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I'm a fast-food reporter who just tried 3 iconic West Coast chains for the first time. The one I liked the most surprised me.

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I'm a fast-food reporter who just tried 3 iconic West Coast chains for the first time. The one I liked the most surprised me.
  • I visited Del Taco, In-N-Out, and Jack in the Box to compare them.
  • Del Taco and Jack in the Box recently came under the same ownership, and I think they'll be even better together.
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I recently visited the West Coast for the first time, where I had the chance to finally try some famous fast food chains.

I recently visited the West Coast for the first time, where I had the chance to finally try some famous fast food chains.
Getty

Fast food as we know it today originated in California, so it's fitting that so many beloved regional chains still operate there and compete with national brands.

Fast food as we know it today originated in California, so it's fitting that so many beloved regional chains still operate there and compete with national brands.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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In-N-Out was of course high on my list of priorities, as one of the most hyped fast food chains in the country.

In-N-Out was of course high on my list of priorities, as one of the most hyped fast food chains in the country.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Source: Insider

With just under 400 units as of 2021, the West Coast burger chain punches far above its weight in terms of fans and media attention.

With just under 400 units as of 2021, the West Coast burger chain punches far above its weight in terms of fans and media attention.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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In-N-Out is tiny compared to other popular chains. McDonald's is 37 times larger, and even Chick-fil-A is seven times larger, based on 2021 restaurant locations.

In-N-Out is tiny compared to other popular chains. McDonald's is 37 times larger, and even Chick-fil-A is seven times larger, based on 2021 restaurant locations.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

In-N-Out is privately held and doesn't release sales numbers, but in 2018 Forbes reported that In-N-Out locations did an average of $4.5 million in annual sales, about double McDonald's average.

In-N-Out is privately held and doesn't release sales numbers, but in 2018 Forbes reported that In-N-Out locations did an average of $4.5 million in annual sales, about double McDonald's average.
Mary Meisenzahl

Source: Forbes

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In 2020, total sales topped $1 billion, according to Technomic estimates.

In 2020, total sales topped $1 billion, according to Technomic estimates.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Source: Restaurant Business Online

I visited a walk-up window in Orange County, which was set up next to the drive-thru and worked similarly.

I visited a walk-up window in Orange County, which was set up next to the drive-thru and worked similarly.
Mary Meisenzahl
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The menu is quite small and simple, which I appreciated, though there are also additions from the "secret menu."

The menu is quite small and simple, which I appreciated, though there are also additions from the "secret menu."
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I opted to go super classic, with a cheeseburger, animal style, fries, and a chocolate milkshake.

I opted to go super classic, with a cheeseburger, animal style, fries, and a chocolate milkshake.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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The animal-style cheeseburger came with lettuce, pickles, tomato, grilled onions, and extra sauce —not unlike a typical burger with everything on it at most chains.

The animal-style cheeseburger came with lettuce, pickles, tomato, grilled onions, and extra sauce —not unlike a typical burger with everything on it at most chains.
Mary Meisenzahl

It was definitely good and made a respectable fast food hamburger.

It was definitely good and made a respectable fast food hamburger.
Mary Meisenzahl
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I have no complaints, and it checked all the boxes a good burger should, but it didn't absolutely wow me the way I was hoping.

I have no complaints, and it checked all the boxes a good burger should, but it didn't absolutely wow me the way I was hoping.
Mary Meisenzahl

I would definitely eat it again, but I'm not going to go out of my way to get this specific burger when I've had others that are comparable.

I would definitely eat it again, but I'm not going to go out of my way to get this specific burger when I've had others that are comparable.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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The fries, however, were not good at all.

The fries, however, were not good at all.
Mary Meisenzahl

They were limp and bland.

They were limp and bland.
Mary Meisenzahl
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It's one thing to serve bad fries, but it's much worse to have a small, curated menu where one of the items is just irredeemably bad.

It's one thing to serve bad fries, but it's much worse to have a small, curated menu where one of the items is just irredeemably bad.
Yelp/Annie L.

The milkshake was easily the highlight of my meal. It was delicious and decadent without tasting too artificial.

The milkshake was easily the highlight of my meal. It was delicious and decadent without tasting too artificial.
Mary Meisenzahl
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I was impressed by the price, which was just under $9. I definitely felt like I got a good deal, even if it wasn't the life-changing meal I'd been promised.

I was impressed by the price, which was just under $9. I definitely felt like I got a good deal, even if it wasn't the life-changing meal I'd been promised.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I desperately wanted to love In-N-Out, but it just wasn't happening.

I desperately wanted to love In-N-Out, but it just wasn't happening.
Mary Meisenzahl
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Everything feels retro and comforting, from the kitschy uniforms employees wear to the simple menu and promises of fresh food.

Everything feels retro and comforting, from the kitschy uniforms employees wear to the simple menu and promises of fresh food.
Melia Robinson/Business Insider

I think the chain's glowing reputation is actually a hindrance, at least in my case.

I think the chain's glowing reputation is actually a hindrance, at least in my case.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
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Without the massive expectations I got from the internet and every person that I told about my upcoming trip, I think I would have enjoyed a perfectly nice meal.

Without the massive expectations I got from the internet and every person that I told about my upcoming trip, I think I would have enjoyed a perfectly nice meal.
Adam Lau/AP

By the time I tried it, my expectations were just too high, and In-N-Out ultimately failed to live up to them.

By the time I tried it, my expectations were just too high, and In-N-Out ultimately failed to live up to them.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
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Next up I tried Del Taco, which sells "Mexican-inspired" fast food at its 600 locations across 16 states.

Next up I tried Del Taco, which sells "Mexican-inspired" fast food at its 600 locations across 16 states.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Source: Insider

The chain was just acquired by another franchise, Jack in the Box, for $585 million, so I was excited to see what made the chain so valuable.

The chain was just acquired by another franchise, Jack in the Box, for $585 million, so I was excited to see what made the chain so valuable.
Getty Images/David McNew
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Everything about the decor emphasized the freshness of ingredients, including a window to see those ingredients in the kitchen.

Everything about the decor emphasized the freshness of ingredients, including a window to see those ingredients in the kitchen.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I wanted to sample almost the entire menu, so I ended up with two large bags of food.

I wanted to sample almost the entire menu, so I ended up with two large bags of food.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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I started with the Nachotada Crunchtada, a new addition to the menu.

I started with the Nachotada Crunchtada, a new addition to the menu.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

It was a crunchy tortilla shell topped with beans, beef, cheese, tomatoes, sour cream, and jalapeños.

It was a crunchy tortilla shell topped with beans, beef, cheese, tomatoes, sour cream, and jalapeños.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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It reminded me a lot of Taco Bell's Mexican Pizza, and it was absolutely delicious.

It reminded me a lot of Taco Bell's Mexican Pizza, and it was absolutely delicious.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Next up, I tried the Beyond guacamole taco, with plant-based meat.

Next up, I tried the Beyond guacamole taco, with plant-based meat.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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The taco was pretty standard, but the guacamole definitely took it over the top. Swapping guacamole for sour cream makes it easy to go vegan without feeling like you're missing out.

The taco was pretty standard, but the guacamole definitely took it over the top.  Swapping guacamole for sour cream makes it easy to go vegan without feeling like you're missing out.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

For just $1.49, the bean and cheese burrito was a classic, cheap fast food meal.

For just $1.49, the bean and cheese burrito was a classic, cheap fast food meal.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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It comes with "zesty red" or "tangy green" sauce. I went with the red and was very happy with my decision.

It comes with "zesty red" or "tangy green" sauce. I went with the red and was very happy with my decision.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I had to try the namesake Del Taco, with all the fixings.

I had to try the namesake Del Taco, with all the fixings.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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It was a basic fast food taco with beef, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce, but it hit the mark perfectly.

It was a basic fast food taco with beef, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce, but it hit the mark perfectly.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I really loved the beer battered fish taco, which even came with a small lime wedge.

I really loved the beer battered fish taco, which even came with a small lime wedge.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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The stuffed quesadilla taco was one of my favorites, thanks to the queso blanco between the two tortillas.

The stuffed quesadilla taco was one of my favorites, thanks to the queso blanco between the two tortillas.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The crispy chicken and all the cheese went together perfectly, and it was exactly what you want out of a fast food taco.

The crispy chicken and all the cheese went together perfectly, and it was exactly what you want out of a fast food taco.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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The only item I didn't completely love was also the most expensive.

The only item I didn't completely love was also the most expensive.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The chili cheddar fries weren't bad, but they weren't as impressive as everything else I ordered.

The chili cheddar fries weren't bad, but they weren't as impressive as everything else I ordered.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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The Del cheeseburger was shockingly good, the biggest surprise of my meal.

The Del cheeseburger was shockingly good, the biggest surprise of my meal.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

It was juicy and cheesy, with the right amount of crunch from the vegetables. Somehow, Del Taco sold one of the best fast food burgers I've ever had.

It was juicy and cheesy, with the right amount of crunch from the vegetables. Somehow, Del Taco sold one of the best fast food burgers I've ever had.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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My huge order came out to $26.09 and was easily enough food for several people, so it felt like a very good deal.

My huge order came out to $26.09 and was easily enough food for several people, so it felt like a very good deal.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I definitely preferred Del Taco to In-N-Out, but I wasn't done yet.

I definitely preferred Del Taco to In-N-Out, but I wasn't done yet.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
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Finally, I tried Jack in the Box, which has about 2,200 locations around the West Coast of the US.

Finally, I tried Jack in the Box, which has about 2,200 locations around the West Coast of the US.
Ken Wolter/Shutterstock

Source: Insider

It sells a little bit of everything, from chicken tenders to burgers, fries, tacos, and other snacks.

It sells a little bit of everything, from chicken tenders to burgers, fries, tacos, and other snacks.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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The chain did nearly $350 million in restaurant sales in 2021.

The chain did nearly $350 million in restaurant sales in 2021.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Jack in the Box sales rebounded to impressive levels just below last year's 10% growth in July, beating expectations, CFO Tim Mullany told investors in an August earnings call.

Jack in the Box sales rebounded to impressive levels just below last year's 10% growth in July, beating expectations, CFO Tim Mullany told investors in an August earnings call.
Irene Jiang / Business Insider
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An end to product shortages, reopening dining rooms, and resuming late night hours were all key to the sales upswing, CEO Darin Harris said.

An end to product shortages, reopening dining rooms, and resuming late night hours were all key to the sales upswing, CEO Darin Harris said.
Jack in the Box restaurant.Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

I tried out a small but representative sample of the menu, including spicy chicken strips, stuffed jalapeños, and tiny tacos.

I tried out a small but representative sample of the menu, including spicy chicken strips, stuffed jalapeños, and tiny tacos.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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I'm always happy to eat chicken strips, and these were especially great ones, though a little sparse at $5.49 for two pieces.

I'm always happy to eat chicken strips, and these were especially great ones, though a little sparse at $5.49 for two pieces.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

They were just the right level of spicy, where I took a few extra sips of my drink but kept going back for more.

They were just the right level of spicy, where I took a few extra sips of my drink but kept going back for more.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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They were so crispy and smelled delicious.

They were so crispy and smelled delicious.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I wish I could get these where I live - they'd easily be my go-to fast food chicken.

I wish I could get these where I live - they'd easily be my go-to fast food chicken.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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I love KFC and Chick-fil-A, but I think Jack in the Box can hold its own against either on the fried chicken front.

I love KFC and Chick-fil-A, but I think Jack in the Box can hold its own against either on the fried chicken front.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I of course had to get jalapeno poppers, which are always tempting on menus but sometimes disappoint in actual execution.

I of course had to get jalapeno poppers, which are always tempting on menus but sometimes disappoint in actual execution.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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I've had variations at other restaurants that seem to be 90% breading, and super light on the filling, but that wasn't the case here.

I've had variations at other restaurants that seem to be 90% breading, and super light on the filling, but that wasn't the case here.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Though there were only three in an order, they were large and stuffed full of cheese and jalapeños, at $3.79.

Though there were only three in an order, they were large and stuffed full of cheese and jalapeños, at $3.79.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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I ordered the tiny tacos as a kind of wildcard because I was too curious not to.

I ordered the tiny tacos as a kind of wildcard because I was too curious not to.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

There were probably about 15 in a paper box for $3.49. They were, as promised, tiny tortilla-type pieces each containing beef.

There were probably about 15 in a paper box for $3.49. They were, as promised, tiny tortilla-type pieces each containing beef.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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They were smaller than I'd anticipated but very fun to snack on. They reminded me of Fritos.

They were smaller than I'd anticipated but very fun to snack on. They reminded me of Fritos.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I enjoyed my visit to Jack in the Box, and it felt nostalgic though I'd never been there before.

I enjoyed my visit to Jack in the Box, and it felt nostalgic though I'd never been there before.
Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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Jack in the Box reminded me of Sonic, with a large menu of snacks and foods that don't necessarily go together, but with better execution.

Jack in the Box reminded me of Sonic, with a large menu of snacks and foods that don't necessarily go together, but with better execution.
Sonic drive-in sign.Photo By Tim Leedy/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

I wish I'd been able to try more of the menu because I was already won over by the end of my first bite of chicken.

I wish I'd been able to try more of the menu because I was already won over by the end of my first bite of chicken.
Irene Jiang / Business Insider
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I think with the addition of Del Taco, Jack in the Box could be poised to make a push to other areas of the US, and I hope they do.

I think with the addition of Del Taco, Jack in the Box could be poised to make a push to other areas of the US, and I hope they do.
Irene Jiang / Business Insider

After trying all three popular West Coast chains, Del Taco was my favorite thanks to a large menu, low prices, and creative, delicious food.

After trying all three popular West Coast chains, Del Taco was my favorite thanks to a large menu, low prices, and creative, delicious food.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
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Jack in the Box was a solid mid-tier option, and I'd happily eat it again.

Jack in the Box was a solid mid-tier option, and I'd happily eat it again.
Melia Robinson/Business Insider

In-N-Out was the most disappointing of the bunch, but my overall impression of West coast fast food was still positive. I can't wait to go back.

In-N-Out was the most disappointing of the bunch, but my overall impression of West coast fast food was still positive. I can't wait to go back.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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