Definition of 'Mexican' Food to Be Decided by Nevada Judge in Dispute Over Chopped Salads

One restaurant says it was guaranteed none of the nearby tenants would serve Mexican or Tex-Mex food. Does a "Santa Fe" salad count?

Fresh mexican-inspired salad with chicken breast, avocado, cheese, beans, iceberg lettuce, and tortilla chips
Photo: Getty Images

Actual Mexican food is defined by the country's regions, ingredients, flavors, and traditions. But here in the States, menus can sometimes slap broad cultural terminology onto dishes whether they're reflective of said cuisine or not. Now, a lawsuit in Nevada hinges on whether a salad chain is serving "Mexican" items and a U.S. judge has been asked to decide what makes cuisine "Mexican" — at least, in a convoluted legal sense.

A Nevada location of Café Rio Mexican Grill has filed a complaint about a neighboring location of the salad chain Chop Stop, claiming that Chop Stop violates Café Rio's lease which stipulates that the shopping plaza isn't allowed to have any other restaurants that serve "Mexican or Tex-Mex food," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Chop Stop's items in question? A Viva Mexico Chop salad served with ingredients like jalapeños, black beans, tortilla strips, and a creamy chipotle dressing, and a Santa Fe Chop which features avocados, roast corn, and a cilantro lime dressing — as well as a group of products called Chopurritos, which are salads served on a base of cilantro lime rice and seasoned black or white beans.

The extent to which any of these items are "Mexican or Tex-Mex" is certainly up for discussion, but making the matter trickier is that since the complaint is based on the lease, it's the job of the landlord, Dynamic Real Estate Partners, to sort this out. And as a real estate company, they've essentially admitted determining cuisines isn't their job.

"I don't know who's right here, and I need guidance from the court," Jeff Adelman, Dynamic's in-house counsel in Las Vegas, told the Times. "Do I know whether Santa Fe chop salads are Tex-Mex? I don't know, and I don't know who knows. Our stake is in keeping a harmonious center."

So as a result, Dynamic has asked the courts to decide and a hearing is scheduled next month where Nevada Eighth Judicial District Court Judge Mark R. Denton will reportedly be tasked with deciding whether a salad with some jalapeños should be legally considered Mexican food.

As for Chop Stop, the Times obtained the chain's legal filing in the matter and uncovered some of their arguments for not serving Mexican food. For one, Chop Stop reportedly states that "a Taco Salad has either a corn or flour tortilla base which the Viva-Mexico [salad] does not have." Another claim: "Santa Fe is a town in New Mexico, not Mexico or Texas."

"It doesn't appear to me that merely uttering the name 'Chopurrito' that somehow that automatically results in some type of conclusion," Adelman told the paper. But then he added: "What makes us, as the landlords, somehow an expert on this?"

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