There are few places in the world that you can escape the quick-serve restaurant. China is no exception. I make it a point when I visit a country to sample the local fast food, and I’m doing it here so you don’t have to.

Quick serve isn’t a new phenomenon to China, but the chain restaurant was an utterly foreign concept prior to KFC’s entry in the late 1980s. KFC already had successful enterprises in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and their local market knowledge allowed them to become quickly successful and grow rapidly.

Other chains have had varying degrees of success, some more than others. Here in Beijing, there is a tremendous variety of fast food, with many familiar chains.

Remember how I mentioned that products here often have the same name, but they’re not the same thing? It’s the same thing with fast food. McDonald’s has a menu that is half chicken parts and/or chicken sandwiches, chicken being the most popular meat here. The Filet-O-Fish is also available. Based on my unscientific observation, it seems McDonald’s sells more ice cream and chicken than it does burgers. Incidentally, a Big Mac, Fries and a Coke will set you back $2.20, but the Coke doesn’t taste the same as it does at home (soft drinks are less sweet) and the ketchup doesn’t taste the same either (it’s more sweet). The Big Mac, however, is more or less the same.

KFC doesn’t have an English menu. You can get the Colonel’s original recipe, but you can get a lot of other things too. They appear to sell parts of chickens Americans don’t normally eat. For instance, there is one appetizer that looks an awful lot like deep fried chicken feet–I’m afraid to try it.

Subway has a few outlets, and the menu is more or less the same. They do have some different types of sauces, but overall Subway is the same everywhere in the world. I haven’t eaten at Subway here yet because I just haven’t been able to muster the motivation to try something this unexciting (at least there are variations in the McDonald’s menu).

Dairy Queen (aka DQ) is here with the same menu as you see in the States. Their most popular item seems to be ice cream cones. Chinese people *love* ice cream, and eat tons of it on hot summer days. They don’t seem to do a brisk shake business and Chinese people don’t seem to understand (or be able to afford) Blizzard or the more elaborate ice cream creations. As well, Cold Stone Creamery attracts a lot of curiosity but not many sales.

There is a Burger King at the airport. I don’t like Burger King and can’t motivate myself to pay $8 round-trip on the train just to eat there. However, I did try the lone Beijing Fatburger at the Diplomatic Residence Compound. A meal was $9, but the onion rings were perfect and the burger was top-notch. Of course, the drink was locally produced and wasn’t as sweet as soft drinks in the US, as to be expected. Also as to be expected, the ketchup was locally produced and was sweeter with less vinegar.

Pizza Hut is all over the place, and you’ll find Dominos too. Both menus are quite a bit different, with toppings and combinations we would find unusual (like fish). However, it’s not like Japan which is outright crazy when it comes to pizza (think pepperoni and squid pizza topped with a fried egg).

On the topic of Japan, there are Yoshinoya noodle shops popping up all over the place. Considering China’s long-standing rivalry with Japan I find this surprising, but the stores seem to do really well. I’m told the menu is significantly different, cheaper and less adventurous than Japanese Yoshinoya outlets. Given that I don’t frequent the place in either country, it’s hard for me to say.

China has some home-grown fast food chains as well, such as Xiabu Xiabu (a hot pot place). There’s another big one with a logo that looks like Jackie Chan’s face and a name entirely in Chinese. They serve all sorts of fried noodle dishes.

Back to American chains, there are a few Sizzler outlets, with underwhelming (though shockingly expensive) menus, service and quality. And right in the middle of an alleged local prostitution hotbed you’ll find the Hard Rock Cafe.

In general, it seems that unless an outlet is catering primarily to foreign tourists, the menu needs to be localized. The items that sell best are the cheaper items, but they won’t sell at all if they’re unappealing to Chinese consumers. This means more chicken and fish, and less beef at the lunch and dinner table. It also means more interesting spices and more complicated preparation. It should be interesting to see how the Beijing fast food landscape grows.

What does all of this mean? Nothing in particular. This is the world’s largest market, and ultimately the market will dictate whether American chain restaurants are relevant. Some (such as KFC) definitely make the cut through their familiarity with the local culture.