Delicious french tacos in hanoi, vietnam at hey pelo

The French tacos is an “identitarian food” for the country’s adolescents.Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht
French tacos are tacos lượt thích chicken fingers are fingers. Which is lớn say, they are not tacos at all. First of all, through some mistranslation or misapprehension of its Mexican namesake, the French tacos is always plural, even when there’s only one, pronounced with a voiced “S.” Technically, the French tacos is a sandwich: a flour tortilla, slathered with condiments, piled with meat (usually halal) & other things (usually French fries), doused in cheese sauce, folded inlớn a rectangular packet, & then toasted on a grill. “In short, a rather successful marriage between panini, kebab, và burrito,” according to lớn the municipal newsletter of Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of Lyon in which the French tacos may or may not have been born.

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In the American imagination, French cuisine can seem a static entity—the inevitable and unchanging expression of a culture as codified by Carême and Escoffier and interpreted by Julia Child. Bœuf bourguignon, quibịt Lorraine, onion soup, chocolate mousse. Although these dishes remain standbys, alongside pizza and couscous & other adopted staples, French cuisine can be as fickle as any. The latest rage has nothing to do with aspics or emulsions. What are French people eating right now? The answer is as likely khổng lồ be French tacos as anything else.

The precise genesis of the French tacos is the subject of competing folklores, but it’s commonly agreed that it was invented sometime around the turn of the twenty-first century in the snacks of the Rhône-Alpes region. “Snacks” are small independent restaurants offering a panoply of takeout và maybe a few tables: snachồng bars, basically. Typically, they sell kebabs, pizza, burgers, and, now, French tacos. The unifying concept is the laông xã of need for a fork.

The earliest innovators of the French tacos were probably snaông xã proprietors of North African descent in the Lyonnais suburbs (suburbs in the French sense of public housing, windswept plazas, & mass transportation, rather than the American one of single-family homes, baông chồng yards, và cars). You could trace it back khổng lồ a pair of butcher brothers, inspired by a dish their mother used khổng lồ make; or perhaps it was a short-order cook, experimenting with a cheese sauce for a pizza-dough wrap; or maybe the French tacos is a take on mukhala’a, a North African stuffed pancake. There are many stories, but none, except that of unpredictable cultural mixing, perfectly tracks. “France is a country that, for decades now, has been urban, industrial, và diverse,” Loïc Bienassis, of the European Institute for the History và Cultures of Food, told me. “The French tacos is a mutant hàng hóa, France’s own junk food.”

The trade publication Toute la Franchise recently declared that “the French tacos is without a doubt the product that will drive the market for dining out for the next ten years.” Chain restaurants have sầu proliferated: New School Tacos, Chamas Tacos, Le Tacos de Lyon, Takos King, Tacos Avenue (which used to lớn be called Tacos King before a trademark spat broke out). Such is the success of these chains that, according to lớn a French economics magazine, some are “turning fat inlớn gold.” The owner of one snaông xã near Lyon started out making cheese sauce for his French tacos in the kind of saucepan you might use lớn heat up soup; now he uses twenty-litre stockpots.

In 2007, Patrick Pelonero was working as a drywaller in Grenoble. He often ate French tacos for lunch, so, during the construction off-season, he took thirty thousvà euros in savings and opened a French-tacos shop. Eventually, he joined up with a pair of childhood friends khổng lồ create O’Tacos, which now has two hundred và thirty locations in France. Pelonero had never been khổng lồ Mexico, still hasn’t. “But I’ve sầu watched a lot of series about tacos on Netflix,” he said, speaking from Dubai, where he currently lives. (In 2018, the Belgian investment fund Kharis Capital acquired a majority stake in the brand.) Pelonero likens the French tacos to the iPhone. “One day it wasn’t there, and the next day it was, and nobody toàn thân knows how they lived without it,” he said.

O’Tacos, not khổng lồ be confused with U’Tacos, outranks McDonald’s France on Instagram, where it generates a cheeky mix of tacos-centric memes & plastic-tray portraiture. (A much liked post this fall featured a phokhổng lồ of Brigitte và Emmanuel Macron, cheering wildly at a soccer match, with the caption “My mom and me when we see my dad come home page with a bag of O’Tacos.”) One of the chain’s early sale coups was the gigatacos challenge. The customer pays eighteen euros for a five-and-a-half-pound tacos, filled with five different meats (merguez sausage, ground beef, chicken nuggets, grilled chicken, & chicken cordon bleu). If he can eat it within two hours, without using utensils, he gets it for miễn phí, along with a moment of celebrity and plenty of jokes about his next trip to the bathroom. For birthdays, the gigatacos becomes a cake, candles staked into lớn its floury, corrugated expanses like flags on the surface of the moon.

In France, the kebab has long been a pungent political symbol. In 2009, for instance, the Socialist Party proposed a listening tour of France’s housing projects, calling it “the kebab debates”; in subsequent years, several right-wing mayors tried khổng lồ limit the number of kebab restaurants in their cities. In 2013, members of the far-right Front National made a nativist biểu ngữ of “Ni kebab, ni burger, vive sầu le jambon-beurre” (“Neither kebab nor burger, long live sầu the ham-and-butter sandwich”). In both name and image, the tacos bypasses the stereotypes that surround the kebab. The tacos-chain aesthetic is sleek & spare, gesturing toward globalized consumerism rather than toward any particular cultural heritage. “The plurality of the product, its influences from everywhere, make for a multicultural or acultural sản phẩm,” Marilyne Minassian, a master’s student, wrote in a 2018 thesis on the French tacos.

The fashion weekly Grazia calls the French tacos an “identitarian food” for French adolescents. It has a certain glamour, appearing, for instance, in a tuy nhiên by the rap group PNL (“J’vendais l’coco, j’graillais l’tacos”; “I sold the coke, I scarfed the tacos”). A popular French YouTuber recently ingested two gigatacos in one sitting, drawing more than two and a half million views. Seizing the opportunity for a career transition, the rapper Mokobé bỏng (b. 1976) has launched TacoShake, offering French tacos and milkshakes (which are the French tacos of sweets, in that you can put pretty much anything in them). Some two thous& people showed up for the opening of a branch in the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine.

At around five euros for the simplest version, the French tacos offers an attractive sầu cost-to-calorie ratio. It satisfies hunger for hours, in the manner of peasant cooking, while coming off as cool và new. Bastien Gens, the director of “Tacos Origins,” a documentary about the French tacos, told me that, as “the most exacerbated junk food,” the tacos has a certain rebellious aura. “There’s an insolence,” he said, characterizing it as a rebuttal to lớn the bobo interest in virtuous eating. “You’re in the realm of the forbidden.”

It’s not that the French don’t eat junk food. They vì, copiously. A năm ngoái report by members of the French legislature noted that the amount of money French people spover on eating out nearly doubled between 2000 và 2010 và that fast food accounts for an ever-increasing share of these meals. The tendency to lớn “eat on the go” has “not yet reached the cấp độ observed in North America or even in the United Kingdom,” the report noted, but it has already had health consequences. In 2015, nearly half of French adults were overweight or obese. According lớn one market survey, France’s citizens consume 1.7 billion burgers a year—more than twenty per person.

Even if fast food is, in reality, well represented in the French diet, it remains a cultural taboo, connoting rapacious capitalism, American imperialism, & just plain old bad eating. In the late nineties, José Bové, a sheep farmer & an anti-globalization activist, tore down a McDonald’s that was being built in a small town near Montpellier, becoming a national hero. You can hear hints of this attitude toward fast food and its predations—public health, agriculture, the proper family meal—in the Journal du Dimanche’s disdainful though rather accurate mô tả tìm kiếm of the French tacos as “un sandwich diététiquement incorrect.”

In the case of the French tacos, however, the fast food is the underdog, và it’s coming from within. A creation of the provinces, the tacos has, in the past five sầu years, captured the capital, becoming a source of pride for a group of people who cook và consume plenty of French food but don’t often get credit for creating it. More than a vessel for meat & cheese, the tacos affirms the cultural power of suburban youth, particularly Muslims, previously relegated, for lachồng of halal fast-food options, to lớn endless orders of Filet-o-Fish. The far-right leader Marine Le Pen continues to rail against halal meat, and the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, expresses his “shock” at the presence of halal aisles in supermarkets, but the popularity of the French tacos speaks for itself. As the documentary “Tacos Origins” boasts, echoing the rapper Médine, “The banlieue influences Paris, và Paris influences the world.”

One night, under France’s coronavirut curfew, I went on Deliveroo and put in an order at the O’Tacos closest to my apartment. The restaurant’s thực đơn is mix up as a series of columns. To compose your tacos, you move sầu from left khổng lồ right, choosing your kích thước, then your meat, then your sauce (ranging from “algérienne” to “texane”), &, finally, your extras (including but not limited khổng lồ raclette, Boursin, goat cheese, mushrooms, turkey lardons, and an egg). All French tacos come with fries inside; you can also order fries on the side. I settled on “The Original”: sauce algérienne, chicken breast, & Cheddar, with the requisite internal fries và cheese sauce, which is made with crème fraîbịt và Gruyère. My order cost seven và a half euros và arrived quickly. The bag—brown paper, a couple of grease spots—was noticeably heavy. I took the French tacos out and, before unwrapping it, placed it on the bathroom scale. If “Grande” actually means medium at Starbucks, then “M,” the smallest kích thước in the French-tacos repertoire, means that you could use it for bicep curls.

I picked up the tacos from above sầu, lượt thích 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 lớn 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 lớn one Web site, the appeal of the French tacos lies in the “triple equation” of being infinitely customizable, highly caloric, và 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 baông xã up. By the time I went khổng lồ bed, I had started planning a visit to Vaulx-en-Velin, which, aao ước 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 tateo cart at a food fair. “I had a customer who threw his order in the trash, saying it wasn’t a tateo,” she recalled. Ahumadomain authority noted that both Mexican & French cuisine were designated an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by UNESCO in the same year. “What shocks me is that they gọi it a ‘taco,’ ” she said. “It’s lượt thích if we made a wine và 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 laông chồng 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 lớn France to discover the cheese, the macaron, & instead find the French tacos.”

The culinary traditions of Mexiteo have already been misrepresented once over in France. What is widely understood to lớn be Mexican food is most often closer khổng lồ Tex-Mex: burritos, nachos, & chili nhỏ carne, associated with the American West, và, in many cases, with stereotypes of cowboys and Indians. The putative sầu Mexican influence is often disfigured or devalued beyond recognition. The Indiana Café, for example, with more than twenty locations in Paris và its suburbs, bills itself as “a restaurant at the frontier of Mexican và American.” There, the thực đơn includes—alongside fajitas và nachos—mozzarella sticks, bacon-loaded fries, fish-and-chips, and, for dessert, pain perdu (a.k.a. French toast). Europeans have sầu further adapted this cuisine khổng lồ 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 br&, entered the French market in 1986. The same year, according lớn Pilcher, “37° 2 le matin” (“Betty Blue” in the U.S.), a hit film about a chili-con-carne-cooking, tequila-slamming aspiring novedanh mục named Zorg, incited a nationwide Tex-Mex craze. Bérengère Dupui, the kinh doanh director in France for Old El Paso, which is owned by General Mills, told me that the br& accounts for sixty-three per cent of sales of Mexican food in French grocery stores. According khổng lồ 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 khổng lồ 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 thành viên of a focus group said that she put tortillas in her lasagmãng cầu, while another volunteered that he used them as a base for quibít.

Obviously, foods change as they travel. And coming up with a transporting name is a time-honored triông chồng 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 lớn imagine, however, that the French—the most appellation-attuned & orthodoxy-obsessed of cooks—would be totally fine with it if the roles were reversed & Mexicans were, say, to try passing off some novel khung of churros as éclairs.

“You have worms, so I’m prescribing you birds.”
In recent years, devotees of the French tacos have sầu split inlớn camps, with tacos progressives accepting the dish’s evolution as a corporatized fast food, và tacos conservatives insisting that its true khung can be found only in the small-time regional snacks. Amid the internal debate, larger questions of authentithành phố 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.

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Before the emergence of the French tacos, Vaulx-en-Velin was known as the cardoon capital of France. (The cardoon, a relative sầu of the artichoke, is often prepared au gratin.) A đô thị 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 lớn industrial canal to lớn built-up suburb. According to lớn the municipal newsletter, the French tacos, as a dish with a Mexican name & a Greco-Turkish influence, “embellished with fries as in Belgium, shakshuka as in the Maghreb, and French cheese,” amounts lớn “the culinary portrait of a global thành phố lượt thích Vaulx-en-Velin.”

The most widely accepted genealogy of the French tacos credits Salah Felfoul, who owned a snaông chồng called Pizza Express, “next lớn the old Lidl” in Vaulx-en-Velin. Felfoul claims lớn 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 & 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 inlớn the mystery of the dish’s origins, without reaching a resolution. Many tacos fans purport to lớn 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 lớn mukhala’a, a semolimãng cầu pancake often stuffed with meat, onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes that is popular in Algeria. Another commenter ventured that Gens, as a native sầu of Grenoble, might be intentionally downplaying the cultural might of Lyon.

For these regions, the French tacos represents economic opportunity on both the individual & the municipal cấp độ. The proprietors of French-tacos restaurants overwhelmingly started out as consumers of French tacos, và the arrival of a French-tacos franchise can be a big sự kiện 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 Morocteo, Belgium, và Senegal. (O’Tacos briefly had a Brooklyn branch, but it closed because of personnel issues, according to lớn Patrichồng Pelonero.) The tacos diaspora extends as far as Hanoi, where, in 2018, Julien Sanchez, a native of Villeurbanne, a suburb next to lớn Vaulx-en-Velin, opened Hey! Pelo, Vietnam’s first French-tacos cửa hàng. (“Pélo” roughly means “dude” in Lyonnais argot.) “When you live sầu in a city that doesn’t have French tacos, you’d better learn how to lớn make your own,” Sanchez told me.

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

Sebaa met me on the tram platsize in jeans, a bomber jacket, & 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 VPS. Over Christmas, he had spent several weeks working at a fish smokehouse, processing saltháng, trout, sturgeon, and eels. He had a natural buoyancy, and his spirits seemed lớn 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 lớn 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, oto 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 Tornavày. 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 sầu away. I ran through the different theories about the origins of the French tacos và asked Sebaa if he thought his family had anything to vì with it. “It’s a real labyrinth,” he said, promising khổng lồ try lớn 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 & entered a small front room, clearly recently decorated, with stylish burled-wood light fixtures và two automatic-ordering kiosks. We waited our turn while a large group in front of us made their choices. Then we stepped up khổng lồ the screens. I chose a tacos with Gruyère melted on top, stuffed with “chicken marinated in four spices,” sauced with cheese and harissa, và garnished with olives và shakshuka (a mix of cooked bell peppers, tomatoes, và onion), the Lyonnais way.

French fast food is a relative concept: it turned out that the kitchen was somewhat overwhelmed & our order wouldn’t be ready for thirty minutes. “I’d rather have a high-unique tacos that takes longer than one that’s fast but not as good,” Sebaa said. He had been intending lớn move sầu to Hanoi to work with Sanchez at Hey! Pelo, but the onphối 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.

The French tacos, I was starting to understvà, was a nostalgic food, prefiguring rather than recalling loss. It made adolescence, boredom, penury, a ravenous appetite, and a gangly body toàn thân sweet by implying that they would someday be gone. It made the periphery, for the two hours it took to down a gigatacos, the center of the world. “Sometimes we’d go up khổng lồ the top of that building,” Sebaa said, as we passed an apartment tower. “We’d sit up there và eat our tacos và look directly out on Mont Blanc.” Five dollars, friends, a balcony with a view—the finest table in the l&.

We headed bachồng toward La Marinade & grabbed our food, taking a pair of polystyrene containers lớn a deserted park. We sat on opposite ends of a bench & opened them up. The tacos were long, golden, and speckled, with browned bits of herb-flecked Gruyère forming little bubbles on the surface. If the O’Tacos I’d had was all about decadent uniformity (having it all in every mouthful), this one was a more artisanal pleasure (having it all in waves, with the harissa cresting và breaking onlớn shores of cheese). By the time we finished, it was getting dark. I caught the tram bachồng to Lyon, & then the train back khổng lồ Paris. “I hope that I was able khổng lồ help you discover the truth of the mystery surrounding the tacos,” Sebaa texted.

A few weeks later, Sebaa wrote lớn say that I had the green light khổng lồ điện thoại tư vấn his father’s cousin Nordine Agoune. The first time I tried Agoune, he was at work, on a construction site. Later, he was happy to lớn reminisce about the late nineteen-nineties, when he owned Le Tornavì chưng. “At the time, the only sandwiches were on a baguette or a pita,” he said. “We wanted khổng lồ create another sandwich, so we made one with a tortilla, just khổng lồ give our customers something that the others didn’t have.” Agoune confirmed that he had been inspired by the cousin who owns the Tex-Mex restaurant. “He was doing fajitas,” Agoune recalled, “so we got the idea khổng lồ take the tortilla and stuff it with meat, vegetables, và fries.”

Agoune’s sandwich had a cheese sauce made with crème fraîbít và Cheddar—a snaông chồng nearby was doing a sauce with Gruyère and he didn’t want to copy that. Agoune didn’t Gọi it a “tacos,” though, & he had two versions. One, Le Tornabởi vì, was open-ended, while the other, which he called a burrilớn, was folded shut và pressed crisp. “It was a huge hit,” he recalled. “We had people coming from all over, just word of mouth.”

It’s not often that a wildly popular new food comes flying off the grill with no single progenitor khổng lồ speak for it, but the definitive sầu inventor of the French tacos may never be identified. In “Tacos Origins,” Gens concludes that it’s useless lớn try lớn find a single creator of what was essentially a collaborative effort, with a cadre of restaurateurs operating in cchiến bại proximity & quickly adapting their menus to lớn whatever they heard was doing well on the next blochồng.

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As a trend, the tacos could fade like the rainbow bagel, but it seems more likely to lớn meld even further into lớn the mainstream of French cuisine. Old El Paso, according to lớn its executives, recorded a thirty-per-cent increase in sales in France since February, 2020. In April of last year, the brvà launched a new product, designed exclusively for the French market. It comes in a familiar yellow box, its letters embellished with a mustabít and a beret. Inside, one finds six long-lasting, “extra soft” flour tortillas, accompanied by two packets of unspecified “mixed spice.” The home page cook is instructed lớn add six hundred grams of chicken breast, a hundred grams of grated Emmental, a hundred and twenty grams of crème fraîbịt, & an avocabởi vì. Sixty grams of watercress and a red onion are optional. Voilà: French Tateo, le kit. (The extra “S” has fallen off as mysteriously as it once appeared.) After the product’s launch, O’Tacos took triumphantly to Instagram, writing, “Never tell us again that we sell ‘fake’ tacos.” The company added a hashtag—#validated—followed by a green check mark. ♦


Lauren Collins has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2008. She is the author of “When in French: Love in a Second Language.”
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