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The French Connection

Part 5 in the six-part history of Tex-Mex

Everywhere I went, I asked the French what it was about Tex-Mex that they found so intriguing. The manager of the Del Rio Cafe, Yseult Naudé Plassard, summed up the appeal, "Le Cuisine Tex-Mex garde le parfum de temps des pionniers." (Roughly: "Tex-Mex cuisine recaptures the essence of the pioneer times.")

After my restaurant tour, I visited the Paris food writer Patricia Wells to get her take. "The French love it because it's an identifiably American cuisine," she told me in her living room over a glass of champagne. "And it's everywhere you look now. My winemaker in Provence, a real Frenchman's Frenchman, clears his palate with tortilla chips at wine tastings."

How did Tex-Mex end up in Paris? I asked Austin restaurateur Claude Benayoun. A partner in the Vespaio Italian restaurant on South Congress Avenue, Benayoun is a wiry, energetic man in his late thirties with a shaved head and an easy smile. I met him one morning at the Texas French Bread bakery, just a few doors down from Vespaio, where he gave me his account over an espresso.

Chuy's: Arguably the first restaurant in Texas to understand that Tex-Mex is as much about attitude as it is about food.
Troy Fields
Chuy's: Arguably the first restaurant in Texas to understand that Tex-Mex is as much about attitude as it is about food.

Location Info

Map

Chuy's

2706 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77019

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: River Oaks

Details

2706 Westheimer, (713)524-1700; 6324 Richmond Avenue, (713)974-2322. Hours: Sundays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Comida Deluxe Dinner: $8.99
Elvis's Fried Chicken with Green Chiles lunch special: $6.95
Frozen margarita: $4.95

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Benayoun earned his MBA in hotel and restaurant management at the University of Paris X in 1980. After graduation, he came to the United States to continue his studies in California. While passing through Texas, he sampled Tex-Mex food and was intrigued by both the strong flavors and the intriguing name.

"Tex-Mex," he pronounced it dramatically in his French accent. "To a Frenchman, it sounds like cowboys and Indians, like the Wild West. And the food was all so crunchy and spicy, it fit the image." After Benayoun returned to Paris, he was offered the opportunity to open a restaurant in a 12th-century building, in the newly hip Le Marais district, that housed a dance studio complex. Benayoun decided to open a Tex-Mex restaurant. "We had cowboy and Indian pictures on the wall. I even put the cowboy boots I bought in Texas up on a shelf." The Studio, as the place was called, opened in March of 1983.

"Was it the first Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris?"

"That's what they tell me," he says.

"But why Tex-Mex? Why not authentic Mexican food?" I asked Benayoun.

"We had a Mexican chef for a while. He made mole for a Day of the Dead celebration one year. Everybody hated it. Mexican food is too elaborate, too old-fashioned for Paris. But Tex-Mex, Tex-Mex is simple. It's honest. And you know the French are crazy about Texas."

Still, Benayoun's Tex-Mex concept was not an instant success. "Parisians don't like to eat with their hands. They were trying to eat nachos and crispy tacos with a knife and fork," Benayoun laughs. "Business was pretty slow for a couple of years. We got lots of American ex-pats, but not so many French people. I started wondering if I had made a mistake. But then the movie Betty Blue came out, and things went completely crazy."

An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film of 1986, Betty Blue starred Béatrice Dalle as a mentally unbalanced beauty named Betty and Jean-Hugues Anglade as a struggling novelist named Zorg. In the movie's first scene, Zorg leaves Betty after an exhaustive session of lovemaking and races across town on his motorcycle. He flies in his front door just in time to save a pot of chili con carne from burning.

Zorg, whose writing is dismissed as modernistic garbage by pompous Paris publishers, is a rebel without a beret. His and Betty's alienation from French mainstream culture is the movie's central theme. It is expressed in strikingly uncharacteristic views of the French landscape, including desert-like panoramas reminiscent of the American West, and by Zorg's taste in food and drink. When a Paris bartender asks him what he wants, Zorg orders tequila. The bar doesn't have any. But somewhere Zorg finds a bottle.

During several drinking bouts, including a wild-party sequence, Zorg introduces his friends to a drink he calls a "tequila rapido." Known as a tequila slammer in the United States, it consists of a shot of tequila and a splash of soda poured together into a glass, covered with a cloth, slammed hard on the bar, and consumed while the bubbles are still overflowing. The movie ends tragically with the self-destructive Betty drugged beyond consciousness in a mental ward, where Zorg nobly smothers her to end her suffering. In the final scene, the grieving Zorg sits in his kitchen eating chili con carne.

"Betty Blue was like our Easy Rider; it was unbelievably popular in France. And after the movie came out, everybody in Paris wanted a shot of tequila and a bowl of chili," Benayoun remembers. Tex-Mex became a symbol of alienated, free-spirited youth, and business at the Studio soared. "Within a few years, a dozen Tex-Mex restaurants had opened in Paris," Benayoun recalls. "I think I heard there are something like 60 of them there now."

The trend soon spread to the rest of France and beyond. Since my visit to Paris in 1993, I have eaten Tex-Mex enchiladas in Bangkok, visited a Tex-Mex restaurant in Buenos Aires, and heard reports of Tex-Mex restaurants in Amsterdam, Oman, and Tokyo.

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