The fine folks at Nation’s Restaurant News have recently published their survey of the Top 100 Restaurant Chains–and there aren’t too many surprises. Well, we’re happy to see Subway at #2 as a fairly healthy alternative to grabbing something to eat. Otherwise, the Top Ten are the usual suspects: McDonald’s, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, and other chains where we have to try and convince the kids to consider some healthy alternatives. Where we take our comfort, though, is with what Nation’s Restaurant News considers to be their Second 100. Those are the fledgling chains that are just starting to take off–and often offer some real alternatives to fast-food dining. [all photos via rnr.com]
Yes, some chains come and go quickly. We all know the heartbreak of having a regular routine disrupted when we drive up to a local favorite and discover that the signage has gone missing. Still, here are our own favorites from Nation’s Restaurant News roundup–and we promise that any mom will be happy when these show up off the highway…
Chuy’s Mexican Food
This charming Tex-Mex chain has plenty of cool touches to enchant children, including a condiment station made out of auto parts. You’re also looking at a genuinely healthy option to Taco Bell. That’s apparent just from their exceptionally healthy salsa. Moms and kids can also comfortably cram in all kinds of lite chicken dishes. Our only complaint with Chuy’s is that they tend to toss in jalapenos with too little regard for littl’uns–but we’ve never had too difficult of a time clearing the peppers out for our kids.
Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches
We thought this was a strictly local chain when we first came across Jimmy John’s in Oklahoma City. Instead, it’s a 30-year-old national chain that deserves to get bigger. You, however, don’t have to get bigger while dining at these fine establishments. Use some common sense, though. Jimmy John’s has an awful lot of bacon and mayo on the menu. We’re still very happy with our Vegetarian Sandwich there (we skip the cheese), and love the simplicity of their Turkey Tom sandwich. We can’t expect our kids to embrace the idea of an Unwich, but the lettuce wrap is another fine healthy alternative.
This might seem really obvious, but we’ve learned to be very selective about our smoothies at Smoothie King. They’re not all equally healthy. They’re just (nearly all) equally delicious. If your kids are up for the equivalent of a strawberry shake, have them go with a Strawberries Wild instead of a Strawberry Surf Rider. They won’t know the difference. You’ll feel a lot better, though. But watch out for some unhealthy adult treats, too. Some of their treats aimed at grown-up can have some scary surprises–but we’re always up for an Awesome Açai.
Quaker Steak and Lube
This chain of restaurants has exteriors made to look like an oil-change shop. We’re proud to have kept our mouths shut and had our kids confused as we took them to their first visit. Quaker Steak and Lube doesn’t have the most appetizing name, but the food is really good–and certainly healthier than you’d expect from a place that’s specializing in chicken wings. We especially appreciate the spin that they put on their kiddie menu. You can order Goldfish Crackers or baby carrots as the side with the Kids Lube Cruiser meals (featuring grilled boneless wings), and your older kids may go ahead and seek out the Tweener Tuner Meals. That also has the grilled boneless wings, plus pita bread and a choice of broccoli, apple sauce, or baby carrots. Grown-ups also have a wide choice of grilled chicken dishes and steamed vegetables.
Here’s one that we only recently discovered on our own–and we weren’t expecting anything really healthy. We were mainly just expecting a variation on our local Smash Bagel store, where there’s a certain clamping process. In the case of Smashburger, it’s to properly sear the meat–but there are also all other kinds of fine foods to smash. We never thought that we’d find a good take-out version of a Black Bean Burger. Smashburger, however, can smash it out for you. You’ll also find enough salads to make you actually happy to try one instead of the shop’s specialty. Meanwhile, you can rest assured that your kids are getting quality ingredients in whatever they’re selecting.
Laredo Taco Company
Okay, this might not be the healthiest alternative–but we guarantee that Laredo Taco Company will be some of the best food that you’ve ever been served in a gas station. This chain is actually part of the Stripes convenience store empire, and their tacos and burritos–including their breakfast items–are made fresh and taste great. You can get a fairly healthy meal there, too. Just avoid bacon, chorizo, and cheese.
This Southern chain has made its way to New York State, and we mostly enjoy how nearly all of the locations have outdoor dining. Yes, we know that McDonald’s has outdoor dining, too, but Zaxby’s feels a lot more like a relaxing picnic. You can be surprised at how unhealthy a chicken sandwich can be, but that’s true of many chicken chains. We’re still always happy with their fabulous chicken salad. We also heartily recommend the boiled chicken there. We don’t recommend our own, but Zaxby’s does something very right with their healthy alternative.
Tropical Smoothie Cafe
We have to resist always ordering the Peanut Paradise smoothie from this fine establishment. Fortunately, there are plenty of exciting options. Not just smoothies, either. There are plenty of great wraps and salads. You might want to be counting your calories with this chain, but it’s not difficult to end up feeling really full from a healthy meal. And the kids won’t feel negelected with smoothie flavors like Chocolate Banana and Cranberry White Chocolate.
It’s a matter of personal taste, but we prefer Firehouse Subs to our local options of Quizno’s and Subway. We like the steaming process and admire how they really pile on the meat and toppings–and, most importantly, we’re impressed with how the calories keep adding up to a better deal than at the other sandwich chains. You just have to avoid cheese, dressings, or mayo. You should do that, anyway. Combining those with the steaming process tilt a delicious meal over to…well, something soggy. You may not be interested in all of the hot sauces being offered as a substitute, but we know kids who are happy to give them all a try.
Moe’s Southwest Grill
We see enough of these that it’s kind of a shock to realize that they’re not all over the nation. Kids will be perfectly happy with Moe’s bountiful selection of burritos, quesadillas, nachos, and tacos. Moms will be very happy with how Moe offers all kinds of tofu alternatives to meat on their menu. We’re talking about a seriously vegetarian-friendly vibe–and it feels like a real triumph to emerge from a place like Moe’s feeling both full and responsible!