Column: Is a “Viva Mexico” salad Mexican food? A judge will tell us soon

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There was nothing Mexican about the “Viva Mexico” salad I ate recently at a fast, casual restaurant called Chop Stop in Brea.

A wan mix of iceberg lettuce and spinach served as the basis for ingredients that were supposed to evoke a south of the border fiesta in my mouth, but left her rather confused. The jalapeños were as chewy and bland as the roast chicken. The stale tortilla strips offered no crunch. The black beans showed little flavor, while the creamy chipotle dressing tasted like mayonnaise enriched with diluted Tapatío.

Maybe I would have thought more of Mexico with every bite if the Viva Mexico had burdened the avocado with Chop Stop’s Cobb salad or borrowed the soyrizo from its vegan chorizo. Instead, I was reduced to fishing for the stray sprigs of cheddar cheese from the salad in an attempt to bring a quesadilla to life.

Mexican food is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States that any smart restaurateur will rely on to earn a few extra dollars. This is the only explanation I can assume why Chop Stop, a chain with 27 branches in California, Nevada and Texas, deigns to call its salad Viva Mexico by that name. Or judge another “Santa Fe,” even if the extent of this New Mexico capital salad’s evocation is grilled corn kernels.

No casual fan of Mexican food would mistake either of these salads for something vaguely Mexican. But in a Nevada courtroom, a legal dispute involving the articles offers a fascinating study of how Mexican cuisine is not a story of the absolute but rather an evolution.

The case involves a Las Vegas-based Chop Stop, a neighboring Rio cafe, and their owner, Los Angeles-based Dynamic Real Estate Partners. Cafe Rio says Viva Mexico and Santa Fe salads are Mexican food, which violates Cafe Rio’s lease which does not allow any other restaurant in the shopping plaza that the two share to generate more than 10% of its sales. “Mexican or tex -Mexican food.

A Chop Stop address in La Verne.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Chop Stop disagrees. In a legal briefing obtained by The Times, Dynamic said that Chop Stop wrote in a 2020 letter that it “is simply selling generic chopped salads that cannot be called ‘Mexican’ or ‘Tex-Mex.’ “”

In addition, argued Chop Stop, these two “potentially questionable salads … represent less than 10% of its sales.”

“I don’t know who is here and I need the court’s advice,” said Jeff Adelman, in-house legal counsel for Dynamic in Las Vegas. “Do I know if Santa Fe chop salads are Tex-Mex?” I don’t know, and I don’t know who knows. Our challenge is to keep a harmonious center.

So, last December, Dynamic filed for a declaratory judgment, a court decision in which the plaintiff asks a judge to rule on the issue at hand to help him decide what further legal action is warranted. They “had no other choice”, according to his court record, “but to file the immediate action seeking a declaratory judgment which will resolve the defendant’s dispute and determine the plaintiff’s appropriate course of action.”

In other words, Dynamic wants Nevada Eighth Judicial District Court Judge Mark R. Denton to explore the possibility that maybe Viva Mexico and Santa Fe salad can to be comida mexicana.

“If Chop Stop is right, we’re going to hit a big rent” at Café Rio, Adelman said. The channel has only paid half since last September, citing the dispute. “If Café Rio is right, [Chop Stop] will be in charge of covering our costs and will be in violation of their lease.

A hearing is scheduled for January.

The Chop Stop and Cafe Rio locations in question declined interview requests, citing the pending legal case. But Chop Stop has filed its own lawsuit against Dynamic for failing to side with its side in the Cafe Rio dispute. Further, according to the lawsuit, Adelman told Chop Stop last year that Cafe Rio’s position was “wrong” and that its “overly broad interpretation” of what constitutes Mexican food “would almost certainly be rejected by no. any court “.

Adelman wouldn’t tell me if he thinks that, only allowing, “It doesn’t strike me as just saying the name ‘Chopurrito’ [referring to Chop Stop’s burrito bowls] that somehow it automatically leads to some kind of conclusion. A bowl of garbanzo provolone, I can’t imagine anyone on Earth calling it Tex-Mex food.

But, he added, “What makes us, as owners, an expert in this matter?

Legal disputes over what is and is not Mexican food are nothing new.

In 2006, a Massachusetts judge ruled that a burrito was not a sandwich after a Shrewsbury landlord filed for declaratory relief against two of his tenants, Panera Bread and Qdoba Mexican Eats. But the New York Department of Taxation and Finance ruled in 2019 that burritos can to be considered sandwiches because they are made with “wraps,” which shows how terrible the burrito scene is in New York City.

The Canadian legal system has also spoken out on what is and is not Mexican food. In 2018, an Ontario Superior Court of Justice judge was asked to issue an injunction to prevent a Mexican restaurant chain named Holy Guacamole from opening in a New Hamburg city mall. Another tenant named Pita Pit claimed that Holy Guacamole’s plan to sell burritos, tacos and quesadillas violated their rental agreement which gave them a monopoly on selling sandwiches and pita wraps.

Without deciding whether these Mexican food products were packaging per se, Judge Elizabeth C. Sheard ruled that Pita Pit established a “real risk that it could be bankrupted” if Holy Guacamole was allowed to open, and thus sided with Pita Pit. .

Chop Stop’s lawsuit against its owner in Las Vegas does not cite any of these precedents. His defense, on the contrary, is to wave any possibility that anyone might think the salads in question are Mexican.

He admits that the Viva Mexico salad may look similar to a taco salad, which he classifies as Mexican “or more accurately Tex-Mex”. But, says Chop Stop, “A taco salad has a corn tortilla or flour base that the Viva Mexico [salad] did not ‘, which therefore makes Viva Mexico salad not Mexican food.

As for the Santa Fe salad? “Santa Fe is a city in New Mexico, not Mexico or Texas,” says the Chop Stop lawsuit. “Cafe Rio does not have an exclusivity for Southwestern food or groceries.”

Determining what is and is not a style of food is a decision forged by politics, tradition, emotion and money. In this case, Adelman argues, that comes with a huge liability as well.

“If we take a stand – ‘Chop Stop, you’re screwed, you’re absolutely breaking this lease’ – and we go after them, and we lose? he said, “Great, they don’t sell Mexican food, but now I have to pay their fees, and it was determined that they don’t sell Mexican food.

“Then I go to Café Rio,” he continued, “and now I have to take a separate lawsuit to collect the rent. Then it could be determined otherwise that Chop Stop is in fact selling Mexican food. “

A close up of a salad

Las Vegas-based Chop Stop Chopped Salad “Viva Mexico” is under review in a Nevada courtroom.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Similar cases have included expert testimony from chefs, authors and journalists about what they thought was and was not Mexican food. In the case of Pita Pit, they asked “Sporkful” podcast host Dan Pashman to file an affidavit, in which he said the burritos, tacos and quesadillas were wraps because they were “delivered.” that way because of its use of tortillas – an explanation with about as much validity as the peas in guacamole, but one that prompted the presiding judge to side with Pita Pit.

Chop Stop tries to go both ways.

Viva Mexico and Santa Fe salads are about as Mexican as Rick Bayless, so Cafe Rio’s specific case is weak. But there was a time in history when people didn’t think French rolls, shawarma, Czech pilsners, and tempura were Mexican food until eaters and cooks transformed those traditions. foreigners in bolillos, al pastor, Bohemian beer and fish tacos.

What triggered the change in public opinion? Popularity and time – the most eaters to feel the ingredients, meals, and eating habits are Mexican, and the longer this persists, the more likely they are to enter the Mexican food canon. Think Korean tacos, Mexican-style pizzas sold by the Pizza Patrón and La Pizza Loca chains, and nachos. Or, for that matter, the “Mexican” Coca-Cola.

Even the bowl of Chopurrito burrito that Chop Stop also maintains isn’t Mexican food (their lawsuit says it’s “southwest” – you know, the area that was part of Mexico longer than it was not part of the United States) is now considered Mexican food in many parts of the United States.

That’s the beauty of cooking: it goes beyond tradition and brilliantly assimilates dishes from around the world, the United States being its hottest melting pot.

Chop Stop wants to be part of this wave – again, why would he choose names like Viva Mexico or Santa Fe to represent salads that only superficially evoke the traditions he claims to represent? Nonetheless, I would tell Judge Denton that Cafe Rio’s claims that Viva Mexico and Santa Fe salads are Mexican food are false – because no time will ever make these items popular enough to be considered Mexican.

As for the Chop Stop? Use better ingredients – there is no hagan.

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