CG Narration: I’m in Paris France just a few blocks away from the bustling Place de la Républic. It’s sunny, people are out walking the streets, and I am on a mission.

CG Narration: In 2019 after spending most of my life in Georgia, I moved to France, and found out that integrating into a new culture is not easy. Like so many before me, I had to learn a new language, new customs, even figure out how many kisses on the cheek meant hello in each region.  But for me, one of the hardest parts was that I just couldn’t find any decent Mexican food.  As a second-generation Colombian American who grew up in the US, foods from Latin America were part of my everyday life. But now, they were nowhere to be found.  The closest thing I had come by was some half-baked Tex Mex, but I just couldn’t find the authentic flavors that I grew up with. It was both confusing — and honestly — pretty sad for me. I missed home.

I had all but given up hope when one day I was out looking for a quick lunch and I saw O’tacos jump out on Google Maps. I was SO EXCITED and immediately walked a few blocks to the restaurant. . .

TAPE: French Street Ambience

TAPE: I’m seeing a shop with a big sign that says O’tacos, just underneath it reads, “Original French tacos,” whatever that means.

CG Narration: But when I entered, and looked up at the brightly-lit menu behind the counter, I was shocked. There wasn’t a single taco on the menu. Instead, it was full of these oddly-folded white tortilla bricks, sort of resembling a flattened burrito. And on the inside of each of those bricks, along with meat, were French fries, Gruyére cheese sauce, and Créme Fraiche. These were NOT the tacos I signed up for. I left disappointed, and Tacoless.

But as I kept living my life in this new country I realized that what I saw at that taco shop wasn’t an anomaly, or some sick joke. I started to see these types of tacos on almost every corner, all of them exactly the same, and around 12:00 each day they were packed with lines out the door.

I decided to investigate, and what I uncovered was a story far more nuanced than I ever could have imagined, a story that would make me question the meaning of  “Authentic Food” and “Cultural Appropriation”.

This is the story of the “Authentic French Taco.” From its mysterious origins and controversial beginnings, to its wildfire popularity.  It’s the story of how a cultural phenomenon became a point of pride for one country, while creating animosity and bitterness from another. We’ll hear from lovers of this new food, from those who feel offended by its very existence, and maybe, just maybe I’ll even eat my first French Taco.

Ad Break

TAPE: Jalal Meeting ambience

CG Narration: The first stop on my mission to learn about this French Taco was to talk with Jalal Kahlioui.  He’s the Editor in Chief of Booska-P, a website that covers urban culture in France.  And as an avid fan of French Tacos himself, he investigated their rise and wrote a popular article about them in a French publication called Clique.

 I asked Jalal if he remembered the first time he saw a French Taco.

Jalal Kahlioui: I was a student, it was in 2015 in Bordeaux .

I saw like a huge amount of people waiting for food next to a small, small shop. And I was like, “What’s that?” And my friend was like, “Just taste it. You’re gonna love it.” 

CG Narration: He looked up at the menu behind the counter to see a plethora of meats — chicken, kafta, sausage, cordon bleu, — all of which could be combined with different sauces, from curry, to algerian, to mayonnaise. Then they would add French fries and another special sauce.

Jalal Kahlioui: You have, like, a mystery sauce, which is called sauce fromagère. So we don’t know exactly what’s in this sauce, it’s a mystery kept from the founders, actually.

CG Narration: And with the addition of the mystery cheese sauce, the whole mix was wrapped up in a squar- like tortilla and thrown on a panini press.

Then he took his first bite.

Jalal Kahlioui: My God. It’s like a first kiss. It’s like the first kiss.

So you have the taste of the fries, the taste of the meat, with, uh, the sauce fromagére. I actually felt in love with it. And, uh, yeah it’s been like 10 years now. 

CG INT: It’s like a long-term relationship

Jalal Kahlioui: Yeah, long. Unilateral.

History of FR Taco

CG Narration: No one really knows where the French Taco came from, its origins are shrouded in mystery, myth and controversy.

CG INT: Do we know who invented this taco?

Jalal Kahlioui: The creator of the taco is still hidden to this day. It’s a complete mystery. And, uh, yeah, people are still fighting about his identity right now. 

CG INT: You have a secret sauce. We have a secret creator.

Jalal Kahlioui: Yeah it’s not an interview that you need to do. It’s an investigation. 

CG Narration:What we do know is that the French Taco first started showing up around the mid-2000’s in the Southern part of the country. And depending on who you ask, it was first seen in either in Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of the city of Lyon, or Grenoble. 

Jalal Kahlioui: We have a battle between two cities now. We don’t know the exact origin of the taco. 

CG INT: There’s a controversy here. 

Jalal Kahlioui: Of course, a controversy of course.

CG Narration: We can assume based on the ingredients that these French tacos evolved from the famous and numerous French Doner Kebab shops.  The small Turkish, Greek, and Lebanese restaurants that prominently feature a vertical spinning spit of lamb or beef in the window, and sell affordable falafel and shawarma in a Pita or on a plate.  Opening one of these shops is a way for many immigrants to earn a living for themselves and for their families.  Something that can be extremely difficult when landing in a new country where they may not have deep social networks, educational qualifications, or sometimes even a good grip on the language.

One of these Kebab owners took existing ingredients, including halal meat that can be eaten by all religions, to create something new and slick; that was attractive to customers who were tired of eating the same old Kebabs, and they called it: a Taco.

Jalal Kahlioui: So we are in the middle of the 2000s. So there is no social networks. It was really like, we say it was a bouche à oreille phenomenon. So it was a “mouth to ear phenomenon.” 

CG INT: We say “word of mouth.”

Jalal Kahlioui: “Word of mouth.” Man. You are like my best teacher to be honest. 

CG Narration: More Taco shops were opening everyday. Led by the most prominent brand, O’Tacos, they spread from city to city, but mostly these were popular on the outskirts of the cities themselves. The suburbs, or in French, Les Banlieu. 


CG Narration: In the US when we think of “The Suburbs,” what comes to mind is cookie-cutter middle class houses and freshly-trimmed lawns. In France ,the suburbs (or les banlieu) are the areas just outside of the city proper, economically depressed neighborhoods with mostly-minority populations, often of African and Arab ethnicities. Similar to what we would call the inner city. 

Jalal Kahlioui: So you had in those areas, many cultural creations. Many football players are born there. The, the hip hop culture were really, like, born in the French suburbs.

CG Narration: In France, the Suburbs are THE PLACE where alternative and urban culture thrives and influences the rest of the country.  It’s where many trends start.

Médine, a French rapper, wrote in one of his songs:

Jalal Kahlioui: La banlieue influence Paname, Paname influence le monde.

The suburbs influence Paris, and Paris influences the world.

The French taco became like a phenomenon in the Paris suburbs. Then in the French territory. And now we have French tacos all over the world. 

CG INT: It’s like a virus

Jalal Kahlioui: I would have said a trend, but okay. I’m okay with the virus, Charlie. Okay.

CG INT: It depends who you ask, I suppose

CG Narration: Trend or virus, once the French Tacos got a foothold in Paris, they blew up.  

In similar fashion to the immigrants who opened Doner Kebab shops, people in these communities who might not have otherwise had much opportunity, realized that opening an O’tacos franchise could be a way to climb the economic ladder.  In fact, the owner of O’tacos himself, Patrick Pelonaro, was a former Drywaller turned Taco entrepreneur.

So new Taco shops were spreading around the country, and by this point social media was in full swing and the O’Tacos team knew how to use it. They created clever advertising campaigns that appealed to the customers who had helped launch the Taco; young urban kids from the suburbs, often black or middle eastern. Using Instagram, they linked O’tacos with rap and street culture, video games and sports. They joked about the secret sauces. They started a viral instagram trend of the Hashtag #GigaTaco challenge, where anyone who could eat a massive tw-kilogram Taco and film it, would receive it for free along with a heavy dose of bragging rights. 

 A new store opening was like a concert, crowds of teenagers rushing to get in. During one opening in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris, MHD, a famous French rapper, actually showed up to perform a concert in the store.

Jalal Kahlioui: It’s like we have, uh, WizKid or Drake coming for a small opening in Miami, and singing, for the opening of a burrito shop. 

CG Narration: O’tacos had found the sweet spot, they’d created an affordable, tasty, Halal food that resonated with a large community and could be eaten by everyone. The French Taco had gone from unknown, to underdog, to an underground classic that rivaled McDonald’s and other major fast food chains. French Tacos spread to Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Germany….even across the Atlantic to Canada.

So after my conversation with Jalal, I decided enough was enough. I was done talking. I wanted to try this French Taco for myself.

Charlie Eating Taco Scene + Street Interview

CG Narration: Waiting in line, I spoke to two highschool students next to me, I asked them why they came to eat tacos today:

Because I’m cheap and they’re good, he told me.

Because it’s good and Halal meat.

Like this, everyone can eat it.

I asked if they’d ever tried a Mexican taco.

He tells me yes he’s eaten Mexican tacos. And when I ask which he likes better, he says he prefers the Mexican, because he likes the sauce more. But the other answered differently. 

She’d never even tried a Mexican taco. This was the only taco she’d ever known.

CG Narration: Then it was my turn to order.  I chose a baked chicken taco with algerian sauce, and a few minutes later they handed me a tray.  I sat down, unwrapped the paper to expose a folded brick-like tortilla with clean brown grill marks.  I picked it up with both hands and took a bite.  The special cheese sauce coated the chicken while the fries added a salty crunch.  And I have to admit, it wasn’t bad, but it sure as hell was not a Taco. And honestly, I wasn’t feeling great about them using the name :Taco.” For me, it had caused a lot of confusion, and for some in the Mexican community, it’s even more than that.

Marimar: I consider the use of the word “taco” an absolute abuse and a cultural appropriation.

CG Narration: This is Marimar Humbert Droz, she’s the owner of Mexi-Cœur, a beautifully-decorated Mexican boutique store in the heart of Paris. 

Walking through the colorful shop, I passed all kinds of Mexican products; from tortillas and chilis to artwork and toys, Mexican candy, sauces and drinks. We sat in her office and sipped mango juice while she told me about the importance of food in Mexico.

Marimar: In Mexico, the way almost every mother and grandmother show their love and their caring is by cooking. And of course we are a culture where we have Dia de los Muertos, we are the only ones that come back from death just to eat.

CG Narration: When Marimar was a girl in Mexico, her grandma would spend hours in the kitchen, giving all her energy and care to cooking the absolute best for her grandchildren. And growing up like this really had an effect on her

8 years ago Marimar left Mexico City to move to Paris. And she liked the food here, but it wasn’t HER food. And so she decided to start her own shop, because she believes we should all have access to the foods that we love.

Marimar: It’s important to have Mexican food. And when you’re far away from home, that you can eat tortillas, that you can eat chili. I have the vision and the mission to have this accessible to the people.

CG Narration: And this is why I wanted to talk to Marimar, because she has very strong opinions on what it means for Mexican food to retain its authenticity. I asked her to tell me in her words: What is a Taco?

Marimar: A taco is a tortilla that is filled with a variety of things. It can be fish, pork, chicken, uh, goat to beef.

I have to be a purist with this. I would say it has to be a Mexican garnish, you know, it has to be something Mexican inside.

CG INT: So what is A French taco?

Marimar: a French taco is junk food made of very low quality ingredients, placed in a wheat wrap and grilled.

CG INT: Have you eaten one?

Marimar: No.

CG INT: Do you feel that it’s disrespectful to call this a taco?

Marimar: Absolutely. Because first, it’s not the shape, they put things that nobody will ever put in a tortilla in Mexico. So two, it’s not the principle. You are using a word that has a background of thousands of years. It has a story, it comes from somewhere, and it’s the base of the gastronomy of a region.

I know there was a lot of, um, controversy. So they changed to “the original French taco.” Will they put Boulangerie in Mexico and call it La Baguette Original Mexicana. 

Really, like the original Mexican baguette.

Jalal Cultural Appropriation

CG Narration: The original Mexican baguette. Yeah, it sounds ridiculous. I wanted to ask Jalal about this to see what he thought about Mexicans like Marimar who were offended by the French Taco

Jalal Kahlioui: We can call it a cultural appropriation, and I’m so sorry for that. But, uh, yeah, for us, like, yeah, the tacos is French. 

CG INT: What would you say to the Mexicans who are offended by the appropriation?

Jalal Kahlioui: We are sorry, but we won’t give it back.

My first experience with the word tacos was with, French tacos and not Mexican tacos.

I think I’m not the, the only one and the debate was a debate like for commentators. But I think, from a consumer point of view, this, uh, this question doesn’t exist. 

Everyone knows that the real tacos is from Mexico and this name is a rebranding. 

I think also, the French tacos didn’t rob any Mexican food that was there or something. There wasn’t any Mexican tacos here in France.

CG Narration: And when it comes to the appropriation question, there’s something else to consider too:

Jalal Kahlioui: There are many similarities between French tacos, shop owners and workers and, uh, Mexican tacos, workers and shop owners, in the United States. 

I think it’s, um, a product coming from working class minorities. If the French tacos would have [been] born in United States, it might have been made by Mexicans.

CG Narration: Culinarily speaking, The French Taco is more like American Tex-Mex. But what Jalal means is that the Arab & African minorities who created this food share A LOT of similarity with Hispanics in the US. Similar struggles, similar discrimination, and barriers.  And so when it comes to the French Taco, this really makes me ask the question, what is appropriation? So often when we talk of cultural appropriation, we’re talking about a dominant culture stealing something from another culture and profiting off of it.  But here, that’s not really the case.  Though, someone is still profiting off the name taco, and for Marimar, the demographic doesn’t really matter.

Marimar: It’s more that you use it with a lack of respect and knowledge.  Because it could be somebody in a non-dominant side being disrespectful and abusing of this for their profit.

You can put whatever you want in your body. Don’t call it a taco, because it is not.

CG Narration: I brought up the fact that this is not the first time Arab and Mexican culture has collided in the kitchen. In the early 20th century, a wave of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico resulted in what we now know as Tacos Al Pastor, a pork taco with meat cooked on a vertical spit, just like we see in those kebab shops the French Taco originated from.

Marimar: We don’t talk that tacos al pastor or shawarma. It is inspired on something, but it’s not the taco itself. A new dish is born, and we have always said that the shawarma is the grandfather of the taco pastor.

CG INT: So if someone said that they were authentic French tacos, what would you respond?

Marimar: French tacos does not exist, no. French Tacos don’t exist.

CG Narration: I did reach out to O’tacos and several other prominent French Taco brands to get their take on the appropriation question. None of them got back to me.

I said goodbye to <arimar, and left the shop with a few packages of tortillas and Mexican candy.  I’d learned so much about the French Taco, but though my curiosity was being satisfied, my desire for Mexican food was not. Before leaving Mexi-Couer I asked Marimar where I could find the best taco in Paris.

TAPE: Lydia Introduction

CG Narration: Following Marimar’s advice, I ended up at the final stop on my journey. Just a few blocks from the Louvre and Notre Dame sits a small nondescript little shop, and on its red awning are the words: Itacate, Cocina Mexicana.

Lydia Gonzalez: Here in Itacate we make real Mexican tacos.

CG INT: Real Mexican tacos

Lydia Gonzalez: Yes, pastor, carnitas, chorizo. . . 

What I want is that people know how we eat the taco in Mexico. What is a real Mexican taco.

CG Narration: Lydia Gonzalez, a chef who is originally from Mexico, decided to start Itacate after a trip back home with her French husband.

Lydia Gonzalez: The first time my husband went to Mexico with me and we go to eat tacos, he say, “oh my God, this is so good. In France there are no tacos. Why don’t we make a taqueria?” 

And I said, yes, why not? Let’s try. 

CG Narration: Then Lydia brought me a plate with four beautiful Mexican tacos. Chorizo, Carnitas, Arrachera, and Al Pastor.

CG INT: Oh my God, they’re beautiful. It’s so beautiful.  I have not had real tacos in front of me for so long, It’s so good. Yeah.

There’s no comparison with O’tacos This wins every time. Every time.

CG Narration: As Lydia and I enjoyed our Tacos, I thought about the strangeness of the situation. Here I was, a Colombian American expat, eating a Mexican taco in the heart of Paris, no less than 5 minutes from the nearest Authentic French Taco shop, which was spawned from the same Lebanese Kebab that inspired the Taco Al Pastor in my hand. 

In the end, we live in a connected world. Cultures have, and always will, collide to create new remixes of old classics. Appropriation does exist, but so does inspiration. I’m not going to judge the French Taco for existing, but I’m also not going to be eating another one anytime soon. I’m just going to appreciate that there’s a passenger for every train, something out there for everyone. I’m happy that the youth of France have a food they can call their own.  But even more so, I’m just happy that I finally found my old favorite food in my new home.

This Episode was produced & written by Charlie Garcia, it was edited by Rough Cut Collective, with additional editing from Maribel Quezada Smith & Liz Alarcon. Audio engineering, scoring & mixing by Charlie Garcia with additional support from Julian Blackmore. The hosts of the Pulso Podcast are Liz Alarcon, and me Maribel Quezada SmithSpecial thanks to Manon Lelièvre, Alyosha Leveski, & Tsveta Ivanova