Mexican food is an internationally loved cuisine that is both simple and complex, combining basic ingredients of corn masa, beans, and meat with a vast array of multi-ingredient sauces, garnishes, and slaws. Mexican food is a perfect combination of tangy, spicy, sweet, and savory flavors that has grown and evolved into a multi-billion-dollar chain restaurant industry in the U.S.
Most Mexican chain restaurants in the U.S. deem themselves Tex-Mex cuisine as they fuse Mexican flavors with more American ingredients like cheddar cheese, hard-shelled tacos, and flour tortillas, not to mention a major reduction of heat and spice levels typical in authentic Mexican salsas.
Whether you’re a purist or Tex-Mex lover, you can find a Mexican restaurant to fit your fancy no matter where you reside in the U.S. by heading to one of the best Mexican chain restaurants we mention in the following section.
America’s 13 Best Mexican Chain Restaurants
We have chosen the 13 best Mexican chain restaurants for your dining pleasure. Each one has a distinct mission and concept, but they are all excellent choices to get your Tex-Mex or Mex-Mex fix.
Originating in Austin, Texas, in 1982, Chuy’s was founded by Micheal Young and John Zapp. Chuy’s is the most inventive and quirky Tex-Mex chain on our list, keeping with its home city’s motto to “Keep Austin Weird.” These restaurants are decked out with Elvis and other retro memorabilia along with traditional Mexican decorations and ‘50s era brightly-colored vinyl booths and chairs.
Their menu includes every Tex-Mex item under the sun including, enchiladas, fajitas, chile Rellenos, quesadillas, burritos, and bottomless baskets of chips, salsa, and their famous creamy jalapeno dip. One of the most popular menu items is the Chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito with a perfectly crunchy outer layer covered with your choice of creamy queso or creamy jalapeno sauce. This franchise has mastered the art of frying and has the best chips on earth.
They currently have 95 restaurants in 19 U.S. states.
2. Baja Fresh
Baja Fresh first opened in 1990 in California, advertising Mexican food made with fresh, homemade ingredients. Baja Fresh prides itself on committing to non-processed and fresh ingredients, claiming that all ingredients come directly from the farm and all preparation methods are human-powered; cans, microwaves, freezers, and MSG are banned from Baja Fresh premises.
Baja Fresh’s menu is simple, tasty, and, best of all, fresh. They serve burritos, salads, quesadillas, fajitas, tacos, nachos, and more. A popular menu item is the Baja Bowl, a sort of deconstructed burrito with rice, beans, meat or fish protein, and your choice of salsa. Due to the fresh, homemade concept, their salsas are especially delicious; choices include mango salsa, 6 Chiles, salsa verde, and Molcajete, to name a few.
They currently have over 200 locations around the U.S.
3. Torchy’s Tacos
Starting as a humble food truck in South Austin, Texas, Torchy’s Tacos quickly became the most popular taco joint in town and now has 75 locations with plans to open an additional 80 locations by 2023.
Torchy’s tacos are not your average two-ingredient taco; they are unique, elaborate, and enormous tacos with at least seven ingredients and silly names like the Dirty Sanchez and the Trailer Park. They also have delicious sides like authentic Mexican Street corn, which is grilled corn topped with spicy mayo, lime juice, and cotija cheese.
Chipotle is a multinational Mexican fast-food chain specializing in burritos and burrito bowls with over 3000 locations in the U.S. alone. The first location opened in Denver, Colorado, in 1993, serving burritos inspired by San Francisco’s Mission District taquerias founder Steve Ells frequented during his time living there.
Despite its fast-food designation, Chipotle breaks the mold by using fresh produce and natural, responsibly sourced meat and dairy products. All ingredients are visible to customers who choose which ingredients they want in their burrito or burrito bowl.
5. Qdoba Mexican Eats
Another Denver-native Mexican food chain, Qdoba, was originally called Zuma and changed its name a second time before settling on the widespread franchise we all know today. Qdoba’s two co-founders opened Zuma in 1995, and by the time it transformed into Qdoba, it began expanding. There are currently over 600 Qdoba locations in the U.S.
Their concept is customizable Mexican platters that fit all dietary needs, including keto, gluten-free, and vegetarian. They have unique salsas like ancho-chile barbecue and special burrito menu items like roasted chile corn. Their most popular dip is the three-cheese queso, a creation that took years to perfect.
6. Taco Bell
By far the largest, most globally famous franchise on the list, Taco Bell has over 7,000 locations worldwide, serving a whopping 2 billion customers annually. Taco Bell’s founder, Glen Bell, opened the first Taco Bell in Irvine, California, in 1962. Far from authentic Mexican food, Taco Bell’s menu is best described as Americanized Mexican food, where tacos come in a fried hardshell with shredded lettuce, cheese, and ground beef.
Nevertheless, their Mexican-inspired menu items have garnered a cult following as well as countless memorable publicity feats; who will ever forget the series of commercials with the talking Chihuahua reciting “Yo Quiero Taco Bell”?
7. Del Taco
Originating in Yermo, California, in 1964, Del Taco has a mixed menu of Mexican and American fast-food items, including burgers and fries along with their famous and cheap tacos. They serve a mix of Tex-Mex tacos in soft flour tortillas with shredded cheese and fish or fajita grilled meats, but they also serve traditional, simpler Mexican meat and corn-tortilla tacos with the classic chopped onion and cilantro garnish you’ll see in authentic taquerias.
There are currently 547 Del Taco locations across 16 states.
8. Moe’s Southwest Grill
Founded in Atlanta in 2000, Moe’s Southwest Grill now has over 460 locations in the U.S. and internationally. Along with cute and catchy publicity campaigns and descriptions of their menu items, Moe’s prides itself on using fresh ingredients and humanely raised, steroid-free, high-quality meat products.
With names like the Homewrecker Burrito or the Funk Meister tacos, eating at Moe’s is healthy and fun. They also have plenty of vegan items, using tofu as a protein instead of the standard rice and bean combo. A unique menu item is called the stack, which appears to be a sort of Mexican calzone with a soft grilled tortilla that encases a corn-chip shell stuffed with meat, gooey cheese, sour cream, black beans, tomatoes, and cilantro.
9. Taco Cabana
Another Texas-native chain and favorite of drunk college kids everywhere, Taco Cabana has over 160 locations, the majority of which are in Texas. They are open 24-hours and serve the best queso ever, accompanied by fresh, hot flour tortillas made in-house. They have a classic tortilla machine that churns out hundreds of tortillas by the hour.
The smell is intoxicating, and the process is mesmerizing to watch.
Most Taco Cabanas have outdoor patios decorated with the traditional stings of square-shaped colorful paper cutouts. There is also a condiment bar replete with salsas, pico de gallo, limes, and more to garnish your entrees as you see fit.
10. Pappasito’s Cantina
Texas does it again with this dine-in family-style Mexican food restaurant chain, founded ironically by a Greek family. The Pappas family has other franchise restaurants, including Pappas Bros. SteakHouse, Pappa’s Seafood, Yia Yia Mary’s Greek Food, and Pappadeaux Seafood, to name a few. All Pappas restaurants are excellent, and Pappasito’s Cantina is no exception.
Greeks know how to grill meat, and consequently, Pappasito’s is famous for its sizzling mixed grill fajita plate along with fresh, made-to-order guacamole that your server will prepare tableside.
11. El Pollo Loco
El Pollo Loco is the only franchise on the list that originated in Mexico and is thus the only truly authentic Mexican food restaurant. They also stand out as a specialty Mexican food restaurant because they only serve Mexican-style fire-grilled chickens. As is customary, Mexican whole chicken preparation involves marinating the chicken in a mixture of fresh herbs, orange and lime juices, and plenty of spices, then grilled over open flames.
Their chicken has a unique flavor and is always super juicy. If you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out! They have nearly 500 locations in the U.S.
12. Wahoo’s Fish Tacos
Surf’s up year-round at Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. Founded in 1988 in Orange County, California, by three surfer brothers, Wahoo’s Fish Tacos is a fusion of Brazilian, Hawaiian, and Asian flavors packed into a traditional Mexican fish taco. This original idea caught on, and the restaurant grew into the 50-location franchise it is today.
While they have diversified their menu to include Tex-Mex items like enchiladas, Wahoo’s specializes in fish and seafood tacos and blends international cuisines for innovative taco toppers like citrus slaw. Additionally, their menu changes depending on the state or region in which the restaurant is located, intending to serve the freshest locally sourced fish for their tacos.
13. El Torito
Lastly, the oldest chain restaurant on our list is El Torito which was founded in 1954 in California, where the majority of its 69 locations are located. El Torito is a sit-down, family restaurant with all the classic Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican favorites, including enchiladas, fajitas, burritos, tacos, and guacamole galore.
They also offer an elaborate Saturday breakfast menu with innovative Mexican-American fusion plates like churro pancakes and a Mexican “steak and eggs” with Carne Asada. There are also traditional Mexican breakfast dishes like Chilaquiles and Huevos Rancheros.
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