Gallery: Which Chain Makes the Best Chicken Taco?

  • 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

    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

    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.

    El Pollo Loco Tortilla Wrap

    Half burrito, half taquito, this unfried tube of chicken and cheese measures out at about eight inches and comes with a garlicky mayo side. If anything, this is a nod to the Middle Eastern rotisserie chicken places that dot the Los Angeles landscape. The full-sized tortilla is an admirable stand in for lavash bread and the chicken mixed pleasantly with the thin ribbons of cheese, but it's a fairly odd choice for the menu board of a Mexican fast food franchise.

    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

    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

    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.

    Green Burrito Honey Mustard Chicken Wrap

    If Green Burritos are always found tucked inside Carl's Jr. burger spots like some sort of permanent pop-up, it stands to reason that a little mix-n-match could happen fairly easily back in the kitchen. Thinking myself smart, I attempted to order a couple of chicken tenders inside of a tortilla for a great little fried chicken taco. Unfazed, the woman at the counter pointed to a small slice of the menu board that clearly listed chicken wraps. Apparently, they've already thought of that.

    This is the honey mustard wrap. It is not good. The lesson here: Don't try to get fancy with chicken and tortillas from a place that can't even pull it together enough to operate as a stand-alone business.

    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

    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

    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 Grilled Chicken Ranch Taco

    Much like the chipotle version of the same ilk, Del Taco's Grilled Chicken Ranch Taco actually isn't awful. It's a bit of a circus taco, or something your last-minute friend might toss together for the Super Bowl, but there's a time and place for that sort of indulgence. The thinner Ranch dressing is toned down considerably, leaving the taco just a little sloppy instead of thick and goopy.

    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

    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

    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 Corn Tortilla Taco

    The problem with the corn tortilla taco at Baja Fresh has more to do with process than preparation. The chicken is nicely grilled and mildly flavorful, but comes chipped into pieces often no bigger than the size of a pencil eraser. It was hard enough to locate a piece big enough to take a photo of, let alone compete with the diced white onions after taking a bite.

    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

    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

    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.

    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!

    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

    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

    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 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.

    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

    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

    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.