Over the past month, we've covered many different chain tacos (see: carnitas, steak, ground beef, and fish). Some taco chains may do steak and fish, but not ground beef. Another place may do carnitas but not steak. Yet, after weeks of staring at the same menus in the same national chains, one thing became abundantly clear: all of them serve chicken.
Ah yes, chicken. The unobtrusive white meat. If you're looking for a quick, lean protein, white chicken breast will do just nicely, and chain tacos all across America have long since known that fact. And, because chicken breast relies so heavily on the flavors around it, diced up chunks of poultry work inside corn or flour tortillas, fried inside taquitos, romping with beans, plastered with cheese or drowned out with cream.
A deft hand can certainly turn the beleaguered bird into something flame-licked and delicious. Or, the right sampling of simple spices can make your chicken soar. But all that takes time, something that many chain places simply don't have. So what's it take to make a great chicken taco?
- Chicken: When it comes to chicken tacos, you're only going to find white breast meat, which is a shame. There are fattier, more fulfilling bits of bird that would certainly do well to elevate chicken tacos from humdrum status, but with these national chains, it's almost always about not rocking the boat. That being said, some of the best tacos on this list were able to pack some nice flavor through seasonings and cooking process. Adding crispy edges and small, smoky bites certainly helps things, as does a healthy dose of salt, pepper and maybe a few other spices while the bird cooks. In general, the large chunks of flame grilled chicken fared much better than wet, pulled chicken or piles of the stuff that's been chopped to death.
- Toppings: Since chicken goes with anything, you'll find toppings all over the place. Many spots offered the standard pico de gallo, or the fast-food friendly unmelted cheddar shreds and strips of pale lettuce. Others went simple, with only some onions and cilantro. Fried chicken taquitos generally offer sour cream and some form of guacamole, to help wash down the thin, fried sticks. For any and all of these, the toppings should support the meat, not overwhelm it. That may be hard to do with thin white strips of chicken, but balance is still key.
- Tortilla: If you're getting a fried chicken option—say, taquitos—corn tortillas are the standard. They should be crisp but not so brittle that they shatter, and ideally wouldn't suck up all the oil in the fryer at the same time. Americanized chicken fast-food tacos generally stick to flour, a more bland backing for the heavy-handed sauces and cheeses that come standard. While not inherently bad, far too many places consider warming the tortilla (either by steamy gummification or too short a time on the griddle) to be an afterthought. That's a mistake.
The Chains We Tried
Wouldn't Kick This Taco Out of Bed
Del Taco Al Carbon Taco
Del Taco Grilled Chicken Chipotle Taco
Del Taco Original Grilled Chicken Taco
Taco Bell Soft Taco
El Pollo Loco Taquitos
El Pollo Loco Crunchy Taco
Green Burrito Honey Mustard Chicken Wrap
Green Burrito Southwest Soft Taco
Rubio's Classic Taco
Baja Fresh Flour Tortilla Taco
Baja Fresh Taquitos
Wahoo's Regular Taco