As fast food has evolved, we can pinpoint several seminal inventions that changed the industry and our expectations as consumers forever. The archetypal burger, the longest-standing fast food dessert, the first stuffed-crust pizza, the sandwich with an unforgettable value . . . all of these items have earned their rightful place in the fabric of our food culture.
Here’s a look back at some of the most defining moments in modern American fast food, one iconic item at a time.
For more, check out 15 Classic American Desserts That Deserve a Comeback.
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McDonald’s Big Mac
Probably the most iconic burger on the planet, the Big Mac from McDonald’s is the OG fast food burger. It’s the burger that taught us what fast food burgers could look like. Now in its 52nd year, the signature burger is ordered a whopping 550 million times annually. Once you dissect it, however, it’s pretty simple—two beef patties, special sauce, cheese, pickles, and onions, on a sesame bun. Here’s What Happens to Your Body When You Eat a Big Mac Every Day.
Popeyes Chicken Sandwich
This iconic chicken sandwich was only rolled out last year, but it has already gone down in American fast food history as the most buzzed about fast food item of the past decade. Sure, it has a juicy, perfectly crispy piece of chicken nestled between a brioche bun with pickles and mayo, but what this sandwich actually showed us is that in this day and age, it isn’t enough to simply taste good, you also need to have a savvy social media presence. Once Popeye’s tweeted “y’all good?” at their main competitor Chick-fil-A, the sandwich was well on its way to selling out within two weeks of launching. Read more about the iconic sandwich here.
Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos
Once Taco Bell decided to collaborate with another food icon—Doritos—it was only a matter of time before they were to create the chain’s most popular menu item. Doritos Locos Tacos were added to the restaurant’s menu in 2012 and have since sold in the billions. Actually, it’s been reported that about a million are sold EACH DAY. Talk about a restaurant that knows its audience. Here’s why Your Favorite Taco Bell Location Is About to Look Very Different.
Subway’s $5 Footlong
Subway’s subs wouldn’t be what they are had it not been for the ingenious 2008 promotional campaign that touted their incredible value—for a mere $5, you get a foot-long sandwich. Unfortunately, throughout the years, the types of subs you can get for this price and the participating locations have dwindled. While the $5 Footlong is mostly gone from Subway, this product (and its catchy jingle) really put the restaurant’s sandwiches on the map.
McDonald’s Apple Pie
One of the fast food desserts with most staying power, the hand-held apple pie from McDonald’s has been around for an incredible stretch of 52 years (just like the Big Mac!). While the recipe has had over 40 different iterations over the years, it has firmly remained in its signature cardboard sleeve. Today’s recipe features a baked lattice crust, and a blend of Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Rome, Gala, Ida Red, and Fuji apples. Read more on why You Might’ve Noticed That McDonald’s Apple Pies Taste a Little Different.
We love our non-conventionally shaped baked treats, and Munchkins seem to have filled that hole in our hearts perfectly. When they started being sold at Dunkin’ Donuts in 1972, the adorable donut holes were named after characters from The Wizard of Oz and were primarily marketed to kids. Nowadays, hordes of fans young and old consume millions of them every year.
Sonic’s Cherry Limeade
One of Sonic’s most popular menu items is actually a beverage. The chain’s Cherry Limeade, a sweet, tart, and bubbly soda, is equal parts delicious and retro, which has garnered it a cult following. To honor the success they’ve had with this signature drink, Sonic incorporated cherry-red letters in their new logo this year, while a big neon-lit cherry is now a prominent feature of their updated restaurant design.
Burger King’s Chicken Fries
Sure, we’ve seen bite-sized pieces of perfectly crispy chicken before with the ubiquitous chicken nuggets, but chicken bits shaped like french fries for ultimate dippability? Now that is some Burger King genius. After a years-long hiatus, during which fans tirelessly campaigned for their return, the chicken fries came back in 2015 as a permanent menu item. And we’ve never looked back since.
White Castle’s Impossible Slider
Before the Impossible Whopper and Dunkin’s Beyond Breakfast Sausage Sandwich, there was the Impossible Slider from White Castle. That’s right, White Castle was a pioneer when it came to serving plant-based meat in one of their iconic creations. The chain started serving the Impossible slider as early as April 2018, before rolling it out nationwide in September of that year. We Tried the White Castle Impossible Slider. Here’s Our Review.
McDonald’s Egg McMuffin
The Egg McMuffin is to breakfast fast food what the Big Mac is to fast food burgers. Invented in 1972 by a franchise owner in Santa Barbara, CA, the breakfast sandwich was meant to resemble Eggs Benedict. But it became so much more than an imitation—a breakfast icon in itself, which has withstood the test of time and prevailed on the McDonald’s menu for decades.
In 2003, Starbucks had a brilliant idea: to create a seasonal limited-time Fall drink that’ll keep fans coming back year after year. Hence, the Pumpkin Spice Latte was born. The PSL has become as synonymous with Fall as apple pie, and is actually credited with propelling the pumpkin spice flavor into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.
Panda Express’ Orange Chicken
Panda Express struck gold with the invention of Orange Chicken, which straddles both Chinese and American flavor palettes perfectly with its unique sweet, spicy, and savory notes. Developed in 1987 by chef Andy Kho, the dish capitalizes on its Chinese inspiration and American craveability factor. And it has become so synonymous with Chinese cuisine, you’ll find it on most Chinese restaurant menus nationwide. Read why This Is the Safest Restaurant Chain Right Now.
KFC’s Double Down
The no-bun, double-chicken sandwich was the very first fast food sandwich served without bread. As such, it’s credited with providing limitless fast food inspiration, showing that anything is possible (and sellable). And while we appreciate this bacon-cheese-chicken sandwich for what it meant for American ingenuity, it’s no longer available at KFC.
Pizza Hut’s Stuffed Crust Pizza
Possibly the food innovation of the century, stuffing the pizza crust with cheese is one of Pizza Hut’s (and fast food’s) most iconic moments. The seminal work took place in 1995, and the landscape of pizza has never quite been the same. We now want our pie to surprise and delight us just like it did back then.