Slideshow: Which Chain Makes the Best Chicken Taco?

El Pollo Loco Taco Al Carbon
El Pollo Loco Taco Al Carbon
It's always a reassuring sign to walk into your fast food chain of choice and actually see the food being cooked over an open flame right behind the counter. For all its dependence on the chicken, El Pollo Loco certainly treats it well, leaving little nuggets of crisp skin and lightly burnt corners that are smoky and flavorful. This is perhaps most evident in the chicken taco al carbon, whose only fault is an exceedingly dry stack of tortillas. It's a shame that you'll need to rely so heavily on salsa to get you through this taco, because otherwise the flavors are simple and satisfying.
El Pollo Loco Crunchy Taco
El Pollo Loco Crunchy Taco
This taco really wanted to be somebody, but just couldn't overcome bad preparation. The smoky chicken is added to the soft tortilla and then fried together 'tacos dorados' style, before being cracked open and hit with some shredded lettuce and weak Jack cheese. The end result is just too oily and brittle to stay together, and feels like it really needs a boost from a thin avocado salsa before reaching a satisfying level.
El Pollo Loco Taquitos
El Pollo Loco Taquitos
While not a taco in the traditional sense, the taquitos appear to be a popular option at The Crazy Chicken. It's a mystery why, as these oily rolls contain nothing but chicken shreds and the vague taste of egg rolls. Likely, they're popular enough to be made ahead in large batches and then left under heat lamps, meaning the low grade frying oil has time to seep deep inside and really grease up the place.
Uh Oh, That Can't Be Right
Uh Oh, That Can't Be Right
If you subscribe to the idea that there are no mistakes, only opportunities, you would have loved my chicken soft taco from Green Burrito. Apparently one of the attentive workers in the back felt the need to give me the gift of a single lukewarm French fry inside my chicken soft taco. How they rolled up the taco in paper and never noticed the fry is beyond me.
Green Burrito Southwest Soft Taco
Green Burrito Southwest Soft Taco
If geography is your primary flavor indicator, you're probably doing it wrong. The weak attempt at a zippy, creamy, regionally-named sauce was a total disaster. Instead, the watery chicken and slick sauce made for a pretty messy taco. And that, as far as I know, has nothing to do with the Southwest.
Green Burrito Street Taco
Green Burrito Street Taco
As you can see, the chicken certainly has the thin, striped grill marks indicative of any good chicken breast. Of course, science has been painting on grill marks since the 1950's, so it's no surprise that the taco arrives wet and watery from what seems to be defrosted chicken bits. Were it not for the paltry poultry, this taco would actually be decent. The thin salsa verde provides some warmth behind the sharpness of the white onions and the blandness of the chicken.
Del Taco Al Carbon Taco
Del Taco Al Carbon Taco
Combining the rubbery, microwaved texture of Del Taco's chicken with a dry corn tortilla doesn't make for a very appealing taco option. To make matters worse, the hidden thin red hot sauce overwhelms your mouth after the first bite, leaving you with nothing but factory-processed heat, wet onions and cilantro and pale chicken that can't get out of its own way.
Del Taco Original Grilled Chicken Taco
Del Taco Original Grilled Chicken Taco
If you're wondering where the chicken is, so was I. The original Del Taco chicken incarnation is a skimpy affair, overwhelmed by shredded low-grade cheddar. What few bites could be found were smothered in a mayo-heavy cream sauce in a futile attempt to mask some seriously rubbery chicken.
Del Taco Grilled Chicken Chipotle Taco
Del Taco Grilled Chicken Chipotle Taco
If fast food had an overarching motto, it would probably be: If you can't beat 'em, smother 'em in a creamy, mayo-heavy seasoned sauce and charge $0.30 cents more. It's certainly true with the chipotle chicken taco option at Del Taco. While the sauce offers the best heat of any taco option here, it's overwhelming when paired with forgettable chicken and a thin flour tortilla.
Del Taco Fat (Flatbread) Taco
Del Taco Fat (Flatbread) Taco
The shortcomings of the chipotle chicken taco actually sort of work as strengths once the tortilla is swapped for the thicker, warm flatbread. The ample sauce has room to spread out and tone down, and the better balance of veggie toppings and chicken make this one a surprisingly satisfying option. While calling it a 'taco' is certainly a stretch, it's otherwise nailing the 3am drive through demographic.
Taco Bell Soft Taco
Taco Bell Soft Taco
If you see someone trying to order the chicken soft taco at Taco Bell, slap them. Well, only if you know them or you really think it will get your point across. With nothing but bland cheddar shreds and limp lettuce, the chicken needs to be the star of this show. Instead, it's a wet, reconstituted mess that can't be saved by snarky taco sauce packets alone.
Taco Bell Fresco Taco
Taco Bell Fresco Taco
I'd be a lot more enamored with the fresco chicken taco if the Bell worked on upgrading the quality of their meat. The pre-sliced portions are pale, wet and desperately in need of some seasoning. The zippy pico de gallo with vibrant chunks of tomato offers some respite, but ultimately can't overcome bad meat and a chewy tortilla.
Baja Fresh Flour Tortilla Taco
Baja Fresh Flour Tortilla Taco
Like every previous flour taco we've tried at Baja Fresh, this thing just isn't for me. Especially with the smaller chunks of chicken falling out at every chance, the secondary ingredients are far too dominant to make this a worthwhile taco. Not to mention the tortilla, that thick and dense Frisbee of flour.
Baja Fresh Taquitos
Baja Fresh Taquitos
Available only as a full plate, you could order the chicken taquitos at Baja Fresh, although it's hard to understand why. The long, crunchy rolls are absolutely packed with chicken... and nothing else. By being so dense with lean meat and not offering a smoother ride-along like cheese, these bad boys become nothing more than bland, chewy sticks. Sour cream are thankfully handed out on the same platter, but at that point the taquitos are really just a mechanism to get toppings into your mouth.
Qdoba Soft Taco
Qdoba Soft Taco
Let me preface by saying that the chicken at Qdoba is really good. They season the heck out of for a sort of crispy, smoky BBQ flavor that turns the meat a reddish brown. Ordering the soft taco, however, is not the way to go. The same gummy tortilla issues that plague Qdoba are present here, and the lack of textural contrast between the moist chicken and all of the other ingredients eventually left me bored with the taco.
Chipotle Chicken Hard Taco
Chipotle Chicken Hard Taco
The chicken taco at Chipotle is exhibit A in the taco vs. burrito battle. In great tacos, the main protein shines through and little is needed in the way of extras. Chipotle is primarily a Mission-style burrito palace, so its no great shakes if their chicken doesn't stand out in a baby-sized tortilla filled with black beans, cilantro rice, avocado and a million other ingredients. The hard shelled taco not only wasn't very flavorful (even with the pico de gallo), the whole thing got waterlogged so quickly it was hard to continue past the first bite.
Chipotle Chicken Soft Taco
Chipotle Chicken Soft Taco
We may have finally found an area where Qdoba out-duels Chipotle: their chicken. Not that they serve better tacos. Not by a longshot, in fact. Recreating the ingredients from my same day trip to Qdoba (peppers, onions, a little bit of cheese) on a flour tortilla resulted in a far better experience at Chipotle. Why? The quality of every other ingredient. Chipotle's chicken seriously lacks for salt, whereas Qdoba goes for broke with their wonderful seasonings.
Rubio's Classic Taco
Rubio's Classic Taco
Let's just all assume that in taco chain parlance, 'classic' means 'American', which in turn means 'not good'. Rubio's Classic chicken taco is a mushy, slick mess, filled with a tangy cream sauce that barely bites with some subtle chipotle smokiness. If that weren't enough to drown out the chicken, the bottom of the flour tortilla is spread with guacamole, making this one pasty mess.
Rubio's Gourmet Taco
Rubio's Gourmet Taco
Swap out steak for chicken with Rubio's gourmet taco, and the results are actually slightly better. The chicken offers a few nice tender bites, but is largely a backdrop for all of the fried, melted and dusted cheese, plus avocado and - why not? - bacon. 
Wahoo's Cajun Chicken Taco
Wahoo's Cajun Chicken Taco
Don't be fooled by the coloration of this taco, it's not actually breaded and fried. Instead, it's sort of just rolled in a halfway decent mix of Cajun spices (black pepper, anyone?). The meat itself is actually halfway decent, with plenty of juiciness to fight back against the pile of leaf lettuce. Granted, there's not much here besides lean white chicken breast, but for Wahoo's, this taco is practically a victory.
Wahoo's Regular Taco
Wahoo's Regular Taco
The regular chicken taco at Wahoo's is back to the norm for the chain. Diced bites of chicken make an attempt at flavor with a few browned edges, but without any seasoning or smoky, charred goodness, you almost feel like you're eating some sort of processed protein amalgam from the future, where spices and good cooking techniques have been outlawed.