Taco Pasta Salad

Taco Pasta Salad is the ultimate crowd pleaser bursting with bold, satisfying Tex-Mex flavors and the best Baja Catalina Dressing!

This Taco Pasta Salad is swoon worthy for lunch, easy dinners, potlucks, barbecues or parties and will have everyone clamoring for more! It’s flavor-texture fireworks of the best taco fixings such as chili spiced ground beef or turkey, juicy tomatoes, hearty black beans, creamy avocados, spicy jalapenos, zesty cilantro and the best part – crushed Nacho Cheese Doritos – all doused in creamy Baja Catalina Dressing. This Taco Pasta Salad is easy to customize with your favorite ingredients, is make ahead friendly and can be enjoyed cold, room temperature or warmed.  No matter how you serve it, this pasta salad recipe is destined to become a treasured family favorite!  

Pasta salad recipes are not only a hit at potlucks, they make the best sides to practically every meal!  Try out these favorites: Mexican Pasta Salad,  Italian Tortellini SaladGreek Pasta SaladOrzo Pasta Salad, Cowboy Pasta Salad, Pesto Pasta Salad and Creamy Bacon Pea Pasta Salad.  Now add this Taco Pasta Salad to the list!

HOW TO MAKE taco pasta Salad VIDEo

top view of taco pasta salad recipe in a white bowl with pasta, ground beef, cheese, lettuce, black beans, corn, avocados, olives, jalapenos and cilantro
side view of taco pasta salad in a white bowl with pasta, ground beef, cheese, lettuce, black beans, avocados, etc.

INGREDIENTS FOR TACO PASTA SALAD

This Taco Pasta Salad is a fusion of fiesta flavors and textures that is comforting, hearty, flavorful, and fresh all at the same time.  Keep in mind as you look at the ingredients that you don’t need all of the bells and whistles to make a truly great pasta salad. Here’s what I add for my perfect bite, but you can customize the salad how you like:

THE PASTA OPTIONS

My favorite pasta for this recipe is rotini but you can use any medium pasta such as: 

  • Fusilli
  • Bowties / Farfalle
  • Penne
  • Macaroni
  • Gemelli
  • Large shells

THE MEAT OPTIONS

  • Ground beef:  This is the classic choice for Taco Pasta Salad because its juicy texture and beefy flavor is so satisfying. It’s seasoned to perfection with chili powder, ground cumin, smoked paprika, oregano and cayenne pepper. We will use more seasonings than usual because they flavor the entire salad.
  • Ground turkey:  You can absolutely use ground turkey or chicken instead of beef.  To still enjoy the beefy flavor, season the turkey with 2 teaspoons granulated beef bouillon, 2 crushed bouillon cubes or 2 teaspoons base like Better Than Bouillon or Zoup!  If using bouillon, reduce the salt to ½ teaspoon then season to taste.
showing how to make taco pasta salad recipe by adding pasta, ground beef, tomatoes, corn, black beans, bell peppers, avocados, and olives to a bowl

THE SALAD

  • Nacho Cheese Doritos: These make the pasta salad! Doritos are stand-alone winners, so just imagine how magical they are in pasta salad.  The crushed chips not only add the satisfying, requisite CRUNCH, but infuse the salad with bold nacho flavored goodness.
  • Tomatoes.  I prefer cherry or grape tomatoes because of their firm yet juicy texture.  Cherry tomatoes are inherently sweeter than grape tomatoes, so aim for cherry if you can.  You may also use two Roma tomatoes, but you will want to seed them first so they don’t fall apart and dilute the dressing.
  • Corn:  You definitely don’t want to skip the corn because the juicy pops of sweetness pack a delightful punch that cuts through the earthy, robust ingredients. You can use plain corn straight off of the cob (like I did here) or char it in the skillet or on the grill for an amped up layer of smoky, juicy YUM like I do in my Corn Salsa and Avocado Corn Salsa recipes (instructions included).  I highly promote fresh corn in the spring/summer months but you can get away with using canned in the winter. 
  • Black Beans: You may substitute with your beans of choice such as red kidney beans, pinto beans etc.  No matter what bean you use, rinse and dry them first.
  • Lettuce:  I know lettuce might sound odd in a pasta salad, but just like my BLT Pasta Salad, it is a tasty, textural win.  I recommend iceberg lettuce because it’s sturdy, cool and crunchy and what’s served up in traditional tacos!
  • Black olives:  These are optional for the olive lovers. I suggest purchasing whole olives and halving them yourself so they don’t get lost or fall apart in the pasta salad.
  • Pickled jalapenos:  These spicy, tangy additions enliven the entire salad without making it taste spicy.  You can certainly add more or less to taste. 
  • Bell pepper:  Use one green bell pepper for its earthy crunch.  I don’t suggest substituting with red, yellow or orange because they are sweeter and the salad already is bursting with sweet corn.
  • Avocados:  These are optional but add satisfying, earthy, creamy bursts to complement the crunchy textures.  Make sure you use ripe avocados but not overly ripe or they will turn to mush.  To tell if an avocado is ripe, squeeze it gently. A ripe avocado should yield slightly to pressure but not feel overly soft.  If your avocados ripen before you are ready to use them, they can be stored in the refrigerator which will dramatically slow down the ripening process.  For more detailed information on how to select avocados, see my guacamole recipe.
  • Cilantro: Adds a layer of tangy, zesty, citrus flavor.  If you’re one of the 4-14 percent who thinks cilantro tastes like soap, just skip it.
  • Cheese:  I used a Mexican cheese blend but you can also use 2 cups of cheddar or one cup each of cheddar and Monterrey Jack or Pepper Jack.

PASTA SALAD DRESSING INGREDIENTS

This pasta salad dressing is luxuriously creamy, tangy, sassy with a kiss of sweetness.  It’s essentially homemade French Dressing/Catalina Dressing commonly used in taco salad recipes, with a few fiesta seasonings.  The dressing can be made days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use.  You will need:

  • Salsa:  Use your favorite salsa like Mateo’s or my homemade 5-minute blender salsa is spectacular.  I suggest medium or spicy salsa.  If you use mild, your pasta salad will taste like it’s missing something make sure to ramp up the flavor with cayenne pepper or hot sauce.
  • Sour Cream or Greek Yogurt:  I prefer sour cream in this dressing but Greek yogurt works well because we are making a tangy dressing.  If the dressing is too tangy by using Greek yogurt, add a teaspoon or so of additional sugar to taste.  Fat-free sour cream or Greek yogurt will both work as well.
  • Mayonnaise:  This provides the creamy, rich base of the dressing and binds all of the ingredients together.  Even if you don’t like mayo, I don’t suggest skipping because it prevents the dressing ingredients from separating – and your dressing will not taste like mayo! Please use real mayonnaise and not Miracle Whip. 
  • Seasonings:  The dressing is seasoned with smoked paprika, ground cumin, salt and pepper. 
side view showing how to make taco pasta salad recipe by adding pasta, ground beef, black beans, tomatoes, avocados, olives, lettuce and cheese to a white bowl
  • Use leftover taco meat: Leftover taco meat is perfect for this recipe. You can even double this recipe with the intention of freezing some to use later because the beef freezes beautifully for quick prep ahead dinners.
  • Omit ingredients:  Don’t like olives, skip them.  Don’t have avocados or lettuce on hand?  Do without.  I don’t however, suggest, skipping the Nacho Doritos, corn, and of course, the juicy ground beef.
  • Ingredient swaps: Use pinto beans or kidney beans, ground turkey, fresh jalapenos, canned corn, etc.
  • Make it spicy:  As always, taste the pasta salad first and then adjust as desired.  Spice it up by adding more than the 3 tablespoons suggested jalapenos or add hot sauce or cayenne pepper to taste.
  • Use tortellini:  Tortellini is one of my favorite pastas to use in pasta salads. You can use any type of cheese tortellini.  Make sure you use fresh, refrigerated tortellini and not dried tortellini on the shelf.
  • Swap dressing:  Swap the dressing for Cilantro Lime Dressing or Avocado Ranch.
  • Use leftover protein:  Swap the ground beef for carne asada steakbeef barbacoa, Mexican shredded beef, carnitassalsa verde pork or chipotle pork..   
  • Make it healthier:  Use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, avocado-based mayo, olive oil mayo or vegan mayo, light cheese, or use less of it, less ground beef or use ground turkey.
  • Make it vegan: Use vegan sour cream, vegan mayonnaise, vegan cheese and your vegan protein of choice such as crumbled tofu.
  • Step 1: Make the dressing.  Make the dressing first so it has time to chill.  Whisk all of the dressing ingredients together in a bowl then transfer to the refrigerator.
  • Step 1: Cook the pasta.  Cook the pasta according to package directions in generously salted water. Rinse, drain and add to a large bowl.
  • Step 3:  Chop the ingredients.  While the pasta is cooking, chop the veggies.
  • Step 4:  Combine.  Add all of the pasta salad ingredients to a very large bowl except the Doritos.  Toss to combine with the dressing. Immediately before serving, add the Doritos and toss again.  See the Make Ahead instructions if not serving right away.  
showing how to make taco pasta salad recipe by adding crushed nacho Doritos to the pasta salad
  • Don’t overcook the pasta.  No one wants mushy pasta salad!  Take care to test the pasta 2 minutes before the time on the box says. You want the pasta cooked al dente meaning it has a little bite to it.
  • Cool pasta.  After the pasta is cooked, rinse it with cold water to prevent it from continuing to cook.
  • Toss pasta with olive oil.  After the pasta is drained, immediately add it to a large bowl then toss it with some olive oil.  If you skip this step, the pasta can clump and dry together and tear when tossed.
  • Use fresh corn immediately.  Fresh corn is the sweetest and juiciest used within the first 1-2 days.  The sugars begin converting to starch soon after the corn is harvested. Make sure you store your corn in the refrigerator to stall this process.
  • Customize ingredients.  The pasta salad ingredients and measurements are simply suggestions.  You can use add/swap any ingredients for your favorites.
  • Season to taste.  Always adjust the finished dish to make it right for YOU!  The salsa you use, how heavily you salted the pasta water and personal taste will determine if you want it saltier, tangier or spicier.  I found the measurements in the recipe just right for me when the pasta salad was immediately served but you may need to adjust if the pasta has been refrigerated.
  • Don’t add the Doritos until ready to serve.  The Doritos and lettuce soften very quickly so you can either add just before serving, or add the lettuce just before serving and let everyone garnish their own plates with the crushed Doritos.
taco pasta salad recipe in a white bowl with ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, black beans
up close of taco pasta salad recipe showing how creamy it is

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top view of taco pasta salad recipe in a white bowl with pasta, ground beef, cheese, lettuce, black beans, corn, avocados, olives, jalapenos and cilantro

Taco Pasta Salad

This Taco Pasta Salad is swoon worthy for lunch, easy dinners, potlucks, barbecues or parties and will have everyone clamoring for more! It’s flavor-texture fireworks of the best taco fixings such as chili spiced ground beef or turkey, juicy tomatoes, hearty black beans, creamy avocados, spicy jalapenos, zesty cilantro and the best part – crushed Nacho Cheese Doritos – all doused in creamy Baja Catalina Dressing. This Taco Pasta Salad is easy to customize with your favorite ingredients, is make ahead friendly and can be enjoyed cold, room temperature or warmed.  No matter how you serve it, this pasta salad recipe is destined to become a treasured family favorite!  
Servings: 12 servings
Total Time: 50 mins
Prep Time: 35 mins
Cook Time: 15 mins

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Ingredients

GROUND BEEF

  • 1 pound lean ground beef (see notes for turkey)
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 ½ tsps EACH garlic powder, onion powder
  • 1 tsp EACH ground cumin, salt
  • 1/2 tsp EACH smoked paprika, dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 4 oz. can mild diced green chilies
  • 2 tablespoons water

SALAD

  • 1 pound rotini, or other medium pasta
  • 1 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 ½ cups sweet corn (fresh or canned)
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 cup black olives, halved (optional)
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons diced pickled jalapenos (from 4 ounce can), more or less to taste
  • 1 cup cilantro, chopped (measure before chopping)
  • 2 cups Mexican cheese blend

ADD JUST BEFORE SERVING

  • 3 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
  • 2 avocados, ripe but slightly firm, chopped (optional)
  • 1 9.5 oz. bag Nacho Doritos, crushed

CREAMY BAJA CATALINA DRESSING

  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 3/4 cup sour cream (may sub Greek yogurt)
  • 1/4 cup medium salsa
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 tsp EACH smoked paprika, ground cumin, salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper

Instructions

  • Whisk together all of the Dressing ingredients in a medium bowl; refrigerate.
  • Cook pasta in salted water according to package directions, just until al dente. Rinse with cold water and drain. Add to a very large serving bowl and toss with a drizzle of olive oil.
  • Brown the meat in a large skillet over medium heat. Drain off excess grease. Stir in all of the spices, followed by 2 tablespoons water and green chiles. Set aside to cool while you chop your veggies.
  • Add the beef and the pasta salad ingredients to the pasta (beans through the cheese blend).

If serving immediately:

  • Proceed to add the avocados and lettuce. Toss with all of the dressing. Add the Doritos right before serving and toss again. Season to taste. If you expect leftovers, you may want to hold the Doritos and let everyone add them to their own servings; they will lose their crunch fairly quickly.

If not serving immediately:

  • Hold the lettuce, avocados and Doritos. Toss the pasta salad with HALF of the dressing, cover and refrigerate. Bring the pasta salad to room temperature before serving by letting it sit on the counter for 30 minutes or so. When ready to serve, add the lettuce, avocados and Doritos. Toss with remaining dressing. Season to taste. If you expect leftovers, you may want to hold the Doritos and let everyone add them to their own servings; they will lose their crunch fairly quickly.

Video

Notes

  • Customize ingredients:  The pasta salad ingredients and measurements are simply suggestions.  You can use add/swap any ingredients for your favorites.
  • Ground turkey:  You can absolutely use ground turkey or chicken instead of beef.  To still enjoy the beefy flavor, season the turkey with 2 teaspoons granulated beef bouillon, 2 crushed bouillon cubes or 2 teaspoons base like Better Than Bouillon or Zoup!  If using bouillon, reduce the salt to ½ teaspoon then season to taste.
  • Avocados:  You can add chopped avocados to the salad hours ahead of time by first tossing with lime juice. 
  • Cheese:  You can also use 2 cups of cheddar or one cup each of cheddar and Monterrey Jack.
  • Season to taste:  Always adjust the finished dish to make it right for YOU!  The salsa you use, how heavily you salted the pasta water and personal taste will determine if you want it saltier, tangier or spicier.  I found the measurements in the recipe just right for me when the pasta salad was immediately served but you may need to adjust if the pasta has been refrigerated.

Prep Ahead Pasta Salad

You can prep the pasta salad ingredients ahead of time if you want to get more than a 24-hour jump start, otherwise use the make ahead instructions in the recipe card if serving within a few hours.
  • Ground beef: can be cooked 2-3 days ahead of time and refrigerated in an airtight container.  I recommend reheating the beef slightly before tossing with the salad so it’s at room temperature. 
  • Pasta: can be made 48 hours in advance, tossed with a drizzle of olive oil, cooled and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
  • Vegetables: the corn, bell peppers, olives, tomatoes, jalapenos, lettuce, etc. can be chopped 48 hours in advance and stored in separate airtight containers in the refrigerator. 
  • Dressing: can be made 5 days in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Storage

  • Cover the leftover Taco Pasta Salad with plastic wrap or transfer it to an airtight container.  Store in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. The longer the pasta salad is refrigerated, the drier it can become.  If your leftovers taste too dry, then stir in some sour cream.  You may also want to perk up the salad with salt and cayenne pepper to taste.
  • You can enjoy leftovers cold, but I prefer microwaving servings for 30 seconds for room temperature or a minute or so for warmed (it’s so good warmed!).

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4 Comments

  1. Debra says

    I made the Taco Salad today. Was pretty easy to make and delicious.
    After making it I think I would add another 1/2 lb. meat. I made it with ground Turkey. I mixed the spices together and then added them to the meat. I might
    char the corn a bit next time. What could I add to the dressing to give it a little
    kick? Overall an easy everyone will love salad. Jennifer I always look forward
    to making any of your salads.

    • Jen says

      Thanks Debra! You can add cayenne pepper directly to the dressing or add additional jalapenos to the salad for more kick.

  2. B says

    I made this and it was delicious. My husband would eat beef every day, me, not so much. Personally, I’m not a fan of beef, I prefer bison or elk, but I do love Mexican food. This was a dish we both enjoyed. I halved the recipe & if still made a lot. This is a great dish for company and good for the summertime without heating up the kitchen. It’s in the rotation. I’ve made several of your dishes & they do not disappoint. Great flavor! Whenever I’m searching for a new recipe I always come back to your site and always pick your version. Your a rockstar!

    • Jen says

      Thank you so much for the glowing review, I’m so pleased you both enjoyed this recipe so much! Thanks especially for your kind words, I’m honored my site is becoming your go-to!

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