In France, late night partiers and teenagers often roll into restaurants looking for tortilla-swaddled, fry-filled wraps, tattooed with grill marks, known as French tacos. Far removed from anything in the Mexican culinary canon, French tacos were popularized in Northern African immigrant communities in France, often served with halal meat fillings; it’s something like a cross between a California burrito, a panini, and a shawarma. However, the range of fillings has expanded to include things like chicken cordon bleu, Merguez sausage, and barbecue beef.
In the United States, French tacos are nowhere near as popular. A 2021 New Yorker piece on the popularity of French tacos across the Atlantic spurred countless follow-up pieces, all essentially explaining the phenomenon to an American audience. Jewan Manuel, the owner of blockbuster vegan pop-up Plant Based Papi, read the same New Yorker piece, and found himself inspired — inspired enough to start a 100-percent vegan French taco brand, coming later this year.
Le Tacos, opening in Northwest Portland by the end of the summer, will offer a variety of French tacos, all with four components: fries (or cauliflower), vegan cheese, vegan “meats,” and various sauces. In true Plant Based Papi fashion, the faux meats will all be house-made: The shawarma filling, for instance, will use oyster mushrooms as a base, with a vegan tzatziki. Manuel is also working on a burger taco, though the chef is keeping the recipe proprietary. “I don’t want to default to something I’ve already tried, like Impossible meat,” Manuel says. “We want it to be really unique and special.”
Manuel has become something of a legend within Portland’s food community for Plant Based Papi, a vegan pop-up turned restaurant turned residency downtown Portland’s Fortune bar. Manuel focuses on comfort food made primarily with whole plants — calamari mushroom, jackfruit nachos, fried oyster mushroom hot chicken — that has attracted lines and buzz for years. “Plant Based Papi isn’t just ‘good vegan food,’” writes Jenni Moore in a piece for the Portland Mercury. “Manuel’s rightfully earned his cult following for that are consistently flavorful, creative, and delicious meals.”
With Le Tacos, Manuel hopes to create a brand that can easily expand, becoming a household name like Salt & Straw or Blue Star Donuts; the chef is envisioning locations near places like Providence Park and Portland International Airport. “We want it to be those special options that you have to visit if you come to Portland, like Voodoo Donut,” Manuel says. “We want to do something fun and interesting and fast and not too confusing. We want you to understand what it means immediately.”
For the first location, Manuel is currently eyeing a few spaces in Northwest Portland, though nothing has been signed just yet; Ideally, the restaurant will open fairly quickly, with each wrap clocking in below $15. “We want kids skateboarding down 23rd be able to come in here and grab something for $10 or $12 dollars,” Manuel says. “Our goal was to bring light to something that is popular in other parts of the world, but also to Americanize it.”
For now, Portlanders can eat Manuel’s food by visiting Fortune, at 614 SW 11th Avenue.