The Unlikely Rise of the French Tacos

How an upstart fast food became essential dining in the home of haute cuisine.

French tacos are tacos like chicken fingers are fingers. Which is to 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) and other things (usually French fries), doused in cheese sauce, folded into a rectangular packet, and then toasted on a grill. “In short, a rather successful marriage between panini, kebab, and burrito,” according to the municipal newsletter of Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of Lyon in which the French tacos may or may not have been born.

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, quiche Lorraine, onion soup, chocolate mousse. Although these dishes remain standbys, alongside pizza and couscous and 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 to 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 and maybe a few tables: snack bars, basically. Typically, they sell kebabs, pizza, burgers, and, now, French tacos. The unifying concept is the lack of need for a fork.

The earliest innovators of the French tacos were probably snack proprietors of North African descent in the Lyonnais suburbs (suburbs in the French sense of public housing, windswept plazas, and mass transportation, rather than the American one of single-family homes, back yards, and cars). You could trace it back to a pair of butcher brothers, inspired by a dish their mother used to 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, and diverse,” Loïc Bienassis, of the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food, told me. “The French tacos is a mutant product, 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 proliferated: New School Tacos, Chamas Tacos, Le Tacos de Lyon, Takos King, Tacos Avenue (which used to be called Tacos King before a trademark spat broke out). Such is the success of these chains that, according to a French economics magazine, some are “turning fat into gold.” The owner of one snack near Lyon started out making cheese sauce for his French tacos in the kind of saucepan you might use to 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 thousand euros in savings and opened a French-tacos shop. Eventually, he joined up with a pair of childhood friends to create O’Tacos, which now has two hundred and thirty locations in France. Pelonero had never been to Mexico, still hasn’t. “But I’ve 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 knows how they lived without it,” he said.

O’Tacos, not to be confused with U’Tacos, outranks McDonald’s France on Instagram, where it generates a cheeky mix of tacos-centric memes and plastic-tray portraiture. (A much liked post this fall featured a photo of Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron, cheering wildly at a soccer match, with the caption “My mom and me when we see my dad come home with a bag of O’Tacos.”) One of the chain’s early marketing 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, and chicken cordon bleu). If he can eat it within two hours, without using utensils, he gets it for free, 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 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 to limit the number of kebab restaurants in their cities. In 2013, members of the far-right Front National made a nativist slogan of “Ni kebab, ni burger, vive le jambon-beurre” (“Neither kebab nor burger, long live 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 and 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 product,” 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 song by the rap group PNL (“J’vendais l’cocoj’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 (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 thousand 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 cost-to-calorie ratio. It satisfies hunger for hours, in the manner of peasant cooking, while coming off as cool and 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 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 do, copiously. A 2015 report by members of the French legislature noted that the amount of money French people spend on eating out nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010 and that fast food accounts for an ever-increasing share of these meals. The tendency to “eat on the go” has “not yet reached the level 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 to 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, and just plain old bad eating. In the late nineties, José Bové, a sheep farmer and 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 description of the French tacos as “un sandwich diététiquement incorrect.”

In the case of the French tacos, however, the fast food is the underdog, and it’s coming from within. A creation of the provinces, the tacos has, in the past five years, captured the capital, becoming a source of pride for a group of people who cook and consume plenty of French food but don’t often get credit for creating it. More than a vessel for meat and cheese, the tacos affirms the cultural power of suburban youth, particularly Muslims, previously relegated, for lack of halal fast-food options, to 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, and Paris influences the world.”

One night, under France’s coronavirus curfew, I went on Deliveroo and put in an order at the O’Tacos closest to my apartment. The restaurant’s menu is set up as a series of columns. To compose your tacos, you move from left to right, choosing your size, then your meat, then your sauce (ranging from “algérienne” to “texane”), and, finally, your extras (including but not limited to 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, and Cheddar, with the requisite internal fries and cheese sauce, which is made with crème fraîche and Gruyère. My order cost seven and a half euros and 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 size in the French-tacos repertoire, means that you could use it for bicep curls.

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.

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.

The French tacos, I was starting to understand, was a nostalgic food, prefiguring rather than recalling loss. It made adolescence, boredom, penury, a ravenous appetite, and a gangly body 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 to the top of that building,” Sebaa said, as we passed an apartment tower. “We’d sit up there and eat our tacos and look directly out on Mont Blanc.” Five dollars, friends, a balcony with a view—the finest table in the land.

We headed back toward La Marinade and grabbed our food, taking a pair of polystyrene containers to a deserted park. We sat on opposite ends of a bench and 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 and breaking onto shores of cheese). By the time we finished, it was getting dark. I caught the tram back to Lyon, and then the train back to Paris. “I hope that I was able to help you discover the truth of the mystery surrounding the tacos,” Sebaa texted.

A few weeks later, Sebaa wrote to say that I had the green light to call 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 reminisce about the late nineteen-nineties, when he owned Le Tornado. “At the time, the only sandwiches were on a baguette or a pita,” he said. “We wanted to create another sandwich, so we made one with a tortilla, just to 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 to take the tortilla and stuff it with meat, vegetables, and fries.”

Agoune’s sandwich had a cheese sauce made with crème fraîche and Cheddar—a snack nearby was doing a sauce with Gruyère and he didn’t want to copy that. Agoune didn’t call it a “tacos,” though, and he had two versions. One, Le Tornado, was open-ended, while the other, which he called a burrito, was folded shut and 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 to speak for it, but the definitive inventor of the French tacos may never be identified. In “Tacos Origins,” Gens concludes that it’s useless to try to find a single creator of what was essentially a collaborative effort, with a cadre of restaurateurs operating in close proximity and quickly adapting their menus to whatever they heard was doing well on the next block.

As a trend, the tacos could fade like the rainbow bagel, but it seems more likely to meld even further into the mainstream of French cuisine. Old El Paso, according to its executives, recorded a thirty-per cent increase in sales in France since February 2020. In April of last year, the brand launched a new product, designed exclusively for the French market. It comes in a familiar yellow box, its letters embellished with a moustache and a beret. Inside, one finds six long-lasting, “extra soft” flour tortillas, accompanied by two packets of unspecified “mixed spice.” The home cook is instructed to add six hundred grams of chicken breast, a hundred grams of grated Emmental, a hundred and twenty grams of crème fraîche, and an avocado. Sixty grams of watercress and red onion are optional. Voilà: French Taco, 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. 

All Rights Reserved for Lauren Collins

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