Grocery shelves are crowded with a head-spinning array of options. So we collected 14 varieties, including the top-selling brands in the United States and popular grocery store private labels, to determine which was the superior chip. (In the interest of keeping things simple and uniform, we omitted any flavored varieties.) We ranked them on texture (how crunchy are they? are they sturdy enough to stand up to your famous seven-layer dip?), salt balance (too much? too faint?) and overall flavor, for a combined score of 20 possible points. With seven tasters, the best possible overall score was 140.
Another note about our process: In the Before Times, we conducted these taste tests in our Food Lab at The Washington Post’s headquarters. We would gather around the central counter, nibbling on numbered samples and scribbling notes.
When we were all sent home to work in March, we were unsure if we’d be able to pull off such feats remotely. The logistics were daunting. Some things we’d wanted to test (soups, ice cream) were a no-go. But, at least for tortilla chips, we figured out a workaround: I ordered all the chips, made up little packages with numbered sandwich bags containing each variety, delivered them to colleagues via no-contact drop-offs, and asked tasters to submit their thoughts via email.
The coronavirus complicated even that plan: It took multiple online and Instacart orders — and assists from a few colleagues scouting out the shelves on their own grocery trips — to procure all the brands. And I put off packaging and delivering the goods for a week while I waited for a coronavirus test (it was negative, whew!).
I still miss the in-person tastings, just like I miss so many ways of gathering. I miss my colleagues. I’m ready for a party. At least now I know what brand of chips I’ll serve — and for now, what I’ll be stocking up for my next binge-watching session.
Onto the rankings …
14. Trader Joe’s Salted Tortilla Chips
“Bland” was the word on our panel’s collective tongue with this boring guy. The lack of salt left them all craving more. “I see a few faint salt crystals glimmering in the light, but I taste none,” said one taster. And as problematic as that might be, they suffered from texture issues, too. “Kind of gummy mouthfeel,” another said.
13. Whole Foods Salted Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips
Our tasting panel was unanimous in their disdain; they found tastes redolent of “reused oil,” “Styrofoam” and “sawdust.” They deemed them far too thick, making for an unpleasant over-crunch. “These are the box of Rice Krispies that got lost in the back of your pantry for a year and you decide to dig into it because you’re just that hungry one day,” one wrote. “It was a bad decision.”
Overall: “A killjoy of a chip I would insist on drowning in salsa.”
12. Whole Foods Organic Tortilla Rounds
Another disappointment from the popular grocery chain. Again, a lackluster (“meh”) flavor and faint salt notes left some tasters feeling ghosted. And more off flavors: “weird, cardboardy, slightly sour aftertaste” and “smells playdough-ish.” Still, one taster found redemption in its “light but sturdy texture.”
11. Trader Joe’s Restaurant Style White Tortilla Chips
Our tasters disliked the “grayish and thick” looks before they even took a bite. And once they did, several feared for their chompers, deeming the sample “not dentist recommended” and requiring “more molar power than the rest.” While one declared the “leatheriness makes me want to diet,” a few others noted that the beefy structure of these “certified all-day dippers” was optimal as a delivery vehicle for even the heftiest of condiments.
9. (tie) Green Mountain Gringo Tortilla Strips
We added this to the lineup because we’ve noticed it cropping up on shelves more often, and because the brand’s salsa danced off with top honors in our rankings of store-bought salsa. The chips aren’t quite the big winner that its sister dip was — a “little stale,” one taster said, and another found them “bland.”
But others were impressed with its modicum of corniness, and some praised the unusual rectangular format, with one taster imagining them to be a “fine companion for beer and queso.”
9. (tie) Mission Tortilla Rounds
Our tasters generally found round chips, like these, inferior to their angled brethren. “It always breaks in a weird way, and it’s so flat that salsa can drip off,” lamented one. It seems the shape was the dealbreaker for this popular brand, because otherwise it won praise for a pleasantly “shattering” and “snappy” crispiness.
8. Calidad Yellow Corn Tortilla Chips
You wouldn’t offend anyone if you served them these chips, which had two tasters thinking alike (if not enthusiastically), who dubbed them “middle of the road.” Perhaps a touch more salt could elevate them, a few suggested.
This chip has a distinct look and feel: It’s paler, thinner and airier than most others we tasted. Lots of tasters liked the vibrant salty flavor, but its inability to hold its own against a bowl of chunky salsa was a strike against it. “Too flimsy,” one bemoaned. It’s “no match” for dip, said another.
One partisan suggested that wouldn’t be a problem, though. “They’re not going to hold up for long in a bowl of salsa, but that’s fine, because you’re eating them so fast they don’t need to.”
6. Late July Organic Sea Salt Thin and Crispy
Similar to Xochitl in color and texture, though these were a little sturdier, our tasters found. “The uber-chip,” one fan declared. “Tastes light and crunchy, but sturdy enough to get the guac.”
Still, several others thought they tasted a little stale, even though they were freshly out of a fresh bag. “Wan and pale,” lamented another.
5. Juanita’s Tortilla Chips
I feel like this brand deserves some kind of prize (Miss Congeniality, maybe?), even though it didn’t take top honors. Several tasters raved about the crispy specimen, and it earned one of only two perfect scores of the entire sweepstakes. Sample raves: “Double crunch!” and “the only one we’re buying from now on.”
But it seems it’s polarizing, and low marks from a couple tasters kept Juanita’s from taking the crown. Some loved the bubbles on the surface that made them look fresh from the fryer at a neighborhood taqueria. They “add some more delicate crispiness,” according to one, but another said the air pockets made them appear “fried and tired and sad … basically, they are Quarantine Us.”
4. On the Border Cafe Style Tortilla Chips
A welcome shake of salt helped this one stand out in a field of tepid competitors (though some said it verged on salt overkill). “Fresh tasting,” said one. Bonus points for shape: “Nice curl for salsa retention.”
3. Tostitos Original Restaurant Style
This best-selling chip is so ubiquitous, one taster even correctly identified it out of the crowded lineup, and its uniformly high marks prove that 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. The dings against it were mild — it’s a big chip, with a two-bite format that invites double dipping (ew!), and one taster found the texture “a bit crackery.” But it earned a solid “pretty damn perfect” from one.
2. Kirkland Organic Tortilla Chips
Chalk up another hit for Costco’s house brand. Like many products from the big-box retailer, these come in a hefty bag. But even without a buffet-sized crowd to help out, they’ll go fast, thanks to the “toasted corn taste” that some likened (in a good way) to the corn-forward crunch of Fritos. Though one taster was turned off by its “rough, craggy” surface, it had one taster craving another serving, even as he was awash in options (did we mention we sampled 14 varieties?), which might be the ultimate compliment. “Corny, crunchy, complex, and oh-so-salty,” he said. “More, please.”
Maybe we’re all just a bunch of closet cornballs? Santitas came out on top, boosted by rave reviews of its “very pronounced corn flavor.” A more visceral take? “A corn bomb has been detonated here,” enthused one taster.
It earned the tasting’s other perfect score from a judge who raved about the chip’s “great crunch!” It hit marks for crispiness, ability to convey salsa from bowl to maw, and decent salt levels, all of which earned it plaudits like “well balanced” and the prescient “all-around winner.”
A nice bonus: With a price point typically in the $2 range per 11-ounce bag, these might be the best bargain on this list, too.
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