For far too long, I considered it one of the biggest black marks on my “Restaurant Chain Expert” resume that I had yet to try the popular Tex-Mex fast casual chain Qdoba. As luck would have it, a Qdoba location opened in my neighborhood recently, and, naturally, I took that as a sign to finally try it for the first time. This, also naturally, caused an internal debate to flare up in my mind: what’s the best of the fast casual Tex-Mex big three (Qdoba, Chipotle, and Moe’s)? It was clearly too important to keep to myself, so I knew I had to take it to the blog. Much like I did with pizza chains waaaaaaaaaaaaay back in the day, I’ll break it down by categories and determine a winner. Also, spare me your Baja Fresh or Rubio’s Coastal Grill or any of the million chains that are only in Texas, thus making it impossible for someone who doesn’t live in Texas to actually try them and you only threw the name out there to make yourself seem smart and cultured, because I don’t care about them. I’m only talking nationwide (again: NATIONWIDE) chains that actually matter. That leaves only the holy triumvirate of MCQ (it’s like the MCU, but for fast casual Tex-Mex chains).
Let’s get the most boring one out of the way first- how good is the core food? Really, what I’m asking is how good is the meat? I think it’s a two horse race between Chipotle and Moe’s, because let me tell you, Qdoba is lagging behind. It wasn’t bad, per se. Just a little bland. Moe’s is solid, but if you gave me some Moe’s and told me it was from some random place I don’t think I’d be able to tell you it was actually Moe’s. I know when I’m eating Chipotle. That chicken’s got a certain addictive flavor to it. It’s like the perfect amount of char combined with the perfect amount of E. coli and norovirus. Round one goes to Chipotle.
As good as Chipotle’s food is, they’re far behind in the topping variety category. And while part of me respects them saying “we’ve only got a few things, but they’re all good,” this isn’t a Michelin star restaurant. I want my fast casual chains to overwhelm me with options. Qdoba has, by far, the widest spread. A ton of toppings, a million sauces, two types of lettuce, fajita veggies? Qdoba understands the the fast casual game better than the other two.
In my opinion, this is the most important category. The chips are the foundation to any enjoyable Mexican/Tex-Mex eating experience. Anyone can put some chicken, rice, beans, and cheese in a tortilla and I’ll eat it. But the chips? You notice when they’re bad and it ruins the meal. Like the meat, Qdoba is bringing up the rear, here. The chips are alright, but they’re seriously propped up by their salsa (more on that in a bit). Chipotle and Moe’s are miles better. The best part of Chipotle’s chips are that some bites are saltier than others and the salty ones really hit the spot. But, and this is huge, Moe’s chips are also great but free. $0.00. That’s enough for me. A delicious side at no extra cost? Yes, please.
I must confess, I don’t like guacamole and I think queso can be way too heavy and gross sometimes, but this is still an important category. Take guac out of the equation since I haven’t eaten any of them. Qdoba wins for queso since they’ve got multiple varieties and pretty much forced Chipotle to add a half-assed queso to their menu. Salsa is where it gets heated. Chipotle only has a few varieties, but they’re all good. Moe’s has multiple varieties, and some are good. Qdoba has even more varieties, and, though I only tried a couple, they were pretty solid. I think it’s either Chipotle or Qdoba, and with their win in queso, Qdoba gets another win. Unexpected, to be honest.
The fact that the only time anyone talks about Chipotle is when there’s another disease outbreak and they have by far the best branding is a bad sign for the other two. The best logo by a mile (and, by default, the best signs) and they’re firmly intrenched as the more normie option. Qdoba scrapping the cactus logo is such a spectacularly terrible move I can’t wrap my mind around it. What is their identity now? Marigold lettering? Sweet. Moe’s giving FULLY CUSTOMIZABLE AND NON-REPEATABLE MENU ITEMS stupid names makes me absolutely furious every single time. Don’t make me call my burrito a homewrecker. I refuse to do it.
Qdoba is a pretty standard fast casual experience. You go in, you get your food, you leave. Chipotle is much the same, but the added threat of possibly catching some kind of disease added a thrill that Qdoba can’t help to match. But having the entire staff yell “Welcome to Moe’s!” when you walk in AND add in a salsa bar instead of having it all behind the counter? Dumb names aside, it’s Moe’s in a landslide.
They final category represents the final stage in the fast casual Tex-Mex experience. We know how it is going in, but what about going out? Chipotle’s aftermath is so legendary, South Park lampooned it in an episode. I’ve spent many an hour on the toilet after eating some delicious Chipotle. We had a Moe’s on campus in college, and, as such, I’ve spent many an hour on the toilet after eating some delicious Moe’s. Let me tell you: the Moe’s is much, much easier to deal with. I was waiting on the Qdoba I ate last night to complete it’s course before writing this, and I can confirm it was unpleasant. Moe’s takes a much lighter toll on the body (and toilet) than the other two.
There you have it. Not exactly what I was expecting, but, when taking everything into account, it’s clear that Moe’s comes out on top. Chipotle has the best food, but the rest of it just doesn’t add up. Qdoba made a valiant effort, but to no avail. There’s a new king in town, and his name is Moe.
Overall Winner: Moe’s