Tacos Lyonnaise: How the French Do Mexican Food

French, Middle Eastern, American, North African, Mexican and Italian...in one sandwich

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By David Hammond

On my first day in Lyon, France, I went for a walk on one of several boulevards that connect Le Rhone and La Soane, the boy and girl (le/la) rivers that roll through the city in rough parallel, flanking a portion of the metro area.

Passing many Middle Eastern (usually Lebanese and Turkish) restaurants, I was struck by the number of "tacos" advertised on sidewalk sandwich boards.

Obviously, I had to try one.

So one night, before a planned dinner, I wandered out of my hotel in the old section of town to the nearest "taco joint": Kebab Osmanli.

When asked to select my preferred taco meat ("viande a choix"), I asked the young man behind the counter what he would recommend. He suggested the kofte, a patty that seemed to be a lamb/beef blend. He told me his father made these minced meat patties, flecked with mint. Sounded good to me.

Harissa and mayo were applied directly to a warming flour tortilla; on top of that went with what looked like a Kraft single, torn in half, followed by lettuce and tomato halves, then kofte and  a fistful of French fries. Folded into an oblong envelope, this was admittedly more burrito than a taco. The whole shebang was griddled on a Panini press, which the young man reoriented once to give the surface a grid pattern.

Because I was only an hour away from regular dinner, I ate only half the taco, but I had to restrain myself. This was a very good sandwich, moist, with a lot of savory flavors, some heat from the harissa and heft from the fries. Although griddling it didn't help the lettuce and tomato much, it didn't hurt the Kraft single at all.

While the young man made my sandwich, I was impressed with the care he applied, gingerly adjusting the heat under the flour tortilla while he simultaneously tended the fries while using the spatula to segment the kofte.

One of the many, many things I admire about the French is their precise approach to cooking and eating. This mealtime meticulousness could be interpreted as fussiness, but I interpret it as a sign of respect for food, its preparation and consumption. Years ago on the Left Bank, we were eating at a raclette restaurant, and as we sloppily smeared cheese on halved spring potatoes and gobbled them down, I was arrested mid-mouthful by the sight of every French person in the place delicately removing the potato skins with fork and knife before gently layering on the cheese, and talking, always talking with friends and family. Eating carefully, slowly and (whenever possible) socially is a French habit I feel it would be well for me to acquire.

Lyon was originally a Celtic settlement, eventually conquered by Rome, an empire that, though sometimes obviously ruthless, usually had the strategic sense let the locals become Roman citizens while maintaining their traditions. Romans many times avoided imposing Latinate cultural norms that were not absolutely necessary to maintaining order, even merging the gods of Rome with the gods of whatever people happened to fall under Roman rule (a clarifying point of contrast here is the Spanish strategy of colonizing the New World, which translated into killing or Christianizing everyone in their path). For all the stereotypes of the French as being chauvinistic, they reflect the Roman tendency to accept and assimilate other cultures. That attitude seemed powerfully apparent in this taco Lyonnais, which merged French, Middle Eastern, American, North African, Mexican and Italian cultural influences into one tasty sandwich.

 

Kebab Osmanli

14 Rue Saint-Jean 69005 Lyon France

 

 

 

Reader Comments

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joe from south oak park  

Posted: December 17th, 2013 10:00 AM

for me it isn't settling. Over the years I've come to prefer onion and cilantro over lettuce, tomato and cheese. besides... those other toppings don't really go with al pastor or barbacoa. You might find that bismuth subsalicylate (pepto) does the trick. No worries about taking a dose or two of cipro and ending up with a bacteria that is resistant afterwards.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: December 16th, 2013 4:51 PM

Given that tomato and lettuce would probably be washed in water that might contain bacteria that wouldn't agree with you, it's just as well, Joe, to settle for salsa and onion (even cilantro is a touch iffy, but I regularly eat in Mexico -- though I always carry a vial of cipro in my backpack).

joe from south oak park  

Posted: December 16th, 2013 3:25 PM

I've always wondered how lettuce and tomato and cheese ended up in American style tacos. Anytime I've headed south of the border, it didn't take long to realize that asking for anything other than salsa, cilantro and onion on a taco is bound to get you the same response as asking for ketchup on a Chicago style dog.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: December 16th, 2013 3:14 PM

The Lebanese introduced these tacos to Mexico? I've never seen such tacos in Mexico or in the United States. Cheryl, I would like to find out more about these tacos. Could you email me at David@DCHammond.com. Merci beaucoup.

Cheryl from Lyon, France  

Posted: December 16th, 2013 2:59 PM

These tacos are Lebanese in origin. They were introduced to Mexico by immigrants, who in turn made them popular in the US. But a la base, they are Middle Eastern and not 'Mexican food'. :-) Best kebab resto I've been to in Lyon (for the moment)- Uludag, just around the corner from the foreign prefecture where we used to go to get our cartes de sejour renewed- great food and nice guys, too! If you like Lebanese food- Cedre Bleu on the quai de Saone.

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