July 24, 2018

Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of the Caesar Salad, Upon Tijuana's 129th Birthday

I'd seen it. In fact, I'd even passed by it in a van or a bus (or maybe both) while on a tour of Tijuana with some group or another.

But I'd never gotten around to visiting the Hotel Caesar, one of the landmarks of TJ and a popular tourist stop.

But not necessarily for the hotel itself -- though it once was a nice place to stay, at least when it opened round about 1930.

Tijuana had become a popular tourist destination, as Prohibition drove drinkers and gamblers across the border to indulge in their respective vices (at least until the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933).

Maybe now, not so much.

But I didn't have the chance to find out on this trip to Tijuana with Turista Libre, because we made a beeline straight to its ground-floor restaurant (no, not the Carl's Jr.)...

...the home of the legendary Caesar salad (founded in 1927 in a different spot but moved to the hotel after it opened).

I'd always thought that Caesar salad was Italian, or at least Roman, and named after Julius Caesar.

But that's not exactly true.

As the historic photographs on the wall tell the story, then-chef and owner of Caesar's restaurant Cesare (or Caesar) Cardini, an Italian immigrant to Mexico, had to feed a group of people one night with whatever he could throw together in the kitchen.

He remembered a salad that his grandmother used to make back home, featuring some simple ingredients that thentofore hadn't been commonly found together in one dish.

The result was a hit among that initial dinner party, and attendees would return to Caesar's Restaurant asking for the salad again.

As word spread, the Caesar salad became the most popular dish at Caesar's -- and so the recipe spread, too, winding up in some iteration or another throughout the world.

It seemed appropriate to make Caesar's our first stop on a daylong celebration of Tijuana's 129th birthday earlier this month, so we could watch its staff make the dressing and assemble the salad...

...while we quaffed margaritas and cervezas.

Getting a Caesar salad at its birthplace is really signing up for dinner-and-a-show (or, in our case, lunch and a show). The tableside prep carts carry all the ingredients needed -- though, for our group of 20, the waiters needed to get a bigger bowl.

Making the dressing turns out to be so easy that a child could do it -- at least, at first, when dijon mustard and chopped garlic are added to anchovy paste (a later addition to the recipe, though now considered essential to the Caesar salad flavor).

It takes an expert hand to crack the end of a raw egg held by two spoons and let the whites separate out so only the yolks go into the dressing.

A few cranks of cracked pepper and more than a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce (which also has an anchovy flavor) later...

...along with the squeeze of a handful of limes, a steady stream of olive oil (no mayo!), heaping spoonfuls of parmigiano, and a strong arm for interminable stirring...

...and plated before us were a few leaves of Romaine (or "Roman") lettuce, topped with toasted baguette croutons.

You can imagine that the lettuce might've made the dishes look like more food than they actually were and that in a food shortage, some stale bread would do the trick when you add a little butter and cheese to it.

We were given utensils, so we didn't know that the Caesar salad was originally intended as "finger food" and that we could have (and perhaps should have) picked up each individual Romaine blade with our hands. I'm sure we thought we were being proper by using our knives and forks.

Silverware certainly helps mop up the extra dressing on the plate -- something you don't really want to leave behind.

I thought my visit to Caesar's would solve the mystery behind my favorite salad, but now, I've only got more questions. For example, there are some historical contradictions as to whether Cardini actually invented the salad or if he just slapped his name on someone else's creation and marketed the living daylights out of it.

I guess either way, he can be credited for creating the salad's infamy (if not its delicious flavor).

Related Posts:
A Warm Welcome Back to Mexico (Bienvenida a México)
Photo Essay: A Culinary Tour of Tijuana
Photo Essay: Baja for Foodies

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