The 2022 Uproxx Golden Bag Awards — Celebrating The Best (And Worst) In Fast Food

Welcome to Uproxx’s inaugural Golden Bag Awards — where we shout out and roast all the best and worst fast food to drop this year. While fast food hasn’t had a Popeyes Chicken Sandwich-sized moment since 2019, this year was far from boring for hardcore fast foodies. From food hacks to new menu items to the return of some fan-favorite classics, 2022 brought all sorts of innovation to the fast food space and we’re here to shout it out and celebrate it.

To really grab our attention, fast food needs to be three things — convenient, delicious, and exciting. That last one isn’t always easy in a space that is primarily dominated by burgers and sandwiches. Yet the big brands continue to surprise us by dropping subtle remixes and new flavor combinations.

Most of the food we’re going to be talking about in this article is still readily available but since this is a year-end list there are going to be a few entries on limited-time items that you sadly won’t be able to get your hands on anymore. Hopefully, by expressing our enthusiasm we’ll be able to bring some of these limited items back to menus in 2023. Please, by all means, feel free to bug the sh*t out of these brands on Twitter until they bring ’em back. It worked for Wendy’s Spicy Nuggets and Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza!

Here is the best and worst of fast food in 2022.

Best New Burger: Wendy’s — Italian Mozzarella Burger

Golden Bag Awards
Wendy

Why It Deserves The Award:

Unlike most award shows, we’re starting our list with the big guns! Our award for the best new burger in fast food goes to Wendy’s Italian Mozzarella Burger, which dropped in the middle of this month. While its lack of lettuce looks admittedly unappetizing, this burger brings together the perfect combination of flavors that manages to taste just like a burger but also like one you haven’t ever tried.

Gone is the mayo, special sauce, or ketchup, instead replaced with a layer of bright and herbal marinara sauce which pairs perfectly with the herbed garlic knot bun and fried chunk of mozzarella cheese. Couple the flavors of a freshly dipped mozzarella cheese stick with Wendy’s savory and salty burger patty and you have one of the most decadently delicious burgers of the year.

The Bottom Line:

It takes the best of mozzarella cheese sticks and a cheeseburger and marries them together.

Find your nearest Wendy’s here.

Best New Fried Chicken Sandwich: Shake Shack — Hot One’s Chicken Sandwich

Golden Bag Awards
Dane Rivera/Uproxx

Why It Deserves The Award:

In 2019, Popeyes launched the best chicken sandwich in all of fast food but it’s 2022 now and Popeyes’ chicken sandwich, as delicious as it is, doesn’t have sh*t on the Shake Shack Hot One’s Chicken Sandwich. Made in collaboration with Sean Evans’ Hot Ones, everything about this sandwich is an improvement over what Popeyes has to offer. The chicken filet is significantly juicier and more tender, with a better ratio of meat to breading and the sandwich is topped with bacon and jack cheese, and slathered with a Hot Ones enhanced ShakeSauce that brings the heat.

So it’s meatier, more flavorful, and spicier than Popeyes’ sandwich — what more can you ask for? The flavors are wonderfully layered here, with sweet and tangy notes with a smokey aftertaste that begs you to take another bite. It didn’t have the big cultural moment that Popeyes had — probably because Shake Shack isn’t as nationwide — but it’s a clear improvement over the old GOAT.

The Bottom Line:

An improvement over Popeyes’ amazing chicken sandwich on every level. And I didn’t even need to mention how much better the potato bun is over the Popeyes brioche!

Find your nearest Shake Shack here.

Best New Fry Order: Taco Bell — 7-Layer Nacho Fries

Golden Bag Awards
Dane Rivera/Uproxx

Why It Deserves The Award:

At Uproxx, we love fries (who doesn’t?) so any time a fast food brand decides to remix their fries, we’re there to see if they’ve made the right move. An easy way to improve the world’s greatest side dish is to treat it as a meal in itself, and Taco Bell did just that with this year’s 7-Layer Nacho Fries. Featuring layers of beef, black beans, tomatoes, cheese, guacamole, nacho cheese sauce, sour cream, and chipotle sauce over a bed of crispy fries seasoned with paprika, chili powder, garlic, and onion powder, and salt, the 7-Layer nacho fries provide a medley of shifting flavors that never gets boring.

Each bite is equal parts zesty, salty, tangy, buttery, spicy, and savory. Our only complaint is that Taco Bell isn’t generous enough with the layers. Hell, we’d take five layers if Taco Bell would just serve them with a heavier hand.

The Bottom Line:

Taco Bell takes its already delicious Nacho Fries and makes them taste even better by actually making them like, you know, nachos.

Find your nearest Taco Bell here.

Worst Celebrity Meal: Papa John’s — Shaq-A-Roni Pizza

GB AW
Uproxx

Why It Deserves The Award:

Given the success of McDonald’s Travis Scott and BTS meals, celebrity-branded meals are just something we have to deal with in fast food now. I mentioned in the intro to this piece that great new fast food needs to be exciting but, sadly, and celebrity meals challenge that very idea. They are never innovative (aside from Megan Thee Stallion’s Hottie Sauce Chicken Sandwich from Popeyes). In fact, most of the celebrity-branded dishes out there are simple remixes of what is already on the menu.

Papa John’s Shaq-A-Roni barely counts as a remix though. This is the most low-effort menu item in all of fast food. Ever.

The Shaq-A-Roni is simply a big pepperoni pizza. That’s it. It’s built on dough stretched 16 inches and topped with Papa John’s marinara sauce, extra cheese, and extra pepperonis. Sure, it’s delicious, it’s a f*cking pepperoni pizza, but that’s all it is. It has nothing to do with Shaq aside from his name being attached to it, and they could’ve done so much with the Shaq branding. They could’ve loaded this stuff up with meats and veggies, they could’ve stretched it even wider, they could’ve made the box look like a rattling rim after a missed free throw… SOMETHING. But they simply chose to not.

The Bottom Line:

If you ever needed proof that celebrity meals were the worst thing to happen to fast food, the Shaq-A-Roni fits the bill.

Find your nearest Papa John’s here.

Biggest Swing And A Miss: El Pollo Loco — The Birria Menu

Golden Bag Awards
Dane Rivera/Uproxx

Why It Deserves The Award:

Bless El Pollo Loco, they really tried. Birria tacos are now a sensation in America, it seems like people can’t get enough of this gooey savory consommé-dipped spin on tacos, the trend is so pervasive that even El Pollo Loco jumped on the bandwagon adding a whole birria-section to their menu which consists of tacos, burritos, and quesadillas. Sadly, it’s the most watered-down version of birria I’ve ever tasted.

What makes birria so amazing is that the food is often dipped in the earthy spicy broth before it’s actually fried, this presents a flavor that is savory, juicy, and straight-up luscious. El Pollo Loco just gives you a side of birria broth for you to dip your feed in after it’s already cooked and calls it a day — it doesn’t match the experience of real actual birria. Like I said, birria is all the rage in America right now with new birria spots opening up in cities nationwide on a monthly basis. Do yourself a favor and try one of these places before hitting up El Pollo Loco.

The Bottom Line:

If you’ve never had birria don’t let El Pollo Loco’s version be your first experience.

Find your nearest El Pollo Loco here.

Best Returning Menu Item: Taco Bell — Enchirito

Golden Bag Awards
Dane Rivera/Uproxx

Why It Deserves The Award:

This year a fan-vote Taco Bell brought back the Enchirito, which was first introduced all the way back in the ‘70s and hasn’t been on Taco Bell’s menu since 2013. The Enchirto features seasoned beef, beans, and onions wrapped in a flour tortilla and doused in Taco Bell’s red sauce and layers of melted cheddar cheese. It is quite simply Taco Bell’s version of the wet burrito and it works!

It’s savory, beefy, and umami-rich with a strong tomato-forward sauce that features a hint of spice on the back end. Taco Bell’s menu consists of a bunch of the same foods in different form factors, but the Enchirto actually comes across as something different than what the rest of the menu offers.

Yes, I’m fully aware that the Mexican Pizza also rejoined the Taco Bell menu this year but the Enchirito is better in every way. Both are examples of Taco Bell taking feedback from its fans and actually listening, which is why the chain stays winning.

The Bottom Line:

Wonderfully beefy and savory. Even better than the Mexican Pizza.

Find your nearest Taco Bell here.

Best Menu Expansion: Pizza Hut — Oven Baked Pastas

Golden Bag Awards
Dane Rivera/Uproxx

Why It Deserves The Award:

Nobody asked Pizza Hut to start offering pasta but they did, and surprisingly, it’s pretty damn good. Is it going to compare to your favorite mom-and-pop Italian spot? Not a chance, but it adds some needed variety to the menu.

The best of the oven-baked pastas is the Chicken Alfredo, which features a bed of penne smothered in tasty garlic-forward creamy Alfredo sauce with a sprinkle of oregano and some tender baked white meat chicken. Pizza Hut sprinkles some parmesan cheese on top of this dish and overall it’s a bit more cheesy than it is saucy, but for a quick oven-baked pasta from a national pizza joint, it gets the job done.

The Bottom Line:

A menu innovation that no one asked for that manages to exceed expectations.

Find your nearest Pizza Hut here.

Dumbest Menu Expansion: McDonald’s — Hacked Menu

Golden Bag Awards
Dane Rivera/Uproxx

Why It Deserves The Award:

McDonald’s is one of the biggest fast food brands in the world and as a result, anytime they do anything new, they do the bare minimum while trying to please the most people. Case in point, the Official Hacked Menu, a series of hacked dishes that absolutely failed to deliver. The idea is amazing, McDonald’s allowing fans to order fan-favorite menu hacks by name shows a brand that pays attention to the habits of their customer base. But the fact that McDonald’s made you self-assemble the hacks was downright insulting.

The Official Hacked Menu featured the Crunchy Double, a cheeseburger with nuggets inside of it, the Hashbrown McMuffin, a McMuffin with a hash brown in it, and the infamous Land, Air & Sea Burger, a combination of a Big Mac, chicken sandwich, and fish filet sandwich. McDonald’s could’ve easily stacked this for you, but instead, they just sold the food as individual items and forced you to build it yourself. As a result, the presentation suffers, and you’re left with all sorts of excess waste from the various food containers.

McDonald’s could’ve saved us some time and been more responsible stewards to the environment had they just assembled the stuff for us.

The Bottom Line:

A good idea gone wrong.

Find your nearest McDonald’s here.

Most Surprising New Menu Item: Burger King — Ghost Pepper Whopper

Golden Bag Awards
Dane Rivera/Uproxx

Why It Deserves The Award:

Burger King consistently ranks at or near the bottom of our various fast food rankings. The chain is so consistently bad I often wonder how it’s still even in business — so when Burger King unveiled the Ghost Pepper Whopper as part of the Halloween season, I was surprised to find that not only was it delicious, but it improved upon the brand’s flagship burger.

The Ghost Pepper Whopper features a quarter-pound hamburger patty topped with ghost pepper cheese, bacon, queso sauce, and the greatest ingredient of all, crispy fried jalapeños. It’s incredibly spicy, smokey, and meaty with a shifting flavor palette that tickles and waters the taste buds. It’s incredible. Turns out that all Burger King was missing all this time was heat!

The Bottom Line:

It takes the Whopper, a burger that tastes like burnt meat, and makes it spicy, savory, and delicious.

Find your nearest Burger King here.

Best Overall Brand: Chipotle

Golden Bag Awards
Dane Rivera/Uproxx

Why It Deserves The Award:

Chipotle gets a lot of well-deserved criticism for being a pale imitation of Mexican food. With its fully customizable menu, it can come across as bland and flavorless. But this year, the fast-casual chain consistently pumped out brand-new protein options that seriously elevated the menu.

Guajillo Steak, Pollo Asado, Smoked Brisket, Plant-Based Chorizo — Chipotle managed to keep its menu exciting throughout the entire year and no other fast food brand can lay claim to that feat. My personal favorite was the Guajillo steak which featured a wonderfully earthy roasted garlic flavor that started off sweet, shifted into something spicy, and ended with a fresh pepper cilantro finish.

Frustratingly, Chipotle only offered these protein options for a very limited time, but if they treat 2023 the same way they treated this year, we’re in for a hell of a delicious ride.

The Bottom Line:

Chipotle made a name for itself with fresh ingredients rather than innovation, but in 2022 they constantly f*cked with the menu in the most delicious way. We’re excited to see what the brand has in store for 2023.

Find your nearest Chipotle here.

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