Revised and updated October 26, 2019.
Everyone knows that the most popular restaurants in the US are burger joints. You might think pizza would be second, but you’d be wrong – it’s Mexican! Pizza and Mexican swapped places in 2017. Entrepreneurs interested in taking a bite of this $60 billion market have a fantastic array of options to examine with this list of the 18 best Mexican restaurant franchises of 2020.
Approaches to Mexican cuisine among the restaurant chains on this list range from authentic to Tex-Mex, to fusion concepts where Mexican elements are combined with other cuisines (typically American). All of them have broad menus, though many are known for one specialty item over others, such as tacos or burritos. And Americans do love to eat tacos – to the tune of 4.5 billion tacos each year.
Why has Mexican food become so popular? To be fair, it’s always been popular in the southwest corner of the country, but its popularity has been sweeping through the rest of the nation in recent years. Basically, it’s because the Mexican chains tend to be inexpensive and give people more variety and flavor than they’re used to. And if you’re wondering why Chipotle Mexican Grill with its 2,500+ locations isn’t on this list, it’s because the chain is not a franchise!
Here are the top 18 Mexican restaurant franchises of 2020:
1. Taco Bell
Taco Bell is the undisputed king of Mexican fast food in the US and has been growing rapidly in recent years, opening more than 200 new locations each year, and in 2019 doubled its spending on television ads to $64 million. Although most fast-food places have more or less given up on the dollar menu concept, Taco Bell has at least 20 different items that each cost exactly $1.
Founded by Glen Bell in San Bernardino, California in 1962 and franchising since 1964, the number of locations has continued growing steadily in recent years from 5,820 in 2008 to the current total of 7,136 (up from the previous year’s total of 6,905), of which 474 are company-owned and 501 are located outside the US.
2. Qdoba Mexican Eats
Qdoba Mexican Eats is a fast-casual chain serving up Mexican-style cuisine that includes tacos, taco salads, burritos (San Francisco-style), quesadillas, chili con queso, Mexican gumbo, and other items. Steak, chicken, and vegetables are fire-grilled in front of customers, and pulled pork is roasted daily.
For 15 years, Qdoba was a subsidiary of Jack in the Box, but was purchased in 2018 by a consortium of funds led by Apollo Global Management. Founded by Anthony Miller and Robert Hauser in Denver, Colorado in 1995 and franchising since 1997, the number of locations rose steadily for more than a decade but has just declined from 741 in 2018 to the current total of 733, of which 362 are company-owned and nine are located outside the US.
3. Moe’s Southwest Grill
Moe’s Southwest Grill presents a menu of Mexican fare, including burritos, quesadillas, nachos, tacos, salads, stacks, burrito bowls, and salsas along with more than 20 different ingredients customers can use to create their own customized meals. MOE is actually an acronym that stands for “Musicians, Outlaws and Entertainers,” and the restaurants have a hipster vibe as they play hand-selected music from all kinds of artists, and dream up crazy names for menu items with lots of pop culture references.
Founded in 2000 and franchising since 2001, the number of locations has risen steadily for more than a decade but just dipped from 721 in 2018 to the current total of 718, only five of which are company-owned and one of which is located outside the US.
4. Del Taco Fresh Mexican Grill
Del Taco Fresh Mexican Grill is a fusion concept bringing together Mexican and American burgers-and-fries cuisine. Del Taco recently replaced its traditional nacho cheese with Queso Blanco, an all-natural creamy white sauce with a jalapeño bite. It’s so popular that the chain has a whole Queso menu. The chain also recently launched a line of three Craveable Sweets and Scents essential oils (chocolate, churro, and vanilla) to go along with its new dessert menu item: Mini Churro Dipper Shakes.
Founded by Ed Hackbarth in Barstow, California in 1964 and franchising since 1967, the number of locations stands at 586 (up from the previous year’s total of 566), of which 312 are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
5. Taco John’s
Taco John’s is a Mexican-inspired fast-food concept that the company calls “West-Mex.” In comparisons to Taco Bell, the chain does well, making it confident in its push to expand eastward. It has a unique signature menu item it calls Potato Olés, deep-fried seasoned potato nuggets that can be served with or without nacho cheese.
Founded by John Turner in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1968 and franchising since 1969, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years from 418 in 2008 to the current total of 392, ten of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
TacoTime is inspired by the Mexican cuisine of Southern California. Its Crisp Burritos are hand-rolled and fried for a fan-favorite twist on the standard burrito. Another popular menu item is the chain’s Mexi-Fries, which are essentially seasoned tater tots that come plain or stuffed with creamy cheddar cheese and diced jalapeños. The rest of the menu is rounded out with tacos, quesadillas, nachos, salads, sides, and breakfast items.
Founded by Rod Fraedrick in Eugene, Oregon in 1958 and franchising since 1961, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years from 295 in 2009 to the current total of 261, none of which are company-owned and 131 of which are located outside the US.
7. Taco Bueno
Taco Bueno serves up a basic Tex-Mex menu that includes breakfast items, two-entree combinations (tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos), platters featuring two entrees along with rice and refried beans, salads, sides, and sweets. The chain’s Muchacho Taco is gigantic and packs a Texas-sized 520 calories. Some locations in urban areas offer delivery through DoorDash, UberEats, GrubHub, and other providers.
Founded by Bill J. Waugh in Abilene, Texas in 1967 but franchising only since 2004, the number of locations was holding relatively steady in recent years at around 180, but now the company website only references “nearly 150 locations.”
8. Fuzzy’s Taco Shop
Fuzzy’s Taco Shop offers many taco and burrito varieties, seven types of nachos, nine salads, and lots of sides and breakfast items. Unlike most chains, franchisees are free to put some personal touches on their restaurants, such as music playlists (from approved providers) and décor elements that reflect their interests.
Founded by father-and-son duo Alan and Chuck Bush in Fort Worth, Texas in 2003 and franchising since 2009, the number of locations has grown rapidly to the current total of 146 (same as previous year), 11 of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
9. Mucho Burrito
Mucho Burrito is a Canadian chain of fast-casual Mexican restaurants offering three sizes of burritos, the largest of which (the Mucho) weighs more than 1.5 pounds! Mucho Burrito does not use preservatives or artificial flavors. Food is made by hand in front of customers, who get to select from a variety of meat options, including beef barbacoa, steak, chorizo, shrimp, chicken, and pork carnitas. Vegetarians can select a veggie crumble protein choice in place of meat.
Founded in 2006 and franchising since then, the number of locations has expanded to the current total of 125, according to the company website, and all are located outside the US (in Canada).
10. Quesada Burritos & Tacos
Quesada Burritos & Tacos is another Canadian chain that presents a Tex-Mex menu that includes burritos, burrito bowls, tacos, quesadillas, tortilla salads, and sides. It added a Beyond Meat Burrito as a permanent menu item and will donate 1% of all the sales of that item to a non-profit group called 1% for the Planet, which distributes funds to non-profit partners working on environmental issues such as sustainable food systems and climate change.
Founded by Steve Gill in Toronto, Ontario (Canada) in 2003 and franchising since 2010, the number of locations now stands at 124 (up from the previous year’s total of 105), only three of which are company-owned and all of which are located outside the US (in Canada).
11. Costa Vida Fresh Mexian Grill
Costa Vida Fresh Mexian Grill has a high-end fast-food menu inspired by the cuisine and bold beach vibes of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. It specializes in made-to-order enchiladas, burritos, nachos, salads, tacos, quesadillas, and Baja Bowls (burrito ingredients without the tortilla).
Founded by J.D. and Sarah Gardner in Layton, Utah in 2003 and franchising since 2004, the number of locations is now hovering right around 100, with four of those being located in Canada (in and around Calgary).
12. Taco Casa
Taco Casa got its start in the early 1970s with 16 menu items, and not much has changed since then, except there are now 17 items on the menu. It includes burritos, tacos, nachos, tostadas, frijoles, and its Chili Burger with a scoop of ground beef, red sauce, and shredded lettuce on a bun.
Founded by Shelda and Roy Upshaw in 1972 and franchising since then, the number of locations has expanded in recent years from 58 in 2012 to the current total of 89 as listed on the company website’s location page.
13. Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill
Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill is slightly more upscale than most quick-service Mexican restaurant brands, with a focus on creative combinations of fresh ingredients. One popular item is the Quesorito, a burrito smothered with Salsarita’s creamy queso. The chain recently added BOCA Veggie Ground Crumbles as a protein option for vegetarians and vegans.
Founded in 1999 and franchising since 2000, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years from 82 in 2011 to the current total of 79 (up from the previous year’s total of 77), as listed on the company website.
14. Pancheros Mexican Grill
Pancheros Mexican Grill is an Iowa-based fast-casual Tex-Mex chain featuring two distinctive pieces of equipment: a tortilla press to make fresh-pressed tortillas on the spot, and Bob the Tool, a special spatula with googly eyes used to mix burrito fillings. Customers can take the spatulas with them, who inevitably take creative photos of themselves with Bob and post them to various Pancheros social media pages.
The menu features burritos, burrito bowls, salads, tacos, quesadillas, and chips with three different dips: homemade guacamole, queso, and mild Ancho salsa. A vegan tofu protein option called Tofusada was added to the menu in 2016.
Founded by Rodney Anderson in Iowa City, Iowa in 1992 and franchising since 1995, the number of locations has been climbing in recent years from 47 in 2011 to the current total of 71, of which 28 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
15. Chronic Tacos Mexican Grill
Chronic Tacos Mexican Grill is a Mexi-Cal fusion taco chain with a Day of the Dead vibe that serves up authentic third-generation Mexican recipes from the Bonilla family of Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico. The menu features tacos, burritos, bowls, quesadillas, salads, nachos, sides, and breakfast items. Something you won’t find at other chains is the authentic al pastor, a gyro-style dish developed in Central Mexico, inspired by Lebanese immigrants.
Founded by Randy Wyner and Dan Biello in San Clemente, California in 2001 and franchising since 2006, the number of locations has grown from 22 in 2009 to the current total of 62, six of which are company-owned and eight of which are located outside the US (five in Canada, three in Japan).
16. California Tortilla
California Tortilla is a fast-casual chain that presents a menu of California-style Mexican food that includes burritos, chef’s bowls, street tacos, quesadillas, nachos, and fajitas. The loyalty program for the chain is called Burrito Elito. Customers accumulate points based on purchases that can be redeemed for Burrito Bucks.
Founded by Pam Felix, Alan Cohen, and Keith Goldman in Bethesda, Maryland in 1995 and franchising since 2003, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years from 50 in 2016 to the current total of 41, of which five are company-owned and all are located in the US.
17. Bubbakoo’s Burritos
Bubbakoo’s Burritos has a menu featuring burritos, burrito bowls, tacos, taco salads, quesadillas, and nachos. Customers choose their entrée, then choose a protein (nine different meats, vegetarian beans and cheese, or a vegan boca patty), and finally dress it up with their choices from among 14 different toppings. The menu also allows for several different entrée add-ons, sides, and eight different sauces from mild to crazy-hot (Ghost Pepper).
Founded by Paul and Bill in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in 2008 and franchising since 2015, the number of locations has reached 30, of which nine are company-owned and all are located in the US.
18. Baja Fresh Mexican Grill
Baja Fresh Mexican Grill is a fast-casual chain of Tex-Mex restaurants that is committed to using the freshest ingredients possible, as indicated by what the restaurants don’t have. There are no microwaves, no freezers, and no can openers. Everything is farm fresh and handmade daily. The menu features burritos, tacos, taquitos, Baja bowls, quesadillas, fajitas, nachos, salads, and sides.
Baja Fresh Mexican Grill is now owned by Canadian MTY Food Group. Founded by Jim and Linda Magglos in Newbury Park, California in 1990 and franchising since 1991, the number of locations currently stands at 137 (up from the previous year’s total of 132), of which six are company-owned and six are located outside the US.
An Important Note About Our Methodology
The franchises on this list were ranked according to the number of units in the franchise system. If you are a prospective franchisee searching for franchise opportunities that meet or exceed certain performance benchmarks for sales, profits, and return on investment, please check out this list of America’s Most Lucrative Franchises.