Gourmet Tacos: Why Upscale Mexican Street-Food Restaurants Are Hot

by Carol Tice @ Forbes.com

Mexican street food is headed out of the taco truck and into the mouths of foodies seeking a quick restaurant bite.

For some diners, a taco with a Doritos-flavored taco shell constitutes a major upgrade in their dining experience. But other diners crave better food quality than they can find at a Taco Bell or Del Taco — and entrepreneurs are jumping to deliver the better-quality Mexican dishes they want.

The massive success of Chipotle’s upscale quick-Mexican cuisine — the $9 average guest ticket is substantially higher than at most of its competitors — has no doubt helped inspire many restaurant entrepreneurs to launch new concepts based around upgrading Mexican street food. The new entries are more creative than longtime sector competitors Qdoba and Chevys Fresh Mex, and more focused on natural and locally sourced ingredients.

The new breed of taco chains are meeting consumers’ growing appetite for better-quality ingredients and unusual spices. Where low-end chains tend to focus on burritos, tacos are the star in this emerging trend.

In many cases, these aren’t newbie entrepreneurs entering this niche. What’s grabbing attention is the experienced food players who’re jumping into the better-taco category, and the fast growth of some of the entrants.

Much as we saw with the upscaling of the fast-food burger and mass-market pizza, Mexican food purveyors are now seeking to move up and grab a piece of the higher-end, “fast-casual” restaurant sector exemplified by Chipotle.

Here’s a look at five of the hottest next wave of better-Mexican competitors that are earning diners’ loyalty for their cuisine:

Quality Fast Food — where can you get it?
Many diners out for a quick bite don’t want to eat fattening junk — they want quality food, fast. A new study from Market Force Information of more than 6,000 consumers spotlighted which brands are highly regarded for food quality. Only eight brands got a higher than 70 percent approval ranking in this area, across the pizza, chicken, sandwich, and Mexican sectors. Here are the customers’ choice for the tastiest fast-food brands.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons – Calvin Dellinger
U.S. Taco Co. is a brand-new upscale taqueria entrant by none other than Taco Bell, which is clearly hoping to grab its share as the Mexican-food category grows. The first restaurant opened in Huntington Beach, Calif., in August. Dishes include a “1%er” flatbread with lobster in garlic butter. As with many of the entrants in this category, U.S. Taco is committed to fresh and natural ingredients — hormone-free dairy and sustainably caught fish, for instance.

Chronic Tacos is the most established of the new taco wave — it’s 12 years old and has 30 units in the U.S. and Canada. Based in Aliso Viejo, Calif., Chronic has plans to grow to 100 units by 2018 through franchising. Unusual dishes here include a mashed-potato and cheese taco.

The Little Chihuahua is the brainchild of former Chevys Fresh Mex chef Andrew Johnstone. The San Francisco-based mini-chain has three locations around its home city, featuring such flavors as chile verde tofu, wild mushrooms, and salmon. Average guest check here is $12, Johnstone recently told industry trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News.

Velvet Taco is based in Dallas, and is brought to you by the same folks who operate the Twin Peaks “breastaurant” chain. There are two Velvet Taco locations in Dallas, and a third is slated to open in Chicago this fall. International flavors are big here, including a crisp tikka chicken taco with basmati rice, and one with Thai roast pork on a blue corn tortilla.

America’s Taco Shop began in 2007 in Phoenix and has grown to 15 units. It’s named after Mexican founder America Corrales-Bortin, but is now owned by multi-franchise conglomerate Kahala Corp., whose stable includes Cold Stone Creamery and Blimpie. Cuisine here focuses on classic al pastor tacos and burritos.

It’s too early to say which of these entrants might emerge as a dominant national chain as this trend grows, but it’ll be an interesting niche to watch in the next few years.

Add to Favourites