Mexican food spread

Ranking of Mexican Restaurant Chains

Traditional Mexican food encompasses a rich culinary landscape interwoven with the country’s deep history (and color also plays a big role in Mexican food). While you can find restaurants dishing up traditional meals in the United States, the vast majority of Mexican chain restaurants today rely solely on what is known as Tex-Mex cuisine. Tacos with ground beef, burritos the size of your head, and delicious plates of nachos are all hallmarks of Tex-Mex fare. Using its unique blend of flavors, this style of cooking has evolved into a cultural juggernaut and its influences have become a staple of the cuisine.

When ranking the most popular Mexican restaurant chains, it is important to remember that most, if not all, chains favor Tex-Mex over traditional Mexican cuisine. This means ranking restaurants on how close they get to traditional dishes is out the window. Therefore, you need to look at other factors, including the quality and freshness of ingredients, the speed and friendliness of service, and the overall taste of menu items. With that in mind, here are the some most popular Mexican restaurant chains ranked from worst to best.

11. Taco Bell

Taco Bell storefront

Without a doubt, Taco Bell is the most innovative restaurant chains on this list. Starting in 2012, the chain began experimenting with product innovation, launching its incredibly popular Doritos Locos Tacos menu item. Since then, Taco Bell has launched several unique items to mainstream success, including its Naked Chicken Chalupa, Nacho Fries, and Quesalupa. Many of the menu items from Taco Bell have become beloved customer favorites and cultural icons — looking at you, Mexican Pizza. The chain’s dedication to innovation has helped it explode into the fast-food giant it is today, operating over 8,500 locations in 32 countries.

Given Taco Bell’s success in many facets of business, one might wonder why it isn’t higher on this list. Well, several negative factors also need addressing. Perhaps the most glaring problem of all with the chain is its reliance on questionable ingredients. For instance, the restaurant’s refried beans arrive at each store in pellet form, resembling rabbit food, and its so-called “steak” is acquired for pennies on the dollar, which begins to form a “hair gel-like consistency” when left out for too long. In addition to these questionable ingredients, not every Taco Bell innovation lands with consumers or tastes particularly good, such as the inedible waffle taco or Cheetos burrito. For these reasons, while there is still a time and place to eat at Taco Bell, you are better off going with one of the other Mexican restaurant chains on this list.

10. Del Taco

Del Taco storefront

Founded in September 1964 in Yermo, California under the name “Casa Del Taco,” Del Taco is a popular fast-food chain specializing in American-style Mexican food. Since the restaurant’s opening, it has dished up a variety of menu items, including tacos, tostadas, cheeseburgers, and fries. By the 1970s, amid growing success, the chain would expand its menu to include the icon bun taco. Today, Del Taco operates around 600 locations in 16 states in the U.S.

Since the dawn of man, consumers have pondered the age-old question of which is better, Taco Bell or Del Taco? While Taco Bell is more innovative with its menu items, Del Taco beats Taco Bell in several other areas. For one, Del Taco slow-cooks its beans from scratch every day, which beats Taco Bell’s refried bean pellets. Additionally, the chain places a greater emphasis on fresh ingredients than Taco Bell, which Del Taco’s Chief Marketing Officer, Barry Westrum, explained to QSR Magazine. Add on the fact that Del Taco offers plenty of options for vegans and vegetarians, and it has a secret menu worth checking out, and you have a clear winner in the debate, Del Taco. But just because it beats Taco Bell doesn’t mean it deserves a ranking higher than second to last, as the quality at the rest of these spots is just better.

9. Chipotle

Chipotle storefront sign

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Chipotle is a popular Mexican restaurant chain that saw major success during the early 2010s. From its very start, Chipotle had established itself as a food industry pioneer by prioritizing fresh ingredients and meals made from scratch by hand. While not quite a sit-down restaurant, the chain’s dedication to quality set it apart from other fast-food establishments and helped Chipotle coin the term fast casual. The chain’s meteoric rise to power would go on to inspire other restaurants, who all hoped to copy Chipotle’s formula.

Chipotle indeed places great importance on fresh, quality ingredients; however, the chain has struggled with food safety over the years. In 2015, the restaurant experienced a series of E. coli outbreaks at various locations throughout Washington and Oregon. The restaurant would go on to see other outbreaks and more food safety issues over the years, so much so that it agreed to pay a $25 million fine to resolve criminal charges for its role in food poisoning cases from 2015 to 2018. Although Chipotle has since gained a better handle on food safety, the rampant outbreaks have tarnished its reputation, which is why the chain lands lower on this list.

8. El Torito

El Torito storefront

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Claiming to have popularized the “frozen margarita, table-side guacamole, and sizzling fajita platters,” per its website, El Torito is a true pioneer in the world of Mexican restaurants. Founded in 1954 in a rundown tiki bar in Encino, California, the restaurant chain has also helped popularize Taco Tuesdays and the Cinco de Mayo holiday in America. From the beginning, the chain took its “from scratch” motto to heart when it first opened its doors, and that motto still exists to this day. Because of this, El Torito serves up freshly prepared meals made from high-quality ingredients.

Although El Torito was once a popular enterprise in the Mexican food scene in the United States, its popularity has since slipped. In 2011, the restaurant chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the first time, and then in 2018, it filed for bankruptcy for its second time. The size of the chain’s restaurant footprint has also declined over the years, shrinking from 128 locations in 2012 to just 69 locations today. In fact, the restaurant’s very first location in Encino was converted into the Lakeside Cafe in 2016. For these reasons, while El Torito does offer tasty food made from fresh ingredients, it seems the future outlook for the brand is fairly bleak.

7. Cafe Rio

Cafe Rio storefront

Cafe Rio

Since opening its doors in 1997, Cafe Rio has operated under the motto, “fresh food, made fresh.” None of the chain’s 146 locations has any freezers or microwaves, which means nothing is premade there. Staff members begin their day by hand-squeezing limes, chopping fresh vegetables, and simmering sauces. Because of this, every item on the Cafe Rio menu is fresh and made from quality ingredients. This is made more impressive given the diverse nature of the menu, which includes chicken fajita bowls, burritos, quesadillas, nachos, and more.

Still, with only 146 locations under its belt, Cafe Rio is significantly smaller than other restaurant chains on this list. In fact, the chain only operates in 11 states nationwide, which means there are plenty of Americans who haven’t even heard of the brand. However, given Cafe Rio’s success over the years, it wouldn’t be surprising to see it expand its footprint to compete with other more established brands. If Cafe Rio continues its trend of fresh, quality food, then it will likely land on every list of the best Mexican restaurant chains.

6. On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina

On the Border storefront

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Born in 1982 in Dallas, Texas, On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina is a casual dining restaurant with 150 locations in the United States. For over 40 years, the chain has served a variety of Tex-Mex specialties that highlight the bold flavors of both Texas and Mexico. The restaurant accomplishes this by infusing mesquite flavoring in every menu item, which is meant to symbolize a 20 million-acre stretch of dry land between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers where mesquite trees grow in abundance. While this added flavor goes a long way in helping to set the chain apart from the competition, there are other factors at play, as well.

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Portion size is a key differentiating factor at On the Border. The restaurant chain features some of the biggest portions on this list. Meals here are huge, and you’ll often have leftovers by the end of your dining experience. The chain isn’t just generous with its portions either, as it has adopted a “whatever a guest needs” mentality that helps in making you feel welcomed at the restaurant. Still, with only 150 total locations in the United States, it isn’t as well known as other chains on this list, making it a true hidden gem.

5. El Pollo Loco

El Pollo Loco storefront

El Pollo Loco

There is no question about it. If you’re looking for a Mexican restaurant chain serving some of the best chicken on this list, then El Pollo Loco is your best bet. Founded in Mexico in 1975 by Juan Francisco Ochoa, the chain has been dishing up Sinaloa-style, fire-grilled chicken entrées and Mexican-style cuisine since. Whether you’re looking for large family meals, individual chicken meals, or kids’ meals, you cannot go wrong with the store’s signature chicken. For over 45 years, the chain has cooked its poultry the same way, marinated in a citrus blend and grilled slowly over an open flame. As a result, the chicken is tender, juicy, and flavorful.

Given El Pollo Loco’s dedication to grilled chicken over fried chicken, the chain’s menu features many options for more health-conscious consumers. In fact, the restaurant offers an “under 500 calories” menu, which includes several healthy dishes that are low in calories and high in nutrients. Notable items on this menu include the chicken black bean bowl and chicken avocado tortilla wrap. Back in 2020, El Pollo Loco began offering “Chickenless Pollo” tacos and burritos, which are plant-based alternatives for vegans and vegetarians. While this fake meat is surprisingly good, El Pollo Loco’s fire-grilled chicken is still the star of the show, and it, along with the reasons above, is why the chain is ranked so highly.

4. Baja Fresh

Baja Fresh storefront

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“No microwaves. No freezers. No can openers.” That is the motto of Baja Fresh. Since opening its doors in 1990, the fast-casual Mexican restaurant chain has served handmade meals made from farm-fresh ingredients. Nothing is pre-packaged or processed. Everything is made to order using real recipes. Because of its dedication to freshness, Baja Fresh is truly one of the Mexican restaurant chains that stands out.

While Baja Fresh does offer plenty of options for health-conscious consumers, several items on the menu aren’t exactly as nutritious as they could be. For instance, the steak nacho burrito clocks in at 1,380 calories and boasts 3,224 milligrams of sodium and 50 grams of fat. Additionally, the charbroiled steak nachos will set you back 2,120 calories, as well as 118 grams of fat and 2,990 milligrams of sodium. Still, there are other options on the menu if you’re looking for something lighter, such as the shrimp original Baja taco or the fajitas. The food here is tasty, but the products don’t always line up with what you’ll expect to get from Baja Fresh, landing it in fourth place.

3. Wahoo’s Fish Taco

Wahoo's Fish Taco storefront

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Wahoo’s Fish Taco is a fast-casual restaurant chain established in 1988 by three brothers; Eduardo Lee, Renato Lee, and Wing Lam. Hoping to capitalize on their surfing background, the Lee brothers created a menu where surf and turf blended into one. From the very beginning, Wahoo’s menu centered around the brothers’ Chinese and Brazilian heritages mixed with the taste of Baja California. Wahoo’s quickly found a foothold in the surf and skate community, which is deeply engraved in the restaurant’s decor and theming. Still, while the chain’s eclectic decor of surf and skate equipment has attracted a certain clientele, it is Wahoo’s fish tacos that keep customers coming back for more.

Not only does Wahoo’s offer some of the best fish tacos on this list, but it might also be the healthiest Mexican restaurant chain on here. Because of Wahoo’s dedication to fresh ingredients, delicious meals, and its more health-conscious menu, it earns the No. 3 slot of the top Mexican restaurant chains.

2. Qdoba Mexican Eats

Qdoba Mexican Eats storefront

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Over the years, Qdoba Mexican Eats has undergone several name changes. Starting with Zuma Fresh Mexican Grill when it opened its doors in 1995 in Denver, Colorado, the chain changed its name a few years later to Z-TECA. A few years after that, the brand would become Qdoba Mexican Grill. It wasn’t until 2015 that the chain would finally change its name to Qdoba Mexican Eats, which still exists to this day. While the fast-casual restaurant has suffered a few identity crises over the years, its offering of delicious Mexican cuisine has remained constant, so much so that Qdoba is often seen as a direct rival to Chipotle.

Although often compared to Chipotle, a few key differences set Qdoba apart from Chipotle and other Mexican restaurant chains on this list. For one, Qdoba offers a wider range of menu items. For instance, the restaurant’s “trending flavors” menu often features unique offerings, such as its loaded Mexican street corn or citrus lime shrimp burrito. Even Qdoba’s three-cheese queso, which is one of the most beloved menu items, is different than queso at other restaurants because it features a white cheddar base combined with onions, roasted peppers, tomatoes, and other seasonings. Another key difference that sets Qdoba apart is that the chain does not charge extra for guacamole or queso, which is great because it offers some of the best queso on the market. For these reasons, Qdoba is a fantastic Mexican restaurant worthy of checking out.

1. Moe’s Southwest Grill

Moe's Southwest Grill storefront

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Serving as an acronym for “Musicians, Outlaws, and Entertainers,” Moe’s Southwest Grill is a fast-casual restaurant chain founded in Atlanta, Georgia in 2000. A relative newcomer to the list of Mexican restaurant chains, Moe’s has quickly made a name for itself and has set itself apart from the competition. Featuring a menu of burritos, tacos, nachos, and more, Moe’s utilizes only the freshest ingredients, and every item is made by hand from scratch; however, it isn’t just the food that sets Moe’s apart from its rivals.

Friendly customer service is at the forefront of Moe’s Southwest Grill. Walk into any of the chain’s 600-plus locations and you’ll be instantly greeted with a hearty, “Welcome to Moe’s!” While it may startle you if it’s your first visit, you will quickly get a sense that you are truly welcomed at the establishment. It isn’t just the greeting that evokes a sense of welcomeness at Moe’s. If you order anything off the menu, you’ll receive free bottomless chips and salsa with your order, which helps you feel at home at the restaurant. Because of these reasons, Moe’s Southwest Grill is a truly unique Mexican restaurant chain that will leave you coming back for more.

Methodology

Inside Mexican restaurant chain

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When ranking the most popular Mexican restaurant chains, it isn’t about how close to traditional Mexican cuisine the restaurant gets. As mentioned previously, most Mexican restaurant chains in the United States offer a menu of Tex-Mex cuisine. Therefore, you need to look at other factors when ranking these restaurants.

The first factor analyzed when making this list was the quality and freshness of the ingredients used. Fresh ingredients are a top priority when making quality meals and often translate to better-tasting food, for which taste was another factor for the ranking. A restaurant needs to utilize only the freshest of ingredients or its menu will leave a bad taste in your mouth (pardon the pun). In this regard, Taco Bell is at the lower end because of its use of questionable ingredients. Another factor analyzed for the ranking was speed and quality of customer service. Simply put, the more friendly the restaurant, the more likely you’ll want to visit it. With that in mind, Moe’s Southwest Grill truly stands out on top when compared to other Mexican restaurant chains.

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