The wood-paneled cart arrives at the table with an air of ceremony, pushed by a server, usually a gentleman in a white shirt, black vest and tie. On it sit all the elements required to prepare a beloved salad that was invented right here, according to the lore, at the restaurant inside the Hotel Caesar in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.
Here, the servers prepare the salad tableside, as you gawk through your phone with one hand and maybe balance a dirty martini or glass of red wine in the other.
Only in recent decades has the Caesar salad’s borderland origins entered the public consciousness. It’s often a throttling moment for people when they first hear the story of current consensus, as the Caesar is so fiercely stereotyped as a California lifestyle “thing” that’s now ubiquitous on U.S. menus.
Curious to see how the original Caesar holds up at its ancestral homeland — the tourist-themed, thumping Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana — I recently visited for an early dinner to find out. Tijuana is the city of my heritage: Both my parents are from here, and my grandparents emigrated from other regions of Baja and northern Mexico to help populate the ranchería that was barely even a stop on the road when it was founded about 150 years ago.
This year, as it happens, is the centennial of the “ensalada Caesar” at the Hotel Caesar.
It was around 1924 that Italian transborder emigré Caesar Cardini is said to have first concocted the unmistakable dressing that has since adorned millions of servings of romaine lettuce, according to the restaurant’s contemporary chef and proprietor, Javier Plascencia. The hotel and its restaurant fell into neglect over the decades and changed ownership multiple times. In 2010, then-rising Tijuana star Plascencia took control of the restaurant and reignited the tableside preparation ritual for the Caesar salad, rekindling a local love for it.
"We sell about 2,500 salads a month," Plascencia said. "All tableside."
Most of the people inside the restaurant on this evening seemed to be middle-class Tijuanenses, out casually but with a subtle air of refinement. The restaurant sits on the hotel's ground floor, just past a velvet-roped entranceway manned by a maitre d’ in a crisp suit. The walls are halfway fixed with a dark polished wood, below dozens of vintage photographs and reproductions.
“Your grandfather was here all the time,” said my mother, a bit nonchalantly. This was news to me, and I pictured for a moment the man they called El Tiburón in Tijuana's cantinas, ducking inside here for a drink decades ago.
Upon ordering cocktails, my mother and I immediately said we’d be doing the Caesar, tableside. (A “single” serving of the salad is available, kitchen-prepared, but why prohibit yourself from the fun?)
The service starts with a large wooden bowl and two wooden mixing pallets. Wood seems absolutely crucial to be successful in making a proper Caesar salad, though the reason for this isn't entirely clear.
First, a rich anchovy paste is scooped in. This is followed by large dabs of Dijon mustard, minced garlic, a squeeze of lime juice, crushed black pepper and shaved Parmesan cheese. The mixture begins taking shape as the server elegantly adds an egg yolk. He holds the egg between two spoons and gives it a surgical crack to let out the white with another spoon. Here he stirs.
As stirring continues, the server dashes in Worcestershire sauce (customarily called “salsa inglesa” or “English sauce” in Mexico) and, as he intensifies the mixing with one hand, he’ll perform an extended pour of olive oil, drawing the bottle up and down in the air in multiple rounds.
The egg yolk quickly helps emulsify the dressing mixture. If you’re sitting close enough to the cart, your nose will begin to capture those notes of tang and umami that make the Caesar salad so irresistible to so many. After a few seconds of vigorous mixing, the dressing is done. All that is left to do is bring out the romaine lettuce.
The server places four or five stalks of the crunchy greens in the wooden bowl and begins to coat it in the dressing with the pallets. Once finished, the lettuce is placed leaf by leaf in a mound on a long plate. Finally, the salad is topped with two large croutons — yes, crouton action is minimal here at the Hotel Caesar — and a sprinkling of more shaved Parmesan.
At first bite, the connection is clear. Every Caesar salad you’ve ever had, whether it’s been at the celebrity-studded Ivy or in a Little Caesars pizza-chain delivery deal, can trace its roots to this bite.
In a few minutes, it’s all gone.
Plascencia tells me the restaurant plans a festival to honor the Caesar salad's centennial around July 4. 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, maybe it's worth considering going for some vintage Gilded Age vibes south of the border. You could reach back to the flavors of a time when Prohibition was in effect and everyone wanted to be in Tijuana to drink, gamble, see the races and maybe have an ensalada Caesar along the way.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.