Slideshow: Mexican Fast Food: 30 Tacos and Burritos Actually Worth Eating

Baja Fresh Corn Taco
Baja Fresh Corn Taco
I’ve really come to appreciate the line that Baja Fresh draws in the sand between their corn and flour tortilla options. Choosing one is opening the window to an entirely different taco experience. The corn tortillas come double-stacked and steamed, packed with a large pile of nicely rendered pig. Diced onions can overwhelm certain bites, but for the most part work with the earthy pork to mix flavors textures for a satisfyingly simple carnitas rendition.
El Pollo Loco Pollo Bowl
El Pollo Loco Pollo Bowl
Man, the chicken at El Pollo Loco is great. Grilled over open flame right there in the open kitchen, each bite is tender and still a little juicy, with the flame-licked bits of smoky goodness every chicken deserves. Piled onto a smallish bowl with fresh white diced onions and a field full of cilantro, you've already got a nice little meal. Then, when you're mixing everything together, you notice something genius: Whole pinto beans, hidden beneath the seasoned rice and toppings, waiting to be discovered. You might need to load up at the salsa bar, but the Pollo Bowl is a great fast lunch option.
Wahoo's Wafu Bowl
Wahoo's Wafu Bowl
Wahoo's menu offers all of their meat choices as bowl options, but given that we've dissected them all already, I opted to also try the only remaining protein available: Tofu. In this case, tofu mixed with the mushrooms I liked so much last week. Opting for brown rice and white 'Cajun-style' beans makes this a decidedly un-Mexican dish, but the tender tofu squares with a hint of peppery seasoning should not be overlooked. This was definitely one of the best bowls I found.
Baja Fresh
Baja Fresh
This was by far the cheesiest of all the burritos we tried. Actually, I was surprised at how dainty all of the other places were with cheese, considering it’s a mainstay in so many veggie options available on the fast-food market. This was also one of the few burritos that didn’t come with rice. By paring down the burrito’s size and focusing on the grilled onions and peppers, the freshness and simple flavors that I imagine a lot of vegetarians are looking for absolutely shine through.
Taco Bell Seven-Layer Burrito
Taco Bell Seven-Layer Burrito
This simple, classic vegetarian fast food burrito option still works. The guacamole and sour cream added to the beans and rice are done with a swift hand, never letting too much get in the way. The tomato is more noticeable in this burrito too, in a good way. Unfortunately, the hot shreds of lettuce get rubbery pretty quickly, but you can’t expect perfection here.
Qdoba
Qdoba
Wow, does Qdoba kick Chipotle to the curb with its version of the veggie burrito. First, they wrap up grilled squash and zucchini with fun add-ons like tortilla strips. Secondly, the folks at Qdoba aren’t so beholden to guacamole as a mainstay. Instead, ordering up a big ol’ burrito here means much more balance between cilantro rice, black beans, grilled veggies and toppings like corn salsa, pico de gallo, sour cream and guac.

One more thing: I’ve been very critical of Qdoba and their steamed tortilla operation since day one, but this is the first time I actually sort of got it. Sure, it still makes the tortilla lukewarm and a little rubbery, but with this many fresh ingredients packed inside, it’s absolutely needed. Any spillage with this bomb would absolutely spell disaster.

BONUS: Wahoo’s Mushroom Tacos
BONUS: Wahoo’s Mushroom Tacos
Man, oh man. It took weeks and weeks of me making fun of Wahoo’s but we finally found something they’re actually good at. Decent chunks of browned mushrooms are glazed in a sweet-ish Polynesian marinade, without sacrificing on tenderness and mushroom funkiness. The cheese adds a nice touch of dairy coolness, and I don’t even mind the pulled leaf lettuce and pale tomatoes that much.
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.
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.
Qdoba Hard Taco
Qdoba Hard Taco
Now, this is the way to go. By pairing up Qdoba's fantastic BBQ-inspired chicken with the thin, crisp corn shell, you get an array of textures and tastes. All that's really needed to help things out is a light dusting of cheese and some salsa. However, if you want to go off the rails here - into some sort of nacho taco multiverse - ask for a cup of the melted cheese that's available as you order. A thick sweep will do wonders to turn your hard shell chicken taco into foldable nachos in a millisecond!
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. 
Rubio's Street Taco
Rubio's Street Taco
For the most part, the pared down 'street' version of Rubio's chicken taco is a winner. The guacamole is still overpowering and pasty, but the large bites of chicken show off plenty of charred bits and grill marks, which offer a nice balance. The tortilla is no great shakes, but with a little salsa from the wonderful salsa bar, you're right back in business.
Chipotle Soft Taco
Chipotle Soft Taco
For as good as the hard corn shell taco is, the soft flour version is even better. Lead with the fact that you’re only getting meat and salsa, and the pitying taco ‘tender behind the glass will pack your tortilla with extra bits of porky satisfaction. The tomatillo salsa verde is fantastic, with enough little seeds and chopped bits of onion to be warm and booming with flavor, without even thinking of overwhelming the delicate carnitas.
Chipotle Hard Taco
Chipotle Hard Taco
The carnitas at Chipotle is an absolute delight for chain standards. Sure, it’s not the crusted, salted, perfectly braised pork you’ll find at Tacos Los Guichos, but there are real bites of crispy pork skin and tender flesh here. Rather than being chopped or pulled into oblivion, the carnitas chunks are thick and hearty, shining through the cheese, veggies and crisp corn tortilla. This is the sort of taco balance that most other places wish they could find.
Baja Fresh Corn Taco
Baja Fresh Corn Taco
I’ve really come to appreciate the line that Baja Fresh draws in the sand between their corn and flour tortilla options. Choosing one is opening the window to an entirely different taco experience. The corn tortillas come double-stacked and steamed, packed with a large pile of nicely rendered pig. Diced onions can overwhelm certain bites, but for the most part work with the earthy pork to mix flavors textures for a satisfyingly simple carnitas rendition.
Taco Bell: Fresco Soft Taco
Taco Bell: Fresco Soft Taco
In an attempt to win over the fresh and healthy crowd, Taco Bell’s been upping their taco game as of late. The Fresco sub-menu pares down the excess of the original steak tacos by ditching cheese and the extremely creamy avocado Ranch sauce. The overall taco is also smaller, with diced tomatoes swapped for pico de gallo and the same shredded lettuce as always.
Del Taco: Taco Al Carbon
Del Taco: Taco Al Carbon
For all its failings as a ground beef taco enterprise, Del Taco scored a winner with their steak taco al carbon. Imbued with a smoky, coal-fired flavor and touched off with a nice char, this was easily the best fast-food version we tried. The steamed tortillas and puddle of guacamole were still a disappointment, but nothing a little hot sauce couldn’t kick in the teeth.
Rubio's: Gourmet Taco
Rubio's: Gourmet Taco
You can’t get much further away from a traditional steak taco preparation than this. The thick flour tortilla is griddled until crispy, then splashed with cheddar cheese that melts right into the masa. The wide cuts of asada-style steak have to then compete with avocado slices, cojita cheese, a heavy dose of spicy cream sauce and bacon chunks. There’s a bit too much going on for our tastes, but damned if a bite or two isn’t pretty tasty.
Taco Bell: Soft Taco
Taco Bell: Soft Taco
Taco Bell is the bigshot on the list, with the most locations worldwide. They also happen to be the most inventive with their ground beef tacos, offering the ingredients up in all manner of devices: Doritos shells, crispy Gordita concoctions, or hard-shell-wrapped-in-beans-wrapped-in-soft-shell, Inception style.

The soft shell taco is perhaps their most well-known; it’s practically given away as a side with every purchase. The warm flour tortilla shows slight leoparding and a touch of crunch to make it easily the best fast food version we tried. The beef is as wet as the rest, but with plenty of spice to give it a salty, lightly chili-powdered taste. Despite the forgettable orange cheddar cheese, the rest of the toppings (including an errant tomato or two) were crisp, fresh and vibrant.

Taco Bell: Double Decker Taco
Taco Bell: Double Decker Taco
If you like the add-ons of the Crunch Supreme but find yourself pining for the soft flour tortilla, you can spring the extra few cents for a Double Decker taco, and get beans as an added bonus. Basically a hard-shelled Supreme wrapped in a flour tortilla with beans as an intermediate binding, the play of different textures is an inventive choice that works well, although the creamy beans and wet beef are a bit much.
Qdoba Hard Shell Taco
Qdoba Hard Shell Taco
On the soft shelled version, the tortilla is thick but never really warms up, leaving a chewy, sometimes rubbery taco on your hands. The thin hard-shelled corn variety is much better, with just the right crunch to combat the beef and sour cream. While the rest of the toppings are still pretty sparse, there’s plenty of cheese to go around as well.
Rubio’s Fish Taco Especial
Rubio’s Fish Taco Especial
The Especial is an upgrade from the otherwise boring Original Fish Taco. The addition of guacamole with some jack and cheddar cheese shreds is certainly indulgent, but helps to mask a beer batter that otherwise falls flat. The fish is Alaskan Pollock and is served on a single warm, thick tortilla. Corn and flour are both available upon request.
Wahoo's Kalua Pig Bowl
Wahoo's Kalua Pig Bowl
I was pretty critical of Wahoo's carnitas taco offerings a few weeks back, but I have to say that I'm very pleased with their simple bowls. By stripping away the lackluster tortilla and removing the pile of shredded lettuce and pico de gallo, the teriyaki-glazed pig really has the chance to shine. It's nicely pulled and sufficiently tender, with a good salting and a hint of sweetness. The accompanying pile of white rice needs some sort of cilantro / spice kick, but otherwise this is a fine, fast bowl option.