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Chain breakfast ranked: McDonald's, Taco Bell and more

It was the day breakfast changed. In 1972, at a McDonald’s in California, franchise owner Herb Peterson came up with a novel idea: take a toasted English muffin, layer it inside with Canadian bacon, a slice of American cheese and a disc of egg, and let the hurried American worker eat a handheld breakfast sandwich on the go. 

Forty-five years since the Egg McMuffin set in motion a new formula for how this country consumes breakfast, chains have been scrambling for a share of the market, taking what consumers today largely believe to be the most important meal of the day and pairing it with a convenient (not to mention fat and salt-laced) option.

Many chains such as Shake Shack, KFC, Wendy’s and Popeyes, are in varying degrees of testing breakfast programs that may one day find their way to Long Island — or be shelved in the face of fierce competition.

Even without them, there is a market saturated with endless ways to have your egg (or egg whites), bacon and sausage: stuffed in a burrito, rolled in a taco or sandwiched in a bagel, biscuit, Texas toast, flatbread, croissant, or between two pancakes or a pair of waffles.

We ate our way through breakfast at 10 chains on Long Island to determine which are best. Be warned: after the top three, pleasure drops off dramatically.

10. Dunkin' Donuts

A sausage, egg and cheese sandwich on a
Credit: Daniel Brennan

It would make sense that the doughnut and coffee-centric chain would want to expand its options at the time of day it has long held court. The problem: eggs that don’t look, or taste, like eggs, and bread choices that do little to mask all that processing. If you must, the serviceable classic sausage, egg and cheese sandwich comes on an underbaked croissant, with a salt-heavy patty and weighs in at 700 calories and 1,170 mg of sodium.

9. White Castle

The sausage egg and cheese slider from White
Credit: Daniel Brennan

The slider slingers are there to serve you nearly all hours of the day, including the morning rush where, if you choose, a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich also comes between two slider-sized waffles that are as cloyingly sweet as they are brittle and dry. Here, they don’t mess with what’s made the brand a success: the original steam griddled burger comes with a scrambled egg that results in a sandwich that is one big mush. If you must, the sausage version is slightly better, a hockey puck-like patty, hard scrambled eggs and 310 calories and 630 mg of sodium for a tiny slider that will leave you hankering for lunch.

8. Subway

Subway's sandwich with egg, cheese, onion, tomato and
Credit: Daniel Brennan

Since 2010, the chain that has advertised itself as a healthy alternative to its fatty competitors has been in the breakfast market. After flirting with all kinds of options, Subway has settled on flatbreads to set itself apart, though it’s hard to watch a premade omelet come out of a warming machine, go onto a chewy flatbread with cheese that is all then placed into a heating contraption before being dressed in your choice of toppings. Little can cure the tasteless eggs, but tomatoes, basil and red onions help, and while 310 calories is better than most, 950 mg of sodium is on par with the enemy.

7. Sonic

Pancake on a stick, filled with sausage from
Credit: Daniel Brennan

Breakfast comes in just about any form here, from a burrito stuffed with potato tots, jalapeños, bacon and sausage, to a Texas Toast sandwich that takes its cue from delis across Long Island. Little succeeds, even if it arrives to your car window via a roller-skating server. One guilty pleasure: the pancake on a stick, at 240 calories and 370 mg of sodium. What is it? A breakfast sausage patty on a stick that is dipped in pancake batter and deep fried until the outside crackles. Skip the artificial syrup, though, because this puppy is already plenty sweet.

6. Taco Bell

A breakfast crunch wrap with sausage from Taco
Credit: Daniel Brennan

You won’t find any bun options at this south-of-the-border-themed chain, where tortilla is what dings and the current slogan is “circles are for squares.” That doesn’t mean the mad scientists here don’t creat their own take on breakfast. Behold the breakfast crunch wrap, where sausage, egg, cheese and hash browns have all been layered in the center of a tortilla that is then creased closed and pressed shut. It’s ingenuity that weighs in at 670 calories and 1,300 mg of sodium.

5. Burger King

A sausage egg and cheese croissant from Burger
Credit: Newsday/Arnold Miller

The old slogan “have it your way” is apt during breakfast hours at Burger King. The menu has ballooned over the years to include biscuits, burritos and French toast sticks, but the original Croissan’wich still wears the crown here. To be sure, the bar is low for a fast-food croissant, but after decades of putting eggs and cheese on them, the verdict here is that they are flaky and buttery with eggs that taste like real eggs and a sausage patty that is savory and sweet. It all weighs in at 470 calories and 890 mg of sodium.

4. McDonald's

McDonald's Egg McMuffin, April 17, 2017.
Credit: Daniel Brennan

Like BK, Micky D’s has vastly expanded its breakfast options over the years to include egg, cheese and meat versions of biscuits, burritos, bagels and McGriddles, which layers the three ingredients between two sugar-packed pancakes that are branded with the swooping M recognized the world over. But it’s the Egg McMuffin that still tops the chart here. Simple, to the point and with 300 calories and 730 mg of sodium, it’s less of a gut bomb than its breakfast adversaries.

3. Starbucks

A sausage, cheddar and egg breakfast sandwich from
Credit: Daniel Brennan

Ronald McDonald may have made the English muffin a household sandwich option, but Starbucks has taken it to the next level, with its sausage, Cheddar and egg breakfast sandwich. It is larger, tastes fresher, but also clocks in at 500 calories and 920 mg of sodium. The coffee chain has vastly expanded better breakfast options over the past few years, going beyond pastries to include hot sandwiches, oatmeal and sous vide eggs — breadless bites of slow-cooked eggs that are available at select locations.

2. Chick-fil- A

The chicken egg and cheese biscuit breakfast sandwich
Credit: Daniel Brennan

Like other chains, the breakfast menu here has grown over the last 30 years from a lone chicken biscuit to include sausage and bacon along with bread options that include a bagel and burrito. But it’s the care to detail that sets Chick-fil-A apart. The original chicken biscuit with an egg pairs a superior biscuit with a tender fried chicken patty and fluffy eggs that is better than its sausage-topped rivals. For now, such a reward is only available in Hicksville, Port Jefferson and Commack.

1. Panera

A steak and egg breakfast sandwich on an
Credit: Daniel Brennan

It might seem unfair to put Panera at the top of this list, but the higher-end chain has increasingly cast itself in the mold of the other nine here, though it truly stands out above the rest. Panera’s quiche is pillowy, egg whites come studded with crumbles of turkey sausage, and it’s the only place we found a steak-and-egg option that actually tasted like steak and eggs. The sliced pieces of slightly pink sirloin on ciabatta bread with Vermont Cheddar and tasty eggs weigh in at 540 calories and more than 1,000 mg of sodium.

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