The Ultimate Ranking Of Store-Bought Taco Sauces

various bottles of taco sauce
various bottles of taco sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

The definition of "taco sauce" can be a little nebulous, as there is no one-size-fits-all style. You can find taco sauce in almost every color of the rainbow, silky smooth or rustically chunky, mellow and fruity or devilishly hot. Really, you could make the argument that any type of liquid drizzled on a taco is technically a taco sauce, and there are practically as many varieties of those as there are tacos. How is one to know what to choose? If you can only have one sauce for all of your taco needs, which bottle should make the cut?

As a born-and-bred Californian, tacos have been a big part of my life since before I can remember, and taco sauce is an integral part of enjoying them. When making tacos at home, I've always just reached for whatever sauce I had on hand (usually in plastic packets from my favorite taco spots), but I started to wonder if I shouldn't be more discerning. So I collected a horde of bottled taco sauces and pitted them against each other to discover which one will truly elevates my tacos to their best selves. To make it a reasonable endeavor, I narrowed it down to classic-style sauces that are specifically marketed for use on tacos. Both red tomato-based and green tomatillo-based sauces of all heat levels are included, but nothing creamy or cheesy –- just the basics: acid, heat, and flavor. Here's how the different sauces stack up.

Read more: The 15 Best Store-Bought Barbecue Sauces, Ranked

12. Pico Pica Medium Green Taco Sauce

Pico Pica Green Taco Sauce
Pico Pica Green Taco Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

There is something so strange about this sauce. Nothing in the ingredients list stands out as particularly odd or unusual, but the sauce has a strange bitterness to it. This sensation struck me as familiar and it took me a while to figure it out -- Pico Pica's green sauce reminds me of fernet. In case you're not familiar, fernet is a member of the amaro family, a category of Italian bitter liqueur that often has a strong medicinal taste; not something I'd ever associate with tacos, but once I made the connection, I couldn't stop thinking about it. That unmistakable herbal bitterness took over my palate and my brain and made it impossible for me to wrap my head around any other flavors.

That said, the acidity is excellent and if you can get past the weird herbal notes, there is a roasted green chile flavor that I wish I could taste more of. There's a decent amount of heat that makes itself known, and between that and the acid, it's not a bad option. I would just reach for this bottle last because of that bizarre bitter finish.

11. La Victoria Medium Red Taco Sauce

La Victoria Red Taco Sauce
La Victoria Red Taco Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

If you like ketchup, you'll love La Victoria's red taco sauce. It has exactly the same consistency, and is just as hard to pour out of its glass bottle. It also has just about as much heat, which is to say, almost none. It is a medium sauce so it's not expected to have an intense burn, but there's barely any evidence that chiles are included at all. It comes across as more sweet than spicy. If I hadn't seen the label, I would have guessed this was a mild, not medium, sauce.

Like the same brand's green sauce, I might have this on hand for tacos with more subtle flavors, or for people who don't like too much heat and spice. It does come across as a little warm when tasted on its own with a tortilla chip, but once it hits richer ingredients like beef, the flavor fades very far into the background. There's not a whole lot of acidity, either, which might explain why it tastes so sweet.

10. Great Value Mild Taco Sauce

Great Value Mild Taco Sauce
Great Value Mild Taco Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

Walmart's Great Value brand mild taco sauce is strikingly similar to the La Victoria medium. In fact, I could barely tell them apart. The main reason this one took a slightly higher place in the ranking is because I feel like it's more accurately labeled as far as the heat level goes. Since the lack of chile burn was expected in this mild sauce, it didn't bother me as much.

The sweetness and combination of spices present here made me think of tomato-based barbecue sauce, like Kansas City's signature style. Great Value's mild sauce has a decent savory flavor profile to complement the softness and sweetness, and the tomato and chile flavors are stewy and roasted, which gives the sauce some depth. Because of its mellow nature and barbecue sauce similarities, I particularly liked it with chicken. It could definitely use more acidity, so I'd recommend squeezing a lime or lemon over your taco to make the flavors more balanced.

9. La Victoria Mild Green Taco Sauce

La Victoria Green Taco Sauce
La Victoria Green Taco Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

The mellowest of all of the verde sauces, La Victoria's mild green taco sauce is fine. It's not exciting or exceptional, but it is decent. You won't want to add this to any strongly flavored tacos, or you'll completely lose the flavor, and there's not a ton of heat or acidity that will make it past an intense mouthful of anything. With simple, plain pinto bean tacos, it worked best, adding a gentle pleasant savory and sweet green pepper taste. I can see it working well on other kinds of vegetarian tacos, like this crispy hearts of palm tacos recipe. There's almost no heat here whatsoever, so it's a good option for people who are averse to spicy food.

When I tried it with beef tacos, I struggled to taste it at all. With bean tacos that I added onions and cilantro to, it was detectable and complementary in a background kind of way, but didn't add much. There is a tasty garlic note that I enjoyed, but found myself wishing it was stronger. I wanted a little more acidity, too. I'd keep this on hand for people with sensitive palates, and to throw on eggs in the morning when I want a little touch of subtle peppery flavor.

8. Taco Bell Hot Sauce

Taco Bell Hot Sauce
Taco Bell Hot Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

Compared to the other selections on this list, Taco Bell's hot sauce is less of a taco sauce and more of a chile sauce, like a Tabasco or a Cholula. The chile pepper character here is fresh and bright and is the main thrust of the sauce's flavor along with a fiery, tingly burst of heat. Of the three Taco Bell brand sauces included in this ranking, this is the liveliest, but it's also the least complex. It doesn't offer great depth of flavor, but its fresh, pure peppery heat delivers satisfying intensity.

I actually thought this sauce came across as hotter than the Taco Bell fire sauce, even though it's supposed to be milder. That may not be empirically true, but perhaps because it's a simpler sauce with less complex flavors, the hot chile pepper component takes over and it seems more intensely fiery. This sauce and its zippy kick worked well with every taco that I added it to, regardless of whether the filling was hefty like beef or light like seafood. It's just a bit too simple, especially when compared to the other Taco Bell sauces that have a little more going on.

7. Taco Bell Mild Sauce

Taco Bell Mild Sauce
Taco Bell Mild Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

As soon as I opened this bottle I was transported back to my youth. I ate a lot of Taco Bell back then, and couldn't really handle heat until later in life, so mild sauce was always my choice (at the time, mild and hot were the only options). Apparently the aroma of this sauce hasn't changed one bit since my college days, because it was instantly recognizable, lighting up a part of my brain that had been long dormant.

This sauce is all about the spices. The combination of seasonings creates a warm aromatic profile that gives the sauce a rich, savory quality so that you don't need heat to make it interesting. I'm not sure if I like this sauce because it's good, or because of the nostalgia, but either way I find it to be quite enjoyable. To me, it tastes and smells like a really mild chili powder blend rather than a cayenne blend, with flavors like garlic and onion, paprika and cumin taking center stage. My only issue with this sauce is that it smells more intense than it tastes, which is a little disappointing. Still, that didn't stop me from merrily pouring it on taco after taco and reliving the carefree, simpler days.

6. Herdez Cilantro Lime Taqueria Street Sauce

Herdez Cilantro Lime Taqueria Sauce
Herdez Cilantro Lime Taqueria Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

Including this Herdez Cilantro Lime sauce is a bit of a cheat, as it's not labeled as a classic green or verde sauce, but has its own specific style. However, it's so delicious, I couldn't in good conscience leave it out of the running. While I prefer the brand's traditional roasted verde sauce, this herbaceous and fresh cilantro lime version brings its own unique personality to every taco it touches. The tomatillos are fresh rather than roasted, there's a sharp citrus zing from lime juice, and the cilantro flavor is so vibrant it tastes like it was just picked. Jalapeno heat simmers in the background, intensified by the acidity, but it never rises to a burn.

This sauce is quite intensely flavored, so it does tend to take over when added to milder tacos. While I usually prefer red sauces on beef, this green sauce really pops with meat, brightening up heavy flavors and making them seem much lighter and fresher. Tacos with lots of toppings work well with this sauce, as its flavor is strong enough to shine through just about anything. It worked beautifully with raw red onions and scallions, one of the few green sauces that didn't get overpowered by those ingredients. I have a feeling I'll run out of this bottle first, because I have yet to find a food this sauce doesn't zestfully enhance. However, it's not the best of the best.

5. Pico Pica Mild Taco Sauce

Pico Pica Mild Taco Sauce
Pico Pica Mild Taco Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

I wasn't a fan of the brand's green sauce, but Pico Pica's mild red taco sauce is a flavor-packed delight. It's similar in color to Taco Bell's fire sauce, and shares the same dark, deeply roasted flavor, only without the heat. For a mild sauce, the chile flavor is prominent, which tamps down the tomato taste, setting it apart from the more ketchup-like red sauces. It's not sweet like those, either, with the tomato flavor leaning more toward the roasted and umami-laden parts of the spectrum.

The roasted character of this sauce is wonderfully complementary to intensely flavored proteins. I particularly loved it with beef. It's impressive how much rich chile flavor they were able to pack into such a mellow sauce, and how well its intensity holds up with all kinds of tacos. A well-integrated acidic tang and a subtle warmth in the back of the throat linger long after each bite.

4. Taco Bell Fire Sauce

Taco Bell Fire Sauce
Taco Bell Fire Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

Of the three iconic Taco Bell sauces ranked here, it's the fire sauce that takes the highest spot. That's because it takes elements from the other two sauces, mild and hot, and puts them together in one bottle. You get the spice-driven, deep and roasted quality of the mild sauce, paired with the bright chile heat of the hot sauce. The heat intensity isn't as front-and-center here as it is in the hot sauce because of all of the other layers of flavor, but there is a good kick of fiery heat that builds and lingers.

The heat is so well balanced by the savoriness of the sauce that you might not even notice how hot it is until you're a few bites in. I enjoyed the way it snuck up on my palate and stayed strong, keeping my mouth burning as I continued to eat, even if I didn't add any more sauce to my food. For lovers of hotter styles of taco sauce, this is a tough one to beat.

3. Sky Valley Taco Sauce

Sky Valley Taco Sauce
Sky Valley Taco Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

Although Sky Valley's taco sauce is the most expensive one on this list, over a dollar more than the next-highest option, you certainly get your money's worth. It comes in a 13-ounce bottle, bigger than any others on the list except for Great Value, so you can confidently pour to your heart's content without fear of quickly running out. It's not just the size that's the draw, though. This sauce is full of flavor, very well balanced, and highly versatile.

Sky Valley is not labeled with a heat level, but I'd put it squarely at medium. There's a sharp cayenne kick atop a warm blanket of spices, notably toasty cumin and paprika, along with a lively, lemony burst of acidity. The layers of flavor take your palate on a little adventure with each bite, moving from sweet to savory, warm to hot, and finishing with a zippy tang. It's a delicious taco sauce, and worked well on every kind of taco I tried, adding dimension and enhancing flavors without overpowering the main ingredients.

2. Herdez Verde Taqueria Street Sauce

Herdez Verde Taqueria Street Sauce
Herdez Verde Taqueria Street Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

Of the classic tomatillo-based verde sauces, Herdez was my favorite by far. Fire-roasted tomatillos are the first listed ingredient, and they jump right out of the bottle with a bright and fruity yet also deep and toasty flavor. The combination of those two opposing characteristics gives this sauce great complexity and pulls you in for more, bite after bite.

The green pepper flavor comes from the duo of poblanos and jalapenos, so the heat is minimal, as it typically is with green sauces. There's so much flavor, though, that you don't even miss it. Unlike other brands' green sauces, Herdez uses lime juice for acidity rather than vinegar, which contributes to the bright fruity taste while providing a pleasing, vibrant tang. I loved this verde sauce with every type of taco I tried it on, from ground beef to fried fish to pinto bean. It's impressively versatile, somehow complementing every kind of protein in a unique and successful way. For a classic verde sauce, Herdez is the clear winner.

1. Herdez Roja Taqueria Street Sauce

Herdez Roja Taqueria Street Sauce
Herdez Roja Taqueria Street Sauce - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

If you only have room for one sauce in your life, make it this taqueria-style roja sauce from Herdez. This sauce has everything: zesty acidity, fresh fruity flavor, warm chile spice, a savory backdrop, and a kiss of heat. There are visible spices floating in the deep red base that make each bite pop. This sauce was so good when I tasted it on a tortilla chip that I would eat it as a dip without question. When I tried it on tacos, it was even better. It's bright enough to work with lighter taco fillings like fish and beans, but has the intensity to go toe-to-toe with beef and other rich meats and flavorful toppings.

The balance and unique flavor profile come from an interesting combination of ingredients: This roja sauce is made with both tomatoes and tomatillos, so you get the best of both worlds, and lots of acidity. It gets its warmth from arbol chiles, which bring a good amount of heat, reaching up to 30,000 units on the Scoville scale. This is significantly hotter than a jalapeno, a little hotter than a serrano, and slightly less hot than cayenne pepper.

Somehow Herdez took every characteristic I enjoyed from the other sauces on this list and combined them into one, and instead of fighting with one another, they melded together perfectly. There's nothing this sauce is missing, and the levels of flavor are perfectly calibrated. It's No. 1, hands down.

How We Chose The Best Store-Bought Taco Sauce

various taco sauce bottles
various taco sauce bottles - Wendy Hector/Daily Meal

To decide which sauces to include in this ranking, I looked for popular, widely available sauces specifically made for tacos, excluding general hot sauces and other types of condiments. Both green and red sauces were considered, as well as sauces at different heat levels to give the selection lots of variety.

Each sauce was tasted first with a plain tortilla chip, then drizzled generously on simple street-style tacos with various fillings to see how well they enhanced different flavors; I tried them with ground beef, grilled chicken, breaded fish, and pinto beans. First, I tasted the sauces on tacos made with just a tortilla and protein, and seasoned only with salt. Then, I added toppings like chopped onion and cilantro to see how the sauces held up against stronger flavors. Each sauce, regardless of style and heat level, was ranked against the rest based on flavor, quality, value, and versatility.

Read the original article on The Daily Meal.