As a native Texan, suffice it to say that I have opinions about tacos. I suppose it’s the case that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs as to what constitutes a “good” taco, but given my upbringing and my general stubbornness, I’m inclined to believe that when it comes to ranking tacos, there is, in fact, one correct answer. And that answer is that gas station tacos in small towns all across the great state of Texas are the best tacos in the continental United States.
Alas, be that as it may, it probably isn’t feasible for you (or me) to frequent said gas stations across the Great State. But luckily, there are a number of alternatives put forth by your friendly neighbourhood fast-food chains that will, in fact, get the job done when you’re craving nothing more than a soft shell filled with carnitas.
To determine where to get the best fast-food tacos, INSIDER went to five fast-food restaurants as part of an ongoing taste-test series. To keep things consistent, we sampled the standard chicken taco at all six locations.
Here’s what we sampled:
Keep scrolling to see who won over our taste buds.
Freebirds gives you the most freedom
Freebirds brings a DIY approach to your tacos, which makes them all the more delicious because they’re made just the way you want them. I love the way Freebirds steams its tortillas – corn or flour – before filling them (either for a burrito or for a soft shell taco), and you can choose from a wide range of proteins and extras to make your ideal taco.
The chicken is well-seasoned and cubed in such a way that is conducive to filling a taco – that is to say, if you take a bite, you won’t find yourself attempting to catch half your taco’s stuffing.
For the vegetarians among us, Freebirds has added a Beyond Meat option in addition to its trusty fajita style veggies (which actually comes with guacamole). You can also select from a range of different bean options, as well as a variety of sauces that really do make (and not break) the resulting taco.
Chipotle is the most widely available (among the “higher-end” chains)
Chipotle adopts a similar approach to Freebirds, offering customers the option to create their own tacos. I tend to think that Chipotle’s chicken is a bit over-seasoned – it’s hard to taste past all the salt you’re consuming, but if you’re someone who prefers extremely savoury offerings, Chipotle may be the one for you.
The chain also offers very generously-sized portions, giving you plenty of bang for your buck. When it comes to building your own taco, all you have to do is choose your preferred protein, and it’s here that Chipotle really differentiates itself from the pack.
Although Freebirds offers Beyond Meat, Chipotle is the trailblazer in its unique sofritas option, which just may be my favourite among the vegetarian choices in the mix. Chipotle, however, does insist upon a bit more purity when it comes to filling your tacos – you’re limited to salsa, sour cream, cheese, and romaine for your traditional toppings, and then have the option of adding on guacamole or queso.
Taco Bell is the cheapest
No list of fast food taco joints would be complete without your friendly neighbourhood Taco Bell. While it probably won’t get points for authenticity, it does get points for being supremely convenient and supremely inexpensive. It’s also not entirely unhealthy, despite what you may think about fast food chains. You can now opt for either vegan or vegetarian options, and Taco Bell also has an app that gives you greater insight into exactly what you’re putting into your body.
Taco Bell’s Chicken Soft Taco is extremely basic – it just contains shredded chicken, “real cheddar cheese,” and crisp lettuce. It tastes … exactly like you’d expect it to, but when you’re just getting through a long day and need a quick snack, it hits the spot.
Moe’s offers free chips with its tacos
It’s not so much the tacos that keeps us coming back to Moe’s, but what you get with your tacos. And when it comes to food that’s both fast and free, look no further than this Tex-Mex chain, which offers complimentary chips and salsa with your purchase. As for the tacos at Moe’s, those are pretty substantial, too.
I’m a big fan of two of their more distinctive toppings – the pickled onions and the avocado lime crema. The onions add just the right note of acidity and tang, while the crema offers a cooling effect that is much more interesting than plain sour cream (with the added bonus of being avocado-flavored). When paired with the chicken taco, you get a result that is decidedly distinct from the offerings put forth by other chains.
Alas, vegetarians may not have as easy of a time at Moe’s, given that their protein options are steak, chicken, and carnitas, but if you’re an omnivore, this is a pretty solid option.
Qdoba may have the best menu options
We’ve been playing up the option of DIY tacos thus far, but every once a while, a fast-food chain comes up with a menu item that doesn’t require any fixing. And for many people, that’s the Drunken Yardbird from Qdoba.
Featuring tequila lime chicken, guacamole, salsa verde, minced onion, cilantro, and cotija cheese, this sounds like a taco that you might expect from a slightly more upscale environment.
This particular fast-food chain does a consistently good job of creating unique tacos that may not be as simple and straightforward as other chains, but are certainly bursting with flavour. And for that, we’ve got to give Qdoba major props.
Ultimately, when it comes to the best tacos around, I’ve got to tip my hat to Freebirds. Sure, it had the hometown advantage for me, but it also offers the widest range of customisation options, which makes it ideal for picky eaters and folks who know exactly what they want.
As for the runner-up, I’d have to go with Moe’s, which offers not only free chips to sweeten the deal, but also rather unique toppings.
Honestly though, for situations when you just need a taco, go ahead and patronize your local Taco Bell. You may be surprised by how well it hits the spot.