THREE HUNDRED YEARS AFTER LA SALLE first landed on these shores, the French have rediscovered Texas. The state and its icons are France’s dernier cri. Parisians in particular have embraced all things Texan, as evidenced by the city’s ever-growing number of Tex-Mex cafes, country music concerts, and high-fashion designers who are wild about the West. As a lapsed Texan living in Paris, I’ve seen the Texas craze spread from Paris’ Left Bank all the way to Provence and the Côte d’Azur. Today oodles of Texans manqué enjoy queso instead of Brie, listen to Bob Wills instead of Bizet, and stride down the Champs Elysées not in pumps but in pointy-toed boots. Every day brings new revelations: A new McDonald’s ad campaign features cowboys and cowgirls seeking a “McWanted” hamburger; Le Figaro is planning an article titled “L’Art de Vivre à Austin”; and I just happened upon a new boutique, Abilene, in the Marais garment district. Paris and Texas even share many identical zip codes.
Still, to the French—as to many Americans—Texas is more fantasy than reality, an attitude that often produces comic results. At the Texas Blues restaurant, for example, the rugged vista that graces the menu cover is, in fact, a picture of Arizona’s Monument Valley. Some Parisians aren’t even sure what Texas is: “Ah, yes, Texas,” a worker at one Mexican food restaurant told me. “Like the city in America.” ( L’état, c’est quoi?) But if their information is dubious, their admiration is not. Herewith is a guide to the booming metropolis of Texas, Paris, a mystical region of chic kickers, beaux gestures, and friends and faux. Read on—and vive le Texas, y’all.
In Paris, the capital of the world’s most culinarily smitten land, the fastest-growing food trend is Tex-Mex. The city’s penchant for enchiladas, tacos, and such began a decade ago when imitation Tex-Mex appeared on the menu at Le Studio; equipped with the Lone Star flag, “Don’t Mess With Texas” bumper stickers, and English-speaking servers, it is a favorite of Americans in Paris. Today well-established restaurants include the Del Rio Cafe, the Tequita Cafe, and Susan’s Place (noted for chile con carne). A stone’s throw from Notre Dame Cathedral is the Texas Mexico restaurant, where one Southwest delicacy is “ears of corn.” And adjacent to Paris’ most famous art museum is I. M. Pei’s “new Louvre,” a subterranean mall where crowds of shoppers nibble on guacamole and nachos at a fast-food cafe, El Rancho. Parisians seem reluctant, however, to embrace beer with equal fervor; most prefer red wine with their fajitas or nachos.
Unfortunately, most Tex-Mex joints are make-a-quick-buck imitations of the real thing where platters come out looking like colorful, prefab automobile consoles: laminated cheese welded onto an enchilada flanking a square of refried beans. Part of the problem is that most restaurant laborers in Paris have never been anywhere near an authentic Mexican eatery; most are from India or Africa. For example, so many natives of a certain Indian state work at the Del Amingo restaurant that locals refer to it as “the home of the Tamil tamale.” Why “Del Ami ngo”? Explains one cook: “We added the n because somebody already had the rights to ‘amigo.’”
Besides Tex-Mex, the French also love other traditional Texas culinary fare. Le Texas, a roadside restaurant on the Côte d’Azur, offers the likes of T-bone steaks, “chili con carne maison,” and “ le véritable hamburger américain.” Onion rings alone set you back 35 francs (some $7). Near Antibes, the Texas Truck restaurant is a semi converted into counter seating, surrounded by a display of classic American cars. Carhops also serve food on window trays to drive-in customers. Even wholly non-Texan fare benefits from the myth: One grocery store offers a frozen “pizza texane,” topped not with jalapeños or barbecued chicken but plain ol’ bell pepper and sausage.
The French love boots, hats, belt buckles, and other cowboy paraphernalia. Paris’ priciest and most venerable western clothing store is El Paso Booty, on Rue St. Denis. Its clients include actor Mickey Rourke, somewhat of a has-been in the U.S. but a media megastar in France. El Paso Booty offers a panoply of boots (which the French call “’tiags,” short for “Santiago”—a locally popular boot company); embroidered rodeo shirts (advertised as “ chemises fancy”); blue jeans (a household phrase to Frenchmen—after all, denim was their country’s invention); and—in an odd crossover of gangsters and gunslingers—even brass knuckles, known as poing américain (“American fist”).
In the higher fashion world, “ la mode western” is haute-hot. A cowgirl graced the cover of last October’s French Vogue. Designer Christian Lacroix’s fall collection was inspired, he confided to a television reporter, by “Texas women pioneers from the beginning of the century.” (His ensembles include full-length leather “slickers,” suede cowboy hats, and stiletto heels with boot-style toe caps.) Other designers jumped on the bandwagon too: The adored actress Catherine Deneuve, exiting Jean-Paul Gaultier’s fall 1995 show, commented breathily, “I loved it. The themes I saw…North Africa and le Texas.” And a December fashion shoot by Nino Via for designers Patrick Cox, Sophie Sitbon, and Chantal Thomass was titled “Dreaming of a Cowboy” and included a rangy male model with George Custer locks and goatee, leather duster, and Marlboro Classic jeans.
On the other end of the economic scale is Texas Fan, on the dank, narrow Rue de Montmorency in a neighborhood of Asian-owned sweatshops. Texas Fan purveys ersatz cowboy-and-Indian regalia such as faux Stetsons and louche Longhorn skulls. Other stores listed in the 1995 Paris phone directory include Dallas Couture, Texas Cuir (“Texas Leather”), and Texas 501 (yes, a source for Levi’s).
Among a handful of Paris social clubs dedicated to la texanité is Les Amis du Far West, a group of a hundred or so members who don the requisite jeans, hats, and square-dance flounces to pursue country and western dancing. A regular course in “ le danse country western” covers dances “ en couple et en ligne,