By Lauren Collins @ https://www.newyorker.com
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.”