17 Southern Fast Food Chains To Put On Your Road Trip Radar

Skip the McDonald's and Subway and try the fast food brands that Southern locals swear by.

I'm a firm believer in supporting small businesses and, most importantly, independent restaurant chef-owners and proprietors. Typically, I'll go out of my way to patronize a hole in the wall or local favorite I discover through conversations with strangers. But when you're on a road trip, half the fun is the license to eat fast food on the go. And in the South, there are real gems to be found among the global franchises. After all, both Waffle House and Popeyes started down here, and they're national treasures.

So the next time you're cruising in this region, skip the mega-players like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Arby's, Chipotle, Panera Bread, etc., and try these more homegrown brands instead. Here are 17 regional fast food chains you'll (mostly) find only in the South from literally A to Z.

American Deli

Anyone who's lived in Atlanta for a minute will recognize the phrase "Lemon Pepper Wet." It's like BECSPK in New York, or a po-boy fully dressed in New Orleans—if you know, you know. And apparently American Deli is the reason lemon pepper wet wings are a thing. This ATL original, founded in 1989, is proud to be home to the highly imitated flavor that's doused on fresh-never-frozen fried wings, an unmissable menu item whenever you're in the area. American Deli offers a dozen different wing flavors, though, so stick around for round two.


Order: Lemon pepper wet wings, duh. But people also like the big Philly Cheesesteaks, served open-faced and heaping, and the tenders with crinkle-cut fries. Randomly, you'll also find a fried rice, gyros, fried tilapia, whiting, and shrimp.

Find them in: Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, California

Atlanta Bread

This tale's a doozie—the bio reads like a movie summary. Founded in 1993, fast casual baker café Atlanta Bread (whose logo and menu are not too dissimilar from Panera Bread) hit its zenith by 2004, with 170 locations in 25 states to make it one of the largest chains of its kind in the U.S. But, like any peaking child star, Atlanta Bread got into some hot water, including legal issues with franchisees and an (unrelated) scandal with its South African investors, Jerry and Basil Couvaras. By 2011, the chain was down nearly 100 stores as the Great Recession swept the nation. Today, there are only 18 locations in five states, making it a nostalgic must-stop relic if you come across one.


Order: Anything you'd get at Panera Bread, basically, plus panini, which are no longer available at Panera. For a regular sandwich, try the chicken salad, because you're in the South! The Waldorf is served on a multigrain cranberry bread, one of 13 breads baked daily, so that's fun. There are also cool bowls with fresh-cooked eggs, or Greek yogurt or oatmeal bowls for something less heavy. Or just get an oversized fresh-baked pecan roll or Queenie, a cupcake-looking layered butter pastry, with a cup of Lavazza coffee.

Find them in: Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and a random outlier in New Jersey


Interestingly, the founders of Biscuitville never meant to get into biscuits. The original concept Maruice Jennings meant to open in North Carolina in 1967 was Pizzaville, but the biscuits he made in the morning from his family recipe soon outsold the pizza. So in 1975, he decided to go with it and opened the first Biscuitville in Danville, Virginia in 1975.


Today, there are 69 locations serving up unique and very Southern biscuit sandwiches, plus distinctly North Carolina specialties—a nod to the chain's current headquarters in Greensboro. For instance. Cackalacky sauce, a dipper made with sweet potatoes and Cheerwine, a cherry soda with very limited regional availability (yes, Biscuitville serves that, too), Red Clay Gourmet jalapeno pimento cheese, and other super Southern brands. Pull up a seat at the biscuit window to watch the magic come together.

Order: The classic Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit, Spicy Chicken & Honey Biscuit, or the fresh griddle-cooked pancakes. Special offers can also be a treat, like this take on a Cuban flavor combo: fried pork chop, country ham, cheese, pickles, and housemade honey mustard. Finish with an Apple Blossom while they last, another limited-time item.


Find them in: North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia

Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits

There's no burying the lede for this 1977 Charlotte, North Carolina–based chicken chain: Bojangles does both fried chicken and fresh-baked biscuits with pride. The birds are delivered daily, then marinated for 12 hours before being covered in a thick, crackling, sturdy coat of cayenne-pepper-kissed breading. The buttery biscuits are made with a 48-step process and are fresh out of the oven every 20 minutes, which is great for those who want to take advantage of the all-day breakfast. Soon, folks in New Jersey and Nevada can take advantage of Bojangles' planned expansion beyond its 800 current locations.


Order: Fried chicken and biscuits, obviously. The Cajun Chicken Filet Biscuit Combo is the best of both worlds while on the go, and the marinated Chicken Supremes (breast tenderloins) are also a good call. Sweet tea is the drink of choice to balance out all that delicious salt.

Find them in: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and also a small handful in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Vermont, and Washington, DC

Cook Out

Another North Carolina success story with a Greensboro connection, this backyard BBQ-inspired joint is one of the few major regional brands that remains family-owned and -operated. Since 1989, Cook Out has been serving up char-grilled burgers and chicken breasts, hot dogs, corn dogs, and North Carolina-style chopped pork, aka BBQ. For the kids, there are simple American favorites like chicken strips, chicken nuggets, and quesadillas, and over 40 flavors of milkshakes, one of Cook Out's biggest claims to fame. Order through two drive-thru lanes or a walk-up window at most of its 210 locations. If there's an indoor counter and/or seating, you'll know you're at a newer one.


Order: A Cook Out tray, a custom combo that lets you choose from a big list of entrée-portioned mains (like two hot dogs and a Big Double burger) and two hearty sides that include hushpuppies, cheese bites, chicken nuggets, bacon or chicken wraps, chili, and the usual suspects like fries and onion rings. Wash it down with a Cheerwine float or a Fancy Milkshake.

Find them in: North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia

Cowboy Chicken

Fried chicken isn't your only option in the South, and explosive expansion isn't always the way brands grow. Cowboy Chicken, for example, is a slow burn. It opened its doors for the first time in Dallas, Texas back in 1981, but didn't start really heating up until 2011. Since then, this wood-fired rotisserie chicken brand's been a repeat shout-out in Fast Casual's Top 100 Movers & Shakers and was recently listed by Forbes as a "Hot Restaurant Chain to Buy Into Now" and by QSR as a 40 Under 40 (Units) concept. It's actively recruiting franchisees, which means we might be seeing more of these crop up in this region in the years to come, serving up dry-rubbed whole chickens cooked in the smoke and fire of local wood.


Order: A Cowboy Plate with your choice of chicken and two sides, or salads and bowls topped with rotisserie chicken for some Southwest influence by way of ranchero beans, Spanish rice, roasted corn, and chipotle ranch. You can also get your chicken on a sandwich—the breasts are rotisserie, too. There's also pulled brisket and enchiladas, but end with Jeanette's Homemade Peach Cobbler, made fresh daily from an unchanged recipe.

Find them in: Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia

Golden Chick

Here in the South, the Chicken Sandwich Wars, fought on the national stage, is a new offshoot from the older, more localized Chicken Finger/Tender/Strip Wars. Claims for supremacy and originality began back in 1985, according to the brand once known as Golden Fried Chicken, which first opened in 1967 in San Marcos, Texas. It began with the Original Golden Tender, a marinated, hand-battered finger of actual chicken tenderloin, as opposed to the cut breast strips that often masquerade as tenders. (Order them spicy, with a dusting of Lotta Zing seasoning blend.) Then in 1992, the chain introduced another type of chicken to the mass market: the marinated, bone-in Golden Roast chicken, which is wholly unique in the fast food landscape. As of 2006, warm yeast rolls were added to the menu, a perfect baked-throughout-the-day accompaniment to oven-browned chicken, served across 211 locations.


Order: The Original Golden Tenders™ with yeast rolls, and some Golden Roast chicken with dirty rice, fried okra, battered fries, or a salad. Sandwiches here are also notable; the Big & Golden Chicken Sandwich is now bigger than it was before and comes with signature sauce and more pickles than its competitors (five!). The award-winning chicken salad has celery, walnuts, and hand-cut grapes, served on top of a garden salad with the rarely seen addition of broccoli.

Find them in: Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and way out in Nevada

Guthrie’s Chicken

Didn't I promise more (sweet) tea about chicken finger superiority and propriety? Well, here it is. This college town favorite, first opened in Auburn, Alabama 1965, claims to be the first restaurant concept built completely around chicken fingers, which it introduced in 1978. While Guthrie's didn't go fingers-only until 1982, that's still years and years before Raising Cane's was created in 1996, and bigger brand Zaxby's admits to being originally inspired by the Guthrie's in Athens, Georgia. Guthrie's now boasts 54 stores, most strategically near higher ed campuses. If you bump into one, see if the original concept out(chicken)strips your current fave.


Order: A "Gut Box," which comes with chicken fingers, crinkle fries, coleslaw, Texas Toast, and signature sauce.

Find them in: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee


Not to be confused with Jack in the Box (especially when you look at the logos), Jack Caddell opened the first Jack's in 1960 as a single walk-up stand serving burgers, fries, shakes, and a "Fish-On-A-Bun" that now only resurfaces seasonally. Since then, this Birmingham, Alabama–based fast food chain has made its theme "All About the South," from folksy country lingo (everything is a "big ol'" something) to menu offerin's like scratch-made buttermilk biscuits, Southern-fried chicken on and off the bone, and "homestyle" buns. All 238 restaurants are corporate-owned, not franchised, which keeps things consistent.


Order: Breakfast. You can get less common biscuit sandwiches here, like smoked sausage, country-fried steak, and country ham. For the rest of the day, Jack's signature is the Big Jack double with shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mustard, ketchup, and mayo; or try a Big BLT on Texas toast, and hand-battered chicken. For dessert, there are deep-fried hand pies, shakes, and hand-dipped scoops of ice cream.

Find them in: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee


What's the difference between Krystal and White Castle? Beats me, to be honest. I could have sworn this was a Checkers/Rally's or Hardee's/Carl's Jr. situation, but these two brands are in fact quite separate. Distinct, though? That's debatable. This Great Depression–era chain got its start in 1932 in Chattanooga, Tennessee after Rodney Davenport Jr. visited a Chicago White Castle, and it's been slinging up similar square steamed sliders by the sackful since then. The difference, it's been reported, is that Krystal's buns are a bit denser and squatter, and they have mustard. The chain also serves up fried chicken wings, biscuit breakfast sliders, and adorable tiny hot dog "pups." Today, Krystal is based in Dunwoody, near Atlanta, with 360 locations throughout the South.


Order: A couple of Krystals, the Pick Five for a little pan-menu taste, or a Pup Sampler, which comes with one each of the classic, chili cheese, and corn pups. Krystal Junkyard Tots with chili, cheddar, bacon, and ranch, are a good hangover cure, but if you're up early enough, a bacon, egg, and cheese or Chik Biscuit can do the trick, too.

Find them in: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and now Puerto Rico


You may recognize Milo's jaunty logo from its sweet tea brand, which can be found in many supermarkets across the South and beyond, now that it's the #1 refrigerated tea in America. But that association would be both right and wrong. The brand itself dates back to 1946 with Milo's Hamburgers in North Birmingham, Alabama; the tea split off in 2002, leaving the restaurants with its burgers, secret recipe sauce, fried hand pies with profuse powdered sugar, the more recent addition of chicken, and in retail, the orange powdered "cheese salt." With only 26 locations, all in Alabama, this may actually even qualify as a local spot.


Order: The original burger with or without cheese, but definitely with the standard chopped grilled onions, thick-cut pickles, and a drenching of Milo's secret sauce, or a chicken tender sandwich with their Double-O sauce, which combines Milo's sauce with ranch. Grab a hand pie in apple, lemon custard, or cinnamon peach if you're not sugared out from the necessary sweet tea.

Find them in: Alabama

Sonny’s BBQ

Low and slow is the usual way for real Southern barbecue, but this 1968 Gainesville, Florida chain took the fast track, hitting the franchise circuit only nine years later with a menu of pork, beef, ribs, chicken, beans, and sundry sides. By the early '00s, Sonny's Real Pit-Bar-B-Q was the largest chain of its kind in the country with 150 locations across nine states. Several of those bit the dust during the recession, but they're still going strong as Sonny's BBQ. And so is Sonny himself, who retained ownership of the original until 2011 and remained active with the brand. In fact, his birthday is celebrated every August 14 by every location, along with National Pulled Pork Day, which the brand established as October 12.


Order: Pulled and sliced pork, baby back and St. Louis-style ribs, beef brisket, smoked wings. It's all still smoked over oak by a certified Sonny's Pitmaster who undergoes rigorous training at their P.I.T. Academy. Pitmaster Plates curate the top sellers for you, from the full-scale sampler to Pork 3 Ways, all of which come with BBQ beans, coleslaw, and garlic bread.

Locations: Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana

Taco Bueno

Fans of King of the Hill may recognize this Texas brand, headquartered in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro. It's been name-dropped in several episodes, but to broader audiences, it may sound familiar due to its appearance in a 2017 episode of Undercover Boss. Unfortunately, pop culture fame didn't help save it from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, from which it emerged in 2019 when Sun Holdings' affiliate Taco Supremo bought it from Carl's Jr. Needless to say, it's been a rocky journey for this Taco Bell-like brand that dates back to 1967.


Order: The Muchaco, which is kind of like a Taco Bell Gordita (minus the "Cheesy Crunch"), due to its pita bread base. Also fun: the MexiDips & Chips, which comes with corn chip cups filled with guac, beans, and queso. To try everything, the Wholotta Platter is a belly-filler, with a chicken or beef "Chilada," a crispy beef taco and beef Muchaco, plus almost all the sides and chips. Tacos can also be filled with fajita steak.

Find them in: Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma

Viva Chicken

Another in the not-fried chicken category: Peruvian rotisserie chicken. This Charlotte, North Carolina–based fast-casual concept by Peruvian natives Chef Bruno Macchiavello and Randy Garcia just hit ten years of serving cooking up Macchiavello's family recipe on charcoal fire, ready for dipping into daily prepared Aji Amarillo, Huacatay, and Rocoto sauces. You can also get this chicken served up on a ciabatta sandwich or sun-dried tomato tortilla wrap. The sides are just as thoughtful and refreshingly different from the usual roti-chik standbys, too, notably the mini-churros, especially since each order sold means 50 cents donated to No Kid Hungry—up to a million bags.


Order: The bone-in Pollo a la Brasa with sides like Peruvian fried rice, plantains, yucca fries, canary beans, or Peruvian corn salad. Wash it down with traditional Chicha Morada, a juice made from Peruvian purple corn, cinnamon, clove, pineapple, apple, and lime, or other daily-made juices that include passionfruit and herbal limeade. Don't forget that bag of feel-good dulce de leche cinnamon sugar mini churros.

Find them in: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and, randomly, Utah


Back when Harmon Dobson started up this burger spot in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1950, his goal was simple: "To make a better burger that took two hands to hold and tasted so good that when you took a bite, you would say, 'What a burger!'" According to the patrons of over 947 locations spread out across 14 states and territories, mission accomplished. The signature orange and white A-frame buildings have become iconic, and the brand's now in H-E-B stores in the form of picante sauce, salsa verde, sweet or spicy ketchup, boxed pancake mix, and bacon. In fact, Whataburger's brand is so strong that when a legal broil with What-a-Burger in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina popped up in 2002 after 30 years of the chains ignoring one another, courts determined that the hyphenated chain was not a threat, having operated to much lesser success since the 1950s.


Order: The signature oversized Whataburger with all its trappings: lettuce, tomato, diced onions, pickles, mustard, and no ketchup. Or grab a signature Patty Melt on Texas Toast with Monterey Jack cheese. You can get any sandwich on a smaller bun, by the way. And if you're there between 11 p.m. and 11 a.m., get the famous Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit with hash brown sticks, or a Breakfast Burger that you don't have to be present at exactly 10:35 AM for.

Find them in: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and also Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri

Willy’s Mexicana Grill

So this one's kind of tricky. There are a lot of different flags here that kind of make me feel a way about several layers of appropriation. The eponymous founder Willy Bitter says he got his inspo from "The Land of the Burrito Gods," San Francisco's Mission District, which kind of does a disservice to, uh, Mexico? Yet the brand bills itself as an homage to authentic Mexican, while Mission-style burritos are distinctly different from real Mexican burritos. Missions are known for their oversized proportions, inclusion of rice, and, now, a formula made the standard by Chipotle and carried on by Moe's, Qdoba, and other players. Anyway, this guy opened up his first one when he came back to his hometown of Atlanta in 1995, and now this fast casual brand is plastered all over the city with 28 existing locations ... and moving outwards.


Order: An enormous burrito with Sinaloa Chicken, a citrus marinade, or spicy Adobe Chicken with roasted Ancho chili and jalapenos, and the usual suspects you'd find at similar chains. Black olives, cucumbers, serrano peppers, pickled jalapenos, and quinoa make it a little different. Or from their specialties, Baja Burritos, smothered in chipotles salsa and a spicy queso, the Fritos Burrito with chicken, and the Willy Philly with cheddar, cheese dip, serrano crema, and rice for the loop. Chips and salsa are free with any order.

Find them in: Georgia


Originally known as ZAX when it was founded in 1990 in Statesboro, Georgia, this premium quick-serve restaurant, one of the nation's earliest, has blown up far beyond the wildest dreams of the Guthrie's that inspired founders Zach McLeroy and Tony Townley. Their vision was to elevate Guthrie's chicken fingers concept by using all whole white-meat, hand-breaded, juicy chicken and a sauce recipe so secret that, according to the brand, not even the executive chef knows how it's made from start to finish. Every part of the process takes place in a semi-vacuum, even with its explosive growth into 900+ locations.


Order: A Big Zax Snak Meal with Texas toast and seasoned crinkle fries, which you can also get tossed in one of eight sauces. Or just pair it with Zaxby's 13 sauces, including the Zax Sauce and the Spicy Zax Sauce. The Zaxby's Kickin' Chicken sandwich is a messy delight with buffalo and ranch sauce on Texas toast, and the Signature Spicy Chicken Sandwich is one of my favorites of all time across various taste tests.

Find them in: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Utah, Missouri, and Indiana