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What Is Mexican Food? A Nevada Court Has the Tricky Job of Deciding

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A Las Vegas shopping center landlord is asking a judge to weigh in on a culinary conundrum that has two restaurants at odds: What is Mexican food?

The dishes in question come from salad chain Chop Stop, which has a location at the shopping center. 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 at issue is the Chopurrito, a bowl with rice, beans, salsa and up to six…

A Las Vegas shopping center landlord is asking a judge to weigh in on a culinary conundrum that has two restaurants at odds: What is Mexican food?

The dishes in question come from salad chain Chop Stop, which has a location at the shopping center. 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 at issue is the Chopurrito, a bowl with rice, beans, salsa and up to six toppings.

Cafe Rio, a neighboring fast-casual Mexican chain, has argued in court filings that Chop Stop’s offerings violate a provision in its lease that no other restaurant in the same shopping center can make more than 10% of its sales from Mexican or Tex-Mex food. Chop Stop has said in response that its menu items are generic offerings that don’t belong in any culinary category.

The result has been a grand showdown over the nature of food, culture and salad ingredients—or what chef and food consultant Sofia Sada Cervantes called “deconstructed Mexican salad symbolism.”

Chop Stop and Cafe Rio in Las Vegas.

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

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

In November of that year, according to a filing from Dynamic Town Square, Chop Stop “made certain changes to its menu and provided Cafe Rio with documentation that the only ‘two potentially questionable salads…are less than 10% of its sales.’ ” The court filing doesn’t detail the menu changes. Cafe Rio continued to argue that the salad shop was violating its lease.

Hector Carbajal, a lawyer for Chop Stop, declined to comment on the case. A lawyer for Cafe Rio didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Adelman said the landlord is just a bystander in the dispute.

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

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

The Viva Mexico Chop salad.

For Ms. Sada, an assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America, one 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. “That’s not something you find in Mexican cuisine.”

Simply having some Mexican ingredients in a dish also doesn’t make it Mexican, she added. “For me, it’s not just because somebody takes a jalapeño or a tortilla,” Ms. Sada said. “That’s just creating a dish using Mexican ingredients.”

Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” who wrote about the case for the Los Angeles Times, tried the Viva Mexico salad, and didn’t find anything especially Mexican—or tasty—about it. As for the case, “two pretty well-financed companies are fighting with each other over the impossible task of deciding what is Mexican food,” he said. “It’s a comedy of errors. I just wish it tasted better.”

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

The Santa Fe Chop salad.

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

“Burrito bowls were not created in Mexico or Texas as traditional Mexican or Tex-Mex food,” Chop Stop argued. “They were created by Chipotle within the last 15 years in Colorado and if anything, are a Southwestern food that Cafe Rio has no exclusive for.”

Chipotle Mexican Grill
didn’t respond to requests for comment about whether and where it invented the burrito bowl.

How to categorize food featured in a similar dispute involving a Panera Bread trying to block a Qdoba Mexican Eats restaurant from moving into the same Shrewsbury, Mass., shopping center. In this case, in 2006, 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 line layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them” to deny the cafe’s request to keep Qdoba from becoming its neighbor.

“Under this definition and as dictated by common sense, this court finds that the term ‘sandwich’ is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, which are typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice, and beans,” the decision said.

In Las Vegas, the trial is set for August. Which restaurant might pay back rent hinges on the decision, according to Mr. Adelman.

“Ultimately we are going to collect from somebody,” he said.

Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at Alicia.Caldwell@wsj.com

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