Texas Travel

The Most Iconic Texas Fast-Food Brands

By Peter Simek 9.30.20

Perhaps it’s fitting that a state whose history is filled with travelers and wanderers would create some of the best, most iconic fast-food brands in America. In fact, many of Texas’ fast-food brands have roots in the hearty burgers that kept cattlemen warm on the trail or the delicious tacos that fortified rancheros.

After the cattle trails were replaced with concrete highways, cowboys evolved into big riggers, road trippers, and hungry commuters looking for a quick bite. That’s when Texas drew upon its cross-cultural roots to give the world some of the greatest fast-food chains around. Here are the histories behind some of the best.

Texas fast food


Where else to start than with the fast-food chain that defines Texas quick eating? In 1950, Harmon Dobson and Paul Burton opened the original Whataburger in Corpus Christi. The idea was simple: Serve a burger that customers couldn’t help but comment on. Whataburgers were larger than their competitors’ burgers (5-inch buns!) and they wouldn’t be made until customers ordered it.

Word spread quickly, thanks to the high-quality meat and Dobson’s flair for marketing. A pilot, Dobson flew his plane around Corpus Christi with a large banner advertising his burger stand. He also decided that an iconic burger needed an iconic burger shack, and the distinctive A-frame Whataburger was born. Within a couple of decades, the Texan burger joint spread to 40 locations across four states. Today, Whataburger is serving giant burgers at more than 820 locations in 10 southern U.S. states, at least 670 of which are right here in Texas.

Taco Cabana

Felix Stehling wasn’t looking to start a taco franchise. He just needed some extra parking spaces for his popular Crystal Pistol bar in San Antonio. In 1978, he purchased an old Dairy Queen across the street from the bar. But Stehling, who owned several restaurants in the city, wasn’t going to let an opportunity go to waste. He turned the Dairy Queen into a late-night taco joint, and history was made.

Stehling focused on quality ingredients, low prices, and Tex-Mex menu items you typically had to go to a sit-down restaurant to find. The “Cabana” took off, and within a few years, he was opening locations all over San Antonio. By the 1980s and 1990s, the Taco Cabana chain had expanded throughout the Lone Star State — even as far as Oklahoma and Arizona.


Whataburger wasn’t the only Texas fast-food franchise to catch on by offering something bigger than any of its competitors. In 1971, a small sandwich shop on South Congress Avenue in Austin concocted a massive, three-meat, 8-inch muffuletta. The colossal handheld was modeled on the sandwiches founders Don and Dolores Dissman had found in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The sandwich — which would come to be known simply as the “Original” — caught on quick, and soon, the Dissmans opened a second shop at the Dobie Mall to serve their creation to hungry students at the University of Texas at Austin. Schlotzsky’s continued to grow through the 1970s, and in 1981, it was purchased by an investment partnership with their own plans to supersize the fledgling franchise. While UT students feasted, the investors built Schlotzsky’s into a global brand over the next 15 years.

Texas fast food

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

In 1941, Travis Dickey opened his first barbecue pit in Dallas, serving beef brisket, pit hams, barbecue beans, potato chips, milk, and soda. Dickey’s remained a family affair when Travis’ sons Ronald and T.D. took over in the late-1960s. The brothers expanded operations throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but it wasn’t until 1994, when they franchised the operation, that Dickey’s really took off.

The barbecue joint swelled across 44 states and became the largest barbecue franchise in the U.S. Now, nearly 80 years after its founding, the restaurant offers a larger menu than it did when Travis Dickey opened the doors, but the food is still prepared with hickory smoke, and the company is still run by the family.

Texas fast food

Jason’s Deli

Even though the first Jason’s Deli opened in Beaumont in 1976, to really understand the roots of the franchise, you have to go back to Sicily in 1895. That’s when Salvatore Tortorice emigrated to the U.S., where he eventually made his way down to southeast Texas and opened the New Turf Café in 1950.

Like many immigrant families, the Tortorices were entrepreneurial, and Salvatore’s son Joe opened four grocery stores, two laundromats, two dry cleaners, and a sandwich shop in Beaumont. Joe’s son, Joe Jr., struck out on his own in the late 1970s and started his own sandwich shop. He named the new joint Jason’s Deli after his own son, Jay, and the operation eventually grew to 260 locations across 29 states. The key to Jason’s Deli’s success? Focusing on the essentials, such as its New Orleans-style muffuletta and salad bar — and, of course, the free ice cream cones.


If there’s something most Texas fast-food brands share, it’s that their success was often built by focusing on top-quality ingredients. Fuddruckers epitomizes this approach. The brand invented a new burger in 1979 by grinding meat and baking buns in house. Founder Philip J. Romano’s first Fuddruckers was located in an old bank building in San Antonio.

The popularity of those burgers fueled rapid expansion across the country and, eventually, around the globe. Romano left the chain in 1988 and went on to found Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

Learn about more iconic Texas brands and inventions we couldn’t live without.

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