Long before “fusion” pulled its hit and run on the foodie fashion world, Tahiti was mixing foreign flavors into her own pot and getting goose bumps all over. Their verdict: Chinese plus French plus Polynesian equals a little bit weird and a whole lot of yummy.
Thankfully, this cross-cultural cuisine isn’t catering to the Condé Nast crowd since the very best Tahitian eats are served from the side of a truck. Come eventide in Papeete, “Les Roulottes” roll on down to the harbor and park themselves in several neat little rows on La Place Vaiete. Collapsible, stackable plastic tables and stools quickly turns every white, open-sided van into a late-night café that smells like grilled meat and melted sugar.
The mood is convivial, decadent, blithe. Hundreds and hundreds of people gather without anyone feeling crowded-packs of friends, families with young children, a few unassuming tourists-everyone chows down together in peace in the shadow of six-story private yachts. In a city with London prices, a full meal costs a lowly 1,500 Polynesian Francs-about $20 US.
Order what you will, but to be absolutely local, go with the giant plastic plates of steak frites. Parisian by birth, the Tahitian version comes as a cooked-to-order piece of beef the size of a laptop, heaped on top of pile of hot blonde fries. The giant glob of herbed garlic butter is an essential condiment, as is the bowl of spicy sweet hot barbecue sauce. Dig in after shouts of Tamaa Maitai (“Bon Appetit”) and then come back the following night to try the same with bona fide Roquefort sauce.For lighter fare, try the Polynesian poisson cru: raw pink tuna, chopped into cubes, marinated in coconut milk and lemon juice, then tossed with onion, carrot, peppers. Calling it Tahitian ceviche comes up short-this version is both light and meaty with sharp tangy flavors. The tuna sashimi is equally awesome-fresh, pink fish laid out like stained glass and served with a bowl of special sauce that could only be invented by Chinese people feeding Polynesians with a developed French palate. And… if you’ve still got room after all that, finish with one of the hundred-or-so variety of crepes (Nutella always guarantees the goods) or the local ice cream concoctions.
Tahitian truck cuisine is found across the vast spread of French Polynesia but probably varies a bit from island to island. My favorite find thus far was a Lo Mein sandwich-one half of a soft French baguette split down the middle and stuffed with chicken chow mein, cabbage, chopped noodles, and dribbled with soy sauce. That’s one small step for carb-loading and one giant leap for comfort food.
So, ignore all that CDC and State Department advice about not eating street food. This is France, so that veal turning on a spit out in the street is EU regulated and the raw fish is practically still swimming. Yes, Les Roulottes is all about feeding the masses out of trucks-but these masses are discerning…and French.