The opening this March of what The New York Times called the “first real taqueria” in Paris was welcomed by the city’s expat blogosphere with a virtual “¡Arriba!”
“Thank you Jesus,” tweeted blogger Beth Arnold, her fervor mirrored by many fellow American expats. For tiny Candelaria, located in the uberhip Marais district, responds to two desires that even the most rabidly Francophile expat harbors: Mexican food and cocktails. During the day, a stylish international crowd lines up for tacos served over a lunch counter. At night they cram into a backroom bar for cocktails mixed by young veterans of Paris’ burgeoning cocktail scene.
“The fact that you couldn’t get a good taco in a city as cosmopolitan as Paris was criminal,” says Candelaria co-founder Josh Fontaine, 30. Originally from Connecticut, Fontaine spent three years in Paris bartending, notably at the Experimental Cocktail Club, a cocktail geek haven. There, he met Candelaria co-founders Carina Soto Velasquez from Colombia and Adam Tsou from New York City. “We saw what was missing in Paris,” he said. “What was passed off as Mexican food was super kitschy.”
They recruited a young chef from Mexico City, Luis Rendon, and established an impressive supply chain of dried peppers, Mexican soft drinks and tortilla flour from Mexico via the USA and Spain. “There was general ignorance about Mexican food in Paris,” Rendon says, speaking to Food Republic while prepping tortillas behind the lunch counter. “Although there are around 4,000 Mexicans in town, you couldn’t find any authentic food.”
Not too long ago, Paris was cursed by a number of ridiculous Mexican joints, replete with sombrero-heavy décor, Romanian mariachis and watery burritos. Moreover, the French aversion to spicy food is legendary. (Over-spice your food next time you have French people over and smoke might actually come out of their ears — and not just from their Gitanes).
Yet aficionados now claim that a crop of new spots have finally brought real Mexican food to town. (See here for a complete list, including favorites California-style Rice and Beans and El Nopal). Is Paris’ staid world food scene on the move? For ages, France’s ex-colonial empire dictated “ethnic” food in Paris, with North/West Africa and Indochina providing the bulk of the ethnic options.
France’s main colonial exploit in Mexico consisted of an ill-fated excursion by Napoleon III in 1861, when he installed Austrian ruler Maximilian I. It ended badly. Maximilian was executed by a Republican firing squad while 5,000 French troops languished in the heat and died of spicy food… or malaria, depending on your sources. Things got nasty again this year, when swashbuckling President Sarkozy dedicated the “Year of Mexico” to a French national currently in jail in Mexico for an alleged kidnapping. Mexico pulled out of all events, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
Diplomatic brouhahas aside, it’s clearly the expats that are leading the 21st Century taco surge. Although plenty of French hipsters can to be found at Candelaria, Fontaine agrees that it’s the stylish “bobo expats” from Europe and the Americas that drive business. Many work at neighborhood galleries or are part of the local fashion scene.
“It’s a bit difficult for the French to understand the taqueria concept,” Fontaine says. “They try and make reservations and are bewildered by the casual, lunch-counter vibe. But they learn.” Teaching them to deal with Candelaria’s unabashedly spicy food is another story. “Sometimes we have to redo tacos because they are too spicy,” he says.
How about cocktails — are they finally catching on with the locals?
“I do see people with an interest in drinking better during their dinner, both on the wine side and integrating cocktails in restaurants,” Fontaine says. “Places with an actual bar and actual cocktail choices, rather than the typical Parisian café with mojitos, Ti’Punch and the other shitty cocktails people serve in France.”
Have you tried the tacos at Candelaria or anywhere else in Europe? Share your experiences in the comments.