Caesar salad has mixed history, but got its start in Tijuana


Just about everyone loves the Caesar salad. There is something about the elegant perfection of a few good ingredients combined in just the right proportions. There is something about the crisp freshness and slight bitterness of the romaine lettuce, the soothing umami of the Parmesan cheese, textural contrast of the big, garlicky crouton and the way the acidity, richness and mysteriously funky flavors of the dressing manage to achieve simplicity and depth at the same time. It all just fits together gracefully.

Not everyone loves what the Caesar salad has become. In the hands of countless chain restaurants and strip mall sandwich shops, cheap chopped lettuce, mayonnaise-based and bottled dressings and the addition of characterless cubes of chicken or shrimp (for a few bucks more) have cheapened the Caesar. They’ve commoditized it.

But while the essence of the true Caesar salad is its simplicity, the salad’s history is anything but simple. There is nearly no aspect of its history that is not the subject of at least some dispute. One of the few things that seem beyond reasonable doubt is that the salad was created at Caesar’s Restaurante Bar at the Caesar Hotel in Tijuana, owned at the time by Caesar Cardini. There’s no serious doubt it gained fame in large part because of the Prohibition-era Hollywood celebrities to whom Cardini served it as they chased booze across the border. But even this is not totally without dispute: By one account, the salad was invented by Giacomo Junia in Chicago at a small restaurant called The New York Cafe. By another account, Cardini partner Paul Magiora tossed the first Caesar salad in 1927.

Most food historians, though, place the salad’s creation at Caesar’s. Cardini’s daughter, Rosa, pinpointed the precise creation date as July 4, 1924, in what seems like a particularly Euclidean bit of public relations legend. Whatever the date, it was late one night with the restaurant low on ingredients when a group of customers — San Diego-based airmen — came in looking for something to eat. Depending on whose account is to be believed, either Cardini himself, Cardini’s brother or the cook at the time, Livio Santini, ran into the back and made them a salad from the ingredients that happened to remain on hand. Santini, in another bit of convenient coincidence, claimed the recipe he used was his mother’s.

That question — who, not where — is the real mystery of the salad’s creation. But as famed Baja chef Javier Plascencia, whose family’s company now owns Caesar’s, says, “problem is, everyone who was involved in the process back then is now dead, so there’s no real way of proving who invented the salad.” All that seems clear is that it all started in that Tijuana restaurant.

The Plascencia family has another connection to the Caesar salad and its origin. Two of the key figures at the restaurant were the cook, Santini, and his friend, Genaro Matteotti, who worked the front of the house. Hearing their voices — more particularly, their Italian — outside the restaurant one day, Cardini invited the two young immigrants in for a meal. Before long, he offered them jobs. It would be Matteotti who, in 1969, would loan Plascencia’s father, Juan José Plascencia (known as Don Tana), the money he needed to open the pizza shop that later became the root stock of the Grupo Plascencia. Don Tana’s own father, José Plascencia, had been a bartender at Caesar’s, and Matteotti had married his sister.

But if Caesar’s played a critical role in giving the Plascencia family their start in the restaurant business, the Plascencia family would return the favor. In 2010 Tijuana was near the darkest depths of a nasty triangle: a raging drug war combined with America’s Great Recession had greatly diminished the gringo traffic that had been the lifeblood of places like Caesar’s. It was Javier’s brother, Juan (Tana) Plascencia, who noticed the hotel’s tenants being evicted and furnishings sitting out on the street. After a brief word with the landlord, he went to Don Tana. As Javier Plascencia puts it, Don Tana “insisted on buying the restaurant only if we would be interested and involved.” His sons agreed; their younger brother now runs administration, Tana and Don Tana oversee operations, and Javier works with the back-of-house staff. Tana returned to the hotel the next day with a check. Caesar’s was saved and, 40 years later, the circle was complete.

2010 was not the only, or even first, time the course of the Caesar salad’s story was buffeted by the economic and political waves of its hometown and home country. In the 1970s, then Mexican President Luis Echeverría Álvarez increased the amount of pesos circulating in the Mexican economy without corresponding increases in the country’s wealth, resulting in a series of devaluations of the peso. This resulted in the price of some of the Caesar salad’s key ingredients escalating because they were imported.

According to the most prevalent story, it was in response to these devaluations that Victor Rubio, a broker on the Mexican Stock Exchange and owner of Victor’s Restaurant in Tijuana, created a variation on the Caesar salad. He, working with his chef, Jose Guadalupe Moreno, and Jose Fimbres (founder of the Calimax grocery store chain) swapped out imported Parmesan cheese in favor of Mexican cotija and imported olive oil for readily available corn oil infused with garlic.

Once again, though, there are disputes, competing claims and competing recipes. According to a recipe Rubio gave to June Crosby for her 1972 book, “San Diego Fare: An Insider’s Guide to San Diego Area Restaurants,” the salad was made at the time with olive oil and lemon juice. But according to Efrain Montoya — a longtime Victor’s waiter who is currently still making a version of the salad at Caesar’s — the recipe included garlic-infused corn oil and red wine vinegar.

One person who can shed some light on these competing recipes is Camilo Magoni, who was winemaker at Valle de Guadalupe winery LA Cetto at the time. Magoni told The San Diego Union-Tribune the original Victor’s salad “used olive oil and red wine vinegar.” He also said LA Cetto “supplied [Victor’s] with both vinegar and oil” though not until 1981.

One key difference between the Victor and the Caesar as we know it is the Victor’s version’s exclusion of anchovies. Interestingly, considering how important anchovies are to our current understanding of the Caesar, they were not an original ingredient in the salad. According to Rosa Cardini in a 1987 interview, her father never used anchovies: “He meant this to be a subtle salad, and anchovies can be overwhelming.” Rather, he used Worcestershire sauce (which includes anchovies). In that sense, the Victor may be even truer to the original than the modern Caesar.

The inclusion of anchovies is not the only significant change in the Caesar salad’s recipe. By nearly all accounts the original Caesar (and the original Victor, too) was made by adding the dressing ingredients one at a time to the romaine leaves in a large wooden bowl, mixing to distribute each ingredient over the lettuce before adding the next. This method ran a serious risk of incompletely distributing the ingredients, resulting in a far-from-uniform dressing. Over time, the restaurants realized a more effective approach would be to mix the dressing in the large bowl before adding the lettuce. According to Plascencia, it was Santini who was responsible for that innovation.

It is far from clear, however, that even this change brings the “original” Caesar salad recipe within easy reach of the average home cook on a Tuesday night. For one thing, how many home cooks happen to have a massive, 2-foot-wide wooden bowl sitting around? And how many home cooks have the knowledge, experience and skill to “whisk” the olive oil, mustard, anchovies, garlic and Parmesan cheese using “a wooden paddle”? While it’s safe to say that anyone using the recipe at Caesar’s has that skill — or is taught it — the same cannot be assumed for the home cook.

But that does not mean a home cook cannot make a truly excellent Caesar salad, even on a Tuesday night. While a food processor interacts differently with ingredients than a wooden paddle, and while that difference can change the final product, the result of a food processor version of a Caesar can be spectacular nonetheless.

More important to that final product is that the ingredients are high quality and that the leaves of romaine are kept whole, not chopped. The Caesar salad — at the restaurant now and the original version — is intended to be eaten by hand, not with fork and knife. Beyond that, chopping the lettuce amounts to an invitation to over-dressing.

The brilliance of the Caesar salad lies in its simplicity. It is the quality, balance and the perfect dimensions of each of those four basic components — romaine, crouton, Parmesan and dressing — that make the difference. And it’s the lack thereof that makes the ubiquitous workaday lunch versions so much less satisfying.

Keep the Caesar salad’s essence — its simplicity — clearly in mind and there’s no reason a perfectly wonderful version can’t be served at home any day of the week.

Coddled eggs double down on safety

Many Caesar salad recipes call for coddled eggs as a precaution against salmonella. While that may have once been a realistic and serious fear (and may yet be in some places and for some people) it is less so since the advent of advanced egg washing technologies in America in the 1970s.

There is nothing wrong with coddling the egg, though. To do so, bring a small pot of water to a boil, gently place the egg in the boiling water and cook for 60 seconds. Remove the egg from the water, cool it under cold water to stop the cooking process and use the egg as if it were raw.

Current Caesar’s Restaurante Recipe for the ‘Original’ Caesar Salad

When Grupo Plascencia bought Caesar’s, it came with the “original” recipe for the salad (as well as old menus, photographs and more). The Plascencias consulted with then-current and former waiters at the restaurant (the waiters are the ones who make the salad tableside) and former owners of the restaurant, learning of multiple recipes and minor variations before settling on a recipe that was true to the original but also practical.

Serves 4

20 romaine lettuce leaves
3 tablespoons minced anchovies
3 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
4 large oven-baked garlic croutons
Fresh ground black pepper

Clean the romaine lettuce leaves and crisp them in a refrigerator for at least one hour. In a wooden bowl combine the anchovies, garlic, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and lime juice and whisk with a wooden paddle until it forms a paste.

Once the ingredients are combined, beat in the egg yolk to give the dressing texture. Continue mixing and add the olive oil slowly in a thread until you have reached the desired volume and texture.

Add whole romaine lettuce leaves to the bowl and gently roll them until they are coated with the dressing. Serve on a platter and top with the Parmesan cheese and croutons. Add freshly ground pepper to taste.

Victor’s Salad

As with the Caesar salad, there are multiple versions of the “original” Victor’s salad recipe: the version from June Crosby’s 1972 book and one from an article in San Diego Red by W. Scott Koenig titled “Gems of Baja: The Victor’s Salad in Tijuana” that was given to Koenig by former Victor’s and current Caesar’s waiter, Efrain Montoya. Two things are clear about them: 1) each has some credible basis for believing it to be authentic, and 2) both cannot be the original. This version of the recipe is neither but includes features from both.

Serves 4

For the croutons
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons corn oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 small French baguette
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Paprika to garnish

For the salad
2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 cup corn oil
2 heads romaine lettuce
Juice of 1 fresh lemon
2 eggs, coddled for one minute
1 teaspoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon A1 Steak Sauce
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 dashes Tabasco sauce, or to taste
1/2 cup grated Cotija cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To make the croutons: Lightly crush the garlic clove slices, add them to the corn oil and infuse overnight. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove garlic slices from oil. Melt butter over low heat, then mix with garlic oil. Slice baguette into thick slices and coat each with garlic butter. Arrange on a cookie sheet or oven-safe tray. Sprinkle each with cheese and paprika. If using croutons to top the salad, bake until crispy. If serving on the side, bake for 3 to 4 minutes.

To make the salad: Lightly crush the two garlic cloves for the salad, add to the corn oil and infuse overnight. Separate, wash and trim the ends off Romaine leaves. Dry the “hearts” of the Romaine with paper towels.

In a large salad bowl or cazuelas (clay pot), combine the lemon juice, eggs, mayonnaise, steak sauce, Worcestershire, Tabasco and most of the cheese, reserving some for garnish, and mix well. Slowly drizzle the oil into the bowl while whisking constantly. This will emulsify the dressing. Toss in the hearts of Romaine, and coat all of them evenly with the dressing.

Arrange a portion of dressed Romaine leaves on a salad plate, sprinkle with remaining cheese and top with a large crouton.

The ‘Original’ Caesar Salad at Home

This recipe is really the Plascencias’ version of the original Caesar salad adapted for the home cook. What’s lost, of course, is the drama of the tableside preparation of the salad. But there is no reason not to prepare the salad’s components ahead of time and toss the salad at the table.

Serves 4

For the croutons
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 small French baguette
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Paprika to garnish

For the salad
20 romaine lettuce leaves
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 clove crushed garlic
6 anchovy filets
2 limes, juiced
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 egg yolks
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Fresh ground black pepper

To make the croutons: Lightly crush the garlic clove slices, add them to the olive oil and infuse overnight. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove garlic slices from oil. Melt butter over low heat, then mix with garlic oil. Slice baguette into thick slices and coat each with garlic butter. Arrange on a cookie sheet or oven-safe tray. Sprinkle each with cheese and paprika. Bake until just crispy, about 8-10 minutes.

To make the salad: Clean lettuce thoroughly and refrigerate until crisp, at least 1 hour or more.

In a food processor fitted with the “S” blade combine the Worcestershire sauce, mustard, garlic, anchovies, lime juice and half the grated Parmesan and process to the point it forms a paste. Once cooled, add the egg yolks and process to blend thoroughly. Then, with the food processor still running, add the olive oil slowly, in a thin stream until the dressing is emulsified.

Add half the dressing to a salad bowl and then add whole romaine lettuce leaves, gently rolling them until they are coated with the dressing. If more dressing is needed, add some and continue rolling the leaves gently. Serve equal portions on each of four plates and top with the remaining Parmesan cheese and one large crouton per plate. Add freshly ground pepper to taste.

Gardiner is a food writer with his first cookbook due out in 2020. He lives in La Mesa.