What is Mexican cuisine? A Nevada court has the delicate task of deciding

A Las Vegas mall owner asks a judge to rule on a culinary conundrum between two restaurants: What is Mexican food?

The dishes in question are from the salad chain Chop Stop, which has a location at the mall. There’s the Viva Mexico Chop salad, topped with black beans, jalapeños, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, chicken, and tortilla strips, and the Santa Fe Chop, with avocados, roasted corn, and Pepper Jack cheese. . Also in question is the Chopurrito, a bowl with rice, beans, salsa and up to six toppings.

Cafe Rio, a nearby fast-casual Mexican chain, argued in court that Chop Stop’s offers violate a provision in its lease that says no other restaurant in the same mall can earn more than 10% of its sales at from Mexican or Tex-Mex products. food. Chop Stop responded that its menu items are generic offerings that do not belong to any culinary category.

The result was a great confrontation about the nature of salad food, culture and ingredients – or what chef and food consultant Sofia Sada Cervantes called “the deconstructed symbolism of the Mexican salad.”

Chop Stop and Cafe Rio in Las Vegas.

The legal battle began in 2020 after Cafe Rio invoked a lease clause to cut its rent in half for up to a year if the 10% stipulation was breached and neither the restaurant with the allegedly Mexican dishes nor the landlord took action. Court records show Cafe Rio began withholding 50% of its rent for its 2,800 square foot space in September 2020.

The restaurants‘ owner, Dynamic Town Square Las Vegas LLC, filed the case, formally known as a complaint for declaratory judgment, in December 2020, after months of discussions between the parties. A lawyer for the landlord, Jeffrey Adelman, refused to disclose the amount of the rent.

In November of that year, according to a Dynamic Town Square filing, Chop Stop “made some changes to its menu and provided Cafe Rio with documentation indicating that the only” two potentially questionable salads…represent less than 10% of its sales.” “The court filing does not detail the menu changes. Cafe Rio continued to argue that the salad shop violated its lease.

Hector Carbajal, lawyer for Chop Stop, declined to comment on the case. A lawyer for Cafe Rio did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr Adelman said the owner was only a spectator in the dispute.

“I don’t know and frankly I don’t know who knows what legally defines Mexican food,” he said. “They can fight.”

Chefs and culinary researchers say defining Mexican cuisine, or any other ethnic cuisine, is a challenge, but the answer often lies in the ingredients.

The Viva Mexico Chop salad.

For Ms. Sada, an assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America, a potential consideration in the Viva Mexico Chop is the use of cheddar cheese. “We don’t even have cheddar cheese,” said Ms. Sada, who was born and raised in Mexico. “It’s not something you find in Mexican cuisine.”

Just having Mexican ingredients in a dish doesn’t make it Mexican either, she added. “For me, it’s not just because someone takes a jalapeño or a tortilla,” Ms. Sada said. “It’s just creating a dish using Mexican ingredients.”

Gustavo Arellano, author of ‘Taco USA: How Mexican Food Took America Away’ who wrote about the case for the Los Angeles Times, tried the Viva Mexico salad and found nothing particularly Mexican or tasty about it. this subject. As for the case, “two fairly well-funded companies are battling the impossible task of deciding what Mexican food is,” he said. “It’s a comedy of errors. I just wish it tasted better.

A lawyer for Chop Stop said in legal documents last year that their salad offerings did not violate the lease. “The Santa Fe Chop is a salad offering that is neither Mexican nor Tex-Mex,” a filing said. The Viva Mexico Chop also wouldn’t count, the restaurant’s attorney wrote, because only a taco salad would violate Cafe Rio’s lease. That would mean having a corn or flour tortilla base, which the Viva Mexico doesn’t.

The Santa Fe Chop salad.

As for the Chopurrito — now called the Blazin’ Bowl in Las Vegas — Chop Stop’s attorney wrote that it was a burrito bowl at best.

“Burrito bowls weren’t created in Mexico or Texas as traditional Mexican or Tex-Mex food,” Chop Stop explained. “They were created by Chipotle over the past 15 years in Colorado and are actually a Southwestern food that Cafe Rio doesn’t have an exclusive for.”

Chipotle Mexican Grill did not respond to requests for comment on whether and where it invented the burrito bowl.

How to categorize the foods featured in a similar dispute involving a Panera Bread trying to stop a Qdoba Mexican Eats restaurant from setting up shop in the same mall in Shrewsbury, Mass. In this 2006 case, a Massachusetts judge had to decide whether burritos, tacos and quesadillas were sandwiches.

The decision cited a dictionary definition describing a sandwich as “two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a layer of line (such as meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them” to deny the coffee’s request. prevent Qdoba from becoming its neighbour.

“Under this definition and consistent with common sense, this court finds that the term ‘sandwich’ is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, which are typically prepared with a single tortilla and stuffed with a garnish of choice of meat, rice, and beans,” the ruling reads.

In Las Vegas, the trial is scheduled for August. According to Mr Adelman, which restaurant could reimburse the rent depends on the decision.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to collect from someone,” he said.

Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at [email protected]

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Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement