Jon Hein has his own way of eating local. Instead of trendy farm-to-table restaurants, he looks for burger joints or regional chains. The host of Fast Food Mania on the Destination America cable television channel says these restaurants have to work hard to compete against national companies. "It's a very competitive niche. If you can't serve the people what they want, you're not going to be in business for very long." He shares some favorite spots with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
The menu hasn't changed much in the last 50 years at this Long Island hamburger stand: It's basically burgers and fries, with a few additions like tuna on a bun and hot knishes. "This one has stood the test of time," Hein says. Each burger is individually wrapped and the fries come fresh in a square box. 516-798-9574; allamericanhamburger.us
This Pittsburgh institution had a eureka moment when the owner figured that if a burger and fries taste good together, they should be combined on the same bun. "It's efficient, I guess. It's like peanut butter and jelly," Hein says. The combination's so popular, the chain now puts fries on all its sandwiches. 412-263-2142; primantibros.com
Florida and Georgia
Hein has found plenty of great chicken places around the country, but this Miami-based chain gets the local flavoring just right, serving Caribbean-style chicken and other dishes, along with sides like plantains and fried yucca - all available from a drive-through. "Walk in the door and look at the menu and you know you're in South Florida," he says. pollotropical.com
Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Hein became a fan of this institution while a student at the University of Michigan. The shack serves tiny burgers, available with extra meat - double, triple, quad, or quint, in the local parlance. Burgers can be topped with everything from a fried egg to grilled banana peppers. "You can pack it pretty high. The quint is a lot of meat. You'll be sitting for a while," Hein says. 734-663-4590; blimpyburger.com
Jim 'N Nicks
Alabama and six other states
Hein searches for barbecue when he travels, but it's often hit and miss. This growing casual-dining chain, however, gets it right, hickory-smoking its meat and making everything from scratch. "When you think barbecue, you think home-cooked, but to be able to succeed on a chain-like basis is hard to pull off," he says. Offerings include barbecue with nachos, baked potatoes, tacos or even salads, but most folks go for the pulled-pork sandwich. jimnnicks.com
California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Texas
This Southern California institution has built a huge fan base. The key may be its secret menu. For example, ask for a burger "Animal Style" and it will come with lettuce, tomato, pickle, extra sauce and mustard cooked into the patty. While the chain posts a few of the unlisted variations on the website, others are simply word of mouth. "People speak about it in a cult-like way, because that's the way it is," Hein says. in-n-out.com
Oregon and Washington