The woman at the window at Roulotte Kim—perhaps she was Kim herself—would not sell this seemingly feckless tourist a plate of riz cantonnais au poisson sale. “Salt is for me,” she said. “Not you.”
I persisted, but so did she, feigning a shortage: “We are out of salt fish.” I settled for “mixed”—a delicious consolation, with chewy, funky coins of Chinese sausage buried amid shrimp, cabbage, and onion in an oil-slicked, soy-dressed hillock of stir-fried rice.
French Polynesia is home to plenty of fancy restaurants pouring Chateau d’Yquem to go with the foie gras torchon ordered by well-heeled, sun-blazed honeymooners. But there are also lots of spots for tasty cheap eats. The biggest concentration is in Place Vaiete, a portside plaza beside the island ferry terminal in Tahiti’s capital, Papeete. There, about a dozen permanently parked food trucks fling open their windows when the sun goes down. Called roulottes, “caravans” in French, the rigs sit beneath street lights that illuminate their branded awnings: “Tuk Tuk Thai and Asian Food,” “Creperie du Port: Since 1984.”
Francophone snacks are popular among them. La Boule Rouge, for instance, advertises itself as an “Authorized legal dealer of Nutella,” the hazelnut cocoa spread slathered, perhaps with hunks of sweet banana, onto the crêpes that islanders adopted from the French, who colonized their home beginning in 1842. But this collection of Pacific archipelagos is far closer to Asia than Europe, and roulotte menus reflect the mashup of cultures that have shaped the cuisine of the islands: Chinese stir-fries and Thai-style curries, Polynesian fresh and cured fish dishes, globalized pizza, and French classics.
Despite it being a balmy 85 degrees Fahrenheit at night, the gatekeeper at Roulotte Kim had no qualms about selling me a proper steak frites for 1300 French Polynesian francs—less than $13. Broad, thin, and boneless, the two filets were perfectly grilled, char-marked crust yielding to juicy, red centers. They were laid atop a pile of fries, with a plastic cup of garlic butter for slathering.
The cooking wasn’t fancy; it was made for short orders, the frites dumped out of a bag of pre-cut spuds into a sizzling wok full of grease. But wedged between a day on the beach and a long flight home, it hit the spot.
As the evening wore on, the plaza filled with locals: a gaggle of cousins gobbling chicken and broccoli; a couple of musicians in straw hats awaiting their order, ukeleles in their laps. Outside of Chez Jacqueline, a gentleman stir-fried noodles over propane, mounding “chao mein” onto plates for clientele seated at tables covered in colorful plastic mats, baguette and butter served on the side, scooter helmets resting beside the bread.
The vibe was chill and politely friendly. At La Vache, with a dappled Jersey cow painted on its side, I got into a scuba diving story slam with a crowd of Australian tourists eating mushroom and egg crêpes and Breton-style buckwheat galettes stuffed with ham and Roquefort. Despite all the sharks and stingrays I had seen, they trounced me with a recollection of the music—either snoring or song, they weren’t sure which—that had come from the humpback whale idling beneath them as they hovered below surface on the cetaceans’ migration route in the channel between Tahiti and the neighboring island of Moorea.
“Where’s the best poisson cru?” I asked a salty Frenchman wearing nothing but board shorts. He directed me to Roulotte Mavan. The rae rae—trans woman in island speak—at the window was expediting a string of orders. She wore a gardenia tucked behind one ear.
The version of the poke-like Tahitian staple she sold me wasn’t the best I’d had. Molded into a dome and sprinkled with scallion and sesame seeds, the coconut-and-lime-marinated cubes of tuna could have used some salt. But Roulotte Mavan’s grilled swordfish kebabs were meaty and moist. I was in love with their garlicky, sweet-spicy marinade, so I asked her what was in it, though I might have known better.
“You mean this?” she said, reaching for a plastic jug of bulk-purchased teriyaki sauce. She graciously lifted it up to the window’s fluorescent light so I could get a better view of its label.