The Chain Gang
By David Shribman

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It's one of the immutable rules of the road: Not all chains are created equal. There are times I'll drive an hour to avoid eating at those restaurants where customers seem like commodities but the food has no relation to anything sold in the commodities futures market. And then there are times I'll drive an hour just to go to one of the chains that bind us.

COUNTRY Next time you find yourself craving a big bowl of ham-and-cheddar chowder, swing your pickup into one of the Farmbelt's seven Machine Sheds. Don't stop with the chowder. Dive into the spicy turkey pie or the cranberry-apple-marinated rack of pork.

MEXICAN Only a decade ago Jim and Linda Magglos opened a little place in the Conejo Valley of California with a vision: fast food, Mexican-style, that wasn't processed food. The result is Baja Fresh, a chain of about 100 restaurants where you'll never see a can opener. Mrs. Shrib, right in all things, swears by the black bean burrito. Or try the burrito ultimo: charbroiled chicken or steak, melted jack and cheddar cheese. I add about ten tons of salsa.

PIZZA The Grotto Pizza empire started with a single stand in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and has expanded to 23 restaurants in Delaware and Pennsylvania. The crust is chewy; the sauce has a strong but unfailingly sweet tomato taste.

CANADIAN Admittedly, Canadian cuisine is an elusive concept. But the Swiss Chalet chain, firmly established north of the 49th parallel, isn't confined to Regina and St. John's. Its 180 restaurants include beachheads in Florida and New York. In all locations, chicken and rib platters come with Chalet dipping sauce. I suspect it's the official dipping sauce of heaven.

--David Shribman

Select locations

Baja Fresh 13582 Whittier Blvd. Whittier, Calif. 562-464-5900

Grotto Pizza Route 1 and Read St. Dewey Beach, Del. 302-227-3407

Machine Shed 12080 S. Strang Line Rd. Olathe, Kan. 913-780-2697

Swiss Chalet 4961B W. Atlantic Ave. Delray Beach, Fla. 561-496-5299