All Hail Caesar: The Salad that Conquered the Americas

By on January 10, 2018

from The Wall Street Journal

the secret of this salad’s success is its adaptability

A CLASSIC never goes out of style. Still, an old favorite can storm back onto menus in unexpected ways, as the Caesar salad has of late.

What makes a Caesar a Caesar? Chef Javier Plascencia tells all. His family owns 13 restaurants in Mexico, including the one in Tijuana where the Caesar was born.

Many are surprised to learn the salad is Mexican in origin. “Even when Mexican people find out, they always thought it was Italian,” said Mr. Plascencia. In fact, the inventor was an Italian American from California named Caesar Cardini, who opened his restaurant Caesar’s in Tijuana in the 1920s, when many Americans crossed the border to dine and drink beyond the reach of Prohibition. Mr. Cardini’s dressing, still the standard, contains anchovy paste, fresh lemon or lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, minced garlic, mustard, a coddled egg yolk and Parmesan, blended with oil to form a thick, glossy emulsion. Spears of romaine tossed with this dressing get a further sprinkling of grated Parmesan and a topping of garlicky croutons. The salad was designed to be eaten, like fries, with your hands.

The Plascencia family rescued Caesar’s restaurant from the brink in 2010. “When we took over, it had been shut down for a month. All the furniture was in the street and on the sidewalk,” said Mr. Plascencia, whose godfather was a bartender at the original Caesar’s. They restored the space to its original glory along with its tableside Caesar salad preparation. Bow-tied waiters called ensaladeros make about 3,000 of the salads a month.

The ensaladeros mix the dressing in wooden bowls, which get seasoned with the Caesar flavors over time. It’s also important to squeeze the citrus juice over the egg yolk to lightly “cook” it with acid, and to use a neutral oil such as canola or to blend a milder oil with olive oil so its flavor doesn’t overwhelm the dressing. “When you have a really good pasta dish in Italy, it tastes different,” said Mr. Plascencia. “When you are having a Caesar salad in Tijuana, it just tastes different.”

All of which attests to the enduring appeal of the crunchy, garlicky, savory salad. “When I have my last meal,” said Mr. Plascencia, “I will probably ask for a Caesar salad on the side.”

Original Caesar Salad
makes 4 servings

For the croutons:

½ baguette, cut into 1½-inch slices
1 garlic clove, halved
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the salad:

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
8 anchovy fillets in olive oil, drained and finely chopped
1 large egg yolk
Juice of 1 Mexican lime
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¾ cup olive oil
1 head chilled romaine lettuce, leaves separated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Make croutons: Rub bread with garlic. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add bread in a single layer and toast until crisp and golden, 2 minutes per side. Remove from heat and sprinkle with salt and Parmesan.

2. Make dressing: In a large wooden bowl, use a wooden spoon to mix garlic with anchovies, pressing ingredients with back of spoon to form a paste. Add egg yolk, squeeze lime over yolk and stir to blend. Add Worcestershire, mustard, pepper and half the grated cheese, and mix to form a loose paste. Add olive oil in a slow, steady stream, vigorously stirring, until dressing is thick and glossy, 2 minutes.

3. Make salad: Gently roll whole lettuce leaves in bowl with dressing until coated. Transfer to a platter and top with remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano and croutons. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

—Adapted from Caesar’s, Tijuana, Mexico

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About Linda Eckhardt

Linda West Eckhardt, is an award winning journalist, food writer, and nutritionist. Her more than 20 cookbooks have garnered prizes including the James Beard prize for the best cookbook for a text she wrote with her daughter, Katherine West DeFoyd, entitled Entertaining 101, Doubleday. Their follow-up book, Stylish One Dish Dinners, Doubleday, was also nominated for a James Beard prize. Their next book, The High Protein Cookbook, Clarkson Potter, remains a best seller after 12 years. That book was designed to accompany low carb diet plans. Her ground-breaking book, Bread in Half The Time, Broadway Books, was named the Best Cookbook in America by the prestigious IACP, The Julia Child award. Her award winning radio work with Jennifer English, for a national show on the Food and Wine radio network, was nominated for a James Beard Prize for a show called, “I Know What You Ate Last Summer.”