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.

“Oh yes?”

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?”

Leslie sighed.

“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.

13 Comments for Eating Fajitas in France

Michelle Ort 05.10.07 | 1:00 PM ET

As I sit here in France surfing the internet on how to make homemade refriend beans I nearly cried at your article.  I have been living in France for only a few weeks and cannot find my beloved refried beans anywhere! I am dying, litterally. I use to eat tacos in the states at least once a week. I have resorted to buying different beans in an effort to recreate the taste.  I pray to god I find it soon.  Good news is, I will be back in the states in one month and will be sure to stock up on refriend beans and Frank’s hot sauce!

Ron Mader 05.16.07 | 8:51 AM ET

Mmmmmm, Mexican food!

This is one of your best essays.

Christine S. 05.16.07 | 5:00 PM ET

Though it’s expensive (and in that way, totally contrary to the taco truck ethos), while living in Paris I could always count on A La Mexicaine (68, Rue Quincampoix in the 3rd arr., near the Pompidou) to satisfy my Mexican food cravings. In fact—and I should be ashamed to say this living in California a mere two blocks from the perfect taco—sometimes I long for its excellent chile verde.

Jim Benning 05.18.07 | 8:48 PM ET

Thanks for the great comments. I’ll have to check out that place in Paris, Christine. Do you have a place you recommend in California for the perfect taco?

Michelle, I feel your pain! Hang in there!

Joe Tash 05.19.07 | 3:15 AM ET

Good story. I think you hit the nail on the head. During our round-the-world trip, we found plenty of pizza wherever we went, even in India. And Chinese food, and of course, McDonald’s.  But I’m convinced the best Mexican food in the world, other than in Mexico, is in San Diego.  For sure, the best carne asada burritos.  Although I did have a decent carnitas burrito in Hong Kong…

Whitney 05.21.07 | 11:53 PM ET

I was so hungry my last night in Paris that I ended up eating at a mexican restaurant against my better judgement and desire…I mean, last night in Paris, you don’t do mexican food. Well, I’ve eaten a lot of mex in my life b/c I love it, and I lived in AZ for 3 years so I had great mex there, but the chimichanga I had at this place was the best I’d ever had. Now I know I was starving, but I’m still sticking to my review. Problem is, I can’t remember the name of the place! It was in the Odeon district near Cafe Jade I believe, and I also am pretty sure that “Arizona” was in it’s name. If anyone can help me recall the place, I’d be grateful.

Whitney 05.22.07 | 12:02 AM ET

CORRECTION! The restaurant was called “INDIANA”, not Arizona. And I’m sure it is not amazing food, but I just had to put in my two cents that my meal and my boyfriend’s meal ROCKED…and the service was great, too.

caroline 05.22.07 | 1:13 PM ET

Fantastic article! I used to live in trhe U.S, but now I live in London and I miss mexican food so much here—whenever I travel to CA every other meal I eat is at a hole-in-the-wall Taqueria. And today I’m dreaming of fish tacos….

Doug 05.23.07 | 6:07 AM ET

On a recent trip to Argentina we came across a Mexican restaurant called Cabrones (really!) in Palermo Hollywood.  I was getting tired of steak or pizzas every night but this fajitas was mostly beef and just a touch of veggies. But it lacked the spices and was just too salty. I long for El Tarasco in LA.

Tarina 05.23.07 | 2:34 PM ET

Wonderful article. I’m from Texas but currently bouncing around the world and the one thing that will get me slobbering for more is Mexican food, which is sadly not too be found or not very good. Every time I’m in Ireland I have to stop myself from going into one particular Mexican food place as I know that it’s going to be bad and that I shouldn’t do that to myself. I really need to get back to Texas for more.

Zoe 05.28.07 | 7:55 PM ET

This is great Jim!  When I returned back to San Diego from 3rd year abroad in college, I threw a party at my house and cooked tons of Mexican food.  All my friends returning home agreed that Mexican was the one thing we had missed the very most, from Hong Kong to India to Melbourne and Lancaster,England.

Jennifer 05.29.07 | 3:08 AM ET

I spent last summer in Europe studying French and Italian in order to earn 12 credit hours in the respective languages.  During my studies in France we were based in Cannes and lived in apartments that were furnished with bareboned kitchens—microwave and a stovetop,with a fridge and cooking appliances—basics only.  Finally I discovered the foreign food section at Casino—very tiny—and acquired tortillas de ble(flour)  I became the “head chef” of the group and even prepared chicken and beef fajitas with guacamole that was declared to be better than what they had even experienced in the states—one of the diners was guatemalan and one panamainian.  My point being, bring cayenne pepper from home, and cook the dinner yourself if you want to find the taste you crave.

Georgie 08.23.08 | 2:06 AM ET

I attend a college in the Northwest, but I’m originally from Texas and MISS my grandmothers (who is Mexican) cooking. I yearn for mole poblano, enchiladas suizas, chilaquiles, elote en vaso, pan de dulce, horchata, agua de melon, etc.. I am planning to travel to France soon, but now I am not as excited… If I can’t find decent Mexican food in the Northwest,I can’t imagine how I will survive without it in France. =(

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