Tijuana, Mexico, is the unlikely birthplace of the Caesar salad. And the search for salad may be about the least-common reason to cross the border from San Diego and stroll down Avenida Revolución, the brash, crowded thoroughfare that isn't just tacky, but rundown, and, in daylight, quite simply ugly.
Caesar's Sports Bar & Grill Family Restaurant is a dim, narrow place to the side of the aging Hotel Caesar. Six half-moon booths run along a mirrored wall and face a long wooden bar, above which hovers a bank of TV screens airing Latin music videos. It was here, back in 1924, that Alex Cardini first prepared the famed dish.
On a recent Saturday, a version of that original recipe was prepared for me from a table-side cart. The ingredients were laid out like surgical instruments. The waiter's technique was meticulous, his precision mesmerizing. He had clearly done it many times before.
He started by placing anchovies, lemon juice, and diced garlic into an oversized wooden bowl and mashing them with a fork into a smooth paste. Oil and red-wine vinegar were mixed in next.
I immediately began asking him about the salad's invention. When was it? What were the original ingredients? Did it include anchovies? What was the occasion? I had heard wildly different answers to all of these.
Shaking out a coddled egg into a bowl, he looked up, exasperated with my queries, and referred me to the manager.
Meanwhile, he added a dab of mustard no bigger than a pearl, a healthy amount of Worcestershire sauce, and grated Parmesan cheese, and then mixed them thoroughly before ladling freshly baked croutons into the bowl.
Last he added whole leaves of trimmed romaine lettuce, patiently turning them over and over in the mixture, and then carefully laid them on the plate, overlapping the leaves.
The salad was good, the diverse flavors smoothed into an even, potent dressing.
Once I finished eating, the manager and guardian of the historic flame, Jorge Chávez, sat down with me and patiently explained in Spanish the straight story of the salad and the history of its creation.
Alex Cardini was an Italian Air Force pilot living in exile in Tijuana. He ran a small restaurant next to an equally small hostel. One day he was visited by some Italian Air Force friends who wanted something to snack on. "In those days, provisions were hard to get," Mr. Chávez told me. "Mexico City was a long ways away."
So Mr. Cardini tossed together a salad with what he had? Well, not quite. In Cardini's kitchen worked an old aunt of his. "Really, she is the one who invented it!" Chávez says, laughing.
Perhaps the most common misconception about salad's lore is the role of anchovies. "In those days, Cardini smoothed the anchovies into a paste and spread it on the croutons," Chávez said. Cardini's grandson confirmed this to him in 1998.
The salad became popular, and in the early days, it didn't have a name. People simply said, "I'll have that salad." It was eventually named after the hotel.
Those were Tijuana's glory years. Many crossed the border to gamble and drink, illegal activities in California. They sat at the world's longest bar, 550 feet long and open 24 hours a day, and bet on horses at the Hipodromo de Agua Caliente.
The hotel was remodeled. The original 16 rooms then became the luxurious Hotel Caesar.
Chávez is wistful for those days. "Había otra clase social," he says: "There was another social class." Another type of person visited, "muy elegante." He thought for a moment. "Al Capone came. Greta Garbo. Clark Gable."
But the grandeur faded, and in the post-World War II years, with the large naval presence in San Diego, Tijuana gained its raucous reputation. Twelve years ago the restaurant closed, and then was reopened in 1995 with a cumbersome, all-inclusive name under Chávez's direction.
He dreams of restoring the restaurant to its deserved glory. There was much publicity in 1998, when he led a group of chefs preparing a Caesar salad for 3,000 people (and for 5,000 in 1999), entering the "Guinness World Records" book.
But business realities and Tijuana clientele militate against Chávez's hopes.
The restaurant is open 24 hours a day. The once-grand dining room in the back is now a cheesy nightclub. And though the Caesar salad can be ordered any time day or night (for $6 regular, or $8 with grilled chicken), there are only a handful of tables for diners.
"There are photos; you must see them," Chávez says, disappearing into the back room and returning with two dusty, large framed images.
The first shows Tijuana in 1915 looking very rural, with only a handful of houses and buildings spread out on dirt lots. He points to one that became the Hotel Caesar.
The second photograph is of the famous Long Bar.
"These photos are important. This is our history." Looking at the TV sets and mirrors that cover the walls, he adds: "But there is no place to hang them now."
One photo does hang, though, outside on the terrace. The picture was taken during the first world-record feast. Chávez is the head chef, proud in his tall white hat. Above the photo a brass plaque commemorates the invention of the salad. It reads: October 24, 1924.
But few passing along Avenida Revolución notice these markers. The painted donkeys, the sterile glow of pharmacies, and the noise of neighboring bars seem too distracting.
Chávez hands me a business card as I leave. On the back is printed the "original recipe." But neither mustard nor anchovies are on it.
I ask him about these omissions. "Perhaps in the very beginning he didn't use..." he says, smiling.
Or perhaps those two ingredients were a professional secret and were omitted on purpose.
When making this salad, keep in mind the following: If you skip the anchovies, add salt. If you use fewer eggs, add more oil. The egg ratio goes like this: one person, one egg; two people, two eggs; three people, two eggs; four people, three eggs; five people, four eggs.
8 fillets of anchovies
2 small lemons
1 to 2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
3 eggs, coddled for 1 minute
4 pearl-size dabs of mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
5 to 6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup croutons
3 medium heads of romaine lettuce, chilled, dry, crisp, edges trimmed
Freshly ground pepper to taste
In large wooden bowl, place anchovies, juice from the 2 lemons, and garlic. Mash with a fork to a smooth paste. Alternatively, mix these ingredients in a food processor or blender.
Add oil, vinegar, eggs, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and cheese. Mix well with fork.
Add croutons and romaine lettuce leaves to dressing. Toss. Transfer salad onto plates. Serve with freshly ground pepper to taste.