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Aug 16, 2012 04:42 PM

Below-the-Radar Local and Small Regional Chains That Are Worth Knowing About

Pretty much everyone knows, and has opinions of, the big national chains (you know the ones), and even the big regionals such as In-n-Out, Chick-fil-A, etc. But further down the scale there are many smaller, less well-known, local and regional chains, many of which are serving good food that is worthy of more attention than they typically get.

Here are three picks of the types of chains I’m talking about:

Cook Out: Cook Out is a North Carolina-based burger chain with some additional locations in Va., Tenn., and S.C. Their claim is that their burgers resemble those you’d make yourself at a cook-out. I don’t know about that, although they are good and to me are somewhat reminiscent of the In-n-Out style, even complete with references to biblical passages on the wrappings. But while the burgers are good, their best thing is the huge variety and high quality of milkshakes. For example, if you order a blueberry pie milkshake they literally slice off a piece of pie and mix it into the shake, crust and all. Excellent. Most locations are double drive-throughs with outdoor seating, but some have indoor seating. The company is extremely secretive and has no website of its own. Here is a link to a fan website:

Runza: Runza is a Nebraska chain, with a few outlets in adjacent states. They serve, well, runzas. A runza is a type of turnover, a yeast pastry crust filled with savory ingredients including meat, cabbage, onions, and sometimes cheese. A very tasty pocket sandwich. Runza the chain serves a variety of runzas, as well as other more typical fast-food items. Well worth checking out if you’re ever in Nebraska.

Pollo Campero: This is a chicken chain (“Country Chicken” in English) from Guatemala, now with many locations in the US, focused in areas where there are large populations of Mexicans and Central Americans such as NY/NJ, DC, Houston, Los Angeles and others. IMO their fried chicken blows away the US chains. It apparently is long-marinated in a spice mixture, and that seems to work. Many of their sides are also excellent – their side of pinto beans, really a soup, is the best restaurant bean soup I know of, and they have fried yucca, plantain, and other treats.

What and where are some below-the-radar chains you know about that you would recommend to a Chowhound passing through?

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  1. In California, there's the Squeeze Inn (search the California Board for reviews and posts). Eight locations, total. There are several locations in and around Sacramento, and one each in Galt, Tracy, Vacaville, and Napa. Ridiculously good burgers. A Squeeze with cheese is my current favorite burger.

    8 Replies
    1. re: ricepad

      Holy cow! I didn't known there was a Squeeze In in Vacaville! Sweet!

        1. re: whoeverdroid

          I would check and see if it's still open.(smile)

          1. re: whoeverdroid

            In the 2+ years since my post, I've been to a couple more locations, and found that the quality, prices and menu selections vary tremendously from location to location. The relocated original location (South Sacramento) and the Galt location are good and worth a trip (son currently in Montana craves a visit to Galt), but I wouldn't walk across the street to eat at the West Sacramento location.

            1. re: ricepad

              Looks like the Vacaville one is still open. That's saying something around here.

                1. re: whoeverdroid

                  Never been to Sonic. For comparison, tho, I can say that my two favorite places for FF burgers are In 'n' Out and the Galt location of Squeeze Inn. The Squeeze Inn is better, but In 'n' Out is closer.

          2. Aladdin's Eatery is mainly a midwest chain, started in Ohio. But there are also a few mid-Atlantic locations. They make very high-quality and innovative foods inspired by Middle-Eastern flavors.


            Also distinctive here is their strong line-up of vegetarian and vegan dishes. It's a health-conscious operation. Because I am a devoted carnivore, I was a bit concerned at finding the foods a bit meh, but the flavors are really great in the meat and veggies dishes.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Bada Bing

              Oh yes, we have an Aladdin's in Raleigh, NC. It was a go-to place for quick take out and relaxed weekend lunches before my parents moved.

              1. re: Bada Bing

                I love Aladdins falafel rolls and tabaoullah for a quick lunch.

                They are one of the few places that sell lamb shawarma.

              2. In the Washington, D.C. metro area we have Moby Dick kebab houses. (The unsuitable name comes from that fact that the owner took ver a fish place and then stuck with the name.) They have great lamb, beef, and chicken kebabs, served with rice, fresh bread from a tandoor style oven, and home doog (a yogurt drink). They also have home cooking-style lunch specials during the week. Very generous, fresh, and reasonably priced.

                2 Replies
                1. re: jayjaymom

                  Moby Dick has been a favorite for me, as well. My 78-yr-old aunt thinks their rice is the best she's ever had.

                  I'll add Hard Times Cafe to the DC mini chains that do a very good meal. Several styles of chili (Terlingua is my favorite), great grilled wings, and one of the better burgers around.

                  1. re: Terrie H.

                    Second Hard Times. Simple food simply prepared. A great value price wise, particularly the NY strip. A steal at $15.

                2. The best one I can offer up is that if you ever find yourself in the Des Moines, Iowa metropolitan area, then seek out a place called Tasty Tacos. I think there are 5-6 in Des Moines and adjoining suburbs. It is a small family restaurant chain started in the early 1960's on the East Side of Des Moines and the regular flour taco, which is nothing like the dinky flour tortilla with beef served at Taco Bell-type fast food joints, with plenty of hot sauce is one of my favorites [and to qualify this, I lived in Texas for over a decade and am a huge fan of Tex-Mex, Mexicali, New Mexico fare, and authentic dishes from Mexico].

                  1. Liang's Kitchen.

                    Southern CA (Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego), Northern CA (San Jose and Cupertino), as well as an outpost in NYC.