Whether you enjoy eating tortilla chips plain or use them as a vehicle for dips and spreads, the crunchy snacks are a staple at every gathering. It’s so easy to run to the store, pick up a bag and have something to bring to a party. Some brands have even inspired deep, somewhat aggressive loyalties. (Chicago Tribune beer writer Josh Noel threatened to riot if his favorite Donkey chips were not included.)
Totopos and tostadas are integral components of Mexican cuisine, dating back centuries to the indigenous Zapotec people in Oaxaca. But the tortilla chip that we know today has only been around since the late 1940s. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Rebecca Webb Carranza was the creator of the triangle-shaped tortilla chip. Her family owned Los Angeles-based El Zarape Tortilla Factory at the time, and instead of throwing away misshapen corn and flour disks, she took them home, cut them into triangles, fried them up and served them at a party. El Zarape Tortilla Factory began selling 10-cent bags of Tort Chips, and they had become the family’s main business by the 1960s.
According to the 2018 State of the Industry report by SNAC International, an international trade association of the global snack industry, tortilla chip sales grew by 3.4 percent and garnered more than $4.2 billion in 2018. Brands that marketed themselves with “healthy,” “natural” and “clean” labels grew 4 percent more than others, which only grew 2 percent.
David Walsh, vice president of membership and communications for SNAC International, says this is a testament to how tortilla chip producers have adapted to consumers’ changing snacking preferences, making the snack more exciting with more flavors and health-conscious monikers.
“Tortilla chips are the prime example of a traditional category that has reinvented itself in-step with the overall evolving snacks category,” wrote Walsh in an email. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen a wealth of new tortilla chip products that include things like sprouted ingredients, whole grains, and healthy inclusions such as chia and flax seeds. As with other categories of snacks, tortilla chips are also being infused with various forms of protein — even sustainable cricket protein.”
According to the report, top brands of tortilla chips and tostadas were Doritos, Tostitos, Tostitos Scoop, Private Label, Santitas, Barcel Takis Fuego, On The Border, Mission, Calidad and Late July Organic, in that order.
Mike Kostyo, trendologist at Datassential, said 78 percent of U.S. consumers say they love or like tortilla chips, and a third say they regularly eat them. One out of every five restaurant menus has the snack listed, although Kostyo suspects that this number is low because many Mexican restaurants serve them as a complimentary appetizer. On menus, tortilla chips have grown — 8 percent in the last four years — and Kostyo predicts a 3 percent growth in the next four years.
While variety is great, it makes buying just one bag of tortilla chips hard. How will you determine which bag to get when faced with seemingly endless choices of white corn, yellow corn, mixed corn, restaurant style, and other varieties and flavors of tortilla chips? Which one will have the right salt level? And which one won’t crumble when dunked into a bowl of salsa or guacamole at your “Game of Thrones” watch party?
The Chicago Tribune’s Food & Dining staff sampled 16 brands of plain, salted tortilla chips, avoiding those with language on the label that indicated a flavor added.
We chose to sample plain, yellow corn tortilla chips when possible, and mixed corn if that was the only option for that brand. We also conducted a preliminary tasting because there were too many varieties that seemed the same. We avoided ones with flavors like lime and chili and we did not include chips made fresh in stores.
This was a blind tasting, which means tasters didn’t know which brand of tortilla chip they were trying. Each one was served in a bowl and participants were asked to comment on the appearance, aroma, flavor and how they felt it would stand up when used with a dip. Tasters were also asked to take note of whether or not the chip would stick to their teeth, if it had an aftertaste and if it felt like something they would get in a restaurant.
The chips were purchased at Cermak Produce Fresh Market, Jewel-Osco, Aldi, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Prices listed are what they are priced normally, without any promotions or discounts.
Tasters noted that the differences between brands were subtle. While the winner of the taste test won by a landslide, there was also a four-way tie and two, two-way ties. The ties were broken by calculating the median score and further determined by choosing the chip that received higher numerical ratings.
1. MASA UNO TORTILLERIA SALTED CHIPS
While tasters had mixed comments about the fried smell, this chip won for being most similar to what you’d get at a restaurant, for being perfectly salted and for being a sturdy, crispy chip that would work well with a dip. Others complimented the delicate corn flavor and attractive appearance. “It’s a bit hard, but it’s fresh-feeling. There’s not too much salt and no processed funk,” wrote one taster. Another participant said the chip was hearty with a buttery aftertaste. $2.79, Cermak Produce
2. EL RANCHERO TORTILLA CHIPS WITH SALT (TIED WITH FRONTERA, LATE JULY, MATILDA)
“This chip is ready for anything,” wrote one taster. And indeed, it seems it was ready to beat out the Frontera Stone-Ground Tortilla Chips, Late July Snacks Original Sea Salt and Matilda Tortilla Chips that it tied with. Participants enjoyed this chip for its medium thickness, roasted corn flavor and hearty quality. “This is the chip of choice when you want all the compliments,” one taster wrote, although one said the aftertaste lingers in your mouth and “your companions will smell them on your breath for the rest of the night.” $2.99, Whole Foods
3. FRONTERA STONE-GROUND TORTILLA CHIPS (TIED WITH EL RANCHERO, LATE JULY, MATILDA)
Perhaps this lost to the second-place winner because of its lack of personality, as one taster noted. But it beat out Late July Snacks in this four-way tie. While many complimented these chips for their appropriate salt level and crispiness, many of the comments described it as “fine,” “plain” and “light.” However, this makes it a great vehicle for salsa and dips, so it proves that, sometimes, boring isn’t bad after all. $3.39, Whole Foods
4. LATE JULY SNACKS ORGANIC SEA SALT, RESTAURANT STYLE TORTILLA CHIPS, THIN AND CRISPY (TIED WITH EL RANCHERO, FRONTERA, MATILDA)
Participants complimented this chip for its light corn aroma, crisp texture and ability to withstand a dip. But tasters found it “ordinary,” “generic,” “a little blah,” “the pumpkin spice of tortilla chips” and “mediocre.” One taster said this brand would be good for mindless snacking in front of a TV. “There’s absolutely nothing unpleasant about this chip but nothing memorable either,” one wrote. “This is what most people probably expect from tortilla chips,” wrote another. $3.99, Whole Foods
5. MATILDA TORTILLA CHIPS, LIGHTLY SALTED (TIED WITH EL RANCHERO, FRONTERA, LATE JULY)
While these chips looked the most restaurant-ready and handmade to some, others complained the chips looked oily and thick. Some complained that while the chips smelled like corn, the flavor was muddled and a bit flat. “I was disappointed that they weren’t as greasy and salty and delicious as they look, but I could still eat three bowls before my tacos arrive if I were sitting in a taco joint,” one taster wrote. It makes sense that it was ranked last in a four-way tie for second place. $2.79, Cermak
6. TOSTITOS CANTINA TRADITIONAL (TIED WITH DONKEY)
While tasters enjoyed this chip for its crispy texture, the jury was split on whether this chip was too salty or just salty enough. “It has a processed vibe,” wrote one taster. “I hate the coating it leaves behind on my tongue and the roof of my mouth. Yuck!” But others said it was benign and a standard “gets-the-job-done” kind of chip. $3, Jewel-Osco
7. DONKEY AUTHENTIC TORTILLA CHIPS (TIED WITH TOSTITOS CANTINA TRADITIONAL)
Participants really loved the shape on this chip, saying that it had a nice curl for dipping and that it was sturdy while staying crunchy. It tied with the sixth place winner. However, the flavor is where tasters felt it missed the mark. In addition to needing more salt, one person said it had a “bizarre, ashy aftertaste” and that the “lingering flavor is upsetting.” $3.99, Whole Foods
8. NUEVO LEON RESTAURANT STYLE NACHO CHIPS
While tasters complimented this one for its pretty color and pronounced corn flavor, many complained that it would not hold up to being used as a vehicle for dip. “You would eat these out of boredom at a party your significant other is forcing you to attend,” one taster wrote. Another person went even further, describing it as the chips left at closing time at a taqueria and that there was “nothing at all good about this failure.” $2.99, Cermak
9. EL MILAGRO MEXICAN KITCHEN STYLE WITH PURE SEA SALT
“There’s just enough salt to make your brain say, ‘Oh, someone is having a party,’ and the aftertaste exists long enough to remind me that I ate a bag of chips and enjoyed every minute of it,” wrote one participant. One taster said this chip was the “tortilla chip I’d take to a desert island.” But others complained that it was they were dull in color and not crispy enough, saying they looked like cardboard and tasted like diet chips. “This chip hates you. It’s dusty and gross. A gritty mess. Toss this,” said one clearly fed-up taster. $3.69, Whole Foods
10. MISSION TORTILLA TRIANGLES (TIED WITH SANTITAS)
This brand was victorious over Santitas Tortilla Triangles. Some tasters said that while this chip was unremarkable, it was decent and that they would buy it. Others described it as “your basic white corn tortilla chip that has a satisfying crunch, but the lack of salt makes them feel dry and burdensome.” However, other tasters had stronger opinions, calling it the “zombie of tortilla chips” that “tastes like misery,” and another warned consumers to “only serve it to your enemies. This is a break-up chip. A hatred chip.” $2.99, Jewel-Osco
11. SANTITAS TORTILLA TRIANGLES
Tasters complimented the Santitas brand for a homemade look and crispy texture, but complained that it lacked salt. “It would curb hunger but fails to delight,” a participant wrote. This was the loser of a two-way tie, perhaps because “they’re the kind of chip you keep eating, hoping for more flavor, but it never comes,” like one taster wrote. $2.29, Jewel-Osco
12. TRADER JOE’S ORGANIC YELLOW CORN TORTILLA CHIP ROUNDS
Many participants complained about the round shape and way-too-yellow color of these chips. Tasters also disliked the dryness and lack of flavor of this chip. “Soak it, drown it with salsa,” one person wrote. Others complained about the aftertaste, saying that it tasted like Lunchables Nachos. “It’s greasy enough to satiate a late night snack craving. Come home drunk and eat a bag of these and it will both settle your stomach and make you feel guilty in the morning,” one taster wrote. $2.69, Trader Joe’s
13. 365 ORGANIC YELLOW CORN TORTILLA ROUNDS, SALTED
“I am officially against circle chips. Triangles taste better,” declared one taster. Participants complained that it had an artificial aroma and tasted of processed food. Dusty and lacking in corn flavor, the only redeeming comment about these chips was that they would be good for dipping, because they were a little thicker than others. “These are a white people tortilla chip,” one person wrote. $2.99, Whole Foods
14. SIMPLY NATURE YELLOW CORN TORTILLA CHIPS WITH SEA SALT
Gritty and tasteless, this chip garnered few compliments from tasters. A few participants complained about a burnt and overcooked flavor, one saying it reminded her of the burnt part of a roasted marshmallow. “My eyes see a tortilla chip, my ears hear the crunch of a tortilla chip, my brains know I’m eating a tortilla chip, but my mouth feels nothing,” one taster wrote. “I just don’t like it but I’m sure it’s fine with some salsa,” another said. $1.99, Aldi
15. ORGANIC QUE PASA TORTILLA CHIPS YELLOW CORN GROUND WITH VOLCANIC STONES
This chip received multiple compliments about its texture, but tasters complained that it lacked flavor and tasted stale with a lingering metallic aftertaste. “This is the chip you serve to guests you hate,” wrote one taster. “It smells like sour corn, it’s dry and crumbly, and the aftertaste is just as bad as the chip.” $3.99, Whole Foods
16. JACKSON’S HONEST YELLOW CORN TORTILLA CHIPS SLOW COOKED WITH COCONUT OIL
“Something nefarious is going on,” wrote one taster of this chip. Many complained that it was too light on salt and brittle, not crispy. Although one taster complimented the bland flavor, saying that you could eat this while you were sick with the flu and feel comforted the way someone might feel when eating oyster crackers, most of the other tasters said this chip was uneventful. “This chip is bad at everything, even being a chip,” one taster wrote. “Drown it with salsa.” $3.99, Whole Foods
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