The Top 15 Mexican Chains in America

The Top 15 Mexican Chains in America

Chain restaurants are big business. U.S. sales alone for the industry leader, McDonald’s, exceeded $38 billion in 2018. Second-place Starbucks managed a mere $19.66 billion, just over half the McDonald’s number, but still not bad. The five top chains, in fact, all exceeded the $10 billion-dollar mark (the others were Subway, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A).

The trade publication Restaurant Business releases an annual ranking of the nation’s top 250 restaurant chains. The latest edition uses the most recent U.S. sales figures, from 2018, to rank the chains. (The number of units for each chain was computed at the same time, and may have changed since then.) Taco Bell, as noted, is in the top five, and there are four other Mexican-inspired chains in the top 100. 24/7 Tempo delved further into the list to come up with the top 15 Mexican chains in America (the farthest down came in at No. 167).

There’s no doubt that we love our Mexican food. The British-based market research and data analytics company YouGov determined recently that some 86% of Americans who had tried Mexican food liked it; the only cuisine scoring higher was Italian, at 88%. In addition, DoorDash, the nation’s number-one food delivery service, revealed recently that five of 2019’s 15 most popular food orders in America were Mexican in style.

Of course, the fare offered by Mexican chains, whether fast-food places or sit-down restaurants, is designed for a wide American audience, and rarely reflects the way people eat in Mexico. Chains don’t figure, for instance, in our list of the best Mexican restaurants in every state.

But the food these places offer can evoke the forms and flavors of the Mexican kitchen, and bring their spice and color to almost every corner of the country at a bargain price.

Source: moresheth / Flickr

15. Torchy’s Tacos
> U.S. sales: $213 million (est.)
> Number of U.S. units: 63

Torchy’s grew out of a food truck in Austin. Today, it has 60-plus locations in Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, as well as its native state of Texas. What the Torchy’s menu styles as “Damn Good Tacos” are the specialty, with more than a dozen varieties available. Among these are the Democrat (barbacoa, avocado, and cotija cheese on corn tortillas) and the Republican (grilled jalapeño sausage, pico de gallo, and cheddar jack on a flour tortilla).

Source: jawilliamson / Flickr

14. Fuzzy’s Taco Shop
> U.S. sales: $214 million (est.)
> Number of U.S. units: 148

Another Texas-born chain, this one from Fort Worth, Fuzzy’s has units around the country, all over Texas and also in Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. There are five shrimp or fish tacos on the menu as well as meat versions and a grilled vegetable version. Quesadillas, burritos and burrito bowls, and nachos are among the other offerings.

Source: jbtaylor / Flickr

13. Uncle Julio’s
> U.S. sales: $214 million (est.)
> Number of U.S. units: 35

Still another Texan, founded in Dallas in 1986, Uncle Julio’s features mesquite-grilled fajitas, guacamole made tableside, and chocolate piñatas for dessert. Besides Texas, the chain can be found in Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Maryland.

Source: Matt Howry / Wikimedia Commons

12. Rubio’s Coastal Grill
> U.S. sales: $232 million
> Number of U.S. units: 204

Ralph Rubio can make a fair claim to having introduced Baja-style fish tacos to America — and his “fresh Mex” chain, based in San Diego, certainly popularized them. With the exception of six locations in Florida, Rubio’s remains a western chain, with shops in Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado, as well as California. In addition to fish and other tacos, the menu includes chicken tortilla soup and a Baja chopped bowl.

Source: arbron / Flickr

11. Cafe Rio Mexican Grill
> U.S. sales: $236 million (est.)
> Number of U.S. units: 118

The original Cafe Rio was a stand-alone restaurant in St. George, Utah, opened in 1997. Based today in Salt Lake City, the chain currently has locations in 11 states. Burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos, nachos, salads, and more are available. Among the meats offered, are unusual sweet pork barbacoa and spicy Hatch chile pork options.

Source: channone / Flickr

10. Taco Cabana
> U.S. sales: $324 million
> Number of U.S. units: 170

The Tex-Mex menu at Taco Cabana, which calls itself a “Mexican patio cafe,” lists all the usual items (tacos, burritos, quesadillas, etc.), but also offers flautas — the rolled, fried tacos sometimes called taquitos. Vegan-friendly Beyond Meat tacos, nachos, and bowls are available, too. Headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, the chain’s locations are focused in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.

Source: v343790 / Wikimedia Commons

9. On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina
> U.S. sales: $348 million
> Number of U.S. units: 143

Another Dallas-born chain, on the border launched in 1982, featuring mesquite-grilled meats, hand-pressed tortillas, and small-batch salsas. In addition to its tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas, and the like, On the Border offers such specialties as grilled queso chicken, Caribbean mango grilled fish, and carne asada at its locations in 17 states.

Source: icanchangethisright / Flickr

8. Taco John’s
> U.S. sales: $371 million
> Number of U.S. units: 392

First opened a half-century ago in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and still based there, Taco John’s calls its fare “West-Mex.” Now operating in 22 states, the chain offers some unusual additions to the usual Mexican chain menu — for instance, a meat and potato burrito, stuffed grilled tacos, and flauta-like “Mexi Rolls,” served with a choice of dipping sauces.

Source: jdhancock / Flickr

7. Chuy’s Tex-Mex
> U.S. sales: $398 million
> Number of U.S. units: 100

The original Chuy’s appeared in 1982 in Austin, Texas. The Lone Star State is now one of the 19 in which there are Chuy’s units. Tortillas at Chuy’s are handmade daily, all the ingredients are fresh (not frozen), and there are 10 homemade salsas. The menu includes queso, guacamole, both soft and crispy tacos, “Big As Yo’ Face” burritos, and Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken (breaded with crushed potato chips).

Source: jeepersmedia / Flickr

6. Moe’s Southwest Grill
> U.S. sales: $739 million
> Number of U.S. units: 727

Billing itself as “a Mexican restaurant with a Southwest twist,” though it comes from Atlanta originally, Moe’s pretty much covers the country, with locations in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Menu items have fanciful names like Homewrecker (an overstuffed burrito ), John Coctostan (a Southwest-style quesadilla), and Alright Alright Alright (nachos with queso).

Source: Keithready / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

5. Del Taco
> U.S. sales: $817 million
> Number of U.S. units: 580

The original Del Taco opened in the Mojave Desert town of Yermo, California, in 1964. The chain has locations in 15 states today, focusing on California, Oregon, and Washington (though Las Vegas has more Del Tacos than any other city). Fast-food tacos, burritos, tostadas, and quesadillas make up much of the menu, though there are also American-style burgers. Beyond Meat vegan options are available, and ground turkey tacos are also offered, as a lower-fat alternative to the ground beef versions.,

Source: Photo taken by Bobak Ha'Eri. November 15, 2005. / Wikimedia Commons

4. Qdoba Mexican Eats
> U.S. sales: $835 million
> Number of U.S. units: 743

Qdoba comes out of Denver, where its ancestor, called Zuma Fresh Mexican Grill, opened in 1995. In 2003, after it had grown to 85 locations in 16 states, Qdoba was acquired by Jack in the Box, which ran it until it was sold to a private equity firm in 2018. It now operates in almost every state, plus Washington, D.C. Customers build their own burritos, burrito bowls, taco salads, quesadillas, nachos, or tortilla soup variations. Impossible brand plant-based protein is an option.

Source: Wolterk / Getty Images

3. El Pollo Loco
> U.S. sales: $868 million
> Number of U.S. units: 484

Though Restaurant Business lists this chain in the “chicken” category, not the “Mexican,” and although chicken is the only protein on the menu, El Pollo Loco calls its food “L.A. Mex” — which it defines as “SoCal lifestyle meets Mexican heritage.” Fire-grilled chicken is the thing here, by itself (or with beans and rice, fries, etc.), in “Pollo Fit Bowls,” or in the form of burritos, tostadas, or “overstuffed” quesadillas. The original Pollo Loco was in Sinaloa, Mexico, and there is a Mexican chain today, unrelated to the U.S. one. The American company has units all over California (and especially in the southern portions of the state), as well as in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and Louisiana.

Source: jeepersmedia / Flickr

2. Chipotle Mexican Grill
> U.S. sales: $4.805 billion
> Number of U.S. units: 2,452

In business in 47 states and the nation’s capital (as well as Canada, the U.K., France, and Germany), Chipotle has been one of the great fast-food success stories of the late 20th and early 21st century — despite repeated problems, apparently now solved, with food safety, leading to hundreds of cases of food poisoning. Founded in Denver in 1993 and now based in Newport Beach, California, it helped popularize the build-your-own trend with its sort-of-Mexican burritos, tacos, bowls, and salads.

Source: jeepersmedia / Flickr

1. Taco Bell
> U.S. sales: $10.410 billion
> Number of U.S. units: 6,588

The monster of the Mexican chain business (though how Mexican it is may be argued), with sales more than twice those of second-place Chipotle, Taco Bell has outposts in all 50 states (though not, for some reason, Washington, D.C.) — an average of 141 per state. California has the most with 822. (Now owned by Yum! Brands, owners of KFC, Pizza Hut, and other chains, it also operates around the world.) Chain founder Glen Bell ran two other small taco chains before opening the first Taco Bell in 1962 in Downey, California, near Los Angeles. Hard-shell tacos (including those with Doritos shells), quesadillas, burritos, chalupas, and made-up hybrids like Quesaritos, Crunchwrap Supremes, and Cheesy Roll Ups are among the specialties.

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