Mexican Fast Food Restaurants We Wish We Could Find Everywhere

It might come as a shock, but there really are other Mexican fast food restaurants out there beyond Taco Bell and Chipotle, and they're often far better. You may be familiar with some of the bigger chains, like Qdoba, Del Taco, Moe's Southwest Grill, El Pollo Loco, and Taco John's since they have 400 to 600 locations nationwide. However, there are plenty of others that have 300, 100, or even just 50 locations, and they're making locals happy.

All of these quick-serve and fast-casual Mexican restaurants have been around for decades, and we keep hoping they'll expand to other cities and states to give us all a wider range of Mexican fast food options. Some have models similar to Taco Bell's and Chipotle's, while others do their own thing altogether. You'll find some with only fresh food, others that are environmentally conscious, and still more with margaritas on the menu. We're especially greedy for the ones with a cult following, wishing they'd move out of their niche locations to allow the rest of us to experience them.

Taco Cabana

An abandoned Dairy Queen in San Antonio, Texas, was the home of the first Taco Cabana in 1978. It started as a place you could get fresh, Mexican food inside or through a drive-through 24 hours a day. The original menu contained tacos and enchiladas and later expanded to include Mexican standards like burritos, tacos, flautas, quesadillas, nachos, chalupas, bowls, and more. The chain also features homemade tortillas. Building on the fame of Taco Bell's Mexican pizza, Taco Cabana even created a fresher, better-tasting version, the Double Crunch Pizza, in 2022. All-day breakfast is possible at Taco Cabana, which also offers various margaritas and beers. You can also get plates with sides like rice and beans.

Taco Cabana currently owns 144 locations (another half dozen or so are owned by a franchisee). However, unless you live in Texas or New Mexico, you're not currently going to be able to find a Taco Cabana anywhere near you. Luckily, now that the chain has a new owner, Antil Yadav of Yadav Enterprises, the plan is to expand to 1,000 locations within the next 10 years beyond those two states. So, don't be surprised if you see a Taco Cabana open near you in the near future.

Baja Fresh Mexican Grill

When founders named Baja Fresh Mexican Grill in 1990, they did so deliberately, as the "fresh" part of the name is core to the company's values. All the ingredients are fresh, and nothing comes pre-processed, canned, or frozen. Everything is also cooked the long way with no microwaves involved. Overall, the chain is dedicated to getting tasty and nutritious food on your plate. It also works hard to use containers that are environmentally friendly. For example, you can recycle its wrappers and plastic bags and even put the plates in the compost pile since they are biodegradable.

Baja Fresh has many great menu items, including burritos, tacos, nachos, and quesadillas like many Mexican fast-food restaurants. However, it also has other offerings like bowls, salads, and fajitas. Vegetarians can also order Impossible brand tacos, burritos, and bowls.

Wendy's bought Baja Fresh in 2006 but didn't do enough with it to overcome rivals like Chipotle and Qdoba. Ten years later, MTY Food Group (which has ties to Cold Stone Creamery and Pinkberry) bought it. These days, there are about 90 Baja Fresh locations scattered across 27 states in the U.S. Your chances of finding one are still decent, but many of us have never seen one.


When Ron Fraedrick opened up the very first TacoTime next to the University of Oregon in Eugene in 1960, it was a simple walk-up restaurant. However, Fraedrick dedicated a lot of time to perfecting his seasonings and sauces. Within two years, he'd franchised the restaurant, with a new location across state lines in Tacoma, Washington. By 1978, he'd even expanded into Canada. There are about 105 TacoTimes in the U.S. (nearly all of them in the West) and another 121 in Canada. Since the early days, the chain has developed a large number of crazed fans who rave about their favorite foods. 

TacoTime's selection of Mexican menu items allows you to create your perfect order. You could get a different combination every time. However, one of the items fans almost always choose is the seasoned tater tots called "Mexi-fries." Some people ask for them stuffed with cheese and jalapeño peppers, with melted cheese on top or with one of the many salsas the chain offers. Other items on the menu include crisp burritos (similar to flautas), regular burritos, tacos, quesadillas, nachos, and a taco salad. Some TacoTime locations also serve breakfast burritos.

Rubio's Coastal Grill

The first Rubio's opened in Mission Bay in San Diego, California, in 1983. Back then, it was called Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, and it was a walk-up taco stand rather than a full-fledged restaurant. Rubio's actually trademarked its Original Fish Taco and claims to have sold more than 270 million of them. The co-founder, Ralph Rubio, discovered fish tacos when he traveled with friends to San Felipe, Mexico, during spring break as a university student. Thus, the menu is heavy on seafood items like shrimp, fish, and even lobster. However, Rubio's Coastal Grill chain has chicken and steak as well. Menu items include burritos, bowls, quesadillas, nachos, salads, and plates with tacos and tortilla chips.

The COVID-19 pandemic severely affected business at Rubio's, causing the chain to close 7% of its locations In 2020. Colorado and Florida each lost six locations that year. So, the chain that had 204 locations in 2018 now has only 159 and can now be found in only three states: California, Arizona, and Nevada. We just wish they'd expand elsewhere to up the fish taco game in other states.

Cafe Rio

When Steve and Patricia Stanley opened the first Cafe Rio in St. George, Utah, in 1997, they gathered their inspiration from the cuisine of the Rio Grande area of northern Mexico, New Mexico and southern Texas. They insisted on offering fresh food that didn't come frozen or premade, and customers loved it. By 2004, when Bob Nilsen bough the chain and decided to expand beyond Utah, there were only six locations. As of 2023, there are 156 locations in eight states, but almost all of them are out West. About a dozen opened in 2022, so the restaurant definitely is in the process of expanding.

There are seven entrées on the menu, but they're all customizable. First, you decide if you want a burrito, salad, tostada, taco, enchilada, quesadilla, or nachos. Then, you get to choose the components, like which tortilla, meat, rice, beans, or sauce you want. There are also chip and dip appetizers and tortilla soup available, along with your choice of tres leches or lime pie for dessert. Beyond fountain drinks, more Mexican-inspired drinks include horchata, mint limeade, and raspberry hibiscus tea.

Cafe Rio's website says it all: "Come experience for yourself why guests proclaim they would drive 47 miles for our Sweet Pork, bathe in our queso, or drink our tomatillo dressing." After reading this, we're probably all wishing we had a Cafe Rio nearby -– even if a queso bath isn't appealing.

Taco Bueno

The first Taco Bueno opened in Abilene, Texas, in 1967, followed the next year by several more in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The chain offers a lot of ordinary Tex-Mex options like tacos, burritos, quesadillas, salads, and nachos. One of its real fan-pleasers is its trademarked Muchaco, which is similar to a soft taco, but instead of a tortilla, it uses a soft and crave-worthy piece of pita bread. Ordering a-la-carte is fine, but real fans know that the best experience comes from ordering a platter, which comes with Mexican rice and tortilla chips, along with refried beans, sour cream, and guacamole for dipping. If you're dining in, you also have access to a bar with toppings like fresh pico de gallo, diced onions, jalapeños, and various salsas.

If any Mexican fast-food restaurant could beat out Taco Bell, it's likely to be Taco Bueno. In fact, Business Insider declared Taco Bueno the most popular fast-food chain in Oklahoma in 2017. Unfortunately, Taco Bueno filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018 and closed several locations as its ownership changed. For now, there are 139 Taco Bueno locations, so finding one can be challenging. However, the chain has been expanding somewhat since 2021. Taco Bueno even made it to No. 217 in Technomic's list of the top 500 highest-grossing chain restaurants in 2022. While the chain operates in only three states (Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas), there's always hope we could see more in the future.

Tijuana Flats Burrito Company

Brian Wheeler opened Tijuana Flats Burrito Company in Winter Park, Florida, in 1995 as a college student. Lucky for his dream, he was able to borrow money from his dad, Chester Wheeler, who had spent his career working for a Fortune 500 company. Within four years, the restaurant was successful enough that his dad jumped on board as the chief financial officer, along with Camp Fitch (a big name in the restaurant industry) joining as a partner and chairman. While most of the menu items have ordinary names like burrito, salad, chimichanga, quesadilla, flautas, bowl, and nachos, one of Tijuana Flats' claims to fame is its "Smack My A** & Call Me Sally" hot sauces, ranging from mild to extremely hot. Fittingly, Tijuna Flats has also gotten into the hot wings game.

Fans are loyal, with some Reddit users saying they prefer Tijuana Flats over more well-known Mexican fast food restaurants like Chipotle, Moe's Southwest Grill, and Taco Bell. Despite having only 104 company locations (plus 20 owned by franchisees), Tijuana Flats was No. 207 on Technomic's list of top 500 highest-grossing chain restaurants in 2022. By having a half-price franchise fee, the chain hopes to grow to over 150 locations throughout the Southeast by 2025.

Taco Del Mar

Seattle, Washington, was home to the first Taco Del Mar, which opened in 1992. Like Rubio's Coastal Grill, founders James and John Schmidt found their inspiration for a seafood-heavy Mexican restaurant during a trip to Baja California, Mexico, during their university days. Of course, fish tacos are on the menu, along with burritos, bowls, salads, nachos, quesadillas, and even enchiladas. Besides fish, the chain also has pulled pork carnitas, chorizo, shrimp, chicken, beef, and even two vegetarian filling options. Salsa fans also appreciate a choice of several varieties, along with other Mexican sauces.

Taco Del Mar restaurants tend to feel like unique, non-cookie-cutter neighborhood restaurants rather than part of a chain. However, interestingly, in 2022, Taco Del Mar was among the many brands that began experimenting with dining-room-free locations. Taco Del Mar's "Baja Shack" is a 650-square-foot, pre-fabricated building that contains both a walk-up and drive-through window.

In 2010, Taco Del Mar was up for sale in a bankruptcy auction. Surprisingly, the buyer was a company called Franchise Brands LLC, which previously helped franchisees from Subway. The Taco Del Mar band was sold again in 2018 to Rego Restaurant Group. While there were nearly 300 Taco Del Mar locations at one point, the franchise has dwindled to fewer than 100 locations today, mainly in the northwestern U.S. plus Vancouver, Canada. However, the chain is actually expanding again, so we hope to see more outside the Northwest soon.

Filiberto's Mexican Food

After working in a restaurant named Alberto's, two brothers named Cesar and Filiberto Tenorio decided to open up their own restaurant in Mesa, Arizona, in 1993. They called it Filiberto's and used a similar model to Alberto's and its inspiration, Roberto's. After ending up in prison for a little over a year for not paying taxes and hiring workers living in the U.S. illegally, the brothers sold the chain to take care of their debts but eventually bought it back.

The menu is vast, with various types of burritos, tacos, tortas, tostadas, and bowls available. Unlike most fast-food Mexican restaurants, Filiberto's doesn't shy away from some more traditional Mexican meats like adobada (meat in a vinegary chili sauce), cabeza (head), and carne asada (marinated beef). Ordering a plate gives you the chance for a more traditional Mexican meal.

You can find Filiberto's 93 restaurants located in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. While recent expansions of this restaurant have been contained within those three states, there's always a chance they could branch out into other states later.

Salsarita's Fresh Cantina

If you were in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2000, you could have visited the first Salsarita's Fresh Cantina when it opened that year (the chain now operates as Salsarita's Fresh Mexican Grill). Salsarita's has since expanded, collecting some fans with really strong opinions about how good it is, with some saying on Reddit that it's better than Chipotle and Qdoba, although they're not quite convinced it's better than Moe's Southwest Grill. One Redditor's Latina mom even said it tastes like something she remembers from childhood.

Salsarita's offers fresh-tasting Tex-Mex fare –- burritos, tacos, bowls, burritos, quesoritos (essentially burritos topped with queso), quesadillas, nachos, salads, and tortilla chips with dips. If you plan to feed up to five people, you can also get a fiesta pack, which comes with tortillas, tortilla chips, classic toppings, and sauces. In 2023, Salsarita's chief operating officer Merrick McKinnie decided to also add Veggie Chorizo Crumbles so vegetarian and vegan customers could have more protein choices.

Salsarita's now has 84 locations across 18 states, mainly in the eastern part of the U.S. Despite so few locations, Newsweek listed Salsarita's among American's Favorite Restaurant Chains in 2023 with a 5-star rating among Tex-Mex restaurants based on survey results from customers and employees. With such high praise, perhaps more franchisees will be interested in expanding the chain throughout the U.S. in the future.

Pancheros Mexican Grill

Rodney Anderson opened the first Pancheros Mexican Grill in the college town of Iowa City, Iowa, in 1992. One of Pancheros' claims to fame is its homemade tortillas that customers can watch employees press on site. Another difference in Pancheros' burritos is that they are strong enough to stand up without support –- assuming that's something you want them to do. Beyond the burrito's sound structure, the flavor is enough to attract lines of people waiting to get inside. Since employees mix all your chosen burrito ingredients together, you get a perfect, homogenous bite every time.

While Panchero's is famous for its burritos, you can also get a burrito bowl, salad, quesadilla, or taco instead. And, similar to other popular burrito-building restaurants like Chipotle and Qdoba, you get to choose from nearly 20 ingredients. Several Redditors favor Pancheros over other burrito chains with almost no contest.

Pancheros is among several midwestern restaurants expanding throughout the U.S., so you can now find more than 70 locations in 13 states. With this burrito chain among many branching out into more states, you're likely to wake up and find one near you in the near future, especially with the company's new director of franchise development (and rabid fan) Joe Gale having a goal to get to a total of 100 locations soon.

Freebirds World Burrito

You may have never heard of Freebirds World Burrito if you don't live in or haven't visited Texas, but the chain has been around for over 30 years. In addition to custom-made burritos, you can get bowls, nachos, quesadillas, salads, and tacos. Another option that's fun for taking home is its family meal kits, which come with tortillas, tortilla chips, and packaged versions of some of the most popular toppings.

Freebirds claims to have the best burrito in Texas, but there's definitely a debate brewing about whether Freebirds is better than Chipotle. There are some differences, like Freebirds having different burrito sizes and tortilla flavors. Freebirds also offers more sauces and toppings than Chipotle. In addition, one person makes your burrito rather than several people like at Chipotle. Another bonus is that you get a free burrito at Freebirds on your birthday. Plus, the Freebirds loyalty program allows you to earn points with each purchase that can be redeemed for free food. 

It's nearly the biggest burrito chain in Texas with more than 60 locations and plans to expand to about 100 restaurants by the end of 2026. So far, the company hasn't mentioned moving out of Texas, but we're optimistic it could happen eventually.

Taco Mayo

University towns seem to be a common place to open new fast food concepts, and Norman, Oklahoma, (home to the University of Oklahoma) was the birthplace of Taco Mayo in May of 1978. Today, Taco Mayo has two different types of restaurants -– ones that offer a classic menu and ones that have a Fresh Mex menu. The classic menu includes standard Tex-Mex items like burritos, tacos, tostadas, bowls, nachos, quesadillas, and tamales. Meanwhile, restaurants with a Fresh Mex menu work more like Chipotle, with customers getting to choose which fresh ingredients they want on their nachos, burritos, or salads. The latest restaurant openings have all been Fresh Mex models.

Back in the 1980s, Taco Mayo's founder had grand plans to reach 275 locations by 1990. However, today, there are only 43 locations. The majority of Taco Mayos are located in Oklahoma, with just a few locations in Kansas and Arkansas. It's not quite as popular as Taco Bueno in Oklahoma, but Taco Mayo will do if the closest nearby alternative is Taco Bell. With its new Fresh Mex restaurant concept, it may finally reach its dream of going bigger.