A Power Ranking of Fast Casual Dining

A Power Ranking of Fast Casual Dining

I love eating out. (I also love being eaten out, but that’s a topic for another article.) After a long day at the office, the last thing I feel like doing is cooking for myself. I don’t want to overpay at a sit down restaurant, and I also don’t hate myself enough to eat fast food multiple times in a month. Enter the fast-casual dining experience, combining the best of both worlds. I consider myself a connoisseur of chain dining, and have eaten enough meals in the $8.99-$12.99 range to provide the following analysis and subsequent power ranking of fast casual restaurants.

7. Qdoba
Coming in at the bottom is Qdoba. To be honest, it shouldn’t have even made the list at all but I felt the need to prove some points. This is the restaurant you eat at when your flight gets delayed at the Tampa Airport and there’s too long of a line at Chick-Fil-A. The food belongs in a dumpster and their chips suck dick. I feel a small twinge of sadness for Qdoba because they’re operating in an oversaturated Mexican-American food market, but honestly that should encourage them to try harder. They’re the Great Value knock off Chipotle, and it’s just sad.

Additional Pros & Cons:

Pros: You get free chips and queso on your birthday

Cons: Literally everything else

6. Noodles & Co
I’ve eaten at a Noodles & Co. maybe five times in my life. They’re pretty low on the list, but the food is actually not bad. The problem is nothing is cohesive with the brand and that really hurts them. I guess the theme is “noodles” which is lame and a poor starting point. To me, it feels like a fast casual start up that tried to recreate Boston Market with an international twist and just never got off the ground. Maybe if they bring in some big dogs to help run the business for a bit they could revitalize. Just like Qdoba, Noodles & Co. is airport food, but at least it’s decent airport food.

Additional Pros & Cons:

Pros: I’m a huge fan of their spicy Korean beef noodle bowl. You don’t feel terrible about yourself after eating here.

Cons: No pizzazz. A drunk man once yelled at me in the Concord, DE Noodles & Co. parking lot.

5. Pei Wei
It was insanely difficult to think of an Asian fast casual restaurant, and that’s pretty telling of how forgettable Pei Wei is as an establishment. They’re owned by P.F. Chang’s, which is one of the greatest chains of all time. I’m in recovery from a serious Dan Dan Street Noodles addiction. Because P.F. Chang’s is so great, I went into Pei Wei with high expectations, and ended up disappointed with how average the overall experience was. The food is okay, the Asian-fusion vibe is fun, but the pop factor just isn’t there. I don’t think anyone would try to argue that Pei Wei is providing an authentic Chinese/Thai/Japanese experience, but I feel like they’re just heating up Annie Chun’s from the local grocery store and serving it to you in a white Ikea bowl.

Additional Pros & Cons:

Pros: Some of the menu items from P.F. Chang’s cross over, like the lettuce wraps and crab wontons. Solid Serving sizes. Their salad bowls come through as a big redeeming quality.

Cons: A prime example of corporate America exploiting an entire culture. You’re going to have garlic breath for a week after eating here.

4. Chipotle
I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flak for Chipotle coming in semi-low on the list, but it’s with good reason. I really like Chipotle. There was a time in college where I was eating Chippy’s 3-4 times a week and loving it. Of all the Mex-mix restaurants, Chipotle’s chips are by far the best. That lime salt is a kicker, and pairs so well with an ice cold Corona. The problem with Chipotle is the options are too limited. Whether you’re munching on a burrito, bowl, or tacos, it’s all exactly the same and there’s no room for variety. The alternative is to try and utilize the “secret menu,” but I’m not a big enough douche to make the burrito artists (is that what they’re called?) make me a quesadilla wrapped burrito while a line is forming. Other major drawback to Chipotle: if you have lettuce in your meal, you’d better be planning to finish it all in one sitting, because you can’t reheat that shit.

Additional Pros & Cons:

Pros: An American classic. Good flavor and seasoning. Great first date location.

Cons: E Coli breakouts, and violation of animal welfare standards by suppliers.

3. El Pollo Loco
El Pollo Loco is the kid who always get picked last for kickball because he’s new in town, but then it turns out he has amazing foot skills and can outsprint anyone in the 3rd grade. For years, I avoided El Pollo because it looked disgusting, but once I finally took the plunge, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s hangover food at its finest. Greasy, delicious, and southern. It’s a Tex-Mex take on Cracker Barrel and I can get behind that. One issue that’s come up lately in the El Pollo world is this new business approach of trying to add healthy options to the menu. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life. Stick to what you know El Pollo Loco.

Additional Pros & Cons:

Pros: The family meals are delicious and great for sharing.

Cons: Their head chef is definitely just a microwave.

2. Rubio’s
Unfortunately, Rubio’s may be unfamiliar territory for some. I must admit I was spoiled food wise spending the first half of my life on the west coast. I still find myself dreaming about In-N-Out Burger, Tommy’s, and Del Taco sometimes. Best fast-casual WC style is by far Rubio’s. This Baja Mexican style eatery had the best fish tacos I’d ever had, and an amazing salsa bar. Apparently, they recently changed the tag line to “Coastal Inspired Fresh Mexican Food.” I’m not sure if that’s changed any of the dishes I’m remembering so fondly. I may have to take a trip out just to try some of the menu items to make sure they’re still up to snuff.

If Rubio’s was a person, he’d be Sunshine from Remember the Titans, but even cooler.If you’re ever in Cali or Colorado, do yourself a favor and stop in and order a wild mahi mahi taco for me.

Additional Pros & Cons:

Pros: The cilantro and lime in the dishes makes everything taste fresh and amazing.

Cons: More locations needed ASAP.

1. Panera
God bless Panera. I once survived an entire semester on Vermont Cheddar Mac & Cheese and free bakery items. When I think of the word fast-casual dining, this is the first place that comes to mind. It’s not five-star, but the food is good and reasonably priced, you can dine in or take out, and they’ve got every meal of the day covered. “You Pick 2” is a crowd favorite, and if you’re feeling rambunctious you can upgrade to a bread bowl. One of the best things about Panera: they have cafes everywhere and they’re always a safe choice. Lately they’ve been upping their game with some new drink selections and some creative salad options. I highly recommend you check out their Prickly Pear Hibiscus tea if you can make it out to one of the 5 Panera locations in a 15-mile radius.

Additional Pros & Cons:

Pros: They’ve mastered the art of online ordering. Their rewards program is decent. The Cinnamon Crunch bagel with cream cheese is a national treasure.

Cons: The water cups are the size of a drug test urine sample cup. I’m gonna need at least 16 oz. to stay hydrated. Step up your game Panera.

Image via AuKirk /

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Kell Choi

future soccer mom of America (AKA I drive a Volvo.) Miracle is my favorite movie and it should be yours too. Follow me on Twitter @kellchoi

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