Chain coffee ranked: Starbucks, McDonald's and more

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The need for coffee can strike any time of day or night. And if there’s any upside to the ubiquity of fast-food chains on Long Island, it’s that a cup of joe is never more than a mile or two away. So much for the availability of coffee. How about the quality?

10. Taco Bell

Newsday's critic Erica Marcus tasted coffee at LI's
(Credit: Marisol Diaz)

Newsday's critic Erica Marcus tasted coffee at LI's top 10 fast-food outlets that serve it, assessing quality and value -- here are her rankings, from least favorite to best in show. She tried all varieties and brews of black coffee at each place (note that prices may vary by location). Her first stop was Taco Bell: It took a good five minutes for my coffee to arrive since it was brewed to order (by a machine I could not see). What a waste of time. No aroma, no body, no taste -- classic dishwater. Taco Bell's coffee cups bear the slogan "live mas." To which I say "no mas." Unacceptable. Price: $1.49 for 16-ounce cup

9. Burger King

Unlike McDonald's, Burger King does not promote its
(Credit: Marisol Diaz)

Unlike McDonald's, Burger King does not promote its "coffee program." And for good reason. My cup evinced no flavor except for a faint bitter note. Unacceptable. Price: $1 for 12-ounce cup

8. Wendy's

Wendy's introduced its proprietary coffee blend,
(Credit: Marisol Diaz)

Wendy's introduced its proprietary coffee blend, "Original RedHead Roasters," in 2011, but whatever fanfare there was has died down. The coffee has what I think of as an old-fashioned aroma (think Chock Full O' Nuts-era luncheonette) and a taste that's a little thin, with a slight bitter, burnt note. But it did have a taste. Barely acceptable. Price: $.99 for 16-ounce cup

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7. Nathan’s

Watery and slightly tannic, Nathan's coffee has a
(Credit: Marisol Diaz)

Watery and slightly tannic, Nathan's coffee has a feeble coffee flavor and weak aroma that makes it acceptable by a nose. Price: $1.50 for 8 ounce cup

6. 7-Eleven

7-Eleven brews four regular coffees (plus some flavored
(Credit: 7-Eleven)

7-Eleven brews four regular coffees (plus some flavored ones), each of which has a numerical ranking on an eight-note "roast meter." I found the flavor of the medium roasts -- Exclusive blend (3/8), New York Bold (3/8) and 100% Colombian (4/8) -- fairly well balanced and entirely acceptable. The darkest roast, Brazilian Dark (5/8), had too many off notes. It was virtually impossible to assess aromas, though, since at both 7-Elevens I visited, only one coffee was hot; the others ranged from lukewarm to cold. Completely unacceptable. A hot cup of coffee from 7-Eleven would jump ahead two levels in these rankings. Price: $1.62 for 12-ounce cup

5. McDonald’s

McDonald's regular coffee had a faint aroma and
(Credit: McDonald's)

McDonald's regular coffee had a faint aroma and virtually no taste. The main selling point would seem to be price: regardless of the size, a cup costs $1. If you take milk in your coffee, the McCaffe latte, made with espresso, is a better bet. It's not on the menu, but you can also buy a single shot of the perfectly acceptable espresso for $1. While I wouldn't stop at McDonald's for a cup of regular, the latte and espresso are both worthwhile. Prices: $1 for 12-, 16- or 20-ounce cup; $2.39 for 12-ounce McCaffe latte; $1 for espresso shot

4. Dunkin’ Donuts

I admit to being puzzled by the popularity
(Credit: Dunkin' Donuts)

I admit to being puzzled by the popularity of Dunkin' Donuts' coffee. The regular brew had a faint aroma and precious little flavor. The dark roast looked richer and smelled a little bolder but the only flavor I got from it was burnt. The latte, made with espresso, is passable. The thing to get here, however, is a shot (or two) of espresso. No great complexity, but it was nice and short, with a decent crema (the tawny "head" on a well-made espresso). As with McDonald's, latte and espresso are the reasons to stop here. Prices: $1.79 for 10-ounce cup; $1.99 for 10-ounce latte; $.99 for espresso shot

3. Subway

Subway uses a Keurig machine and pods of
(Credit: Marisol Diaz)

Subway uses a Keurig machine and pods of Seattle's Best Coffee to individually brew each cup. My cup had a deep coffee aroma and pretty good flavor. A happy surprise. Price: $1.60 for 12-ounce cup

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2. Panera Bread

At Panera, you serve yourself from insulated urns
(Credit: Panera Bread)

At Panera, you serve yourself from insulated urns of coffee, one light brew, one dark. A little sign hanging on each urn tells you how recently the coffee was brewed. On my visit, both coffees were brewed less than 15 minutes earlier and were very good. Also recommended: the latte and well-balanced espresso. Prices: $2.19 for 16-ounce cup; $3.79 for 20-ounce latte; $1.99 for two espresso shots

1. Starbucks

Starbucks always has three brews on hand: blonde,
(Credit: Starbucks)

Starbucks always has three brews on hand: blonde, medium and dark. On my visit all were fresh, with an alluring coffee aroma. The Veranda (blonde) had very little character but tasted acceptable. The Pike Place (medium) had a hint of the characteristic Starbucks "char," but was pleasant and not at all bitter. The Sumatra (dark) was rich and bold, with a hint of sweet fruitiness. The latte, made with the powerful espresso, had a good balance of milky and coffee flavors. Starbucks is the coffee specialist, and it shows. Prices: $1.85 for 12-ounce cup; $3.15 for 12-ounce latte; $1.90 for espresso shot

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