The Top 5 Fast Food Value Menus, Ranked

Photo:  Josh Wussow
Photo: Josh Wussow

As food prices continue to rise, wobble, or otherwise vacillate, one aspect of the drive-thru experience has risen to icon status: the blessed, the merciful, the unparalleled Value Menu. Whether you’re in the mood for a quick snack or a full meal for the price of two squeezes of the gas pump, these budget-conscious offerings are a hit with both the businesses (which enjoy selling cheap food) and consumers (who enjoy eating cheap food).

But which of the major chains offers the best bang for your buck? Over the past week or so, I sacrificed my digestive health in an attempt to find out. I started by setting a target price: the magical $5 mark. Why? Because it’s a nice, straightforward number and Abraham Lincoln was a pretty great dude. But allowing for tax, we’ll settle for five and change.

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Next, the restaurant chains were judged on their lunch/dinner value menus. (I know McDonald’s breakfast deals are incredible, but that’s a separate discussion.) Then, I tried to focus on options with the largest national footprint. That takes several spots out of the running, including my beloved Taco John’s, whose Grande Beef and Mini Fried Chicken Tacos are the best one-two punch in the game. Sadly, its limited national reach rules it out.

With all those caveats in mind, here are the top five options when you only want to spend $5.

5. Dunkin’

Image:  Dunkin’
Image: Dunkin’

Get your greasy fingers away from the keyboard. Yes, I said that we weren’t judging on breakfast menus. But if you peruse Dunkin’s All Day Bites menu, you’ll notice a very lunch-oriented sandwich: a simple, tasty grilled cheese. There’s also something called “Snackin’ Bacon,” and we all know that bacon is timeless. Factor in the best midday coffee pick-me-up of the bunch, and Dunkin’ earns its mention, even if its connection to lunch and dinner is oblique.

4. Wendy’s

Photo:  Deutschlandreform (Shutterstock)
Photo: Deutschlandreform (Shutterstock)

Wendy’s $5 Biggie Bag, which includes fries, nuggets, a drink, and either a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, Double Stack, or Crispy Chicken BLT, has possibly the highest flavor potential on this list, and the 4 For $4 deal might technically be the best value overall. But here’s where Wendy’s loses me: In order to get in on the cost proposition, you have to go with the full-meal setup. What if I already have a drink, or what if I want a burger, a chicken sandwich, and some fries? Too bad. If you want to double up on sandwiches, you’ll cross that $6 mark. I don’t feel good about placing Wendy’s this low, but if we’re judging on variety and customization, this favorite falls a bit short.

3. McDonald’s

Photo:  Josh Wussow
Photo: Josh Wussow

Look, the McDouble is an icon. And when fresh, McDonald’s skinny, salty fries are among the best in the fast food world. Going into this ranking, I figured McDonald’s value menu had a fifty-fifty chance of coming out on top. As it turns out, it didn’t even crack the top half. The problem with the classic Dollar Menu is that it’s so stunningly basic: two burger options, one chicken sandwich, sides, and drinks. But I have to give McDonald’s credit for the modularity of the system, which puts Ronald and crew ahead of the forced strictures of Wendy’s. Plus, there’s something to be said for familiarity. Close your eyes and imagine a mouthful of Chicken Nuggets. I’ll bet you can taste them already.

2. Burger King

Photo:  Josh Wussow
Photo: Josh Wussow

What vaults the King ahead of the Golden Arches? Simple: better sandwich options on the value menu. The Value Your Way menu posts five burger possibilities as opposed to the Dollar Menu’s two, and the BK Chicken Junior is significantly better than the McChicken, both in texture and taste. The fries are generally solid, and the $5 Your Way Meal offers that Wendy’s-esque package that McDonald’s tiered approach lacks. It costs a dollar more for the same setup, but I’ll take the wealth of choices any day.

1. Taco Bell

Photo:  Josh Wussow
Photo: Josh Wussow

It almost pains me to do this. But if quantity is what you’re after, Taco Bell is the top spot. From the sheer variety (six different taco/burrito options plus cinnamon twists and a Classic Combo at my local venue) to the weight of the paper bag as it passed through the drive-thru window, Taco Bell’s Cravings Value Menu has a lot to offer. More than half the options are vegetarian, which explains the love this chain gets from the plant-based crowd. Do I feel bad about ingesting around 1,400 calories for just over $5? Sure, but how was I supposed to pass up two burritos (one beef, one chicken) and a spicy potato taco? Slather the whole mess in Fire Sauce and forgive yourself for your sins. At least you’ve got money left over for Tums.

Whether or not your preferences align with this ranking, here’s something we can likely agree on: Dubious nutrition aside, it’s nice to see that a fiver and change can still net more or less a full meal. Guilty pleasures are sometimes the best ones, and it’s nice when they’re available on the cheap.

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