The Best, Worst, and Weirdest Fast Food of the Year

Recieving a receipt and ordered food at drive through

Ziga Plahutar/istockphoto

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Recieving a receipt and ordered food at drive through
Ziga Plahutar/istockphoto

Chain Reaction

Fast food companies used 2021 as a bit of a reboot. While they were adjusting future business models to match new pandemic normals, they were also developing and releasing new menu items, betting that customers would want something different. Some of them flopped, some of them led to sales records, and some just left us scratching our heads. Here are the most original, interesting, delicious, and outrageous fast-food items from the past year, from best to worst to weirdest.

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Phillip C./Yelp

Best: Popeye's Cajun Flounder Sandwich

Fast-food fish sandwiches are usually forgettable at best, square-shaped and fishy smelling at worst. But Popeye's debuted a new Cajun fried flounder sandwich for Lent, and it quickly won hearts. The verdict of most reviewers was that while it won't beat Popeye's legendary chicken sandwich, the slightly spicy breading and flaky fish "is good enough to be on the menu all year."

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Spicy Potato Soft Taco

Best: Taco Bell's Spicy Potato Soft Taco

Taco Bell heard the cries of its people and brought back its little fried potato chunks earlier this year. It had discontinued them in a menu streamlining, but there was much outrage. In March, the spicy potato soft taco and cheesy fiesta potatoes were back on the menu, and all was right with the world again. 

Related: Live Más: Spicy Secrets Behind Taco Bell's Success

Wendy's Fries
Louis V./Yelp

Best: Wendy's New Fries

Wendy's set out to solve two problems by debuting new "hot and crispy" fries this year. One: to figure out how to combat soggy, lifeless fries from the now-ubiquitous delivery and drive-thru orders. And two: to replace its fries, which not many people seemed to like anyway, without admitting that they sucked. It succeeded, and the new fries seem to be a big hit, living up to their hot and crispy moniker. 

Related: Why McDonald's French Fries Used to Taste Better

Chipotle Quesadilla

Best: Chipotle's Quesadilla

Chipotle doesn't add new items to its small menu very often, so when it does, it's big news. Back in March, it added quesadillas to the lineup. How did Chipotle not already have quesadillas? That's what everyone was wondering. So really, it just added something that everyone thought it should have had already. And it was good, because it's pretty hard to screw up a quesadilla that badly. 

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Pizza Hut Detroit Style Pizza
Lisa O./Yelp

Best: Pizza Hut's Detroit-Style Pizza

Detroit-style pizza has been having a moment lately in all its thick-crust, caramelized-edge glory. The trend finally trickled down to Pizza Hut this year, including a brand new tomato sauce and cupped pepperoni for this pie. The verdict from critics was that it wasn't going to beat any of your local pizza places, but it was certainly the best Pizza Hut pie you can get. 

Related: Beloved Local Pizza Chains the Rest of the Country Needs

McDonald's Pull apart Donut

Best: McDonald's Glazed Pull-Apart Donut

With everyone's on-the-go life, McDonald's set out to make a rushed breakfast a little better in an unexpected way: by making a pastry that was actually better after it sat out for a while. Critics found that the glazed doughnut, while having a very fun, shareable pull-apart shape, was not all that interesting. Until they came back to it later, once all the crackly glaze had melted into the dough, making it soft and supple. A fast-food item that tastes better after you get it home from the drive-thru? That's genius nowadays. 

Related: Rude? Friendly? Here’s How Your Favorite Fast-Food Drive-Thru Ranks

Panda Express
Coolcaesar / Wikimedia Commons

Best: Panda Express' Orange Chicken Sandwich

If you're scratching your head wondering why you haven't tried this magical creation inspired by the chain's most popular dish yet, it's because it's not available outside of Panda Express' Pasadena test kitchen. But the reviewers who have tried it have raved about its combination of tangy orange sauce, crispy puffed rice-coated chicken, creamy aioli, and sweet Hawaiian bun, so fingers crossed it makes its way to regular locations soon. 

Related: What’s the Most Popular Fast Food in Your State?

Subway Melt

Worst: Subway's Fresh Melts

Grilled, cheesy panini-like sandwiches seemed like a slam dunk for Subway, but its new Fresh Melts created a huge controversy that went viral on social media. The North American Association of Subway Franchises deemed them unsafe to make, injuring workers and destroying grills. Some employees even claimed it caught their store's grills on fire, clearly a safety risk. Fresh Melts are still on most menus, however, so things seem to have been smoothed out. 

Related: The Biggest Fast-Food Flops of All Time

Sonic SuperSONIC Bacon Double Cheeseburger
Ominous X./Yelp

Worst: Sonic's New and Improved Cheeseburger

When you hear "new and improved," you expect something about a product to actually change. But when Sonic released its new and improved burgers this summer, the only thing it did was add ketchup and mayo as standard toppings. Seriously, that's all. Needless to say, the offering became a bit of a laughing stock, as it should have.

Related: Companies' Most Cringe-Worthy PR Fails

Jimmy John's Smokin' Kickin' Chicken Sandwich
Michelle R./Yelp

Worst: Jimmy John's Smokin' Kickin' Chicken Sandwich

Jimmy John's doesn't switch things up that much, so a brand new sandwich is exciting. But the new Smokin' Kickin' Chicken fell flat with customers. The sandwich was touted as having seasoned sous-vide chicken, but it was mushy and reminded some of canned chicken. Worst of all, it came with a mayo-based pepper sauce, plain mayo, oil, and vinegar that predictably turned the sandwich into a sloppy, goopy mess. Good thing it was a limited-time offering.

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Cauliflower rice. Ketogenic and paleo food
Polina Shurygina/istockphoto

Worst: Chipotle's Cauliflower Rice

Low-carb menu options are as popular as ever, and Chipotle decided to jump on that bandwagon right at the start of 2021 (when everyone starts a new diet, how convenient) with cauliflower rice. It sounds fine, if a little boring and obnoxiously health conscious, but in reality it tends to be overcooked, mushy, skimpy in portion size, and lacking in flavor and too salty all at once. Considering it costs extra to swap for rice, you're better off sticking with a salad and adding guac for a low-carb meal. 

Related: Which Fast-Food Salad Is the Best?

Crispy Chicken Sandwich Taco
Taco Bell Corp.

Worst: Taco Bell's Crispy Chicken Sandwich Taco

Why did Taco Bell feel the need to wade into the chicken sandwich wars? Who knows, but we do know that its entry was as lackluster as we all figured it would be. It was an awkward cross between a sandwich and a taco, with a too-fluffy taco shell, tiny chicken tender, and a chipotle sauce that's on many other items. It was quickly deemed boring and overpriced, a death knell for Taco Bell items. The chain should have just stuck with the ever-popular naked chicken Chalupa, a much better chicken-sandwich-like item. 

Related: The Best (and Worst) Fast-Food Spicy Chicken Sandwiches

Culver's by Minh Phan (CC BY-NC-ND)

Weirdest: Culver's Cheese Curderburger

Culver's won the marketing game this fall when it released the Curderburger. Originally conceived as an April Fool's joke, it got so much attention that the company decided to make it a reality for one day only. And the predictable happened: People lined up early in the morning to get their hands on one of the butter burgers with a giant, deep-fried cheese curd patty on top. Most restaurants were sold out by lunch, and 20% of the chain's stores had one-day sales records because of it. 

Little Caesars' Crazy Calzony
Norman J./Yelp

Weirdest: Little Caesars' Crazy Calzony

A mashup between pizza and calzones sounds like it could be pretty great. Little Caesars made it a reality this year, but it turned out just plain weird. The awkwardly folded pizza was meant to elude calzone pockets, but made for an angular, throwing-star-shaped pie. It also tended to ooze garlic butter all over the inside of its box, making for something of a crime scene. This was a case of a company trying to do too much to make an idea work.

Related: The Most Over-the-Top Fast Food of the Past 10 Years

Subway No Bready Bowl
Chris P./Yelp

Weirdest: Subway's No Bready Bowl

Subway recently announced that it's rebranding its protein bowls — basically its subs without the bread — as No Bready Bowls. No, it's not a joke, nor was it announced on April Fools' Day. Someone, and presumably multiple someones, thought that adults would like to say the phrase "no bready bowl" when ordering their meal. 

Related: Fast-Food Restaurants Then and Now

Panera Grilled Mac and Cheese Sandwich
Panera Bread

Weirdest: Panera's Grilled Mac and Cheese Sandwich

"Carbs on carbs" was the mantra Panera must have been chanting when it came up with a mac-and-cheese-stuffed grilled cheese sandwich. With vaccines in arms, people wanted to start indulging again, and Panera was betting that pasta stuffed in bread was the way to do it. Just think of it as the next logical evolution of the bread bowl. 

Related: Where to Find Plant-Based Fast Food