Call me Frankie Fast Food or Danny Drive-Thru.

During the past year I've been conducting informal yet steady and immersive research about the food served at a multitude of mainstream fast food joints around New Jersey.  In fact, yesterday I stopped at our Bernardsville, N.J., Burger King to taste test the new French fries. Wanted to be thorough and timely and not leave any fast foods unturned. Overrated, sorry to say. Burger King can't figure out the French fry formula.

Based on these experiences, some happy, some disappointing, some exhilarating, some serendipitous, some just plain wonderful, some that gave me pause, some that gave me slight pangs of guilt, I present to you a summary of my key findings and associated insights. This analysis is broken out into the following categories: Top 10 Food Items, Best Drinks, Best Drive-Thru Facilities, Most Overrated, Most Underrated, Things I Didn't Try, and Things I Didn't Try but Want to.

I hope during this holiday season this will benefit you and yours as you ponder fast food eating. The advice will also remain valid in 2012.

The Top 10 Food Items (in descending order with #1 being the absolute best)

10. Tater Tots (Sonic). Soft, always hot, melt in your mouth. In many ways they're better than fast food French fries because they are more round and plump, like salty plumbs. You feel you're getting more bang for your buck than the stringy thin fries. They always seem like a delicacy even a wild dive into the unknown because they are so rarely offered at fast food joints.

9. French Fries (Wendys). If you want that feeling of eating salty air boardwalk fries when you're not on the boardwalk, these are the best around. Newly introduced in the past few months, these fries are, arguably, as delicious as the all-time classics that McDonalds has been making for billions and billions of years. Bravo to Wendy's for bringing that boardwalk, almost roasted taste to the Fast Food arena. A masterful achievement against the industry tycoon known as McDonalds Fries.

8. Chili Hot Dog (Sonic). Almost like a Sloppie Joe, this frankfurter bathed in chili is just about the most delicious thing you've ever tasted. Messy, for sure. The chili gushes over the side of the bun. You can hardly see the hot dog. But besides that it's all good. Napkins are paramount.

7. Regular Cheeseburger (McDonalds). Forget all the hype about the Quarter Pounder with Cheese and Big Mac. The thin, old school regular cheeseburger stands out compared with them. Why? Three reasons: First, you can eat one in three bites. Second, for some inexplicable reason the diced onions taste better than those on a Quarter Pounder. And third, you can order two of them and not feel like you're hoarding, because they're smaller.

6. Cini-Minis (Burger King). The only dessert to make my Top 10, and it's because of the iced sweet dip sauce that comes with the little cinnamon rolls. The rolls are pedestrian, but they taste 100 times better with the sauce. I have almost skipped work after eating them I was so full of vigor and joy and devoid of concerns about responsibilities.

5. Big and Tasty (Dunkin' Donuts). Although Dunkin' Donuts runs America, they are really talking about their delicious coffee, as everyone knows. But for those who explore, they find there's more there than just the ordinary-tasting donuts that they don't seem to care about making taste good anymore, nor does anyone care because the coffee is stellar. But Dunkin' does offer the Big and Tasty Breakfast Sandwich. While the egg and sausage are good, it's the greasy sourdough toasted roll that puts this into the higher echelon of fast foods.

4. Chili (Wendys). I've been on a streak these fast few weeks doing the chili run at Wendy's. Call it binging. The chili has delicious beans, fresh meat, some sort of celery chunks, which makes me as if I'm getting my vegetables. And the spice is at the right temperature. Highly recommended during the upcoming Winter months.

3. Triple Steak Burrito (Taco Bell). The first time I tasted this shocked me more than any other food on this list. I wasn't expecting much, not being a big Taco Bell guy, but it sounded good so I tried it. Marvelous, so much so that I remember eating my first one while driving my car and gushing out to no one in particular: "This tastes incredibly good. I can't believe how great this tastes. Why have I been avoiding Taco Bell all these years?" I went back for four more of them during the next two weeks.  Fresh steak strips, gushing bean burrito, sour cream, and I think some other spicy sauce. Unbelievably good.

2. Baconator (Wendys). We all have our opinions about burgers. And I've had many types in my lifetime. But during the past month I've met this Baconator at Wendy's and am stunned at how good it tastes. I get the double-decker (you can get a triple decker but I'm watching what I eat). It's two thick slabs of burger topped with strips of bacon and some special sauce. No lettuce, no pickles, no tomatoes. Just beef inside the buns. As pure as a winter snow.

1. Sausage Egg and Cheese McGriddle (McDonalds). There is something about the combination of something slightly sweet and slightly salty in one taste that I find almost beyond description. It's The Perfect Storm of food combinations.  This Sausage Egg and Cheese McGriddle, which I hesitate to tell you I've eaten about 40 of this year, is a fresh egg and sausage patty wrapped in pillow-soft French toast tasting bread. It's like pouring syrup on bacon, ham or sausage, the ultimate taste bud rock concert.

And here are the Best of the Rest:

Best drinks. Caramel Frappe (McDonalds). I always order it with extra caramel. I'm addicted to this like nothing else. Everything about it tastes delicious. Sweet, a slight coffee twist, a touch of sweet candy caramel, and soft whipped cream. Dessert for breakfast.

Hi-C Orange Drink (McDonalds)

Coffee, Dunkin Donuts (lots of caramel, lots of sugar, lots of cream)

Best Drive-Thru Facilities. They're all pretty much the same with a few differentiating nuances. At all of them I find I have to repeat my order twice because either the microphones don't work too well or, because I'm outside, the wind, car engines, or perhaps raccoons in nearby trees are muffling the sounds. Taco Bell's driveway is especially narrow but not a real hindrance, if this matters to you. Wendy's is sort of out there bare and more people may see you waiting in line than you might want who aren't even at Wendy's-it's next to a big highway. McDonalds drive-through people are especially friendly, at least to me because they know me and appreciate all the business I give them.

Most Overrated

Quarter Pounder (McDonalds). The diced onions on these don't jump out at you like those on the regular McDonalds cheeseburger. So it's more plain tasting. Sounds big and all, but I just like the smaller ones because I can order two. Ordering two Quarter Pounders is too embarrassing. Whopper (Burger King). Way too much going on with this one. Great name for a burger but undelivers.

Chocolate Chip Pie (Burger King). Too processed. Sure doesn't taste like the homemade pieces your Aunt Sallie makes. Also where's the beef? Too small. Once you start getting into eating it, it's gone.

Most Underrated

Orange Hi-C (McDonalds). Almost no one I know buys this except me. I don't think many people know it's on the menu. And those who do think it's some kids' drink like Juicy Juice. But I am a huge fan of this fruity drink not only because it tastes terrific, but because it feels healthy going down. It's non-carbonated and digests easily with no bubbling stomach after-affects.

Things I Didn't Try

Salads. I know they're supposed to be good for you. But they don't taste as good as all the other stuff I've mentioned so far. I figure why get something to eat that I don't want to eat? Simple logic.

Things I Want to Try

Smashburger. I hear this is a new national burger fast food chain. I'm open-minded to give it a whirl to see what they have cooking.

Whatever you do at the end of this year and into next, make sure you go to fast food drive thrus at least a few times. Maybe paste this to your car dashboard and you'll have all the information for sound decision-making.




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