! Country music welcomes customers even from the outside. En route to a table, diners pass a scarlet display of raw meat that primes carnivores for lunch or dinner. Buckets of in-their-shell peanuts help stave off hunger while you peruse the menu. Like a number of chains, this one makes some noise for birthday celebrants, but this pine-walled roadhouse is the only brand I know that invites them to sit on a saddle-on-wheels while they're being feted with staff-led cheering and clapping. Beef is your friend here, be it in a bowl of zippy chili, chopped steak under a cover of cheese and caramelised onions or an agreeable rib-eye cooked the colour you ask and best paired with mashed potatoes cratered with cream gravy.

The initial bear hug of hospitality, which includes a drop-off of fresh-baked, butter-brushed, slightly sweet rolls, can't mask some flaws, among them stiff catfish and dry pulled pork, the mass humiliated with a sweet barbecue sauce. (And my sticky plastic menu makes me wish more chains wiped their lists down, along with booths, after every use. No one wants to feel a stranger's fingerprints.) But this establishment does enough well to become your choice between like brands. Indeed, the most pleasant surprise is the Cactus Blossom, a whole deep-fried onion, each bronzed slice crunchy, peppery - and far less greasy - than the bloomin' draw at the place that pretends to take you Down Under.

Cuisine: Steaks with a Western theme.

Claim to fame: Steaks cut by hand and fresh-baked bread.

Slogan: "Legendary food, legendary service."

Best of the bunch: Most anything starring beef, mashed potatoes, Cactus Blossom.

Steer clear of: Pulled pork (dry) and catfish (stiff).

Tidbit: Each branch employs a butcher and a baker.

Defining moment: Looking for the restroom, I'm pointed to the "outhouse" sign.

2. Denny's

Breakfast at Denny's Photo: Alamy

The cheeseburger? It's a whopper. Bite down on the construction, built with a bun that's freckled with sesame seeds, and the crusty patty might squirt juices - you know, like a decent hamburger might. The piping-hot fries are memorable more for their churro-like ridges than any potato flavour, but that means you might have room for the brownielike chocolate lava cake, a knockoff of the molten chocolate cake made famous decades ago by the esteemed Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York. (Chains are good at identifying fancy food trends and rethinking them for the masses.)

Breakfast is a 'round-the-clock option. I'm partial to the fluffy pancakes with their lacy edges, and I'd like the "loaded" breakfast sandwich more if its shaved ham was less salty and the swollen package was easier to tackle my scrambled eggs slipped out when I chomped down. My go-to entree is spaghetti and meatballs, offered with a sauce that bridges sweetness and tang, and a buttery cushion of garlic toast. Lighter options include a pleasing chicken soup, sweet with carrots, and a dish of fresh fruit that brought together strawberries, apples and grapes. "Lemon for your water?" a server asks, just as waiters do in more upscale settings. My Uber driver asks for my review when he picks me up at what he said was his favourite location in Washington. Turns out he likes to go on Sundays, when gospel music is part of the mix. Then and there, he tells me, "It feels like my grandfather's." Proof, in other words, that chains can be personal.

Claim to fame: The Grand Slam, starring pancakes, eggs, bacon strips and sausage links.

Slogan: "America's diner is always open."

Best of the bunch: Pancakes, hash browns, spaghetti and meatballs, warm chocolate lava cake.

Steer clear of: Seasonal specials such as pancakes smothered in what tastes like white chocolate with orange zest.

Tidbit: The chain made a special menu for several Hobbit movies.

Defining moment: Getting a Value Menu, with meals for as little as $4.

1. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Especially after eating a lot of food that tasted as if it came from a factory rather than a kitchen, it was clear: No other chain restaurant in my months-long survey comes as close to home cooking as this operation. If the chicken dumplings are a little doughy and the corn bread muffins prove a tad salty, just about everything else that crossed my lips in this barn-size dining room dressed with lanterns and license plates is something I'd be happy to try again. Seconds, please, of the tasty meatloaf streaked with vegetables, tender roast beef with peppery brown gravy, and lemony, skin-on trout fillets, a weekly special. You don't have to eat rich here a side of fruit brims with fresh pineapple, blackberries and blueberries, although the not-too-sweet pecan pie is worth the detour from any diet.

The all-American food is only part of Cracker Barrel's charm. To reach the restaurant proper, you cross a porch set with rocking chairs (they're for sale) and pass through a folksy retail store peddling candy, regional sodas, clothing, toys and Gwen Stefani's Christmas release. Country music and a crackling fire - you read that right, the restaurant comes with a hearth - right any wrong you may have suffered that day, and the service couldn't be more personable. Is the welcome mat out for everyone? An unfortunate history of corporate racism and discrimination has been addressed in recent years with inclusive declarations on the company's website. An imbiber's regret: no wine or beer to enjoy with my meals. Soda glasses are refilled without your having to ask, requests are met with "yes, sir" or "ma'am," and should staff members see you struggling with a bag of leftovers, they rush over to help. Yes, I take what I can't finish home with me. And every bite of those thin, well-seasoned pork chops, part of a "country boy" platter with fried apples and cheesy hash browns, makes me think of my grandmother - a feat matched by no other chain in my survey.

Cuisine: Southern-focused comfort food.

Claim to fame: Shopping and dining under one roof, and firing Brad's wife that time.

Slogan: "Pleasing People" reads the company's mission statement.

Best of the bunch: Meatloaf, pork chops, trout, macaroni and cheese, pecan pie.

Steer clear of: Pasty chicken and dumplings.

Tidbit: Every branch has an ox yoke and a horseshoe over the door and a traffic light over the restrooms.


Watch the video: Top 10 Traditional American Foods