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32 Catt. 1: In re Kohinoor Dhaba

2014 June 18

Opinion of JUSTICE CATTLEYA, in chambers.

Kohinoor Dhaba began (and still is) a brick and mortar restaurant in the Crystal City neighborhood of Virginia. During my penny-pinching days right after law school, I was a regular for the nondescript restaurant’s less-than-$10 buffet. Kohinoor Dhaba was the kind of dive that I missed most after leaving New York City and moving to Virginia. More than a time or two, I found myself seated on Kohinoor Dhaba’s worn banquet chair, a plastic knife and fork at the ready, looming over Styrofoam plates full of chicken tandoori, chick peas, and naan.

Kohinoor Dhaba

Kohinoor Dhaba

When I first saw a bright orange food truck called Kohinoor Dhaba, I didn’t immediately connect it to the Crystal City restaurant. But as soon as I made the connection, nostalgia drove me to the truck’s ordering window.

India is famous (or infamous, if you ask the wrong person) for its street food. Without fail my mouth waters at the thought of handheld bites like pani puri, a delicate, golf-ball-sized fried shell filled with chick peas, onions, and flavored water. The menu for the Kohinoor Dhaba food truck, unfortunately, lacked the best offerings of Indian street vendors and very much resembled its brick and mortar menu.

With the choice of restaurant food from the truck, I opted for the $10 lamb biryani – lamb “sautéed in herbs & mild spices with fragrant rice.” The biryani came with a salad of greens and a tomato slice, plus two containers of yogurt sauce.

Lamb Biryani

Lamb Biryani

The biryani was flavorful. The lamb was tender, and the long grain rice was fluffy and well spiced. When the dish reached the peak of a slow-building heat, the yogurt cut it and offered some coolness, as well as freshness with its specks of mint and cilantro.

There was nothing wrong with Kohinoor Dhaba’s lamb biryani. It was tasty and filling. Would I order it from the restaurant? Yes. Would I order it again from the truck?

That’s a very different question. No. While the biryani was perfectly fine, it was not exciting enough (or, frankly, cheap enough) to inspire a return visit to the truck.

A huge serving of rice is just not my idea of street food. This court has defined street food as “the kind[] . . . that can be cooked in front of you and [is] meant to be eaten with your hands, without forks, while standing up.” In re Eat Wonky, 2 Catt. 5 (2011). Biryani does not meet this definition. For one, the dish can only be reheated, not cooked, in front of you. Biryani is a time-intensive dish. Another Arlington restaurant needs advance notice from the customer and four hours to prepare it.

But this court’s street food determination does not end there. In In re Hot People Food, 6 Catt. 4 (2012), we added another layer. We explained that our definition was intended to be a “multifactor test to guide and direct our analysis.” An additional factor not mentioned in the original definition was whether the dish was traditionally considered to be street food. Guided by this factor, biryani might qualify as street food by this court.

Our street food analysis continued further. As explained in In re Big Cheese, 6 Catt. 2 (2012), the “street food” question was a threshold matter to determine the burden of proof in a case before the Supreme Cart. A presumption of affirmance arose for true street food. On the other hand, if a dish did not qualify as street food, no presumption arose, and the dish was required to prove its own merits. Kohinoor Dhaba’s biryani, a solid execution that suffered from no major flaws, would pass this test whether or not it was found to be street food.

Is this the correct result when the Justice admits that she would not return to Kohinoor Dhaba’s truck for a second helping of lamb biryani? Of course not. It cannot be. A test that leads to such results must be flawed and unusable. It has become clear that our burden of proof framework for street food has no place.

Kohinoor Dhaba’s lamb biryani is better suited for its sit-down restaurant, not its food truck. I am sad to say that the food truck scene has become an uninspired mobile food court that has very little to do with street food and more to do with quick-service restaurant food. What else can be concluded when TGI Fridays and Starbucks have entered the food truck business? Food trucks that offer brick and mortar menus (and yes, at restaurant prices) have failed the promise of street food.

I will not attempt to describe the type of food truck or type of menu that would reach the heights of street food’s full potential, but I will know it when I see it. Cf. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964) (Stewart, J., concurring). Kohinoor Dhaba’s lamb biryani isn’t it.

AFFIRMED in part and REMANDED in part to Kohinoor Dhaba for revision. It is so ordered.

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