Try the original Caesar salad in Tijuana, Mexico

The wood-paneled cart arrives ceremoniously at the table, pushed by a waiter, usually a gentleman in a white shirt, black waistcoat and tie. It contains all the necessary ingredients to prepare a popular salad that, according to tradition, was invented right here in the restaurant at the Hotel Caesar in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.

Here, the waiters prepare the salad at the table while you stare through your phone with one hand and perhaps balance a dirty martini or glass of red wine in the other.

It is only in the last few decades that the cross-border origins of Caesar salad have come into public awareness. It’s often a crushing moment for people when they first hear the story of the current consensus, since Caesar is so heavily stereotyped as a California lifestyle “thing” that’s now ubiquitous on U.S. menus.

I was curious to see how the original Caesar fared in his ancestral home – the tourist-filled, bustling Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana. I recently went there for an early dinner to find out. Tijuana is the city of my true heritage: my parents are both from here, and my grandparents emigrated from other regions of Baja and northern Mexico to help settle it Rancheria When it was founded about 150 years ago, this was barely a stop on the road.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the “Ensalada Caesar” at the Hotel Caesar.

According to Javier Plascencia, the restaurant’s contemporary chef and owner, it was around 1924 when Italian border emigrant Caesar Cardini first created the distinctive dressing that has graced millions of servings of romaine lettuce ever since. The hotel and its restaurant fell into oblivion over the decades and changed hands several times. In 2010, then-rising Tijuana star Plascencia took control of the restaurant and rekindled the ritual of making Caesar salad tableside, rekindling the local love for it.

“We sell about 2,500 salads a month,” Plascencia said. “Everything at the table.”

Guests at the Hotel Caesar restaurant in Tijuana have fallen in love with the tableside preparation of Caesar salad, created by Caesar Cardini in 1924.

(Stephanie Breijo/Los Angeles Times)

Most of the people in the restaurant that evening appeared to be middle-class Tijuans, casual in their demeanor but with a subtle touch of gentility. The restaurant is located on the hotel’s ground floor, just beyond a velvet-ribboned entrance manned by a maître d’ in an elegant suite. Half of the walls are lined with dark, polished wood, including dozens of vintage photographs and reproductions.

“Your grandfather was here the whole time,” my mother said somewhat nonchalantly. This was news to me, and for a moment I imagined the man they called “El Tiburón” in Tijuana’s cantinas, hiding out here for a drink decades ago.

When we ordered cocktails, my mother and I immediately said that we would prepare the Caesar at the table. (A “single” serving of salad is available prepared in the kitchen, but why deny yourself the fun?)

The service begins with a large wooden bowl and two wooden mixing palettes. Wood seems to be crucial to making a proper Caesar salad, although the reason for this isn’t entirely clear.

First, a rich anchor paste is scooped in. This is followed by large dabs of Dijon mustard, minced garlic, a squeeze of lime juice, cracked black pepper and shaved Parmesan cheese. The mixture takes shape as the waiter elegantly adds an egg yolk. He holds the egg between two spoons and cracks it surgically to release the white with another spoon. Here he stirs.

As the stirring continues, the waiter splashes in Worcestershire sauce (commonly called “salsa inglesa” or “English sauce” in Mexico) and, while intensifying the mixing with one hand, he pours in some olive oil from the bottle in several rounds the air up and down.

The egg yolk quickly helps emulsify the dressing mixture. If you sit close enough to the cart, your nose begins to pick up on the spicy and umami notes that make Caesar salad so irresistible to many. After a few seconds of vigorous mixing, the dressing is ready. Now all you have to do is get out the romaine lettuce.

The waiter places four or five stalks of the crispy greens into the wooden bowl and begins to coat them with the dressing using the pallets. Once the salad is ready, it is placed piece by piece on a long plate in the form of a mound. Finally, the salad is topped with two large croutons – yes, the crouton effect is minimal here at Hotel Caesar – and a pinch of shaved Parmesan.

At first glance the connection is clear. Every Caesar salad you’ve ever eaten, whether at celebrity restaurant Ivy or at a delivery service from the Little Caesars pizza chain, can trace its roots to this bite.

In a few minutes everything will be gone.

Plascencia tells me that the restaurant is planning a celebration around July 4th to honor the centennial of the Caesar salad. The event is expected to feature a commemorative wine, a new book with archival images and recipes and invited chefs, he said.

If you’re looking for an alternative Fourth of July getaway this year, it might be worth considering experiencing some vintage Gilded Age flair south of the border. One could harken back to the flavors of a time when Prohibition was in effect and everyone wanted to be in Tijuana to drink, gamble, watch the races, and perhaps enjoy an Ensalada Caesar along the way.

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