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.
Taco Bell: Fresco Hard Taco
The hard shelled Fresco version is a lesson in healthy futility, as the fresh veggies can’t overcome the hard, slightly stale corn tortilla. The result is a taco that isn’t light enough to feel healthy and isn’t filled with enough sour cream or mystery spicy cream sauce to work through the dry shell.
Taco Bell: Soft Taco
The steak soft taco is a classic upgrade from your ground beef college days. The beef has that same warmth and salty bite, but doesn’t have any real steak chew. Instead, you’re sort of getting a rehydrated pot roast taco, which is a lot mushier than you might have expected going into things.
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.
Del Taco: Soft Taco
The regular steak soft taco is such a departure from their regular menu that it was shocking at first. The large chunks of steak aren’t quite as smoky as the al carbon version, but it might be hard to tell underneath the gallon of pre-poured hot sauce. The weak cilantro and pale white onions try to sell this taco as a bigger version of a normal carne asada street taco, but the quality just isn’t there.
Del Taco: Fat Taco
Lovingly referred to as the Fat Taco on the menu boards I found (but labeled as the more PC "Flatbread Taco" on the website), this flatbread amalgamation was all bread and no filling. A few thin strips of reheated steak plus some pale veggies and a dust of cheese can’t overcome the quarter-inch thick pita it comes wrapped in.
Baja Fresh: Original Taco
Often with steak preparations, simpler is better. With that mantra, the Original steak taco from Baja Fresh won the day. You can hear them grilling the meat behind the counter when you walk up, which is always a great sign. What you can’t hear is the liberal use of salt and spices that really make the beef pop. It’s not the best carne asada you’ll have, but it’s the best you can find in a food court, that’s for sure.
Baja Fresh: American Soft Taco
If Americans really love shredded cheddar cheese this much, we’re all in deeper trouble than I thought. The fantastic steak barely shines under the heaving mound of dairy, let alone the strips of lettuce and bundle of chopped tomatoes. The corn tortilla has also been swapped in for flour here, and arrives well-griddled but much too thick for the ingredients it holds.
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.
Rubio's: Street Taco
The classic street taco attempts to swing wildly the other way, with plenty of steak on a smallish single corn tortilla. Unfortunately, the steak is bone-dry (think beef jerky that was cut twice as thick and smoked half as long). Sensing an opening, the guacamole took over this taco quickly, leading to a smooth-vs-dry competition with no winners.
Rubio's: Classic Taco
The classic taco is basically a larger, slightly expanded street taco. The guacamole and bad steak is still there, under some pico de gallo and lettuce shreds. The dry, cracking corn tortilla makes this taco a complete no-go.
Chipotle: Hard Shell Taco
The steak here is basically a slightly thinner version of a cheap restaurant steak. It’s got the pink interior and plenty of chew, but remains sadly underseasoned. As with most build-it-yourself places, the main ingredient is painfully lacking any particular flavor, since it has to work with so many different possible ingredients. At least the hard corn shell tastes fresh and warm.
Chipotle: Soft Taco
An attempt to turn the soft taco into a fajita of sorts (in hopes of reviving the undersalted steak) didn’t fare much better. Because the tacos at Chipotle are such a simpler preparation than a two-pound burrito, the individual components have to stand out that much more. Sadly, they don’t.
Qdoba: Hard Shell Taco
Much like the competition, Qdoba’s steak needs a little more salt and spices to really get the party going. There’s not much char here, either, meaning you’ve got a softish piece of meat tucked inside a thin corn tortilla shell. Things don’t work as well here as they did with the ground beef taco, and pairing the steak up with peppers and onions produced the same mediocre results as Chipotle.
Qdoba: Soft Taco
The tortilla steaming process at Qdoba is a joke. Since it’s the necessary first step, your tortilla does nothing but cool down as it makes its way down the line. By the time you pay and get a drink and napkins and sit down, you’ve got nothing but a lukewarm, gummy flour tortilla on your hands. What you’re left with is a taco that should have twice the flavor and quality of a fast food version, but doesn’t really feel or taste like it.
Wahoo's: Soft Taco
Hands down, this was the worst steak taco of the day. Low quality beef, pounded almost flat and then… boiled? There sure aren’t any grill marks. So how does steak get this uniformly grey and tasteless? When plated with plain white rice and undercooked black beans, it starts to seem like Wahoo’s is some bizzaro Mexican food joint that someone started in Norway and franchised to the U.S. A lot of the basic ingredients are there, but in ways no Mexican food lover would recognize.