What is a really good burger, a next-level chicken sandwich, a bucket of fried chicken, or a fresh sandwich without a side order? Whether you’re all-in on mashed potatoes and gravy, craving a four-piece order of nuggets, or go for biscuits, onion rings, or a side of beans, everybody loves sides. They are that special something extra you can order that can single-handedly transform the experience of eating fast food from good to great.

Side orders are the stuff good food comas are made of!

In celebration of our favorite side pieces — er, dishes — we’re listing the best items from our favorite big fast food chains.

A couple of rules here:

  1. The item must be from each chain’s designated “sides” menu. If they don’t have a sides menu we’ll defer to the value menu, if they don’t have a value menu, they don’t qualify for this ranking because they probably aren’t a fast food chain.
  2. All French fries, curly fries, and dressed fries are disqualified. If we included fries in this ranking then our list would end up being mostly French fries. We have a French fry ranking for that.

Let’s eat!

Arby’s — Jalapeño Bites

Fast Food Sides

Tasting Notes:

My go-to Arby’s side order has always been mozzarella sticks because I hold the belief that every fast food chain’s menu would instantly improve by just having a mozzarella stick option. But for this ranking, I knew I had to give the other options a fair shot and you know what? The Jalapeño Bites are better.

Both are very inconsistent though. Sometimes the cheese inside just isn’t as hot as you want it to be. But unlike the mozzarella sticks — which are nearly inedible when cold — the Jalapeño Bites still offer heat and a pleasing crispy crunch with every bite, and since they’re filled with cream cheese, it doesn’t matter if the cheese isn’t fresh out of the fryer.

I use to think cheddar was the best option for a jalapeño popper but Arby’s has changed my mind, the cream cheese filling imparts a sweet and tangy counterbalance to the heat from the jalapeño.

The Bottom Line:

Creamy, cheese, crispy, crunchy, and spicy! What more can you ask for?

Find your nearest Arby’s here.

Burger King — Onion Rings

Fast Food Sides
Burger King

Tasting Notes:

I first discovered that I love (that’s right, I’m using “love” to describe a food from Burger King!) Burger King’s Onion Rings when I received a few spare rings in my order of French fries. Unlike most things from Burger King, the Onion Rings are great — they’re salty, with a powerful onion flavor and a crispy mouthfeel.

Using the phrase “onion flavor” might come across as weird when talking about a food that is made entirely of a ring of onion but that’s the thing about BK’s onion rings… I’m not sure that they are onions. Don’t get me wrong, onion is definitely involved, but it’s some sort of weird onion paste, rather than an actual whole piece of onion, which explains how Burger King gets them to be so damn small.

That sounds… bad. I get it and we certainly have a lot of questions about these onion rings, but they taste pretty damn good. Not as good as an appetizer of onion rings from a restaurant, but good enough to make a very solid fast food side.

The Bottom Line:

I think Burger King’s Onion Rings are best enjoyed in moderation, so ask for an order of “Frings” and you’ll get a serving of half French fries and half onion rings — which is the best way to do it but didn’t meet our “no fries” policy for this ranking.

Find your nearest Burger King here.

Carl’s Jr. — Fried Zucchini

Fast Food Sides

Tasting Notes:

Greasy and bite-sized, Carl’s Jr’s Fried Zucchini offers a unique grassy, slightly sweet, and salty snack that instantly adds a pleasing vegetal quality to a meal dominated by fried and fatty foods. My favorite way of enjoying Carl’s Jr’s Fried Zucchinis is by throwing an order into whatever burger or sandwich I’m ordering. Think a Western Bacon Cheeseburger, but less heavy and salty, and more refreshing.

It’s not often that a fried snack can be described as “refreshing,” but these fried zucchs provide that, while still offering that salty indulgent quality that you want out of a good side.

The Bottom Line:

It offers the best of two worlds. You get to enjoy a greasy salty snack while pretending you’re picking something healthier.

Find your nearest Carl’s Jr. here.

Chick-fil-A — Mac & Cheese

Fast Food Sides

Tasting Notes:

Fast food mac and cheese, in general, doesn’t taste great — full stop. You might enjoy it from a few chains, but most establishments tend to overcook the noodles until they are mush and rarely rise above a well-prepared boxed from the grocery store. Chick-Fil-A’s Mac is a step in the right direction.

It still isn’t perfect — the noodles are never al dente like we want them to be — but this packs a lot of flavor and it’s baked in-store, ensuring a crispy crust of cheese on every order. The Mac & Cheese is made with a three cheese blend, combining parmesan, cheddar, and Romano cheeses, giving you pronounced nutty flavors with a bit of sharpness and the subtlest tinge of sweetness.

It’s pretty complex for fast food mac.

The Bottom Line:

Not perfect but probably the best mac and cheese in the entire fast food universe.

Find your nearest Chick-fil-A here.

Chipotle — Chips and Guac

Fast Food Sides

Tasting Notes:

Chipotle’s Chips & Guac are like McDonald’s French Fries, you don’t walk into the fast casual restaurant without adding an order to your meal. So it’s inclusion here shouldn’t come as a surprise.

While I think this is Chipotle’s best side, I have a lot of thoughts about both the chips and guacamole. First let’s start with the chips: too much f*cking lime. I get it, “Lime and salt are a winning flavor combination!” but Chipotle adds too much of both, and it’s probably to hide the remarkable flavorlessness of the fried tortilla, which tastes more like oil than corn.

Then there is the guacamole — too much onion. I love the inclusion of Serrano peppers and cilantro, but this guacamole tastes like it has onion powder in it in addition to the chopped purple onion. Onions in guacamole aren’t a sin, but when you taste more onion than avocado, I kind of think it’s a problem.

The Bottom Line:

Chipotle’s best side order. If you don’t feel like shelling out a few extra bucks for guacamole, chips and salsa make a great alternate.

Find your nearest Chipotle here.

El Pollo Loco — Pinto Beans

Fast Food Sides
El Pollo Loco

Tasting Notes:

Fast food pinto beans are like mac and cheese, they absolutely pale in comparison to what you can make at home (pretty damn easily). But El Pollo Loco’s Pinto Beans are legit. They’re tender, fluffy, and well seasoned with earthy notes of oregano, cumin, and a spicy bite on the backend.

Take two spoonfuls, add it to a flour tortilla, shred some of your chicken on top, and apply a generous amount of avocado salsa and prepare for one of the most flavorful bites of food you’ll find at any fast food establishment.

The Bottom Line:

El Pollo Loco gets sides. They understand that the best way to enjoy them are to incorporate them fully into your meal rather than eating them on the side like most chains, and their pinto beans are their best and most flexible option.

Find your nearest El Pollo Loco here.

KFC — Mashed Potatoes & Gravy


Tasting Notes:

KFC needs to revamp its entire menu of sides. They are all pretty mid-tier additions to an already mid-tier chicken establishment. The Mac & Cheese is terrible, it’s radioactive in appearance, salty, and mushy. The Secret Recipe Fries will never taste as good as the potato wedges that had to die so they could live. The biscuit is fluffy but too dry. The corn is too sweet. The coleslaw is… coleslaw.

This leaves us with our only other option — Mashed Potatoes & Gravy.

They’re certainly edible, the potatoes are buttery (if a bit… I want to say, soapy?) and the gravy adds some rich savory notes and together make for a great dip for your chicken or simply your fried chicken skin. Still, we wouldn’t be mad if KFC took these back to the lab and reformulated the recipe.

The Bottom Line:

Your options here aren’t great,but the best choice is Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, hands down. No order of KFC is complete without it.

Find your nearest KFC here.

Jack in the Box — Two Tacos

Fast Food Sides
Taco Bell

Tasting Notes:

I know, I know, these are awful. We even gave them the last spot and the harshest words in our ranking of fast food taco meat — if you can call this substance “meat” to begin with. But there is something magical about adding an order of Two Tacos to your meal for 99¢. They’re greasy, crunchy, and full of flavor, while still being light enough on the stomach (if you can keep them down) to not make you feel like you’re eating too much, no matter how big your main order is.

Also, few things hit the spot when you’re drunk (or high as fuck) during those late-night weekends and need some food to help sober you up and get you ready for bed.

The Bottom Line:

If fries weren’t banned from this ranking we’d go with the curly fries, duh, but given the parameters were going with the second-best choice, these weird faux-meat tacos.

I know fans of the Egg Rolls will come for me in the comments but… I don’t like those egg rolls, what can I say?

Find your nearest Jack in the Box here.

McDonald’s — 4-Piece Chicken McNuggets

Fast Food Sides

Tasting Notes:

McDonald’s has, I kid you not, two sides — French fries and apple slices — and we certainly aren’t going to choose apple slices. So we had to defer to the value menu for this one. It’s not that we think apple slices are a bad side, it’s just that McDonald’s apples are awful. The Granny Smith comes pre-sliced in a plastic bag, which might lead you to assume that they’d be brown from oxidation. They aren’t, and that actually worries us more than it inspires confidence. They have this weird unappetizing slimy film that surrounds the entire apple slice. It’s gross.

So we went with nuggets, and the four-piece order is the perfect way to enjoy them. Any order exceeding four and you start to zero in on the weird pasty consistency of this chicken. The nuggets are lightly battered in a crispy and airy batter that is perfect for dipping in any of McDonald’s six dipping sauces.

The Bottom Line:

Fries already come with your meal so if you’re looking for something extra there isn’t a better choice than this simple four-piece order of nuggets.

Find your nearest McDonald’s here.

Popeyes — Biscuits

Fast Food Sides

Tasting Notes:

Popeyes biscuits are f*cking intense. They somehow manage to taste more like fried butter than they do baked bread, but in a way, this is the only biscuit that doesn’t want for anything. You don’t need gravy to make it delicious, and it doesn’t require any buttering on your part. It’s fast food’s best biscuit.

Popeyes has some other very good sides, namely the new homestyle mac and cheese, the cajun fries, and the red beans and rice, but none feel as essential as the biscuits.

The Bottom Line:

It has a crunchy exterior, and a buttery finish, and pairs wonderfully with honey.

Find your nearest Popeyes here.

Raising Cane’s — Texas Toast (BOB Style)

Tasting Notes:

Raising Cane’s has exactly three sides — French fries (disqualified), coleslaw (it’s coleslaw, it’s never gonna make a list other than one specifically about coleslaw), and Texas toast. The latter is by far the best. This bread is so versatile, that you can add an extra piece to your chicken finger order and create a makeshift sandwich that rivals the sandwich on the menu.

Just insert a single tender between the two pieces of bread, and smear (or dip) Cane’s sauce on it. If you want to enjoy this buttery and garlicky bread on its own ask for it ‘BOB style,’ the Texas Toast will come buttered on both sides offering a buttery crunch on both sides with a soft spongey center.

The Bottom Line:

Raising Cane’s most essential and versatile side. It’s second only to the chain’s chicken tenders.

Find your nearest Raising Cane’s here.

Sonic — Pickle Fries

Fast Food Sides

Tasting Notes:

Despite my love for mozzarella sticks, you won’t find a single order on here, and that’s because fast food mozzarella sticks kind of suck. Sonics are by far the best, but unfortunately for fans of mozzarella, Sonic has an even better side, the briny and flavor-packed Pickle Fries. A dill pickle is cut into fry-shaped spears, battered and fried, offering a crispy and flavorful side order that actually manages to surpass an order of fries.

This is Sonic’s essential side, they’re vegetal, tangy, and sour, with an onion, garlic, and black pepper flavor that pairs well with Sonic’s ranch dressing.

The Bottom Line:

More essential than the fries. No Sonic order is complete without Pickle Fries.

Find your nearest Sonic here.

Taco Bell — Cinnamon Twists

Fast Food Sides
Taco Bell

Tasting Notes:

Taco Bell doesn’t have a great sides menu. It’s so sad that they actually include each iteration of their sauce packets on the menu. That’s like putting ketchup packets on a sides menu at McDonald’s. So I’m just going to go ahead and pick my Taco Bell guilty pleasure — Cinnamon Twists.

I’ve loved these things since I was a kid and I fully admit the choice to include them here is completely governed by nostalgia. Do I actually think Cinnamon Twists make for a better addition to your meal than an order of Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes? Maaaaaaaaybe, it depends on what you’re ordering, I guess.

I’m not even sure what these things are, they’re like fried air. They taste like cinnamon and sugar, which is what they’re seasoned with. I’ve had a batch that was poorly seasoned before and they tasted like nothing, just texture. But I love them, and I’ll take them over those disgusting Cinnabon Delights, an order of flavorless black beans, and those awful nacho cheese-topped potato wedges.

The Bottom Line:

I’m not happy about this choice. Get better sides, Taco Bell!

Find your nearest Taco Bell here.

Wendy’s — Chili

Fast Food Sides

Tasting Notes:

This was a hard choice. Wendy’s offers a variety of baked potatoes (from nicely dressed to fully loaded) and I think that’s a great novelty for a fast food restaurant. Unfortunately, those baked potatoes are definitely microwaved, resulting in a weird leathery skin that fails to capture what makes a good baked potato so enjoyable.

So I’m going with the chili. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the quality of Wendy’s chili is much higher than the microwaved potato, they make it using leftover ground beef chunks from their burger patties, but at least Wendy’s burgers are delicious. The meat is fresh, never frozen, and while you aren’t getting the best chili you’ll ever eat, for fast food it’s pretty damn good.

It has a rich savory flavor with a pronounced spicy bite to the broth joining flavors of onion and garlic powder. In the chili itself, you have bits of onion, green peppers, kidney beans, and celery. For a bit more texture (the broth is a bit watery) ask for some crackles and crumble them in.

The Bottom Line:

It’s not homemade chili, but it’s you’re getting chili from a drive-thru and it’s better than you’d expect. If Wendy’s put just a little bit more effort into this chili they’d really have something. As is, it’s very good and worth ordering at least once for the novelty alone.

Find your nearest Wendy’s here.


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