We’ve spent a lot of time deep diving into Chipotle’s small but flexible menu and on our journey we’ve learned a lot. We’ve broken down each of Chipotle’s protein options, singling out the best permanent and limited-menu options. We’ve built the perfect Chipotle burrito, a monument to flavor that’ll make your knees weaken after each bite. And we’ve built not one, but three amazing burrito bowls, that offer everything from big flavors to healthy eats for those keeping it keto.
This leaves us with only one area of the menu we haven’t covered — the taco.
Chipotle offers both soft and crunchy tacos and since those are two very different beasts, we couldn’t settle on just one build. So we made two! As with our burrito and bowl, we came to this recipe after extensive testing and, in doing so, found that the best way to build a Chipotle taco is to keep it simple. That’s going to be a bit controversial because Chipotle is a place you can famously hack to get a whole lot of food, but this isn’t about that. We’re simply trying to create the best taco your money can buy, and that means skipping out on a lot of ingredients that your instincts might tell you to add.
Don’t trust those instincts. Trust ours — we haven’t led you astray yet! Let’s begin with the better of the two taco options, the Chipotle Crunchy Taco.
The Best Chipotle Crunchy Taco
No beans. I know, I know, it seems insane because they’re there, looking delicious but beans don’t really belong in a taco, especially a crunchy taco. If you want to skip meat entirely, sure get the pinto beans, but at that point, you’re better off eating a bowl or a burrito than a taco. Also, the juice from the beans is going to seep into the crunchy tortilla, and it’ll crack.
We’re trying to avoid that.
No rice either. There just isn’t room for the rice here, and what is it going to add? Texture? This is a crunchy taco, it’s got texture down. Limey rice? Look, I’m not sure we ever need that.
I know it’s hard, but skip the rice, it’ll leave more room for the meat.
We’re going with barbacoa. It’s the juiciest meat, making it a dangerous choice considering we’re dealing with a crunchy shell, but it’s also the most malleable. Since the meat here is shredded, it’ll take on the narrow form of the taco shell easier than any other meat option. In addition to the form factor, barbacoa is Chipotle’s best protein option. We know this, we’ve done the tests. The combination of oregano, bay leaf, and clove gives this meat a great herbal and earthy taste which pairs well with the savory meaty flavor.
In a crunchy taco, the meat is the star of the show.
This one hurts to say but skip them. I love fajitas, but the savory, vegetal, and sweet flavors of roasted onions and bell peppers just don’t really fit in this build. Don’t worry though, we’ll be getting those flavors elsewhere. It’s a tough sacrifice, but one we need to make.
Tomatillo-red chili salsa on the side. It’s tempting to just get it directly in the taco, but we want to keep moisture to a minimum. A crunchy taco is perfectly dippable, so this shouldn’t matter too much. Of course, feel free to order whatever salsa you like best, but in our opinion, the tomatillo red packs the most flavor and the most spice. The mild salsa is also a good option.
Pico De Gallo:
This is a must. The Pico de Gallo acts as a counterbalance of flavors to the barbacoa. Where the meat is savory and earthy, this is fresh, vegetal, and spicy. Every crunchy taco needs tomatoes, and this is the closest you’re going to get to that at Chipotle. The cilantro and onion don’t hurt either! Together with the meaty barbacoa, the Pico de Gallo is going to result in a very delicious medley of flavors. Even if you aren’t the biggest fan of Pico, trust us, give it a try, it really makes all the difference.
Skip it. We don’t need this moisture or the tangy flavor. If you can’t live without the tang, go ahead and get it on the side. It does add a satisfying fatty quality to the taco, but that’ll serve you better in a vegetarian build.
Cheese and Lettuce:
Absolutely. Not every taco needs cheese, but if it’s in a crunchy shell, you absolutely cannot skip this ingredient. The cheese is going to bring salty, creamy, and sweet flavors into the equation. The lettuce is mostly there as a palate cleanser, these flavors are going to combine into something intense, the lettuce waters it down just a little bit and creates some separation between the flavors allowing you to appreciate them more. It sounds counterintuitive to add the lettuce, but I find that the taco is a bit too rich without it.
Optional. Throwing a spoonful of guac into your taco is going to crack the shell, guaranteed, so you might want to consider getting your guacamole on the side. Luckily, a crunchy taco is perfectly dippable, so if you get it on the side, you can still dunk your taco between bites.
Each bite should be ecstasy on your tastebuds. It should be a journey of flavors from meaty, savory, and earthy with a hint of spice to refreshing and textural with a creamy and salty finish and an after-taste that lingers fresh and spicy on the palate — all wrapped up in a perfectly crunchy shell.
And how about that shell? It tastes like a delicious fried tortilla, unlike Chipotle’s chips which are so packed with lime they’re almost inedible without salsa and guacamole. Once you dip this taco it elevates the already delicious flavors to something truly mouthwatering.
The salsa is the real star of the show, the taco will already provide subtle spicy sensations thanks to the seasoning of the meat and the pico de gallo, but if you really want to feel the heat the tomatillo red salsa will introduce an intense wave of spicy flavors to the palate.
The lettuce and pico de gallo will do a nice job of calming some of that heat down, just enough for you to be willing to indulge in another dip. I think this is a more essential ingredient to the taco than the guacamole, but the guacamole will calm things down if the heat becomes too intense.
The Best Chipotle Soft Taco
Again, no beans. Beans make a lot more sense in a soft taco than a crunchy taco, but only if you’re subbing the beans for the animal protein. If you get beans in your soft taco the bean juice will make the tortilla soggy, and most of them will fall out of the taco as you eat it. Who wants that? Never forget — just because Chipotle has an ingredient, doesn’t mean it belongs in your meal.
Ditch it. Again, if you’re getting no meat, definitely add rice. Rice, beans, and corn in a taco are incredibly satisfying, but if meat is involved, it’s only distracting and it’s taking up valuable real estate that is better spent on other ingredients.
Barbacoa baby! Always barbacoa, for all of the same reasons we picked it in the crunchy taco. If you’re not down with barbacoa’s earthy flavors and spice, go ahead and get the chicken.
Absolutely. This taco is going to be so much better with fajitas. The grilled onions and bell pepper will add a lot of depth to the earthy flavors of the meat, infusing some sweetness and a vegetal finish that will mingle nicely with the lingering spice of the barbacoa.
I almost always think salsa is better on the side this way you can distribute it as you see fit, but go ahead and do you here. But if you let Chipotle add the salsa into the taco, you’ve been warned, it’s going to be messy, especially if they are busy. As is always the case, I think the Tomatillo red salsa is the best choice, but the mild also adds a sweetness to the taco that can be very satisfying.
Sour cream in a soft taco? Get out of here.
Get it. Adding it will make the taco overall sweeter with a more pronounced red onion flavor while adding some texture.
Cheese and Lettuce:
Lettuce? Absolutely not, it’ll ruin your taco. Cheese? This is a hard one for me but… you don’t really need it. There is a reason cheese isn’t on a lot of traditional Mexican soft tacos, it’s not really a necessary ingredient and it distracts from the medley of savory meat and fresh vegetables. If we’re talking about some fried panela, sure, go wild, but we’re not because we’re at a Chipotle.
So, for the first time in any of our Chipotle builds, we’re going to say the cheese is optional.
Optional. In a perfect world Chipotle would have both guacamole and fresh sliced avocado but look around you. We don’t live in that world. A few slices of avocado would really take this taco to a new level, but a glob of guacamole? It just creates a mess. If you can’t live without the guacamole, get it, but I find it tends to mush up the taco and gets all over your hands and face while you eat it. It’s better to enjoy the guacamole with some chips on the side between bites.
The soft taco really allows the barbacoa to shine. The way the meaty juices carry that cool herbal blend of seasonings, the hit of spice that lingers on the palate, the tender mouthfeel, the pronounced pepper, and adobo, it really puts into perspective just how good the barbacoa is when you don’t have a bunch of other ingredients distracting from the flavor. The fajitas up the sweet factor and add a vegetal finish to the whole thing that just wraps the flavors together in the perfect way. Cilantro would be the perfect finish to this thing, but Chipotle for some odd reason doesn’t have fresh cilantro among their wealth of options.
The Bottom Line:
Pretty bare bones right?
I really struggled with these builds, trying all sorts of different combinations of flavors because ignoring half of Chipotle’s offered ingredients just felt wrong. But that’s the thing with build-it-yourself menus, they offer a lot of possibilities but the best experiences are often curated. A taco should be a showcase for what’s in it, and when you want everything, you end up with something less than the sum of its parts.
When it comes to tacos, whether we’re talking crunchy or soft, less is more.