It’s easy to see why Caesar salad has such appeal to the American palate.
The crunchy romaine lettuce is bathed in a tangy, salty dressing that hides the secret ingredient anchovies -that make it so appealing. But few who consume this staple of any salad menu know that its roots lie south of the border in the city of Tijuana, Mexico.
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This icon of many a U.S. menu was invented to please the palates of Americans venturing south of the border in search of booze, casinos, and adventure in the 1920s during the era of prohibition.
Yes, the Caesar salad is said to be a creation of Caesar Cardini, an Italian restaurateur from southern California, who moved his business to Tijuana to provide a place where he could serve alcohol to his regular customers from San Diego.
While Cardini is credited with this tasty invention, many locals, including the waiters who prepare this dish today, attribute the recipe to one of the employees, another Italian immigrant, Silvio Nardini. Legend has it that Nardini adopted a dish prepared in the fields in Italy that used lettuce, parmesan cheese, and oil, something that was inexpensive and whose ingredients were available even to the poorest families.
Tijuana was a favorite retreat in the heyday of Hollywood movie idols who sought libation and the thrill of the racetrack in this once sleepy border town.
Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and comedians Laurel and Hardy were regulars. Notorious gangster Al Capone was a patron, since the restaurant was close to a casino that he often frequented on visits south of the border. Even the icon of Americas culinary renaissance, Julia Child, recalled in her memoir eating at Caesars as a child when her parents visited the restaurant in 1925.
Over the years the restaurant fell into the hands of different owners who actually abandoned the elaborate process of preparing the famous salad in the requisite wooden bowls. One commentator said that Caesar’s had even resorted to using bottled dressing to make the famous salad. While it still had a tourist following, it was nothing like the original salad that had lured so many to its doors.
Today Caesar’s still offers the taste of a bygone era in the original location in the heart of Tijuana.
The oak bar and wooden panels and black and white tiled floor provide just the touch of nostalgia to let a diner sense the spirits of past patrons. Its current owners, the Plascencia family, have been responsible for a culinary renaissance in Tijuana, with both father and son helping to revive the city as a gastronomic destination. Patriarch Juan Jose Plascencia has built up several restaurants that are popular with the locals, and son Javier is one of the leading trend-setting chefs in Baja California.
His Tijuana eatery, Mision 19, has won international recognition for cutting-edge cuisine.
I always wanted to eat at Caesar’s so on a recent trip to Tijuana I ventured down the Avenida de la Revolucion, the main drag, in search of this institution. It was not hard to find.
With the eponymous salad prepared the old fashioned way by a black-tied waiter, todays menu also includes such old time Mexican favorites such as tuetano (cooked bone marrow) that is served in the bone on top of a perfect masa sope (a small disk of tortilla dough.) Other delights such as Spanish piquillo pepper stuffed with fresh crab meat salad, and floating on a sea of green watercress pure.
As I watched Mexican families fill the old dining room on a Sunday afternoon it was clear that Caesars had made a comeback. I could even imagine myself a Californian in the 1920s coming to this exotic city south of the border to pass an afternoon indulging in a great salad, some wine and beer, and thinking back to a time when we did not worry about borders as barriers but as bridges to other exotic cultures and communities.
The Original Caesars Salad
- 1 head romaine lettuce
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ T ground mustard
- 1 clove crushed garlic
- 1 coddled egg
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Fresh ground pepper
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 4 sliced baguette over backed garlic croutons
- 6 anchovy fillets
Clean lettuce thoroughly and refrigerate until crisp, at least 1 hour or more.
In a wooden bowl combine olive oil, mustard, anchovies, garlic and part of the grated parmesan with a wooden spoon until it forms a paste.
Once cooled, crack the egg, separate out the white, and use only the yolk to add to the dressing. Whisk the yolk into the mixture until thoroughly blended.
Add whole romaine leaves and gently roll them into the dressing.
Serve on a platter and add the rest of the grated cheese, the croutons, fresh ground pepper and salt to taste.
Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Scholar-in-Residence at American University School of International Service, Washington, D.C. and writes on conflict cuisines.