Taco Bell Vs. Del Taco: Which One Is Better?

Del Taco may well be the In-N-Out of Mexican fast food. Many a Californian will debate you until they're blue in the face of the chain's superiority to goliath Taco Bell, citing Del Taco's street tacos, tamales, and Del Scorcho sauce as the stuff that sets the western chain apart. Taco Bell loyalists, on the other hand, won't waver from their steadfast fandom to the people who brought us the great culinary invention that is the Doritos Locos taco, along with the dozens of other stoner-riffic contributions the chain has made to the world of late-night food.

Of course, unlike In-N-Out, Del Taco has expanded its operations far outside the west, with locations in 16 states from Washington to Florida. That means you won't necessarily have to jump on an airplane if you want to see for yourself how Del Taco stands up. Still, we, like so many others, wondered if all the hype was true and if Del Taco does offer, in fact, a superior product to the Bell. So, we spent an afternoon taste testing them both to see who came out on top. Keep reading to get the scoop.

The ambience

Taco Bell underwent a major rebrand a few years back, transforming its dining rooms from a purple-accented hospital cafeteria motif to its current iteration. Now, most locations are decked out in what at first glance looks like curated Southwestern art. It's actually fully branded Taco Bell art, but when placed inside the colorful adobe-hued walls and muted gold lighting, it makes Taco Bell a surprisingly soothing place to eat. Most locations also now have ordering screens, so you can ask for your burrito supreme minus cheese, plus pico, minus beef, and with extra rice without confusing the poor kid behind the counter.

Del Taco, to its credit, keeps its East LA taqueria vibe going strong. Maybe its recent acquisition by Jack in the Box, per ABC, will give it a cash infusion to make some badly needed updates. But its current dining rooms all feel like they need a little cleaning, with hard plastic seats and harder white lighting. It's like the '90s are still alive and well in there, and though we can always appreciate a little grit in a taco shop, compared to Taco Bell, it just feels a little dated. In the end, Taco Bell comes out on top.

The hard-shell tacos

The taco is the cornerstone of both restaurants' existence, and as such, it should be the one thing the restaurants master. Taco Bell's tacos have a warm, crispy crunch to the tortillas and taste a little like the taco kit shells mom used to make on those "I don't have time to care" nights. They're just greasy enough to be satisfying, and when pushed up against crispy iceberg lettuce, they give the taco a crunchy texture. The meat is, well, Taco Bell meat, and while military branches and correctional facilities probably have better quality beef, the seasoning at least covers for it.

Del Taco's tacos are really only preferable if the 2 a.m. drive-thru line at Taco Bell is too long. While not objectionable, the tortillas are a little thin and brittle, and the cheese is strangely mushy, even when not melted. The meat, while of equally questionable quality as Taco Bell's, is tasteless and needs loads of Del Scorcho sauce to give it any flavor. Taco Bell wins in this category too.

The soft tacos

For those who don't enjoy waking up with shards of taco shell in their mouth, there's the soft taco, a carb-ier, flour tortilla take on the original. To make things fair, we opted for chicken soft tacos at both restaurants, mostly because we knew what would happen if we overdid it on fast food taco meat.

Taco Bell's chicken soft taco is filled with grill-marked chicken pieces, which are about as indicative of actual grilling as Cheez Whiz is of actual cheese. Still, they taste lean and clean and fill the warm flour tortilla nicely. The mouthfeel when combined with crisp lettuce and shredded cheese makes the soft taco experience satisfying.

On the surface, Del Taco's chicken soft taco looks more or less the same as Taco Bell's, but smaller. The big difference is that Del Taco adds sour cream, which takes an otherwise pleasant menu item and makes it an overpowering, mushy mess. The sour cream flavor, when mixed with the chopped seasoned chicken and cheese, gives the soft taco a mixture of flavors that just doesn't work. Try less, Del Taco. Try less. Because of Del Taco's sour cream blunder, Taco Bell wins this category as well.

The basic burritos

Burritos at both locations are all over the map and the menu. Both restaurants offer an overwhelming number of burrito options, and breaking each one down would have probably given us an ulcer — and definitely given us diabetes. So, we opted to rate the simple bean-and-cheese variety, and then the most deluxe version each spot offered.

Taco Bell's beans taste like they're made from powder and mix and are just kind of a bean-flavored mush stuffed inside a tortilla. If you're into that, throw some hot sauce on top, and it's a pretty satisfying meal. But it is a gut bomb, so ordering more than one is going to lead you to become very familiar with the view of your bathroom wall.

Del Taco's bean and cheese offers a far more generous portion than Taco Bell's and has beans with a discernible shape. The cheese is also far more present than in the competitor's, and when you throw some hot sauce inside, the whole thing feels like more of a meal. It also adds a spicy sauce inside that gives Del Taco's basic burrito a little more flavor. Del Taco wins in this category.

The deluxe burritos

Taco Bell's Burrito Supreme has become synonymous with late-night stoner food, the sort of multi-layered mess that somehow tastes like heaven when you've smoked your dinner. Stone sober, however, it's a little disappointing. The "supreme" is effectively the bean and cheese burrito with more of each and some lettuce, tomatoes, and sour cream thrown in. In theory, this sounds like a blessed addition, but what it ultimately becomes is a big mouthful of indiscernible ooze. Delicious at 4 a.m. Kinda nauseating at lunchtime.

Del Taco's take on a burrito is a lot closer to what you'd find at the roughly 200 million fast casual "gourmet" taquerias that have opened over the past decade. The Epic Burrito is a monster stuffed with rice, whole beans, guacamole, and chicken, all of which blend beautifully. The guacamole tastes fresh, and when topped with some hot sauce, the flavors shine. Del Taco is at its best when making higher-quality menu items, and this burrito is the perfect example. So, the verdict? Del Taco takes the cake (er, the burrito) once again.

Fries and potatoes

Going to Del Taco and Taco Bell for fries is a little like ordering a pizza at Subway, but since some people like to throw some potatoes in with their drive-thru order, we figured it was worth noting.

Taco Bell's cheesy fiesta potatoes are, well, aptly named. The cheese is really the dominant ingredient in the order, and when combined with sour cream, it completely overwhelms the poor potatoes sitting underneath. If you're lucky enough to get a potato that's not dairy-logged, they're actually pretty good, reminiscent of diner breakfast potatoes of Waffle Houses gone by. Maybe ordering these minus the cheese and covering them in hot sauce could make them edible.

Del Taco's crinkle-cut fries are straight-up winners, offering just enough of a crunch to keep your mouth entertained, but not so much that it gets tired. They taste fresh and stand up when dipped in ketchup. They're a standout side that would beat most burger chains and blow the socks off Taco Bell.

Churros and cinnamon twists

The fried cinnamon dessert offerings at Del Taco and Taco Bell are similar enough we can compare them side by side, but they serve very different purposes. The cinnamon twists at Taco Bell are more of a light, sweet side to counter the spicy main menu. Del Taco's are straight-up dessert.

Taco Bell's cinnamon twists have been on the menu almost as long as the tacos. They're a little like rice crisps with a blissful dusting of cinnamon and sugar, and when you intersperse them with bites of over-seasoned taco meat and smoky hot sauce, they make the entire eating experience a little more well-rounded.

Like French fries and fish tacos, Del Taco's churros absolutely must be eaten hot. The greasy, crispy flavor only works when fresh out of the fryer, and saving them for dessert is going to leave you with a bitter, stale piece of pastry covered in too much cinnamon and sugar. To enjoy them properly, you've gotta ruin your dinner by having your dessert first. Fortunately, nobody's getting mad if you ruin the meticulous culinary efforts of Del Taco, so go for it. But in this case, we have to declare Taco Bell the winner.

The quesadillas

While Taco Bell might not serve the kind of Mexican food you would get if you were actually in Mexico, one might expect them to have a basic grasp on the Spanish language. But apparently, their translation of the word "queso" does not include cheese. Does Taco Bell put cheese in its quesadilla? Probably. Does it taste even remotely like cheese? No. It tastes more like curdled milk, a chunky, sour ooze poorly covered with a pepper sauce.

Del Taco's cheese isn't great, but with such a low bar, it's hard not to come out on top. The quesadilla also brings a spice sauce inside, which adds a little kick. That kick might be too much for someone who's used to making DIY quesadillas at home by throwing a shredded Mexican blend inside a tortilla and calling it lunch. But ultimately, the Del Taco quesadilla is fine, and it'll do in a pinch. It wins this category in an ugly battle against truly awful competition.

The bowls

Taco Bell markets its bowls as "Power Bowls," like somehow eating one of these after your workout is going to get you those gains that grilled fish and boiled broccoli won't. And sure, the Power Bowls don't weigh you down with a big, carby tortilla. But any semblance of "health food" went out the window the minute Taco Bell decided the bowl needed cheese and sour cream. This item would be better if Taco Bell left well enough alone and made it a simple mix of rice, beans, chicken, and lettuce. But adding lackluster guacamole, sour cream, and cheese ruins the experience.

Del Taco's bowl is simpler, leaving the stomach-coating dairy out of the equation. And the guacamole and tomatoes both taste infinitely fresher than Taco Bell's. The problem is, Del Taco's rice is horrible, a sad attempt at replicating Chipotle's cilantro lime rice that falls horribly flat. And rice is the base of a bowl. With better rice, this might be a winner. But as it is, if you can modify Taco Bell's bowl to make it lighter, it's a far better product.

The toastadas

Once upon a time, Taco Bell had these things called "Mexican Pizzas" that were really just inventive marketing names for two-layer tostadas. They have since vanished from the menu (but will return soon), and those seeking a flat, crunchy taco meat delivery vehicle must opt for the Crunchwrap. The crunch wrap is a nice idea, covering a tostada with a layer of beans, cheese, and a flour tortilla. But all that stuff bogs down the poor corn tortilla and makes this more of a mush wrap. It tastes fine, but it's a bit much if you just want a tostada.

Del Taco's tostada will instantly remind you of a high school cafeteria. Not because all the cool kids will be sitting in one corner of the Del Taco but more because the basic tortilla and mass-produced cheese taste like the kind of stuff that would make you look for the nearest senior with a car so you could leave campus for lunch. Probably to Del Taco, but that's beside the point. It's a highly mediocre product but at least brings some crunch. And for that, it eeks out a victory.

Specialty items

Taco Bell's creations are the stuff of stoner legend: taco shells with Dorito dust and deep-fried tortillas for the greasy slice of paradise known as the chalupa. They take a taco and wrap it in another taco. They even throw tortilla chips inside a burrito to give it a little extra crunch. Taco Bell gets an A in creativity to be sure, but while it's all kind of entertaining to look at, eating that stuff is another matter. It's the kind of instant-gratification junk food that can be wondrous in the right situation. But unless your stomach is made of cast iron, it's not going to agree with your system.

Del Taco takes a different approach to the rest of its menu, offering fast food takes on Mexican classics that are, in fact, the highlights of its offerings. Tamales and street tacos are readily available, and both are better than what you can find in middle-of-the-road Mexican restaurants. Del Taco also offers hamburgers, which are not great but really no worse than what you'd find at any big burger chain. While Del Taco doesn't make headlines with its specialty menu, the food is actually pretty good, so it wins this category.

The nachos

Taco Bell's Nachos BellGrande is far more than an appetizer, covered in Taco Bell meat, tomatoes, sour cream, and cheese. It's a little like a deconstructed Taco Supreme, but it gives you the freedom to choose how much of each topping you want on a chip. They're only as good as the ingredients on top, which is to say this is still Taco Bell. So, don't expect anything resembling gourmet. But if you're looking for a decent alternative to tacos, or something to share, they do the job.

Del Taco's chips are vastly superior to Taco Bell's — they're thick, crunchy, salty morsels that taste like they came straight from a corner taqueria. Sadly, Del Taco ruins them with these nachos. The toppings in their three-layer nachos are more like three levels of sog, saturating the poor chips in stadium-grade queso blanco, green sauce, and beans. The flavors all taste industrial and artificial and waste Del Taco's standout chips. They had a chance to win this one, and with some re-engineering, they just might. But not here.

The meat, rice, and beans

Comparing meat quality between fast food taco joints is a little like comparing the winter weather in Cleveland and Detroit. But for the sake of argument, we're going to compare the two.

Taco Bell's beef has a flavor one could recognize anywhere, and while it might not taste like health, it is undeniably good. Its chicken is served in full pieces — with grill marks — and while the authenticity of said grill marks is dubious at best, the chicken is edible. The steak is similarly artificially delicious, a seemingly microwaved piece of steak with a liquid smoke flavor. The rice is seasoned nicely and tastes like a lighter take on the generally better Mexican restaurant stuff. The beans, however, taste industrial and kind of gross. We're not fans.

Del Taco's beef is in desperate need of seasoning, not only because the quality is low but also because it lacks flavor. Similarly, the chopped-up chicken is a little bland, though the carne asada could stand up to anything from a Mexican street taco vendor. Del Taco gets the easy nod for beans, offering whole beans that taste like they were cooked that day. But the rice is a gummy Chipotle wannabe that just doesn't work. That's why Taco Bell wins this round.

The sauces

Taco Bell's sauce packets are a piece of pop culture unto themselves and have proven so popular that they're now available in grocery stores. They're a vinegar-y mix of pepper and tomato, and the mild sauce could pretty much be poured over a spare tire and it would taste delicious. The hotter the sauces get, the more they start tasting a little chlorine-y, though the ultra-hot Diablo sauce provides a perfect blend of acidity and heat that's the go-to for any heat head. Bonus points for funny phrases on the sauce packets like "Regrets...who cares?" and "Bike tires scare me."

Del Taco's sauces lean far heavier into the tomato flavor, and if your sauce preferences trend that direction, you'll definitely prefer their packets. Del Taco also only has three levels of heat to Taco Bell's four, and while one could argue that it's really all one needs, a little more variety would be appreciated. That said, the Del Scorcho sauce might be the best of the bunch here, and it makes for a magical meal when squeezed over a taco del carbon. But Taco Bell still wins in this case.

The drinks

Of course, you're going to need to wash all that food down with a drink, which is why taking a closer look at a fast food's soda fountain is essential.

Taco Bell offers Pepsi products, and the soda mixes offer a strong flavor that's often better than the bottled alternative. Their specialty drinks, called "Freezes," are an impressive array of fruity frozen concoctions that only lack alcohol to make them fast food versions of Fat Tuesday's. We're not saying you should keep booze in your purse to a DIY frozen drink. But we're not saying it would be the worst idea either.

Del Taco serves Coke products, and no matter your feelings on the Coke vs. Pepsi debate, their soda mixes still lack syrup. They're more like flavored carbonated water than soda, and they can be skipped if you're not dining in. Del Taco's specialty drinks, however, are outstanding, with real fresh strawberries in the Strawberry Sprite. It's painfully sweet too, though. And, really, if you want fresh fruit, what are you doing at Del Taco? Taco Bell wins this round.

The price

Once upon a time, Taco Bell was the broke college student go-to spot where you could roll into your dorm floor common area with 36 tacos and be a hero without putting a dent in your allowance. Those days are as far gone as your beer-funneling glory days, as a Taco Supreme will set you back a cool two bucks. Burritos ain't cheap either, as a simple burrito supreme can cost upwards of $5 depending on location, and combo meals approach $10 depending on what you order. Call it inflation. Call it the increased cost of labor. But Taco Bell isn't dirt cheap anymore.

Del Taco's taco prices are comparable to Taco Bell's, but the burrito and combo meal prices are a little lower. A burrito can be had for a little over $3, and they've got an entire menu of stuff under $2, including their delectable tacos del carbon. And though the epic burritos approach $6, they're a meal's worth of food and can push weight with Chipotle and other fast casual kings. For bargain shoppers, Del Taco is the move. Though, like anything in life, you're often getting what you pay for.

The winner

The debate here is an interesting one, as when it comes to fresh ingredients, higher-quality menu items, and generally tasting like Mexican food, Del Taco is a winner. The problem is, if you're not looking for a well-made burrito, fresh guac, or a street taco, Del Taco is lacking. And if you are looking for those things, you can probably find a fast casual place or corner taqueria near you who does it better. So opting for a drive-thru seems like a bad choice.

Taco Bell may be further from the food at your local Mexican restaurant and generally taste more processed, but it just does the fast food taco thing better. From its pleasing décor to its more-flavorful basic menu items, when you're craving mass-produced tacos, the offerings at Taco Bell just flat out satisfy more. Taco Bell stays in its lane and excels. We'd never accuse them of being fine dining or even fast casual. But they've mastered the art of mass-market Mexican food. And for that, we declare them the winner.