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

See which menu items from familiar Mexican, or Mexican-leaning, chains—including Taco Bell, Rubio's, Qdoba, Baja Fresh, Chipotle, Wahoo's, Del Taco, Green Burrito, and El Pollo Loco—are actually worth ordering.

  • 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

    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 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.

    El Pollo Loco Ultimate Bowl

    After all that, the Ultimate Bowl is even better. Nearly twice as big, the Ultimate version adds a touch of sour cream, cheese and a few slices of avocado for a nice, smooth, complete blend of protein, dairy, carbs and veggies. And the best part? You can upgrade to Ultimate for less than $1.50 over the regular Pollo Bowl.

    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.


    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: Rubio’s Portobello & Poblano Tacos

    And just like that, all is redeemed. The tacos start with the same fried corn tortilla and cheese that comes standard on their gourmet tacos, and adds in tender slivers of Portobello mushrooms and fired Poblano peppers. The habanero citrus salsa is a bit sweet, but the rest of the mix (including the avocado slices and dusting of cojita cheese) work very well together. In fact, this might be the best gourmet taco version that Rubio’s offers.

    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

    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

    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 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.

    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

    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

    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 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.

    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

    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

    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.

    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.

    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

    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

    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.

    Green Burrito: Hard Shell Taco

    Green Burrito is the little fast food chain that could. Despite being forever linked to the Carl’s Jr. / Hardee’s burger chain, Green Burrito certainly makes an attempt at providing enjoyable Tex-Mex fare.

    The classic hard-shelled taco is a thick, warm, crunchy affair. The corn shell almost tastes more like masa-fried sope or gordita, but with a fast-food bent. It’s probably the only way to keep the taco together, considering the beef has some real greasiness to it.

    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

    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

    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 Sesame Soy Fish Taco

    With fish tacos, sometimes you have to improvise, especially if you’re not near the ocean. The sesame soy fish taco is a far cry from the conventional Baja versions most other places strive for, but it was also the best taco of the day. This taco was topped with lettuce, a touch of wasabi, and some avocado slices all sharing tortilla space with the fish. Tack on the salty, slightly sweet soy sauce with a bit of a sesame pop, and you’ve got a smooth, creamy fish frankentaco on your hands.

    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

    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.