“We do not serve Tex-Mex food here,” Michel Clabaut says haughtily. The blond 46-year-old Frenchman is standing behind the bar at Plein Sud, his restaurant near Paris’ trendy Marais district, gesturing toward his menu, which lists nachos, chili con carne, frozen margaritas, and fajitas. He rinses a wine glass and continues pontificating on international cuisine. “There are three great world cuisines—French, Chinese, and Mexican. Tex-Mex is merely an interpretation. We serve only the authentic food of Mexico,” Clabaut insists. Impressive. And wrong, of course, dead wrong.
France—home of foie gras and chateaubriand—is making a fool of itself over fajitas and chili, and the young upscale customers that the French call les yuppies are the ones most responsible for the craze. Paris alone has seen at least thirty Mexican restaurants open in the past three years. The craze for hot salsa and cold cerveza has spread as far as Lyons, Marseilles, and half a dozen other French cities.
All of this would be cause for celebration except that the French are pretending that their shopgirl infatuation is some kind of magnificent obsession. They are busy convincing each other that they are eating authentique Mexican food, when what they are really lusting after is Tex-Mex. It’s the Great Parisian Chili Scam. But most customers don’t know the different; they just want more guacamole. In the restaurants, which typically have French owners and Mexican kitchen staffs, you can spot the first-timers asking the waitress for instructions on proper tortillas usage and eating their tacos with a fork.
Why do restaurants from Montmartre to Montparnasse insist that they are serving “Mexican” food? Plain snobbery is one reason. The Marlboro-smoking, Levi’s-wearing, Madonna-crazy, Miami Vice-watching French are often loath to admit their addiction to American pop culture. Too sophisticated to eat our food, they look for a politically correct, back-to-basics cuisine, preferably available for less than 100 francs ($20) a head.
Beyond that, chalk it up to a general craze for things Latin American. The French are more interested in Mexico now than at any time since Napoléon III installed his man Maximilian on the Mexican throne. In design, couture, music, and vacations, as well as food, Latin America is hot. “ C’est la mode,” says restaurateurs with a shrug.
The food at Plein Sud (which roughly translates as “way south”), at 10 Rue Saint-Merri, is very pricey, and from the tepid salsa to the soggy enchiladas, offers little to tempt the tourist’s palate (unless it’s the chocolate mousse and Irish coffee). It would be sad indeed if this was all Paris has to offer, but fortunately, there is more.
The standard for Tex-Mex in the city is set by the city’s oldest Mexican joint, the Studio, at 41 Rue du Temple. The restaurant, marked by a faded sign depicting a desperado, lies down a narrow street from the Centre Georges Pompidou, in a courtyard surrounded by working dance studios. The Studio is a godsend for those in need of a booster shot of real Texana. All of the servers speak English. It’s decorated with the Lone Star and U.S. flags, a buffalo head, old Texas license plates, and the obligatory “Don’t Mess With Texas” bumper sticker. Unlike many of Paris’ Mexican spots, it draws a high percentage of Americans, many of them regulars who come to savor the taped rock and country music and soak up the honky-tonk atmosphere. Manager Claude Denayon, whose father is French and mother is American, grew up in San Francisco and worked in the food business in the area.