8 of the Midwest's Favorite Fast-Food Chains
Be it a family road-trip stop or a quick solo jaunt to satisfy a carb craving, a juicy burger, crispy fries or a hand-dipped shake can truly hit the spot. Lucky for us in the Midwest, we have some of the best fast-food options around: smaller regional chains dishing up tasty, nostalgic morsels from the past. As travelers across the nation's midsection get ready to hit the highway for summer adventures, here's a roundup of eateries you won't want to miss.
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Cousins Subs got its start in Milwaukee in 1972. Bill Specht had just moved to the Midwest from the East Coast and missed the sandwiches. He and his cousin Jim Sheppard sought to re-create that style and taste, and Cousins was born. Word got around about the new shop that built its business around a superior sandwich with just-baked bread, fresh meats and Wisconsin cheese. Today, the chain operates 100 restaurants in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. Occasionally, Cousins doubles down on its Wisconsin roots with a limited-time sub layered with bratwurst slices. Don't think twice—just order it!
A perfectly buttered bun is the signature of a burger recipe that many Midwesterners have come to know and love. In 1984, Craig and Lea Culver, along with Craig's parents, founded their first restaurant in Sauk City, Wisconsin. They began serving ButterBurgers (they trademarked the term), frozen custard and, no surprise given the Wisconsin location, deep-fried cheese curds.
Culver's has grown to include 900 locations across the country, but the family feel remains. It's especially evident in the chain's homestyle menu items, including pot roast and pork loin sandwiches.
In 1967, Marv Gibbs and Arthur Morey opened Red Lion Beef in Ballwin, Missouri, near St. Louis. Its mission: to serve the highest-quality beef. After a successful launch, the restaurant changed its name to Lion's Choice, and its iconic roast beef became a standout in the world of fast-food sandwiches.
Even after more than a half-century, and expansion across I-70 into Kansas City, their famous recipe hasn't changed. Slow-roasted onsite, Lion's Choice beef is shaved thin, topped with a dash of secret seasoning, and piled high. The King Beef with Swiss cheese is a fan favorite; the turkey on wheat is also delicious.
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Not quite a burger, but not as saucy as a Sloppy Joe, the Maid-Rite sandwich is a delicious if rather messy hybrid that's beloved in the Hawkeye State and beyond. Butcher Fred Angell started selling loose meat sandwiches in Muscatine, Iowa in 1926. The cafe quickly franchised and still has locations across the state as well as other Midwest locations
The Maid-Rite is made of finely ground hamburger on a steamed bun, served with add-ons like mustard, ketchup, pickles and chopped onions. Want to get fancy? Try the Blue-Rite (with blue cheese crumbled into that loose meat), or the Jalapeño-Rite served with cheese sauce and peppers. No matter how you dress it up, the Maid-Rite is an Iowa icon.
Perhaps folks wouldn't normally think of cabbage as a standout ingredient in a fast-food favorite, but then perhaps they're not familiar with Runza. This Nebraska-based chain, founded in 1949 by Sally Everett and her brother Alex Brenning, is known for its hearty sandwiches made with seasoned ground beef, chopped onions and cabbage. All that savory goodness is wrapped in bread that's more of a roll than a bun.
Customers can choose favorite toppings including Swiss cheese, mushrooms, barbecue sauce, bacon or the traditional cheese, pickles, ketchup and mustard. Don't forget Frings—an order of fries and onion rings combined—with French onion dip for a delicious on-the-go meal.
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In 1948, Allen Schoop set up shop at a small cafe in Hammond, Indiana and got to work perfecting his Schoop's burger. His mission was soon accomplished, with customers waiting in line out the door. They knew Schoop created something special; foodies and culinary critics agreed. In the years since, Schoop's burger has graced numerous "best of" lists, and the franchise has expanded to include locations throughout northern Illinois and Indiana as well as outside the Midwest. Patties are cooked smashed-style, with satisfying crispy edges. Make sure to try the Mickey, Schoop's classic burger with two melted slices of American cheese. The Irish Nachos are also a favorite: crisp French fries topped with melted cheddar, scallions, bacon bits and ranch dressing.
Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides opened Skyline Chili in 1949, naming it for the sweeping view of Cincinnati viewed from his first chili parlor.
Unlike its Texas counterpart, Skyline chili is more of a sauce than a stand-alone, served over noodles or hot dogs. And it has a flavor profile all its own with both sweet and savory notes. The Lambrinides family has kept the exact recipe a well-guarded secret, but those with decent palates can taste cinnamon, nutmeg and perhaps a bit of cocoa coming through. Whether you prefer 3-way (spaghetti topped with Skyline chili and cheese); 4-way (choice of beans or onions added), or 5-way (beans and onions both added), Skyline is a true taste of Cincinnati.
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In 1921, Billy Ingram started selling five-cent, small, square hamburgers in Wichita, Kansas. He called them sliders and came up with the idea of selling them by the sack as a carry-out meal. His restaurant? White Castle, the world's first fast-food chain. Although more than 100 years have passed, White Castle sliders are still prepared in the same way, served with onions and pickles, dangerously delicious and easy to polish off. These burgers started a movement that changed the way the world eats— and they got their start in the Midwest.