Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Which Chain Makes the Best Ground Beef Taco?

[Photographs: Farley Elliott]

It's been a fish taco kind of summer so far, and last week we took a look at the offerings from some of the biggest national taco chains. This week, it's all about the beef.

No more fancy stuff; our tacos are keeping it simple. Save your steak burritos for another day. Leave your carnitas at home. We're talking ground beef tacos, the absolute baseline for Mexican fast food eats. Heck, a few chains that don't otherwise mess with the Mex at all (ahem, Jack in the Box) at least have ground beef tacos on their board. What gives?

Frankly, it's easy and satisfying. Brown up some unknown-quality beef, toss on a handful of questionably-Mexican seasonings and scoop the results into some sort of tortilla, hard-shelled or otherwise. It's just like Mom used to make, when Mom was in a hurry and grabbed the store-bought taco kit off the shelf. Most of these chains don't even make the cut as gringo-style tacos. So who makes the best fast food ground beef taco? To answer that, we've got to define some parameters first.

The Criteria

  • Beef: Ground beef is no one's specialty, but it is their bread and butter, so it still requires a basic amount of finesse. A quality ground beef taco holds a sizable swath of well-seasoned, browned meat, with enough salt to stand tall against the regular onslaught of taco seasonings: garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cumin and more. Too much of one or not enough of the other can make for a dusty, over-seasoned mess. Most commercial-grade ground beef found in Mexican chains is cut with an array of additives to help extend shelf life and keep the tacos below the $1 price point. It can be oats, soy, or an array of "binders." Just don't dilute the beefiness so much that the final product tastes (and feels) like cat food.
  • Toppings: You're likely to find some combination of the following four toppings on any fast food taco: shredded lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese and sour cream. For the veggies, it's important that they maintain freshness, both in appearance and bite. No sad, soggy tomatoes around here. The cheese is usually low-grade cheddar, and can often be mixed with a few strands of Jack for a real fiesta! As long as the cheese is at least attempting to melt and doesn't overrun the beef, we should be fine. For the sour cream (usually a "supreme" upgrade), the tart smoothness should be a welcome addition to the taco and it's salty seasonings, but not so heavy-handed as to turn your taco into some creamy nacho-like monstrosity.
  • Tortilla: Generally speaking, the traditional ground beef fast food taco is served in a hard corn shell, fried ages ago in some nameless factory. There's often not much you can do to save them, but bonus points are definitely given for warm, crispy shells that don't immediately blow apart. Any hard-shell that is fried on site has a major leg up. For soft tortillas, the preferred variety is flour, which may be a non-starter for some already. Regardless, the tortilla should be warm and pliable, with none of the pale flakiness that comes from cold, stale tortillas.

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About the author: Farley Elliott is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. He blogs about burgers at Beef and Bun and covers the LA comedy scene for LAist.com.

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