Sunday, August 27, 2006

Indiana Tex-Mex

Tex-Mex food prepared exactly as you would expect to find in Bloomington, Indiana

Location: Paris, France.

The Indiana Tex-Mex Café of Paris, France. Therein lies a story.

Once upon a time on May 17, 2002 I was in Paris on business. I came prepared. Between the two great wars, Paris became the home for many American ex-patriots and as a result a healthy jazz community developed and thrived. After years of sampling jazz clubs across North America, I assayed to ascertain for myself the state of jazz in Paris in the new millennium.

Weeks before the trip I scoured the Internet and found a cluster of promising clubs in the 1st Arrondissement, half-a-mile north of Notre Dame on Rue des Lombards. After several days of business, a day of freedom emerged and I hopped the metro to do some reconnaissance. I found Le Baiser Salé easily enough. The door was open, so I stepped in and found somebody who spoke enough English to tell me when the music started. I walked a block west and found Le Sunset, which was closed. I couldn’t find any signs in English among the riot of paper taped all over the door and windows. I looked around and noticed a woman sitting on a chair under the awning of the adjacent building.

I presented the only phrase I knew in French, “Parlez vous anglais?” No, she didn’t. At that point, I lamely commented, in English, of course, that I was just wondering when they started the music at Le Sunset. She said several things, in French, of course. We stood there for a few minutes, foolishly speaking at each other in tongues. Eventually I was able to interpret from her hand gestures, body language and use of the one word I did recognize, “amore,” that she was inviting me for a toss in the hay in exchange for some unknown number of Euros. I declined awkwardly, effusively and definitively, in English, of course, and wandered the neighborhood until I located a Thai restaurant just a few blocks over.

Thus armed with intelligence promising a night of great jazz (and a sincere hope that the lady was covering the afternoon shift and wouldn’t be there when I returned) I attempted to interest my co-workers in dinner and jazz on the town. They were all exhausted from touring the Louvre and rejected my offer.

And so it was that in the evening I set out for the metro alone. I was in a pleasant frame of mind. The weather was ideal and I smiled in anticipation of my favorite cuisine - Thai. I was not troubled by the lack of companions. I had a Graham Greene book in the pocket of my tweed jacket for dinner company and I knew I would be able to enjoy jazz as far into the night as I desired without annoying gestures at watches interrupting the music.

And as I foresaw, so it was. The dinner was excellent. Afterward I dropped Greene back into my pocket and strolled to Le Baiser Salé, paid the cover and listened to a set of excellent straight-up jazz. However, it was standing room only and after an hour I was ready to find a seat. I proceeded to Le Sunset, noticed with relief that my friend from the afternoon was not in evidence, paid the cover and went upstairs where I found a table and some incredible jazz. I stayed, heedless of the time, until 1am when they blew the last note and crashed the last cymbal and snapped the last latch on the case.

That was when I discovered that the Metro closes at midnight. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll take a taxi.” My lack of French wasn’t an issue. The hotel was near the Eiffel Tower and I had no doubt I could communicate at least that much. That was when I discovered that the line at the taxi stand was 30 feet long.

I checked my map. It appeared to be about 5km to the hotel, somewhere around 3 miles. If I walked around 3mph, a nice brisk pace, I would be there in an hour. It was a nice night and I had a Cuban cigar, so I set out on foot. However, about ten minutes into the walk, along Boulevard Saint-Germain I became acutely aware that I would have to make use of the facilities long before I arrived at the hotel. I began to scout around for an open bar.

That was when I spotted the Indiana Tex-Mex Café. (You thought I had forgotten what I was writing about, didn’t you?)

It was a welcome, if somewhat astonishing and mystifying apparition. Tex-Mex? In Paris? A waitress was dragging chairs from the sidewalk, closing up. I begged leave to visit the WC, and when I emerged I studied the menu closely. Sure enough, it showed enchiladas, tacos, tortillas, fajitas, everything you would expect. It also had burgers, steaks and other items familiar to Americans. I looked around. It looked like a Bennigan’s or Applebee's, lots of wood and framed pictures and trendy light fixtures. What would a chicken enchilada taste like in the land of haute cuisine? At that moment I purposed in my heart to return the next day for lunch.

I arrived at the hotel at 3:30am and soaked my aching feet in the tub for 15 minutes before going to bed.

The following day I joined the gang in some shopping and sightseeing in the 18th Arrondissement. When it came time for lunch I announced my intention of testing out the French version of my native cuisine. Most declined but Ryan and Bobby decided to join me. We took the metro and in a few minutes we were seated in the Indiana Tex-Mex Café. I ordered the chicken enchilada, which is my usual choice the first time I try a Tex-Mex place. Bobby followed suit. Ryan ordered ribs. Go figure. He also snapped a picture. (You can find pics of the restaurants here and here and here and here and here.)

We spent the time trying to figure out why Parisians thought Indiana was the fountain head of Tex-Mex. Surely they have US maps in France. Can't they figure out that Indiana is over 1,000 miles from Mexico and is practically in Canada?

The food was passable. I later learned through some internet research (because not much later I had a lot of time on my hands) that in the 90s a Tex-Mex craze swept through France. Still haven't figured that one out. In 2002 when I was researching the place, little could be found. In the past 4 years several people have posted info about it. Regarding the food, Chris and Alice Hodapp described it as “Tex-Mex grub that is like Mexican food that was seen from outer space and copied from that vantage point alone.” WikiTravel had the most clever comment. “Of note also is the truth in advertising: this is Tex-Mex food prepared exactly as you would expect to find in say Bloomington, Indiana.” And most interesting of all, we missed David Sadegh's reluctantly Indian Tex-Mex experience by one mile and one month.

We had a decent lunch and that was that. Until 3 days later. By that time I was back in Honolulu, so the sudden necessity to spend 3/4 of every hour on the toilet was not as inconvenient as it might have been on the 9 hour flight to NY or the 6 hour flight to LAX or the 6 hour flight to HI. A visit to the doctor confirmed that I had food poisoning, specifically a very high concetration of Campylobacter jejuni, which evidently is present on almost half of the chickens sold in the US. Cooking kills it, but if you touch the cooked meat with the same utensil used to handle the raw meet, you transfer live organisms right over.

The bacteria has an incubation period of 2-5 days, has symptoms lasting 7-10 days, is sometimes fatal and results in Guillain-Barré syndrome (in which the nerves that join the spinal cord and brain to the rest of the body are damaged, sometimes permanently) in some individuals. You'll be relieved to know that this development happens in less than 1 in 1,000 cases. As I sat in bed during the brief respites from the WC and read those odds, you can be assured I was not reassured. If the lottery had odds like that, there would be 300,000 winners in the US!

During the week I missed work I spent my spare time trying to figure out where I got it. Was it the raw seafood at the Eiffel Tower or the crab at the Dragon Elysees or the rare steak at the hotel? As I queried other diners I discovered that Bobby had fallen victim to the same fate and the mystery was solved. We both missed a week of work.

A year later, on the anniversary of our lunch, we ate at Jose's in Kaimuki. This time with no adverse side effects. So, if you got to Indiana Tex-Mex, get the ribs. Seriously.


Jeanne Damoff said...

What a great story! I like your traveling style. Reminds me a bit of Mark Cloud.

Glad you didn't die from your Indiana Tex-Mex in Paris adventure. That would have been a bummer ending.

kelly said...

Now you're blogging....

shanna said...

Thanks. I went from laughing like an idiot to gagging on the horror of your GI tract. Well done; I consider that a sign of a timeless writer.

And thank you for updating (by about 80 years) my impressions of Paris. Maybe if Zelda and Scott had spent more time blogging instead of drinking, they would have saved themselves some serious pain--and Hemingway's A Moveable Feast would have entirely different implications...

Brad Whittington said...

Thankfully I don't have many restaurant stories like that one. But then again, the blog might be more entertaining if I did. Assuming I survived them all.

I'm trying to forget that Moveable Feast comment. It just opens up too many possibilities.

kelly said...

Bradley- you are a fiction writer, you don't have to HAVE stories, you can make them up !


Anonymous said...

I laugh every time I read this blog. I am from Bloomington and was in Paris in 2001 & 2002. Each time, I had to stop and take a photo of their sign. Being from the Hoosier State most of us calMexican cuisine, "Mexcian" and not "Tex Mex." The first time I saw "Indiana" I assumed that it was French for Indian and thought it was strange an Indian restaurant In Paris was serving "Tex Mex." wondering what kind of combination it was. But soon realize it was Mexican cuisine in Paris. I do fine it funny that your blog & a review compare it food served in my hometown. But I will tell you the WC problems are not a part of the experience here. Leave that to the not so professionals in
Paris. But I do show your blog when I tell my silly experience with the signs.

Brad Whittington said...

Funny. I'd forgotten about that little sub-title about the quality of Tex-Mex in Bloomington. But there are differences between Mexican and Tex-Mex, as this post tries to delineate.

Also, Texas is not immune to poorly done Tex-Mex food. I recall a place in Palestine where the salsa was more like chunky ketchup and even when I asked, they didn't have anything spicier. The rest of the meal was equally disappointing.

Glad you enjoyed the story. It is more fun telling it that experiencing it, I assure you.

Celia Woodworth said...

Oh ha. Eleven years after your original post, my daughter and I--who happen to be from Bloomington, Indiana, were just in Paris and had dinner at the Indiana Café. We kept seeing them all over the city and curiosity finally won over. We enjoyed it immensely--I commented my tray of nachos tasted just like those from a restaurant in South Bend; but were also flummoxed by the American Indian photographs, and Mexican-leaning menu. Ha. Enjoyable, with no adverse affects. We took lots of pictures. Bon Chance!

Brad Whittington said...

Ha! Glad to see that the ol' Indiana Tex-Mex is still alive and kicking in gay Paree. Also glad your experience had more agreeable results.