Carl’s Jr. is known for its charcoal hamburgers, but it’s the only thing on the menu that inspires loyalty.
“The product people are most adamant about is the fried zucchini,” said Owen Klein, vice president of global culinary innovation for parent company CKE Restaurants. “It’s got a big-time cult following.”
Most fast food chains serve cult-following items. They cannot be signature items. They can be almost hidden on menu boards. But they have fan bases that make sure they will survive.
“We have a few of them, like our Chicken Soft Taco,” said Tim Hackbard, chief marketing officer for Del Taco. “We could never pull it off. It’s a huge hit for us.”
According to Heather Guardia, El Polo Loco’s vice president of research and development, fans are on-the-ground allies in the franchise. They listen to their customers and ensure that popular items are not only available but also live up to the expectations of the customers.
“Our franchise owners are the biggest managers,” she said. “They’re very passionate about these items that stay true to the core cuisine. When we think about innovating, we definitely think beyond those core things.”
Over the course of a year, we talked to fast food executives about cult favorites. We also asked readers to tell us about their favorites, which included some menu hacks and so-called hidden menu items that people can get to ask even if they’re not posted on the menu board.
Here are some of their reactions.
This series has gone through a lot of changes in itself about 81 years, It started out as a hot dog stand and now does fried chicken sandwiches and burgers instead. The salad bar, baked potato and California roast beef sandwich are among the menu items it has left behind.
But as with many a cult favorite, it’s a side item that inspires passion. Fried Zucchini is a carton of coin-sized slices of breaded zucchini, often served with a packet of house dressing, the equivalent of ranch dressing.
“It’s one of the reasons a lot of customers come to us,” Klein said.
Klein said the Western bacon cheeseburger, which features beef patties topped with barbecue sauce and onion rings, has also become essential.
“We may never replace the Western bacon cheeseburger in a million years,” he said. “It has a cult following. It has been synonymous with the Carl’s Jr brand since it came out in 1981. It has been one of our top sellers ever since.”
Although this Lake Forest chain is constantly innovating, its original menu items still have devotees.
“Just the old school bean and cheese burrito, people love that product,” Hackbard said. “Certainly couldn’t pull it off.”
Diners have a choice between red and green sauce, and some readers said they prefer the green, which provides an extra touch of heat, according to Hackabard.
“Those who choose the color green raise the flag for their clan and proudly swear that it is the best.”
Readers also love their “Bold” style of burritos, which means the secret sauce from chicken tacos and french fries. This is a secret menu item sometimes referred to as a “stoner burrito.”
Some customers ask for the bun taco, which features the taco filling on the hamburger bun. It’s been off the menu for a long time, but according to Hackhardt it’s on the secret menu.
“You just need to ask. To really claim that you’re a die-hard fan of Del Taco, you have to be someone who orders the occasional bun taco.”
el polo loco
Although the chain comes with a variety of limited-time items, most recently Biriya Beef, it started with a family meal that includes citrus-grilled chicken, tortillas, beans, rice, and salsa.
Those meals remain the core of the brand, Guardia said, but its salad dressing enjoys cult status.
“The creamy cilantro dressing that we make within restaurants is such a signature. People really like it,” she said. “Salad dressing and avocado salsa are two things I never look away from El Pollo Loco.”
Habit Burger Grill
The chain is known for its spicy burgers. Sides include fries, sweet potato fries, and onion rings, but readers identified Tempura Green Beans as a fan favorite. They are served with ranch dressing for dipping.
This drive-thru has a very small menu that rarely changes. when this Added Hot Cocoa to Its Lineup Burgers, fries, shakes and soft drinks sales were a big deal in 2018.
But In-N-Out fans know how to order variations on those items. The series has compiled some of the most popular as “not so secret menu” on its website.
The “Animal Fries,” which are sandwich spread, topped with melted cheese and grilled onions, are one of the most famous.
Grilled Cheese Two slices of American cheese on a bun with lettuce, tomato and spread. Mary Alice McLaughlin of Lakewood loves to add pickles and onions.
In a phone interview, she said that it is a good option for vegetarians who want to hang out with friends who eat burgers.
“It’s not like getting a grilled cheese sandwich at a restaurant, but if everyone’s going to In-N-Out, it’s not bad.”
Jack in the Box
According to the Wall Street Journal, tacos are the San Diego chain’s most popular item, with sales of more than 500 million per year. They are also a cult favorite among readers. Less expected favorites include the Stuffed Jalapeos, which are breaded, filled with cheese sauce and served with a packet of buttermilk dressing.
Although best known for Big Macs, Quarter Pounders, and Chicken McNuggets, McDonald’s has put forward its McCafe drinks as fan favorites. The name McCafé includes a variety of hot and cold coffee drinks.
According to owner-operator Mike Pernecki in the San Gabriel Valley, drip coffee is best known for McDonald’s.
“People have an emotional connection with coffee and they trust us to make it right for them. And they have for many years.”
This Miami-based chain is known for starting the chicken sandwich war in recent years. But there is more to its menu, including red beans and rice as a side. That’s what Jeff Greene of Placentia likes to order.
He added that serving this mixture of rice and beans is unusual at most fast food restaurants, or any restaurant for that matter. He likes to mix in a packet of poppies seasoning called Cajun Sparkle.
He orders it with blackened tenders, which he says are good for the keto diet. “They’re not fried. They’re basically a little seasoned.”
This Irvine chain is best known for its chili cheese dogs and its corn dogs. According to the CEO, its main menu items appeal to all age groups JR Gallardi, But a longtime menu item that attracts a very specific demographic.
It’s a Polish sandwich, a spicy dog bite cut in two and served between two slices of rye bread with Swiss cheese, a pickle spear and spicy French mustard, according to the series.
“Then you get to the point of getting a little older, maybe around retirement age group, they eat a lot of Polish sandwiches,” Gallardi said. “We have a store in Orange County from a retirement community called Leisure World that has the most Polish sandwich sales in the chain.
“I don’t know what it is about Polish sandwiches, but once you hit retirement age, that’s probably what you get.”