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The Unlikely Rise of the French Tacos

I picked up the tacos from above, like a clutch. Quickly, I realized it would be a two-handed affair and turned it on its horizontal axis, for a better grip. The grill marks, a perfectly uniform grid of diamonds, almost looked as if they’d been stamped on. Tentatively, I took a bite. I had been unsure about fries in a sandwich, but the fries were great, adding crunch to gloop. They were texture. They were structure. Basically, nuts in a salad! The cheese sauce ran into all the crannies of the fillings, binding everything together, so that you never got a dead mouthful. The spiced onions in the sauce algérienne cut the dairy, adding a touch of heat. According to one Web site, the appeal of the French tacos lies in the “triple equation” of being infinitely customizable, highly caloric, and enticingly unhealthy. It turns out that the triple equation is pretty basic: bread, meat, cheese. I ate the tacos down to an oozing nub, and reluctantly wrapped it back up. By the time I went to bed, I had started planning a visit to Vaulx-en-Velin, which, among several contenders for the birthplace of the French tacos, has emerged as the clear leader.

The French tacos is an emblem of suburban pride, but it is a source of chagrin for some Mexican restaurateurs in France, who see it as a form of cultural appropriation, even desecration. Mercedes Ahumada, a Metepec-born chef who owns an eponymous consulting and catering business in Paris, told me about one experience she had while running a taco cart at a food fair. “I had a customer who threw his order in the trash, saying it wasn’t a taco,” she recalled. Ahumada noted that both Mexican and French cuisine were designated an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by UNESCO in the same year. “What shocks me is that they call it a ‘taco,’ ” she said. “It’s like if we made a wine and started calling it ‘Mexican champagne.’ ”

Counting generously, the French tacos contains two of three elements commonly held to make an authentic taco (nixtamalized corn tortilla, filling, sauce), drizzling bewilderment onto a base of insult. “I find a lack of respect for our traditions,” Luis Segura, the proprietor of Maria Juana Tacos, in Paris, said. “It should appall the French, too. I’m thinking about all the foreigners who come to France to discover the cheese, the macaron, and instead find the French tacos.”

The culinary traditions of Mexico have already been misrepresented once over in France. What is widely understood to be Mexican food is most often closer to Tex-Mex: burritos, nachos, and chili con carne, associated with the American West, and, in many cases, with stereotypes of cowboys and Indians. The putative Mexican influence is often disfigured or devalued beyond recognition. The Indiana Café, for example, with more than twenty locations in Paris and its suburbs, bills itself as “a restaurant at the frontier of Mexican and American.” There, the menu includes—alongside fajitas and nachos—mozzarella sticks, bacon-loaded fries, fish-and-chips, and, for dessert, pain perdu (a.k.a. French toast). Europeans have further adapted this cuisine to local preferences. In Norway, where Mexican food, or Mexican-ish food, caught on with particular alacrity, Fredagstacoen (“Friday tacos”) is a national institution. Common toppings there include cucumber and canned corn, Jeffrey M. Pilcher writes in “Planet Taco.”

Old El Paso, the American Tex-Mex brand, entered the French market in 1986. The same year, according to Pilcher, “37° 2 le matin” (“Betty Blue” in the U.S.), a hit film about a chili-con-carne-cooking, tequila-slamming aspiring novelist named Zorg, incited a nationwide Tex-Mex craze. Bérengère Dupui, the marketing director in France for Old El Paso, which is owned by General Mills, told me that the brand accounts for sixty-three per cent of sales of Mexican food in French grocery stores. According to the brand’s market research, ninety per cent of French people say they’re open to eating Mexican-food items, but only forty-five per cent buy them at least once a year. At Old El Paso, the level of spice is titrated according to perceived national tolerance; an “extra-mild” salsa, for example, will be extra-milder in France than it is in the U.K. “We impose ourselves liberally on this cuisine,” Dupui admitted. One member of a focus group said that she put tortillas in her lasagna, while another volunteered that he used them as a base for quiche.

Obviously, foods change as they travel. And coming up with a transporting name is a time-honored trick of culinary entrepreneurialism: the Norwegian omelette (also known as Baked Alaska and supposedly created in France or America); Swiss cheese (a generic American name for holed cheese, while “American cheese” was actually developed in Switzerland). It’s hard to imagine, however, that the French—the most appellation-attuned and orthodoxy-obsessed of cooks—would be totally fine with it if the roles were reversed and Mexicans were, say, to try passing off some novel form of churros as éclairs.

“You have worms, so I’m prescribing you birds.”
Cartoon by Charlie Hankin

In recent years, devotees of the French tacos have split into camps, with tacos progressives accepting the dish’s evolution as a corporatized fast food, and tacos conservatives insisting that its true form can be found only in the small-time regional snacks. Amid the internal debate, larger questions of authenticity are overlooked or considered irrelevant—perhaps because being authentic was never the goal. Many French-tacos consumers know that the dish has no real relation to Mexican food. If cultural appropriation usually involves a dominant group profiting from a minority group’s cultural heritage, the case of the French tacos presents a complicated power dynamic: here, a minority group of French entrepreneurs of North African descent is profiting from the cultural heritage of an even more minoritarian group of Mexican restaurateurs who, in turn, see their counterparts as part of a monolithic France.

Before the emergence of the French tacos, Vaulx-en-Velin was known as the cardoon capital of France. (The cardoon, a relative of the artichoke, is often prepared au gratin.) A city of around fifty thousand people, with a poverty rate of thirty-three per cent, it comprises a variety of landscapes, ranging from medieval village to industrial canal to built-up suburb. According to the municipal newsletter, the French tacos, as a dish with a Mexican name and a Greco-Turkish influence, “embellished with fries as in Belgium, shakshuka as in the Maghreb, and French cheese,” amounts to “the culinary portrait of a global city like Vaulx-en-Velin.”

The most widely accepted genealogy of the French tacos credits Salah Felfoul, who owned a snack called Pizza Express, “next to the old Lidl” in Vaulx-en-Velin. Felfoul claims to have invented the tacos’s proprietary cheese sauce in 1993. “That sauce, it’s the base of the tacos,” Felfoul told the Vaulx-en-Velin newsletter. “I was using it for wrap sandwiches I made with pizza dough, with homemade fries and meat prepared by the butcher. The name ‘tacos,’ that was me, too.” Felfoul says that he came up with the name because the dish “resembled a Mexican tortilla.”

In the documentary “Tacos Origins,” Bastien Gens tracks down a host of tacos elders to delve into the mystery of the dish’s origins, without reaching a resolution. Many tacos fans purport to know better. “The recipe is inspired by a dish from the city of Setif,” one commenter wrote on YouTube, where the film is available, pointing to mukhala’a, a semolina pancake often stuffed with meat, onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes that is popular in Algeria. Another commenter ventured that Gens, as a native of Grenoble, might be intentionally downplaying the cultural might of Lyon.

For these regions, the French tacos represents economic opportunity on both the individual and the municipal level. The proprietors of French-tacos restaurants overwhelmingly started out as consumers of French tacos, and the arrival of a French-tacos franchise can be a big event in the life of a small town. The Web site of the Parisian suburb of Poissy, for example, proudly announced that the township had “joined the O’Tacos club.” French tacos are now available in Morocco, Belgium, and Senegal. (O’Tacos briefly had a Brooklyn branch, but it closed because of personnel issues, according to Patrick Pelonero.) The tacos diaspora extends as far as Hanoi, where, in 2018, Julien Sanchez, a native of Villeurbanne, a suburb next to Vaulx-en-Velin, opened Hey! Pelo, Vietnam’s first French-tacos shop. (“Pélo” roughly means “dude” in Lyonnais argot.) “When you live in a city that doesn’t have French tacos, you’d better learn how to make your own,” Sanchez told me.

Sanchez put me in touch with a childhood friend named Seyf Sebaa, who agreed to show me around the heartland of the French tacos. I was planning to take the train from Paris to Lyon, and then a tram from Lyon to Villeurbanne. Sebaa kindly asked if I needed any help getting there. I’d be fine, I assured him, over text. “Noted,” he wrote back. “Let’s get crazy!”

Sebaa met me on the tram platform in jeans, a bomber jacket, and a big scarf. He and his parents and siblings had moved to the countryside outside Lyon several years ago, he said. He was on leave from La Pataterie, a potato-themed restaurant, where, until Covid hit, he worked as a server. Over Christmas, he had spent several weeks working at a fish smokehouse, processing salmon, trout, sturgeon, and eels. He had a natural buoyancy, and his spirits seemed to rise even higher as we set out on foot through the town. “If there’s a big football match, it’s tacos obligatoire,” Sebaa said. “It sounds stupid to say—it’s a sandwich—but there’s something about the tacos that brings people together, something ceremonial about it.”

We passed irregularly spaced muffler shops, car dealerships, rapeseed fields, a roundabout or two. The sky was full, low, and gray. Eventually, Sebaa stopped at a corner, in front of a snack called Le Tornado. His father’s cousin owned it in the early two-thousands, he said, and he used to serve French tacos. Another cousin, Sebaa added, owns a Tex-Mex restaurant, called Tex House, a half-hour drive away. I ran through the different theories about the origins of the French tacos and asked Sebaa if he thought his family had anything to do with it. “It’s a real labyrinth,” he said, promising to try to get in touch with his father’s cousins. “Ah! The tacos gratinés! ” he called out, as we passed a restaurant that advertised a wood-fired oven, for melting cheese on top of French tacos.

We were getting hungry. We walked for a while through a quiet neighborhood of apartment complexes, until Sebaa stopped short at an intersection.

“Can you smell it?” he asked.

“What?” I replied.

“Follow me,” he said.

A few seconds later, we were standing in front of La Marinade, his favorite French-tacos destination of late. We opened the door and entered a small front room, clearly recently decorated, with stylish burled-wood light fixtures and two automatic-ordering kiosks. We waited our turn while a large group in front of us made their choices. Then we stepped up to the screens. I chose a tacos with Gruyère melted on top, stuffed with “chicken marinated in four spices,” sauced with cheese and harissa, and garnished with olives and shakshuka (a mix of cooked bell peppers, tomatoes, and onion), the Lyonnais way.

French fast food is a relative concept: it turned out that the kitchen was somewhat overwhelmed and our order wouldn’t be ready for thirty minutes. “I’d rather have a high-quality tacos that takes longer than one that’s fast but not as good,” Sebaa said. He had been intending to move to Hanoi to work with Sanchez at Hey! Pelo, but the onset of the pandemic had ruined his plans. We decided to go tour their old neighborhood. “Here we are,” Sebaa said, passing me his phone, which displayed an old photograph of him and Sanchez and some other cherubic-faced friends eating French tacos for someone’s birthday.

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