With its flavorful and hearty dishes, Mexican-American cuisine has long been a favorite among fast-food consumers—particularly one of its signature dishes: the burrito.

The key factors in determining a great fast-food burrito are the tortilla, the balance of ingredients, and the price. If you’re on the market for something that gets you fed as quickly as possible, the drive-thrus and counters you’ll frequent are from name brands. Local taquerias and street vendors might be delicious, but they also might take a while, so if speed is a priority, going corporate is the move.

For this taste test, I chose five of the most popular Mexican-American chains: Taco Bell, Del Taco, Chipotle, El Pollo Loco, and Baja Fresh. Qdoba would’ve been included, but the only locations near me in Los Angeles are on college campus food courts, which are currently closed for the summer. So I stuck to those big five since they all fit the definition of fast food.

Now that efficiency is baked into the equation, the focus narrows: I contend the most essential element of a burrito is a thick, pliable, well-made tortilla. It’s the element that separates a burrito from, say, a sandwich, not to mention its low-carb cousin, the burrito bowl. All the ingredients that come together in a burrito? They’re held in place by the tortilla, cradled by it, lovingly encased in the floury goodness. And as delicious as they all are, think back on your last burrito bowl—it’s nothing without the tortilla! I dare say the tortilla is even more important to a burrito than the protein.

But now that we’re talking protein, let’s get down to the filling. Yes, protein has a huge impact on burrito flavor and quality. So much so that to level the playing field among vendors for any burrito ranking list, it’s only fair to keep the meat consistent across the board. In order to correctly assess the mix of fillings inside a burrito, I decided to go with a standard grilled chicken protein across the board. Aside from that, I let the filling be dictated by each brand’s standard recipe for a classic chicken burrito.

Even for Chipotle—the restaurant that has made customization a key part of its brand identity—I tried to adhere to what was most commonly used across the board and its competitors. No guac or queso at an extra charge, and no fajitas, since adding grilled vegetables was generally a different burrito style at other restaurants. Finally, I do take the price and the size of the burrito on offer into consideration. If the burrito is small but cheap, it evens out. Expensive but also larger? Same thing.

Now that the rules are in place, let the rankings begin. Here’s how each burrito stacked up, ranked in descending order from my least favorite to the best fast-food burrito around.

Taco Bell Chicken Burrito Supreme

a taco bell burrito cut open on a countertop
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!

Nutrition: (Per Order):
Calories: 375
Fat: 14 g (Saturated Fat: 7 g)
Sodium: 1160 mg
Carbs: 51 g (Fiber: 7 g, Sugar: 4 g)
Protein: 16 g

Taco Bell’s most classic chicken burrito is really just a protein swap from the chain’s standard burrito supreme, which comes with seasoned ground beef. That makes the refried beans a slightly weirder choice—chicken tends to pair better with black beans—but the resulting combo was still very tasty. Along with chicken and beans, the other ingredients include red sauce, lettuce, cheddar cheese, diced onions, tomatoes, and reduced fat sour cream. Taco Bell calls this the “most iconic and immediately recognizable burrito,” and it cost me $6.67.

The look: Burritos with sour cream and sauce involved tended to look quite slick when they are cut open, and this one is a prime example. It’s not an unappetizing glimpse of what you’re about to eat, but it’s not necessarily drool-worthy either. The tortilla isn’t rolled super tightly giving the pre-cut burrito a rectangular shape, with open space at both ends. It’s a medium-sized option that was full, but not overstuffed.

The taste: Taco Bell is known for great beans, and they add a ton of flavor. Again, this burrito was the sole contender that came standard with the refried option. The flavor from the red sauce was also great, I personally would’ve liked a little more, but you can always add more sauce to a Taco Bell burrito as the chain is not stingy with its sauce packets.

The freshness of the tomato and crispness of the onion and lettuce went well with the salty, smoky grilled chicken. The cheese wasn’t super prominent and it could’ve used more, so it was nice that sour cream was there to add some creaminess—and also that it’s a reduced fat option! Overall, the ingredient mix was well balanced and everything blended together taste-wise.

It was only toward the very end that the sauce and fillings started to leak out, which brings me to the tortilla. Taco Bell has good solid flour tortillas, but they’re just not as pliant as others. This can be good when you’re trying to keep the fillings, but it’s a detriment when it comes to taste. I liked this burrito a lot and thought it was a great value for the size and the price, but the tortilla was my least favorite of the bunch. For that reason it came in last.

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Del Taco Classic Grilled Chicken Burrito

a del taco burrito cut open on a countertop
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!

Nutrition: (Per Order)
Calories: 475
Fat: 31 g (Saturated Fat: 7 g)
Sodium: 870 mg
Carbs: 23 g (Fiber: 1 g, Sugar: 2 g)
Protein: 18 g

I’m a big fan of Del Taco in general, and sort of suspected this option would come in first. The chicken is not just grilled, but marinated beforehand, giving it even more flavor and juiciness and a higher-quality feel than most fast-food options. Cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, secret sauce, and diced tomatoes round it out. No beans or sour cream as standard ingredients in this one, but that’s pretty normal for a chicken option. A little smaller than Taco Bell’s burrito, this is also a little cheaper, costing me $5.03.

The look: You can tell the chicken is marinated just from the look of it, and clearly there’s a lot of secret sauce used here because the slick look is apparent even without the presence of sour cream. One big difference that you may or not be able to tell from looking at this burrito is the tortilla is a completely different texture. It’s thinner, opaque, and chewier. Clearly, it was also heated up before assembly. Notably, the fold is way less tight, unfurling on both sides.

The taste: The biggest flavor that comes through here is the chicken, which has a great texture and is a little sweet, presumably from the marinade, with a hint of black pepper. The menu touted the chicken, specifically noting that Del Taco recently added “50% more chicken,” so that might be why it was such a strong element. The lettuce was crisp and a welcome contrast to the slippery protein, with cheese and tomatoes rounding it all out. The secret sauce may or may not have sour cream in it, because though the level of spice was really nice, it tasted creamy, too. The chicken and the beautiful tortilla edged this one past Taco Bell’s option, though I’d say Taco Bell’s beans made the call pretty close.

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Chipotle Chicken Burrito

chipotle chicken burrito cut open on a counter
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!

Nutrition: (Per Order)
Calories: 1,100
Fat: 39 g (Saturated Fat: 16 g)
Sodium: 2500 mg
Carbs: 123 g (Fiber: 12 g, Sugar: 7 g)
Protein: 60 g

I am admittedly very biased toward Chipotle and order burritos there pretty frequently, so I expected it to be a solid contender. I ordered this burrito with chicken, black beans, white rice, both mild and medium salsa, sour cream, and Monterey Jack cheese. Lettuce came standard at Taco Bell and Del Taco, but not at the other chains, so I skipped it here. The Chipotle burrito is almost double the size of those from Taco Bell and Del Taco, so it’s not surprising the price is close to that, too. This one cost me $10.20.

The look: Chipotle burritos are pleasing to look at because they’re about the size of your forearm and tend to be overstuffed. However, once I cut it open, the fatal flaw of the burrito is easy to spot—it’s way too much sour cream! It dominated the palate, eclipsed the chicken, the beans and the rice, and was almost a stronger flavor than the salsas, even though I got two. One thing Chipotle gets right is a generous portion of cheese, which feels correctly proportioned. This one also has rice, which the first two did not.

The taste: As mentioned above, the ratio of the sour cream being so much higher than other ingredients made this burrito a little bit disappointing. Having said that, the grilled chicken at this restaurant is pretty much my favorite among the various fast-food options, and the rice, which is seasoned with cilantro and lime, is perfect. You can get either whole pinto beans or whole black beans. While both are great options, I’ve always preferred the black. And the tortilla? Pressed hot for every order! It practically reinvented the industry standard there. A whole lot to love in this option, but it wasn’t the best one.

Also worth noting: when I get this burrito, I usually eat half in the first sitting and half later. If you follow that practice, the nutritional impact is on par with the other options on this list. If you don’t, then it’s much higher in calories and sodium.

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El Pollo Loco Classic Chicken Burrito

an el pollo loco burrito cut open on a countertop
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!

Nutrition: (Per Order)
Calories: 400
Fat: 14 g (Saturated Fat: 7 g)
Sodium: 1160 mg
Carbs: 51 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 74 g)
Protein: 16 g

My usual order at El Pollo Loco is the Double Chicken Avocado Salad, because it feels like a treat but it’s only 350 calories! Since I’ve been stuck on that protein-heavy item, I’ve actually never had a burrito at El Pollo Loco. I probably will more frequently after this assignment! The tortilla was flexible and thick, and it contains the same grilled chicken that I love from the salad. Mexican rice (cooked with tomato, garlic, and onion), salsa, pinto beans, and Monterey Jack cheese rounded out this burrito. It is medium-sized and costs $7.71.

The look: On first glance, you can already tell this tightly wrapped burrito has great proportions. The rice is neatly packed inside, the chicken is next, and the pinto beans are snugly tucked along the sides. Someone who cares clearly put this burrito together carefully. The cheese and salsa aren’t really visible in the shot, but they were mixed in evenly, too. While the tortilla wasn’t opaque and warm, it was flexible and not stiff, clearly fresh and not papery or chalky.

The taste: The well-seasoned rice and the flour tortilla dominate at first, but the pinto beans hit the palate right after that. There’s also a lot of cheese that’s nicely melted, which wasn’t the case for Chipotle. El Pollo Loco’s salsa is pico de gallo, which is tomato heavy and not very spicy, but the restaurant also offers you complimentary fresh salsa on the side with any order. Once you get a taste of the flame-grilled chicken, though, the other ingredients fade from view. It’s such excellent chicken! My only critique here is it could use a little more spice and a slightly warmer tortilla.

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Baja Fresh Burrito Mexicano with Chicken

a baja fresh burrito cut open on a countertop
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!

Nutrition: (Per Order)
Calories: 490
Fat: 19 g (Saturated Fat: 4.5 g)
Sodium: 1,230 mg
Carbs: 71 g (Fiber: 2 g, Sugar: 4 g)
Protein: 10 g

Baja Fresh is a little bit like Chipotle in that you can customize your burrito on a few ingredients. It’s also a little bit like El Pollo Loco in that there’s complimentary salsa with every order. It takes that latter perk one step further by offering a small portion of chips with every order, no matter what you get. So while the price point is high, factor in the cost of a side of chips and salsa at other places and it isn’t as big a jump.

I also wasn’t expecting this burrito to be almost the same size as one from Chipotle, but it was. The Burrito Mexicano comes with Baja rice, your choice of beans—I went with black—a protein, cilantro and onions, and your choice of salsa (I got mild to keep things neutral). The other burrito options on the menu come with specialty cheese, grilled veggies, or unique sauces, so I went with this one because it was the most straightforward. It was the most expensive in this entire survey by far at $14.32.

The look: I would like to start with the tortilla, which was nice and thin and pliable, like it was freshly made and recently heated. It was the best looking and the best tasting tortilla of the bunch, which immediately pushed this one toward the top. The size was another great element, this burrito is almost as big as my forearm! If the cost of a single item is going to be close to $15, it needs to be this big (but remember, it basically has the price of a side of chips and salsa factored in). When you look at the burrito cut open, you can see the ingredient proportions are very even and layered with precision.

The taste: The black beans were very prominent, spilling out when the burrito was cut open and remaining a huge part of the flavor. They were actually one of the best parts, keeping their shape but still soft and a little garlicky. They mixed great with the fresh diced onions and grilled, shredded chicken. Though I didn’t expect to love the shredded chicken, texturally, it was better to have a slightly drier meat to go with the beans and salsa. The contrast made for a better experience than some of the juicier meat in other burritos. I loved the Baja rice, too, which is pretty similar to the Mexican rice at El Pollo Loco. This version is stewed with tomatoes, tomato puréee, red onion, salt, and garlic—it was epic.

The standout flavors of this burrito are the main ingredients, the rice, the beans, and chicken. It comes standard without cheese, which would’ve been nice to have, but the amount of flavor elsewhere made up for it. In fact, by the end of the burrito, I didn’t miss the cheese at all. For my personal taste, I could’ve gone with more heat from the salsa, but the fresh salsa was really nice.

I think I might convert from Chipotle to Baja Fresh after this, because it made me realize I don’t need all that sour cream and cheese when the rice and beans are cooked this well! Though this burrito was almost the same size as the one from Chipotle, the calories and sodium are much, much lower.

The fact that it tastes better, too? Well, that’s just gravy—or, in this case, extra salsa.

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