Few foods are as celebrated, replicated, or fiercely defended as the beloved taco. The Mexican staple has been adopted into America’ s (if not the world’s) everyday diet, making it prime material for countless adaptations and cultural variations. This includes the American rifts on the dish that ushered in crunchy tortilla shells, packet seasonings, shredded yellow cheese, and an affinity for ground meat that vaguely resembles traditional asada. There’s undeniably a lot of debate surrounding tacos, especially amongst those who consider themselves purists. However, your favorite taco will always reign supreme, whether it’s Mexican street style, Tex-Mex, or a vegan alternative from the new hip spot in town. And then there’s another branch of tacos that exists in a category of their own: the restaurant chain taco.
This assembly-line version of the dish is an entirely different experience from taco dinners at home or eating them curbside at your local taquería. Many of these bites come mass-produced and at various price points ranging from 99 cents to over $15. The tortillas can come fried, soft, large, small, and in varying levels of thickness. And then there are the “secret sauces” and spice blends that are shrouded in mystery but give a taco the same exact taste each time we order them. For many American diners, the restaurant chain taco is their primary taco, yet no two are the same. Just like within authentic Mexican cuisine, diversity exists in the fast-food market, which is why we’ve decided to take a deep-dive into the world of franchised eats. This is an honest assessment of restaurant chain tacos commonly found across the USA, ranked from best value to worst.
1. Jack in the Box
The Jack in the Box taco is full of contradictions, but that’s kind of what turned this crispy fast-food item into an icon in its own right. For starters, there is absolutely nothing authentic about this taco, but it’s still somewhat similar to the fried tacos dorados found in Mexican street food. If you peel apart the tortilla shell, you’ll come face-to-face with a very unappetizing brown mush that is somehow addictively delicious. The signature hot sauce is also as close to salsa as Heinz ketchup is to fresh tomatoes, but we still find ourselves drenching our Jack in the Box taco combo with the tangy liquid.
Since its premiere in the 1950s, this taco has kept both late-night eaters and penny pinchers more than satisfied with its ultra-low price point. Nowadays, Jack in the Box sells a two-taco combo for $1.89, or roughly 99¢ per taco. The tacos arrive partially pre-assembled and frozen to Jack in the Box locations, where the tortilla shell and meat are fried whole. The final product is a shell that is crunchy at the edges but noticeably soggy at the center. The meat is a soy and meat mixture that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who frequents fast-food chains, with its minimally appetizing qualities coming from food dyes and healthy amounts of MSG. Once out of the fryer, the tacos get stuffed with their shredded cheese, fresh lettuce, and hot sauce. The cheese doesn’t bring too much to the savory brown mush that we strangely love, but the lettuce does add a much-needed bite of freshness. We’re also not the only ones who can’t explain our admiration for this extremely unappealing taco because more than half a billion of them are eaten per year (that’s nearly a thousand every minute.) It’s confusing, gross, and wonderfully great (and cheap) all at once, so we are forced to give it special recognition as a cultural touchpoint. This tops our list for being one of the tastier options that also comes at an unbeatable price.
Chipotle is probably best known for its forearm-sized burritos and filling bowls, but the tacos are also worthy of some attention. We would argue that Chipotle actually serves the best meat on this menu, with their carnitas, barbacoa, and chicken always coming tender and well-seasoned. The carne asada is also tasty but really only hits the spot when it’s fresh off the grill and not a few hours old (aka a tad rubbery.) Now, we’d usually choose soft tortilla over hard shell every time, but here we’ll make an exception. The tortilla shells at Chipotle get fried in-house, where they get generously salted to actually taste like something. On the other hand, the soft tortillas are very white and a little too thick for our liking. The chewiness of the bread-like tortilla detracts from the tenderness of the meat and lacks the same saltiness as its hard shell counterpart.
The toppings are made fresh in-house as well, with their medium salsa and guacamole receiving a big seal of approval. Would we rank Chipotle’s tacos above its bowl or burrito? Probably not. But they are very convenient for when you don’t have the appetite to finish either of their gargantuan signatures. A set of three chicken tacos (plus guac which is extra) will come out to a bit over $10, placing them on the more expensive side. On the other hand, you can probably justify paying this much for the meat being freshly grilled in-house, but we’ll make you the judge of that.
3. Baja Fresh
Baja Fresh serves a little bit of everything, including chicken, beef, and fish tacos on their relatively large menu. Unfortunately, tortillas here can be a bit on the stale side, but their signature wahoo taco does a good job of masking it. The crispy battered fish has a delicious crunch to it and comes nicely flakey on the inside. It’s not necessarily as airy and decadent as the beer-battered fish tacos you’ll find elsewhere, but it does the job when you’re craving some Baja-style tacos for lunch. The taco gets its serving of the typical cabbage, tomato, onion, and cilantro that you’ll find on fish tacos. For the most part, the produce feels fresh and not soggy, which is important when complimenting seafood. But it’s the tangy and creamy sauce that gets drizzled inside that really brings the whole taco together.
On its own, this taco is well-balanced, light but filling, and very flavorful. If you’re interested in taking the whole thing up a notch (which we strongly recommend), Baja Fresh has our favorite salsa bar on this list. Their famous Baja salsa is a nice black color from the charred tomatoes and chiles and has a great smokiness to it from its chile de arbol. If you’re looking for a sweet and savory combo, sample the mango salsa, which isn’t spicy, but rather tart with blended mango, cilantro, apple and bell pepper. We personally love the 6 Chiles salsa, which is undeniably hot and great for adding a nice kick to the battered fish. This taco won’t transport you to a beach bar in Cabo, but it will definitely get the job done. A two-taco combo with sides will come out to roughly $13, making them pricey but not necessarily break-the-bank expensive. After all, a 99¢ fast-food fish taco might raise a red flag for some diners.
4. El Pollo Loco
The major selling point of El Pollo Loco is its fire-roasted chicken that usually comes juicy with nice glossy skin. You can enjoy their chicken in a plate or bowl, but those searching for lunch tacos can sample their chicken al carbon. The corn tortillas at El Pollo Loco are by far the most authentic ones on this list thus far and come warmed before being served. The chicken is also nicely roasted and comes with the traditional onion and cilantro topping for some added freshness. In other words, this option meets the basic criteria for a good taco, even though there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the chicken. However, the real star at El Pollo Loco is the salsa bar that has a solid pico de gallo and one very good avocado salsa. With some salsa and a spritz of lemon, these chicken tacos are close enough to the street-style versions we know and love. One chicken taco al carbon, with avocado, will cost you about $4.38, making it not too different from Chipotle or other chains that sell tacos in orders of two or three (and assuming you’ll eat more than one.) It’s not our favorite taco but still far from our least favorite.
5. The Cheesecake Factory
It makes no sense but also comes as no surprise that The Cheesecake Factory would have tacos on their menu. After all, their menu is famous for being the length of a long children’s book. Some of these Mexican options include breakfast tacos with cheesy eggs and chicken chorizo or Baja fish tacos with beer-battered fish and chipotle salsa. Our personal favorite is the grilled steak tacos consisting of chargrilled steak, guac, tomato, pickled onion, a smoky chipotle salsa, cilantro, and some crispy onions for added texture. These tacos are more like street-style tacos due to their small size, but the tortillas don’t quite fit the street style mold. The corn tortillas are thicker and a bit crispy without losing their bend. They’re not necessarily great, but not terrible either. If anything, they’re forgettable at worst. The meat is nicely cooked and pairs well with the crispy onion topping, which we find unnecessary but a nice touch. This plate of four tacos goes for slightly over $15, making them the priciest tacos on our list and not necessarily the best. Overall, they score a 6.5/10, which grants them the title of perfectly satisfactory.
6. Del Taco
Considered by some to be Taco Bell’s most similar competitor, Del Taco offers a much more extensive selection of tacos to choose from. Other than choosing between soft or crunchy tortillas, diners can sample grilled chicken, carne al carbon, beer-battered fish, and even Beyond Meat as a vegan option. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on the chain’s original—the Del Taco.
The hard shell tortilla comes in a yellowish tint and packs a good amount of salt with each bite. The flour tortilla, while on the thicker side and mildly sweet, comes soft and warm when you first unwrap it, which is automatically lightyears better than a cold wrap. The ground beef is not 100% beef, but another soy protein and mix concoction that’s both crumbly and chewy. While it can’t compete with actual ground beef, the meat filling is generously seasoned and definitely not bland. The major upside to the Del Taco is that it’s big with very large portions of beef, shredded cheddar and lettuce inside. However, none of the fillings really bring much flavor to the taco, making the whole thing one very boring meal (for only $2.30, that is.) The cheese is vaguely salty, the tomatoes often mushy, and the lettuce is, well, lettuce.
We know what you’re probably thinking: Applebees is not the place to go for tacos. But few chains are as emblematically American as this one. You can basically find an Applebee’s anywhere, whether you’re in a major city or driving through a small town on a lengthy road trip. It can also be argued that Applebee’s menu is where food trends go to die, and in this case, it’s a hybrid of tacos and Chinese wontons. The chicken wonton taco is somewhat of a lab creation that breaks every single rule of taco etiquette, but that’s somewhat expected with massively popular dishes. We understand the logic behind substituting tortilla shells for wontons, especially when pairing them with other Asian flavors. However, the wonton shells at Applebee’s never feel freshly fried and come in a pale yellow that’s not particularly appealing. The chicken is tangy with its tart marinade, and we enjoy the combo of chile and dumpling sauces. The latter has notes of rice vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce and helps brighten the whole dish without being too overpowering. The crunchy coleslaw adds some nice creaminess and crunch to the chicken filling as well. We feel a little weird even calling this a taco, but who are we to make the rules. This dish is tasty, but don’t expect to taste anything remotely Mexican here. An order of four of these wonton tacos comes out to $9.30, making them affordably priced by our standards.
8. Taco Bell
Taco Bell has become the global face of Americanized Mexican food—that is if we can even call its menu “Mexican” at this point. It’s arguably also the most controversial taco on this list as it became a popular favorite amongst diners who confuse it with the Mexican original. As with all popular chains, the menu has changed over the years, but Taco Bell still offers its Taco Supreme in both soft and crunch variations.
According to their website, the meat used in their tacos is 100% USDA premium beef that gets seasoned in Taco Bells’ signature blend. The ground beef has some texture to it, rather than mushy meat fillings found at other chains, but it still lacks the satisfying savoriness of grilled meat. Overall, it’s just okay, with its corresponding tortilla making all the difference. Taco Bell’s tortilla shells are standard but lack the extra salt that keeps them from feeling bland. We don’t think it matters too much in the end once the taco receives its shredded cheese, lettuce, hot sauce, and sour cream, but the tortilla is typically a make-or-break component to a great taco. The newer Dorito Locos Tacos that season the shells with cheesy Dorito seasoning answer the salt question but also turn the taco into a whole other dish that’s honestly a tad too busy for us.
The soft tortilla is different and arguably better than the popular taco shell. It’s dense and as white as printer paper but has a nice chew. In many ways, Taco Bell’s flour tortilla is more similar to a pita bread and could benefit from a toasting before getting stuffed with the ground beef mixture. However, more often than not, the tacos here are just plain sad. It appears that Taco Bell has a firm grasp of its devoted fan base, but it’s never a place we would go for a high-quality taco. On the bright side, these mediocre tacos are only $1.89 each, making them a very economical option.
Another restaurant chain with an eclectic menu, BJ’s is the kind of place you’d go with the whole family or a group of friends for a decent burger and a gooey pizookie (which is undeniably delicious.) If you happen to be feeling tacos during your next visit, they offer some generously portioned blackened shrimp tacos. The first thing you’ll notice about these tacos are their massive flour tortillas that are very starchy, pale and bland. The shrimp aren’t necessarily blackened per se but have some color to them from whatever seasoning they’re sprinkled in. The rest of the taco consists of a napa cabbage salad tossed in chipotle mayonnaise, carrots and red onion that feels very out of place. In many ways, the salad is the most flavorful component of the dish that tries to salvage the underwhelming tortilla and shrimp but still manages to fall short. We appreciate BJ’s attempts to get creative with the classic shrimp taco, but this one seems to miss the mark on multiple fronts.
An order of two comes out to $15.45, making them the most expensive on our list and still not very good. At that point, we’re better off scarfing down 10 taco bell tacos and calling it a night.
Sylvio Martins is a freelance writer and actor based in Los Angeles. He specializes in Latinx cuisine and food culture, and has been previously featured in Eater and The Infatuation.
An earlier version of this story had the entries misordered.