Eating Fajitas in France
Travel Stories: He's a Mexican food addict. So when Jim Benning spotted the Tex-Mex restaurant in Lyon, France, he had to eat there. He knew it would be awful.
05.07.07 | 9:35 AM ET
One doesn’t see many cacti in France, let alone cowboy hats. Which is why, as I strolled down rue Pizay, a narrow, well-lit street in central Lyon, I came to a sudden halt. There, painted on a large restaurant window, a prickly cactus stood tall, a ten-gallon hat dangling over one of its arms.
“El Sombrero,” the sign announced. “Tex-Mex.”
I was stunned. Since leaving Los Angeles nearly two weeks earlier, my wife Leslie and I hadn’t come across a single restaurant offering Mexican or Tex-Mex food, and we weren’t expecting to find one. We’d been making our way from the Alps through Provence and up toward Burgundy, confining our diets to all delicacies French: cheesy tartiflette in Chamonix, soupe au pistou in Avignon. Awaiting us in Beaune were coq au vin and the delicate red wines of the Cote d’Or.
On this, our second night in the city, we had planned on another tasty Lyonnaise meal. But as soon as I saw the sign for El Sombrero, I knew exactly where we would be dining. Nevertheless, we stood in front of the restaurant for several minutes, discussing the matter.
“It will be awful,” I said.
“It will be awful,” said Leslie.
“We could try that little bouchon near the hotel,” I said. “It’s probably very good.”
“We absolutely could,” said Leslie.
Then in we walked, powerless.
We’d both grown up in Los Angeles, subsisting almost entirely on Mexican food. Now living in San Diego, we made frequent pilgrimages across the border in search of rich Oaxacan mole, mayo-drizzled fish tacos and savory carnitas.
I was an addict, and my addiction never served me well in other countries. Within 10 days of leaving home, I inevitably began suffering withdrawals, hungering for a taco, burrito or a steaming tamal. By the time we got to Lyon, I was vulnerable.
Inside, El Sombrero was hopping. Festive Cuban tunes played. Dozens of locals were digging into big plates of fajitas and tostadas. Wide-brimmed sombreros were stacked on the bar, near a red, white and green Mexican flag.
A mustachioed maitre d’ greeted us with a hearty “Bonsoir.” He wore a plaid shirt and a small straw cowboy hat that sat awkwardly atop his head, only seeming to emphasize just how far El Sombrero was from the nearest real cactus.
We ordered margaritas—“Le plus populaire des cocktails mexicains,” according to the menu—and studied our options. There were enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos, tostadas. Leslie settled on “scampis a la diabla,” which featured a tiny chili pepper next to its description, promising kick. I ordered “shrimps fajitas,” which was to include “tortillas de blé, gaucamole, riz, fromage et purée de haricots.”
We sipped our drinks and waited, less than optimistic about the food. If the French had a reputation for culinary snobbery, Leslie and I were their mulit-culti American counterparts: two Southern Californians come to the continent, ready to see what French chefs could do with tortillas and a few pinto beans.
I hadn’t had much luck in other countries. While passable pizza, hamburgers and chow mein could be found almost anywhere, tacos were almost always hard to find. When I had stumbled upon anything vaguely Mexican, it hadn’t been appetizing.
There was my lunch at Carol’s by the River, a restaurant offering Mexican food in Chengdu, China, a city better known for its panda breeding center. After months on the road, I was speechless when I discovered that the owner, a local who called herself Carol, had once lived in Texas and learned Mexican cooking there. I convinced myself there was cause for hope, especially because Chengdu is located in the heart of Sichuan province, known for its spicy cuisine. I was far too optimistic. Among other faults, the tortillas tasted suspiciously of rice flour. I thanked Carol and insisted the meal was delicious, but I didn’t return.
Then there was my visit to a Taco Bell in Singapore. To be sure, Taco Bell doesn’t represent the pinnacle of Mexican cooking. But when I spotted its familiar sign after weeks of fried rice and curry puffs, I wanted to kiss its floor. Moments after I ordered, the smiling, perfectly coiffed employees produced what appeared to be a textbook-quality Taco Bell burrito, its shiny flour tortilla folded neatly at one end. But when I bit in, it tasted just like curry. I doused it in packets of hot sauce, to no avail.
Sadly, my only positive encounter with something resembling Mexican food overseas had involved a bag of Doritos and a can of bean dip, which my parents mailed to me in Germany when I phoned home after months away, unable to look at another bratwurst. I took the bounty down to a park along the Rhine, slowly peeled back the metal lid and savored the chips and dip for what seemed like hours.
Those memories dogged me as we waited for our El Sombrero food. Before our plates could arrive, the maitre d’ introduced himself and said he was as one of the owners. He asked where we were from.
“Southern California,” I said.
His eyes brightened. He had visited California and Mexico before launching the restaurant.
“We ate very good Mexican food,” he said.
I told him we were impressed with the breadth of the menu.
“I even saw mole on there,” I said.
“Ah yes,” he said with a gleam in his eye, “zee mole, it is very good. For the French, Mexico is a country of music and color. The food has to be done well. I think you will enjoy it very much.”
He scurried off, and moments later, my shrimp arrived, sizzling on a platter, along with a basket of flour tortillas, cheese, guacamole, rice and beans.
Leslie’s shrimp appeared, too, in a gravy-like brown sauce.
She looked at her shrimp, then back at me, an eyebrow raised skeptically.
“Bon appetit,” I said, trying to hold onto a shred of hope.
I scooped shrimp, rice, beans and guacamole onto a tortilla and rolled it up like a taco. I had to admit, it didn’t look half bad.
I took a bite, waiting—hoping—for that savory fajita flavor to hit my taste buds.
But it wasn’t to be.
It’s not that the fajita was bad. It just didn’t have any kick, any pizzaz, any oomph.
It tasted vaguely boiled.
“So?” Leslie said. “How is it?”
I shrugged. “It’s okay. How’s yours?”
“There’s something not quite right about it. It doesn’t taste bad, but…”
“It tastes like curry?”
Leaving El Sombrero, we walked beneath a sign featuring a cartoon crow in a black mariachi suit, sporting spurs and a pistol. “Gracias por su visita,” it said.
Merci, I thought. Thanks for trying.
Perhaps by the time I reached Lyon, I should have learned my lesson.
But the truth is, I probably never will. Wherever I go, my addiction will follow. Inevitably, in one place or another, I’ll find someone waiting to serve me rice-flour tortillas, curry burritos or bland, boiled fajitas.
And I won’t have any choice but to eat them.