One of my friends “checked in” to In-N-Out Burger on Facebook the other day, and I commented that I was jealous. Because I love In-N-Out Burger, but there are no In-N-Out Burgers even remotely close to where I live. The nearest is two states and about seven hours south of here, which explains why it’s been over three years since I’ve indulged in a Double Double. Three years! Ack. We also have no White Castles (23 months since I last ate there) or Raising Cane’s (15 months). These omissions seem horribly unfair. Even Dunkin’ Donuts, which was all over the place when I was growing up, does not have any franchises out this way. It’s been many years since I’ve eaten there and, as a result, it has taken on a mythic aura in my mind. If I ever happen upon a Dunkin’ Donuts, I swear I will come to a screeching halt and make a mad dash inside. For a doughnut that is probably inferior to the ones they sell right down the street from my house, but such is life, you know? We crave what we can’t have. Which is why I’m curious as hell about places like Steak ‘n Shake and Chick-Fil-A and Whataburger, none of which I have ever tried.
Sometimes, coveted fast-food chains eventually do end up expanding out west. For years, Krispy Kreme was confined to the South. I’d heard good things, and was curious. Finally, in the late 90s they opened up a place in Seattle. People from Portland would make the six-hour round trip drive all for a box of glazed doughnuts. And then, they opened a couple around here. One of them is 10 minutes from home. And it’s been years since I’ve been there. What was once so novel, I now just take for granted. There are better doughnuts elsewhere, so why bother with Krispy Kreme? The same goes for Sonic. They opened their first local outlet just a few years ago. They’re good, but you can get a good burger anywhere, you know?
And then, there’s the ultimate tease. After going fifteen years without El Pollo Loco, one opened up in Vancouver, WA a few years ago. It was a huge deal; there was a ribbon cutting ceremony, and the mayor showed up. I loved El Pollo Loco when I lived in California, and I took full advantage, stopping by often for a quick lunch or dinner. One year later, they closed unexpectedly as a result of mismanagement. Sigh. Now I miss them again.
But I got to thinking about this. For every Smashburger we lack, for every Taco John’s we don’t have, for every missing Arctic Circle and Long John Silvers and Pioneer Chicken, we do have some really terrific local and regional chains that, while common up here, are hard to come by (or downright impossible to find) outside of the Pacific Northwest. Places that I would miss dearly, even if I lived across the street from a White Castle or Hardee’s. So, I made a list, because lists are fun! These are what I consider the best local or regional chains in the Pacific Northwest. They’re limited to fast-food or casual restaurants and, to qualify, must have at least ten locations, the industry standard per the Independent Restaurants of America website. So, without further ado, here we go!
The Top 5 Local or Regional Fast or Casual Food Chains in the Pacific Northwest
- Burgerville. Locals know that Burgerville is more than just a fast-food burger chain. This Vancouver, WA-based company has 39 outlets, all but 5 of them located in the Portland metropolitan area. They’re confined to an 80-mile radius stretching from Albany, OR to Centralia, WA. Burgerville was founded in 1961 and prides itself on fresh, local, sustainable ingredients. Their burgers are made with Tillamook cheddar, for instance, and seasonal specials like strawberry lemonade, blackberry milkshakes, and Walla Walla onion rings all contain natural in-season ingredients from local growers. They use 100% wind power for all their restaurants, convert used cooking oil into biodiesel, and use only range-fed beef free of antibiotics and hormones. Best of all, their food tastes amazing! Some people gripe over the high prices and, while it’s true that their meals do cost more than your typical fast-food chain, you can taste the difference. People in Seattle can’t get Burgerville. People in Eugene can’t get Burgerville. Which makes us in the Portland area the lucky ones!
- Ivar’s. Now it’s Seattle’s turn to gloat. Ivar’s, based in the Emerald City, opened their first location in 1938 and now has 25 “fast casual seafood bars” and 3 full-service restaurants, most of them spread around Seattle and Tacoma, with one location as far east as Spokane. Fat lot of good that does us in Portland! So, what makes Ivar’s so special? Amazing, locally-sourced seafood. Their fish ‘n chips are available with Pacific True Cod, Alaskan halibut, or northwest salmon. You can also get scallops, prawns, oysters, chicken, clam strips, and an incredible clam chowder. Grilled platters are available, along with salads and shrimp or crab cocktails. Quality ingredients put Ivar’s a cut above your typical fast-food joint. Long John who?!
- Taco Time. Fast-food burritos are fast-food burritos, right? Not when they’re hand-rolled and fried to a crisp! Founded in Eugene, OR in 1959, Taco Time has since expanded to over 350 franchises, but the majority are here in the Pacific Northwest (though if you’re in Kuwait or Curacao, you’re also in luck). Taco Time prides itself on using fresh ingredients, making their shells, chips, and salsas from scratch every morning. They use real aged cheddar and meat that is never frozen. This commitment to top quality ingredients shows in their food! It’s all good, but I hardly ever deviate from my usual: those aforementioned Original Crisp Burritos, unique to Taco Time. They hand-roll a soft flour tortilla, fill it with either refried pinto beans, all-white chicken, or seasoned ground beef (my personal favorite), and fry it until it’s golden and crispy. A healthy choice? Decidedly not, but if you’re eating fast-food Mexican in the first place, you probably don’t care.
- Jack In The Box. This one seems like a weird inclusion to me. I’ve always had easy access to Jack In The Box, a San Diego-based chain formed in 1951. There are 2200+ locations, after all. Yet the majority are concentrated out West, especially in California, Oregon, and Washington. Aside from the Carolinas, there are no franchises east of a line from Ohio to Louisiana. I wasn’t even aware that people thought Jack In The Box was special until family from the Northeast came out for a visit one time and made an excited beeline for the place. I like Jack In The Box because of their menu variety (burgers, chicken, grilled sandwiches, teriyaki bowls, mozzarella sticks, egg rolls, judicious use of sourdough bread, nine different breakfast sandwiches served all day long, and tacos that are amazingly simple (they’re topped with a slice of American cheese, for crying out loud) yet delicious, and cheap. 2 for 99 cents? That’s a bargain!).
- Elmer’s. There are lots of Denny’s-style restaurants around the country. Casual dining places that specialize in inexpensive but hearty food, usually with a focus on breakfast, often open 24 hours. IHOP, Perkins, and Bob Evans are all great examples. In the Pacific Northwest, we’ve got Shari’s. Which would have made the list…if Elmer’s didn’t also exist. Opened in 1960 as Elmer’s Colonial Pancake House, this chain focuses on quality, local ingredients and friendly service, with 25 locations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (plus a lone standout in California). With menu items like dungeness crab omelettes, Snoqualmie Falls oatmeal, Cascade skillets with local Zenner’s sausage and Tillamook cheese, and fluffy German pancakes topped with seasonal local berries, Elmer’s commitment to local foods is impressive. Even their steaks are sourced exclusively from Northwest ranchers. Shari’s is good, but Elmer’s is a notch better.
And, you get a bonus Honorable Mention. Little Big Burger doesn’t officially qualify because it’s only got 6 locations. However, they haven’t been around long: their first restaurant opened across the street from Powell’s Books in 2010. The owner, Micah Camden, a restauranteur and the driving force behind some of Portland’s most-respected fine dining locations, decided to open a fast-food burger joint with quality local ingredients modeled after none other than In-N-Out Burger. That meant keeping the menu simple, with just four menu items: hamburger, cheeseburger, veggie burger, and fries. But the flavors packed into those choices are phenomenal. The burgers are, well, little – but that’s the point. They’re made with Cascade beef on freshly baked brioche buns, and are available with cheddar, American, bleu, and a creamy (and delicious) chevre. The fries are tossed with truffle oil and are probably the tastiest I’ve ever had. Even the ketchup is homemade. Everything is made to order, with nary a heat lamp in sight. And, you can order beer to wash down your food. This tiny not-quite-a-chain has amassed a huge cult following in its first three years, and continues to expand. I have no idea how big they’ll eventually get, but one thing is certain: they are poised to give our beloved Burgerville some stiff competition. Not to mention that other California-based burger place that doesn’t exist up here.
Is there a restaurant chain you wish existed in your hometown? Which local chain makes you proud?
- Burgerville (mrverdantgreen.typepad.com)
- Seattle Mariners: Baked “Ivar Dog” (sports-glutton.com)
- Owning Your Brand: 5 Companies That Protect Their Brand by Not Franchising (businessbee.com)