The US Might Soon Have A Legal Definition For Mexican Cuisine

People may roll their eyes at the idea that the Nevada Eighth Judicial District Court would take it upon itself to define Mexican cuisine. But, as Gustavo Arellano reports for a column in the Los Angeles Times, the legal question of a food's classification has been thrust upon the court because of a lawsuit.

A Las Vegas-based Cafe Rio has sued its neighbor, Chop Stop. Cafe Rio's lease explicitly states that no other restaurant in their plaza can make more than 10% of its sales from either Mexican or Tex-Mex dishes. And yet, Chop Stop sells two salads that violate this agreement: the Viva Mexico and the Santa Fe. Chop Stop says that these salads don't make up 10% of its sales. More importantly, however, the restaurant argues that it "merely sells generic chopped salads that cannot be characterized as either 'Mexican' or 'Tex-Mex.'"

So, since the defense is that the foods cannot be considered Mexican, the court has to decide whether the foods are indeed not Mexican. This involves establishing a working legal definition of what counts as Mexican food. Arellano's take is that the salads are not at all Mexican. However, they do also accept that Mexican food has changed over the years to include foods like fish tacos. 

Oh, and burritos are sandwiches apparently

This isn't the first time that an American governmental office has decided to weigh in on definitions of Mexican food for money reasons. In 2014, Vox reported that the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance considered burritos as sandwiches for tax purposes. "A broad definition of sandwich means more sales tax, and that means more money to the state," one tax lawyer explained.

However, the issue was also decided in a 2006 Massachusetts court case that came out against the idea that a burrito could possibly be a sandwich. As Fox News reported at the time, the case was between Panera Bread and Qdoba. Panera Bread claimed that since its lease stated no other sandwich shop could open in their mall, Qdoba couldn't franchise there. "A 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," Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke opined.

So, it seems debatable, arguably unlikely, that the Nevada case will result in a country-wide definition of what constitutes Mexican cuisine. That said, it could set yet another precedent for future judges to cite at their pleasure.