Chipotle has had a rough go of things lately, but it remains a paragon of fast-casual Mexican satisfaction, proving that free burritos can fix pretty much anything. Except for maybe norovirus. But these days, it's hardly the only fast-casual Mexican spot in the game.
We've scoured the USA for some potential heirs to the Chipotle throne. Some of these fast-casual Mexican chains have only a few locations, and some are hovering near 100. All of them seek to capture your burrito-loving loyalty in a quest to join bigger contenders like Moe's, Qdoba, Rubio's, and Taco Cabana in a battle for fast-casual Mexican supremacy.
Number of locations: 6 in AZ and TX
Strangely not the name of a burrito delivery service that charges twice as much at dinner time, Uberrito is a Texas-born concept that offers less-conventional protein options like grilled shrimp and vegan picadillo. Uberrito separates itself from the Chipotle clones by suggesting 10 tacos with flavor combos like a Texas Cheesesteak with fajita steak and mushrooms, or a Triple T with blackened tofu and Cotija cheese. It ain't authentic, but who cares?
Number of locations: 48 in CO, OK, and TX
A beloved Austin taco spot ever since it burst onto the scene, Torchy's cheekily named tacos (Mr. Pink, Dirty Sanchez) defy convention... or common sense (a taco with guajillo-seared ahi tuna and cabbage fresca?!). Outside of a new Torchy's that recently opened in Denver, the line routinely stretches out the door like it's an Apple store on iPhone release day. All-day breakfast tacos and a fun, batty, secret menu (chorizo, bacon, fried chicken, queso taco!) keeps 'em waiting patiently.
Number of locations: 9 in AZ and CO
Chipotle is a Denver-born brand, but despite its popularity locally (and globally), Illegal Pete's has an even fiercer loyalty among Denverites -- it's the Mexican restaurant equivalent of John Elway. Coloradans (and now Arizonans) queue for assembly-line style burritos, bowls, and nachos, all of which can be smothered in its beloved green chile. Its popularity is also boosted by a bar scene where plenty of CO craft beer is poured, and a Pete's-owned record label promotes local bands and comedians. Any touring band can be gifted them free burritos in exchange for "spreading the word" about the restaurant. Seems like a good deal.
Number of locations: 29 in GA
What, your favorite burrito place doesn't have a salsa bar? You now have one more problem. Like Jay-Z, I feel bad for you, son. Regulars dig the salsa bar's offerings like tomatillo sauce, a smoky chipotle salsa, and a chili d'arbol sauce made from chilis, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and cumin. Twenty-plus years after rolling Mission-style burritos in ATL, there are nearly 30 locations all over the state offering proteins like Sinaloa chicken marinated in OJ and garlic, and offbeat mix-ins like pickled jalapeños and olives.
Number of locations: 55 in DC, DE, FL, MD, NJ, PA, VA, WV, and... Qatar!
Despite the name, California Tortilla is an East Coast chain that started in Bethesda, MD. But you won't care where the hell it started, because no one beats this place in the hot sauce game, with 75+ options (including searing-hot bottles like Dave's Gourmet Insanity and Endorphin Rush Beyond). There's also a spinnable prize wheel which can score you free chips and queso or dessert, and an addictive honey lime sauce that can be added to any burrito, bowl, salad, or taco.
Number of locations: 68 in AZ, CA, CT, IN, IO, FL, KY, MD, MI, MN, MO, ND, NJ, PA, SD, and WI
There are three major differences between Pancheros and Chipotle. First, there's Bob the Tool, the weirdly loved little spoon-like implement/mascot that mixes all your burrito or bowl's ingredients together. Then there's the house-made queso, and a fancy tortilla maker called the DoughPro DP2000 that presses 'em fresh to order. Iowa might not be the first state that comes to mind when you think of Mexican food (or second, or third, or... ), but in '92, that's where Pancheros got its start, it's since become a staple of college campuses across the Midwest (and beyond).
Number of locations: 87 in CA, KS, LA, MO, OK, and TX
The president and COO of Freebirds is a guy who was once a Chipotle exec, if that tells you anything about the company's plans for burrito domination. But it's not a Chipotle ripoff by any means, as evidenced by its hugely popular nachos and the multitude of options in the way of serving size: Hybrid (small), Freebird (normal), Monster (huge), and Super Monster (you're pretty hungry, eh?) burritos. Horchata and a few agua fresca options shake up the normally boring drink menu, though Chipotle has a few drink tricks up its sleeve lately, too. Freebie alert: download its app and get a free entree.
Number of locations: 60 in CA, CO, HI, NE, NV, PA, TX, and Japan
This is a Horatio Alger story if there ever was one: Wahoo's was started by three Chinese brothers who grew up in Brazil, moved to CA, and opened up a Mexican-Asian fusion joint. The brothers still run the place, and while it may have a rep for being a fish taco-focused establishment, the menu has much more to offer. Sure, there's still wild salmon, wahoo (it's the name of a fish too!), and shrimp tacos, but even more eye-opening are the menu items you'll certainly not find at any other restaurant in this rundown: a Maui Bowl with teriyaki steak, chicken, and cream cheese Baja Rolls, tortas with citrus slaw, and cajun chicken burritos.
Number of locations: 36 in OR and WA
Sometimes, you need Mexican street food late at night, but then you realize you don't live in Los Angeles. For those up in Oregon and Washington, Muchas Gracias is like a great food truck that transformed into a drive-thru chain -- a late-night beacon of light serving up burritos, tortas, quesadillas, and everything in between, filled with spot-on carnitas, lengua, cabeza, and other options that speak to authenticity in the face of newfangled fusions. But hey, since it's 2016, you can also get a fried-chicken burrito, or one with "roast beef" & potatoes, in case you're a TV dad from the '50s who just hates saying "carne asada."
Number of locations: 10 in CT, FL, GA, NY, TN, and VA
There is not a Mexican spot on the planet with a decor and vibe as beachy, summery, and Instagram-perfect as Bartaco -- unless you're in Acapulco. Adding to the festive atmosphere is the seriously stacked drink menu, offering a tequila selection you might find in a more upscale Mexican restaurant, and a suite of cocktails way more refined than a margarita in a plastic cup. Oh, yeah, food: tacos can be filled with unconventional proteins like sesame ribeye and duck. Pork belly is packed into the rice bowls, and the grilled corn (with Cotija cheese and cayenne) is so photo-ready you're basically required by law to 'Gram it.
Number of locations: 11 in NY
On the surface, Dos Toros' menu looks almost identical to Chipotle, even down to the sustainably raised meats. But fans of the chain say the carnitas will make you a believer in its superiority. You'll have to go to Brooklyn or Manhattan to try 'em (stop by if you find yourself near Union Square), but it's worth it if you're a fan of eating at restaurants owned by a guy who knows the bass line to "Semi-Charmed Life." Dos Toros was started by two brothers from Berkeley, CA, one of whom was the bassist in Third Eye Blind -- which makes it extra sad that they don't take your order by asking "how's it gonna be?" The bros are looking to expand beyond NYC, which means many more East Coasters will have Mission-style burritos in their hands soon enough.
Number of locations: 10 in IL
If you've ever been hungry and in suburban Chicago late at night, chances are you've pulled up to the El Burrito Loco drive-thru window to fill up on tacos, tortas, tostadas, and specialty plates like chile relleno and chimichangas. Chipotle, we don't need to remind you, does not have a drive-thru option, but it's an improvement people want. And you'll likely never see a giant burrito stuffed with steak and potato, cabeza, or chicharron at Chipotle anytime soon.
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