America’s 15 Best Tex-Mex Chain Restaurants
The votes have been tabulated, and The Daily Meal is pleased to announce the 15 best Tex-Mex chain restaurants in America.We rounded up a list of 50 top Tex-Mex chain restaurants around the country and asked you to determine which one is the best based on several criteria: the variety of menu options offered, the best rice and beans, the use of fresh ingredients, the most authentic/unique dishes, the best chips, salsa, and guacamole, and the most flavorful cuisine overall.
Now, we have narrowed it down to the top 15 based on your votes.
Americans love Tex-Mex. There is a reason why there are thousands of these restaurants around the country. But what are the origins of this cuisine, and why do we care so much?
The concept of Tex-Mex is relatively new. The first trace of it popped up in the 1940s, according to Food Timeline. But it didn’t gain momentum until the 1970s when it was deemed trendy.
Tex-Mex gets its name from the restaurants that opened in Southwestern cities with large Mexican populations, and is a take on regional cuisine in Mexico. Some may also argue that it is a version of Mexican food prepared by Texan cooks.
Fast forward to today, and Tex-Mex is available all around the world.
While there’s no debate that there’s a big difference between authentic Mexican cuisine and Tex-Mex (you won’t find a hard-shell taco in Mexico), both Tex-Mex and Mexican foods rely on the same basic ingredients: tortillas, rice, beans, beef, chicken, pork, sauce and cheese (though traditional Mexican fare is a bit more subtle flavor-wise, and usually includes fresh white cheese instead of shredded cheddar).
Even if their menus might be similar, some chains are arguably better than others. And this is why we asked you to be the judge, and put it to a vote. From the rice and beans to the burritos, chips and salsa, Americans are undoubtedly hooked on Tex-Mex.
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Founder Steve Ells knew that he wanted to create a restaurant with affordable, fresh ingredients when he opened the first Chipotle store in Denver in 1993. What he didn’t realize was how large and successful it would be, with more than 1,500 locations in four countries. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Ells made a big change that revolutionized the company: he ensured that all pork and chicken used was naturally raised. Eventually, this led to no trans fat on the menu, the use of naturally raised beef, and more. Today, Ells leads a great effort to push for meat and produce to be raised responsibly. And if that weren’t enough, Chipotle is delicious. They are famous for their burritos, burrito bowls and guacamole. The food is fresh and tasty, but the best part is that you know where all of the ingredients for your meal came from.
2. Baja Fresh
This California-based chain opened in 1990 and, as their name suggests, emphasizes fresh ingredients. Everything is handmade and unprocessed. You will never see a can opener, microwave, lard, MSG or freezers at any of the more than 200 locations of Baja Fresh. Try the Baja Bowl filled with rice, beans, roasted vegetables, onions, cilantro, salsa verde and a choice of either chicken, pork carnitas, steak, line-caught ono fish or grilled shrimp. Or, try one of their premium burritos.
This Mexican grill opened in 1995 in Denver under a different name. Qdoba used to be called Zuma, then Z-TECA Mexican Grill. But because these names were too similar to other restaurants, founder Anthony Miller and partner Robert Hauser settled on the name Qdoba. There are more than 600 locations today and the chain is best known for its Mission-style burritos, a concept from San Francisco. These are customizable burritos with options like roasted chile corn, shredded beef, fajita vegetables, ancho-chile barbecue sauce and a three-cheese queso. Fun fact: It took the folks over at Qdoba 47 attempts to create the perfect blend of the three-cheese queso.
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4. Moe’s Southwest Grill
Known for their crazy menu names and high-quality ingredients, Moe’s is great all around. They promise cage-free chicken, steroid-free and grain-fed pork, grass-fed steak and organic tofu. Also, there are no microwaves, trans fats or MSG to be found. It’s something to be happy about when you take a bite of their Homewrecker Burrito, with rice, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, lettuce, sour cream, guacamole and your choice of meat. Or, try the Funk Meister tacos. It has almost the same ingredients as the burrito, but is served on a flour or crispy corn tortilla. Moe’s has been around since 2000 when the first location opened in Atlanta. Now, with more than 460 locations around the world, Moe’s quirkiness and good food continues to be shared.
5. On the Border
This restaurant epitomizes the culture of Tex-Mex with its name and beginnings in 1986 in Dallas. All dishes are inspired by the tastes of Mexico and Southern Texas, with items like chicken flautas, achiote chicken tacos, homemade guacamole and hand-pressed tortillas. The chain that was originally based on sizzling fajitas and margaritas now has more than 160 locations and serves a wide variety of true Tex-Mex cuisine.
6. Taco Bell
This the largest and most known of all the Tex-Mex chain restaurants. A former Marine named Glen Bell created the concept of Taco Bell in San Bernardino, Calif., when he opened a hot dog stand but realized the real interest was in the alternative menu items, tacos. There are more than 4,600 Taco Bell franchises around the world today. From Crunchwrap Supremes to Chalupas, Taco Bell has created some innovative Tex-Mex. But, the one that has taken the world by storm is the Doritos Locos Taco, with more than $1 billion worth of these gems sold. The genius taco is made of ground beef, lettuce, and cheese stuffed in a Doritos-seasoned crispy taco shell.
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7. El Pollo Loco
Unlike a typical Tex-Mex restaurant, El Pollo Loco started out in Guasave, Mexico, as a roadside chicken stand in 1975. The first American restaurant opened in 1980 in Los Angeles. In English, “El Pollo Loco” means “The Crazy Chicken,” which is what this chain specializes in. The chicken is marinated in herbs, citrus juices and spices, then fire-grilled. Served in burritos, salads and as an entrée, El Pollo Loco’s chicken has customers coming back for more time and time again.
8. Wahoo’s Fish Tacos
Three brothers founded this chain in 1988, taking inspiration from various cultures around the world. Wing, Ed and Mingo combined their love for surfing with a mix of Mexican, Brazilian, Hawaiian and Asian flavors to create the menu. Surfing companies donated stickers and adornments to the first outpost, opened in Orange County, Calif. There are more than 50 locations today, with the most popular menu item being their Citrus Slaw Tacos with fish (of course).
9. Chevys Fresh Mex
As the second-largest Tex-Mex franchise in California, Chevys promises that all of their food has been made from scratch. Founded in 1986 in Alameda, Calif., dining at this restaurant chain is designed to resemble the experience of dining in a cantina or border town café in Mexico. One of the best dishes is the sizzling fajitas with chicken, steak, shrimp, portobello mushrooms or pork carnitas. The best part of the dining experience, however, is Chevys’ in-house tortilla maker, dubbed El Machino. Watch your tortilla being made in this machine, which just adds to the freshness and fun at Chevys.
Chuy’s first came about in 1982 when Mike Young and John Zapp wanted to turn an abandoned building into a restaurant in Austin. When it opened, the restaurant was run-down, with multi-colored tiles, a dirt parking lot, an outdoor restroom and the only adornments on the walls were velvet paintings of Stevie Wonder and Elvis Presley. Although the décor has changed, one thing that has remained consistent throughout all of these years is their South Texas, New Mexico and regional Mexican cuisine. Some of Chuy’s popular items include the chile relleno, which is a stuffed fire-roasted Anaheim pepper with either cheese, ground sirloin, chicken and cheese, or shrimp and cheese. There is also the Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken, which is breaded with Lay’s potato chips and served with a green chile sauce and Cheddar cheese.
11. Del Taco
When this taco joint opened in 1964 in Yermo, Calif., it served burgers for $0.24 and tacos, tostadas and fries for $0.19. Fast-forward to today and, although prices are different, these items and more keep customers coming back. There are American-style tacos like the beer-battered fish taco or more traditional choices like the tacos al carbon with carne asada or chicken, cilantro and onions in a corn tortilla. There are even breakfast options like breakfast burritos to satisfy that Tex-Mex craving early on in the day.
Although Chili’s is known today for its sizzling fajitas, premium burgers and baby back ribs, the restaurant was first inspired by a chili cook-off. Founder Larry Lavine attended a cook-off in Terlingua, Texas, and then decided to open a restaurant in Dallas in 1975, serving burgers, tacos and chili. More than 1,200 locations later, Chili’s has expanded to 24 countries and broadened its menu to include American favorites like the Philly cheesesteak sandwich and Chicken Crispers.
13. El Torito
The California-based franchise first opened in 1954 and continues to serve a taste of Mexico with a modern twist. The Street Taco Trio is one of the favorites, with adobo chicken breast, adobo steak or grilled halibut options and served with beans and rice. Or for a bolder taste, the fire-roasted pasilla chile relleno will set your mouth on fire with the pasilla chile pepper.
14. Taco Cabana
From its beginnings in Alamo City, Texas, in 1978, Taco Cabana has come a long way with more than 160 locations near and around Texas. The restaurant was originally intended to be a casual place to hang out. Now that it has expanded, the Tex-Mex cuisine is a hit. There’s nothing better than sitting on Taco Cabana’s patio catching up with friends. Order the Cabana Sampler, which includes favorites like cheese enchiladas, crispy tacos, chicken flautas and guacamole served with rice, beans and flour tortillas. The conversation with friends will never end.
15. Pappasito’s Cantina
As the Tex-Mex outpost of Pappas Restaurants, Pappasito’s does this cuisine justice. According to their website, more than 3.5 million pounds of tortilla chips are served at the chain’s locations each year. Holy guacamole! And speaking of guacamole, Pappasito’s is prepared tableside with fresh avocado, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and lime juice. What began as a family-owned restaurant business in 1976 has grown to include other cuisines like Greek, steak and seafood. Pappasito’s stays true to its roots, with the majority of its locations in Texas.