Taco-Off: Mighty Taco & Taco Bell vs. Real Mexican Food

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Mighty Taco
9360 Transit Rd., E. Amherst, NY 14051
Web: Mighty Taco
Phone: 716.568.1143
Rating:    [learn more]
Pros:

Low-priced Americanized Mexican foods served at low prices, with menu choices that include tacos, burritos, fajitas, and additional fried fare.


Cons:

Truly mediocre to poor overall food quality by even Mexican fast food standards, with individual items serving as low water marks for the comparatively excellent versions produced at authentic restaurants.


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"Though we could pander to our readers by doing so, we're not going to pretend to be fans of either restaurant: these are fourth-tier by even Mexican fast food chain standards."


Call us food snobs or just critics, but after living in Southern California and honeymooning in Mexico, we can't pretend to be passive about the quality of Mexican food. Once you've had the real thing, it's obvious that there are serious differences between "true" Mexican restaurants, close substitutes (locally, see La Tolteca, Salsarita's, and Moe's), and the fake stuff some people eat because it's cheap and convenient. There's no doubt in our minds that the locally-owned Mighty Taco and national Taco Bell chain restaurants fall into the latter category: between the lower quality of their ingredients and the preparatory corners they cut to rush their fast food-style meals to customers, what they serve may look Mexican, but it might as well be a different cuisine when it comes to taste. Based on reader requests, we're reviewing both chains today - from the perspective of Western New Yorkers who have had enough Mexican food, even Mexican fast food, to know the difference between great, good, okay, and bad renditions.

Convenience is the biggest key to understanding the local appeal of both Mighty Taco and Taco Bell: there are 16 Mighty Taco restaurants and at least seven Taco Bells near Buffalo, most with drive-throughs, compared to only three local locations of Moe's, two Salsarita's venues, and one La Tolteca, none offering drive-through service. Consequently, if you're looking for a place to get a quick taco, the sheer number of Mighty Taco and Taco Bell locations all but guarantees that you'll find one closer to either work or home than a "real" Mexican place or a close substitute. But should you settle for a lesser experience? Or will you even know that you're having one? If your answer to either question is "no," we'd encourage you to read on.

We've previously visited both Mighty Taco and Taco Bell, and decided this weekend to directly compare them by visiting both chains for the same meal, ordering the same three items, and then doing direct item-to-item tasting comparisons. We visited the East Amherst locations of both chains because they're so close to each other (Taco Bell: 8160 Transit Rd., E. Amherst, NY 14228, 716.636.5349; Mighty Taco: 9360 Transit Rd., E. Amherst, NY 14051, 716.568.1143), assembling everything in one place before starting to eat anything. Our picks consisted of two hard shell beef tacos, two soft shell steak tacos, and what Taco Bell called a burrito but Mighty Taco referred to as a fajita - in both cases, a larger-than-taco-sized tortilla shell filled with steak, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and sauces. Notably, Mighty Taco's "Super Mighty" burritos are the same thing as its "fajitas" except with taco beef instead of steak, and of course, both chains offer other, slightly modified versions of these items as well.

The burritos turned out to be substantially different at these two restaurants, even accounting for their price differences. Taco Bell's considerably larger version cost $3.79, and came loaded with rice - an ingredient that Mighty Taco amazingly doesn't even offer as an option for burritos, even though it's an all but mandatory part of authentic burritos served elsewhere. Perhaps because there's less inside, Mighty Taco's smaller version sold for $2.99, though we were unexpectedly upcharged an extra 25 cents for sour cream, bringing the total up to $3.24. What we got for 55 cents less was a much less impressive version of the same item: after trying both alongside one another, the Taco Bell version was closer to authentic, bigger, and better tasting, but neither was as delicious as a real burrito, since the ingredients in both tasted as if they'd been canned or boxed, rather than served fresh. In short, they were okay, and the Mighty version had no advantage except for the lower price.

Our soft shell steak tacos were a different story. Mighty Taco's version was $1.55, served with lettuce and tomato - we ordered it without the typically included cheese - and came with chunks of tender but visually unappealing gray sliced steak. Taco Bell's $1.99 version arrived with smaller and overcooked pieces of brown steak that were saltier and thus slightly more flavorful, but comparatively dry and lifeless. Added salt aside, there was no other reason to prefer the Taco Bell version over Mighty's. And once again, neither version came close to the flavors and freshness you'll get in steak tacos at Salsarita's and Moe's, both of which do a better job of flavoring, grilling, and loading their steak into their tacos, as well as including substantially better ingredient options. But then, Mighty's and Taco Bell's per-taco prices are lower. This is a clear case of getting what you pay for.

Finally, there were the hard shell tacos, sold at Taco Bell for 99 cents and at Mighty Taco for $1.15. Both were on the small side, but with plenty of lettuce, few tomatoes, and cheese if you want it - again, we held the cheese. With these tacos, Taco Bell again took the upper hand, but not by much: the ground "taco meat" in both versions was of similarly low quality and underwhelming on taste, but Taco Bell's sauce was a little stronger in flavor, and its price was lower. We can't tell you which restaurant's version left us in mild gastrointestinal distress afterwards, but we wouldn't rule out "both" as a possibility.

While we've focused on these several comparative items in this review, it needs to be said that we're not Mighty Taco or Taco Bell novices; we've been to both places a number of times, sampled their other menu items, and come away similarly nonplussed by the experiences. The Mighty Taco taco meat, bean, and cheese "burrito" ($1.49) is as small and light as the steak "fajita," and similarly non-compelling; we were also okay with, but not impressed by the Johnnie Ryan Cane Sugar Loganberry, the only semi-interesting drink on Mighty's small menu. Taco Bell's occasional promotional menu items, such as the previously-reviewed Frutista frozen drinks, tend to be 20% interesting and 80% gimmicky, never quite as good on taste as they are on looks. That's a theme that seems to carry through its menu items, as you might be able to tell from the photos here. The Taco Bell steak taco didn't taste as good as Mighty Taco's, but it looked better.

Ultimately, though we could pander to our readers by doing so, we're not going to pretend to be fans of either Mighty Taco or Taco Bell: these restaurants are fourth-tier by even Mexican fast food chain standards (see La Salsa, Baja Fresh, Chipotle, or Green Burrito elsewhere, as just a few examples), and it's sad to think that some local people might believe that Mexican food is well represented or approximated by these two places. The items described here as "burritos" and "fajitas" would be unrecognizable as such in better Mexican restaurants, and the "tacos" are sub-par even by reference to the recipes on Old El Paso taco shell boxes. Based on the quality and quantity of what they serve, even when taking their prices into account, we believe them to be equally worthy of 1.5-star ratings, with Mighty Taco offering a small edge on some items, and Taco Bell on others. Unless you consider ignorance to be bliss, or put cost so far ahead of quality that you'd rather pay $3 for three small, weak tacos than one big, great one, we'd strongly advise a visit to a local Moe's or Salsarita's instead of these places. Trust us: your tongue and stomach will thank you later.

Mighty Taco: Mighty Taco on Urbanspoon Mighty Taco on Urbanspoon Mighty Taco on Urbanspoon Mighty Taco on Urbanspoon

Taco Bell: Taco Bell on Urbanspoon


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Comments (5)

Mighty Taco is fantastic. I have introduced at least 10 people to it and everyone of them loved it. I eat it at least once a week and its by far the best fastfood mexican I've ever had.

How many local businesses have 16 locations in such a small geographical area?

SG :

Mighty is awesome. I've been to Chipotle's and Moe's. They are completely overpriced and taste like they have been sitting there for days. Mighty is fresh, fast and good. It may traditional Mexican food, but it is good, local food.

Lawrence :

Let's all be honest with ourselves, no, mighty taco isn't Mexican food, but it's tasty. On the same hand, neither is La Nova, Pasquales, Santoras, or Mr. Pizza Italian. You don't compare Wendy's cheeseburgers with those that you can get at Pearl Street brewery, and for the same token you don't compare mighty taco to Salsa ritas, Moes, Chipotle, or even Qdoba. They're different restaurants, and while I'm a big fan of the ones just listed, there is also space in my diet to pick up some mighty taco upon returning to the area (for you travelers to California and Mexican, I myself now live primarily in the state with the 3rd highest population of mexican americans).

Nicole :

Mighty Taco isn't high end, and it hardly pretends to be. (the perpetually sticky floor of the location on Sheridan clearly shows this.) It hardly even considers itself a Mexican restaurant, because we all know it's not. It's just a great combination of food that's cheap and delicious. If you're looking for cilantro-tinged cheddar cheese filled authentic tex-mex, yes Moe's or El Palenque are clearly best choices. But that doesn't mean in the least that Mighty Taco is any less fantastic.

Currently living in South Korea, I've learned the ins and outs of Korean street food. "Toast" (or an egg sandwich covered in ketchup and sugar), various meats marinated and fried on sticks, flattened and boiled fishcake, and the omnipresent ddeokbokki (rice cake cooked in hot pepper sauce) -- they're all cheap, low grade ingredients for people on the go. But they're an essential part of Korean culture. They're all eaten constantly, be it for a quick cheap lunch or a hangover fix.

In the same way Jim's Steakout, ETS, Ted's, Anderson's and yes, even Mighy Taco make up Buffalo culture. Lower end, street foods are not to be looked down upon -- they're the things that thrive and are truly loved in a society.

Nicole: See our article on California's Kogi BBQ Korean/Mexican taco truck for an example of real "street food." We are huge supporters of street food as a concept and have enjoyed some phenomenal, legit street foods in China, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere in Asia, amongst many other places. To put Mighty Taco in that category isn't just wrong, it's completely antithetical to the concept of street food. Street food isn't just any piece of low-quality junk in a wrapper, or any cheap thing that's sold for consumption on the go. If that's what it was, McDonald's would be street food. Rather, the street food experience is a rapid, fresh from the cooking surface or cart cuisine that doesn't depend on a large restaurant or even dedicated tables. What Mighty Taco offers is merely a mediocre, cheap version of real Mexican food - one that only people from this area could hold up as noteworthy, as the ingredients and recipes would be laughed off even the streets of places such as Los Angeles or Mexico City.

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