When we set out to create the Ultimate Texas Tacopedia, we meant it. That includes sampling fast-food tacos at regional and national chains across the state. While there are dozens of tacos that might be categorized as fast food, we focused on drive-through options for this story. That’s fitting, since drive-throughs have been busier than ever during the pandemic.
If you’re going to idle at the ordering board and shout your taco picks into a microphone, you might as well do so confidently. That’s where this roundup comes in. I’ve grouped and ranked the chains and their menu options into three categories, with number one being the best: breakfast tacos, hard tacos, and soft tacos. My tasting companion and I ordered our tacos via drive-through to limit contact and tried an average of three tacos at each joint. We ate on the trunk of the car in every business’s parking lot to give each taco its best chance to remain hot and retain structural integrity. (Unless you want to risk your crunchy taco going soggy, I suggest you do the same.) Every taco was judged on taste, preparation, and texture.
1. Taco Cabana
Taco Cabana has had a rough year. Its Dallas-based parent company had to close nineteen Texas stores even before the pandemic of 2020 hit, and it’s since sold nine locations. None of that diminishes the fact that Taco Cabana makes the best fast-food drive-through breakfast tacos in Texas. The flavorful flour tortillas especially stand out; they’re made on-site at each location. In the chorizo, egg, and cheese taco, the chorizo is mixed with the eggs as they cook, leaving tasty patches of orange oil on the inside of the tortillas. Taco Cabana also passes the breakfast taco litmus test with its potatoes. They are well seasoned, browned on the corners, and have fluffy interiors. Served all day, the breakfast tacos are available in assorted boxes of one dozen—a rare option perfect for road-trip meals.
2. Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q
Founded in 1989 in Leon Springs outside San Antonio, Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q operates 46 locations across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma (a forty-seventh store is planned for Panama City, Florida). You’re likely to see the words “Breakfast Tacos” blazoned somewhere on the building’s exterior. These tacos are easily ordered via drive-through, and they’re solid. On a busy morning, sometimes you just want a quick, simple taco with a little flavor, and Rudy’s fits the bill. The brisket in the brisket, egg, and cheese isn’t overly smoky. Then again, none of the components are overly anything. The chorizo, egg, and cheese is a little better because the kitchen staff at Rudy’s mixes the chorizo and egg into one filling. Chorizo and eggs should always be served mixed in a breakfast taco.
3. Carl’s Jr.
Carl’s Jr. goes all in on its breakfast burritos. Most of them are wrapped in extra-chewy flour tortillas. We ordered a bacon and egg burrito, a Beyond Sausage Burrito, and the Big Country Burrito. The latter was the standout: a super-cheesy salt bomb pleasantly bursting with crispy hash browns, bacon, and ham, lathered in country sausage gravy. It’s perfect for noshing on the go.
Pass on: The breakfast taquitos at Whataburger might be famous, but they’re also underwhelming, with bland fillings in overly chewy tortillas. The best of them is the peppy breakfast sausage with American cheese. The seed-flecked salsa verde does a decent job of salvaging the taco. I also wasn’t a fan of the breakfast tacos I sampled at the Frisco location of Austin-based Taco Shack. The flavorful chorizo wasn’t enough to overcome the cold, white flour tortillas and soggy cubed potatoes.
1. Taco Palenque
I stumbled accidentally across the original Taco Palenque in Laredo. I knew the regional chain, established in 1987 and with locations that form an arch from the Lower Rio Grande upriver to San Antonio and into Houston, was cherished by South Texans. What I didn’t know was the comforting power of Taco Palenque’s signature taco, the northern Mexican pirata. It’s a swath of refried beans and heavy-handed dashes of shredded cheddar cheese capped with tender fajitas in two—two!—fresh flour tortillas. To allow the taco time to steam, order the pirate to go. This allows for the cheese to melt and bind with the other components, making for a dream of a fast-food taco.
2. Rosa’s Café and Tortilla Factory
For years, I’ve heard about the amazing tortilla chips at Rosa’s Café and Tortilla Factory, but I hadn’t tried them until this assignment. They were as flavorful and crunchy as promised, and so were the soft tacos. The thick, browned flour tortillas wrapped in slicked wrappers make for a wonderful side to the Mexican taco plate. The order of three tacos—you decide how many crispy and how many soft—is a solid deal for about $10. The hard shells have a good snap, don’t fall apart, and are fresh. The lettuce was room temperature and not dripping wet, the tomatoes were solid, and the beef didn’t gush grease.
3. Taco Bueno
Founded in Abilene in 1967, Taco Bueno has more than 180 locations across Texas and the Southwest. My favorite of its tacos is the Muchaco, which has a hefty wrapper more akin to a pita than a flour tortilla. This soft, stretchy bread is firmly stuffed with the classic elements of ground beef, lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and shredded cheese. It was much better than chain’s soft flour taco.
Pass on: Rudy’s brisket and pulled pork tacos were oversauced, and the flavor was mediocre. Stick to the breakfast tacos there. The fish tacos at Long John Silver’s also fell far, far short of expectations.
1. Jack in the Box
Of all the hard-shell tacos available at fast-food drive-through chains, Jack in the Box tacos are the most similar to the filled, sealed, and fried tacos dorados you’ll find in Mexico. They’re nowhere near as fresh, but they still have an uncanny resemblance to their Mexican analogs. The tacos are also hot, greasy, and filled with lettuce and a slice of cheese, giving them a familiar Americanized edge. Nevertheless, these are the benchmark. Even better are the tiny tacos, cheeseless bantam versions of the signature tacos served fifteen to a box. They make for easy front-seat snacking.
2. Taco Casa
The ideal fast-food crunchy taco has a snappy, faintly corn-flavored shell. The form must keep its integrity with every bite. Of course, try to bite off more than you can chew, and the taco might just fall apart. That happens. The rest of the components should taste of what they are. The taco meat should taste like ground beef, no matter the grease content. The lettuce should be crisp. The cheese should taste like cheese, whatever the blend. The tomatoes should not be reddish casings of water. The great thing about the crunchy tacos at Taco Casa, a nearly fifty-year-old chain that started in Fort Worth, is that everything tastes exactly how it should. Even the shells taste like corn! I can’t believe I waited until this year to try them.
3. Taco Bueno
If we could forget about Taco Casa and Jack in the Box, Taco Bueno’s long, fin-shaped hard-shell taco would be a solid choice. It’s got the flavor, textures, and structural integrity that make for a good crunchy taco, but this iteration is not as finely tuned as the aforementioned options.
Pass on: Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos. Yes, this famous neon-orange item is a food-science and branding innovation, and it’s a fun novelty to try once. But the tacos are stale and powdery. You aren’t missing much if you skip this one.