Munchies

I Ate Through Caesar Salad's Shady History to Get to the Truth

Tijuana's violent history has trumped our emerging food and wine scene, but one of our most famous legacies, the Caesar salad, posses it's own sketchy history. I headed to one of the best institutions in town for lunch to investigate it's shady story.

by Tony Ley
06 September 2016, 9:00am

Tijuana is a thick-skinned city.

It's carried the stigma of being a place of excess and illegal activities for years; an unfortunate reputation that eclipses the emerging food, wine, and beer scene.

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Inside Caesar's Restaurant in Tijuana, México. All photos by Fabiola Solano.

Sure, most of the cool things that are going on right now are often trumped by really gnarly events, but for locals, it's something that we need to accept. Legendary rock n' roller Javier Bátiz is from here, Luis Donaldo Colosio was murdered here, and the most famous drug dealers of their time, the Arellano Felix brothers, are from here, too. Well done, Tijuana. But it wasn't always this bad, because one of the most famous inventions from this glorious city is the Caesar salad.

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First, let's return to the US Prohibition era, when those pious views transformed Tijuana into a prosperous city that allowed Californians to misbehave: gamble, drink, and get laid. Its casinos, bars, and brothels became world-famous, thanks, in part, to the Hollywood stars who frequented them. It was a fancy vibe, but in a degenerate way. It was our city's golden era.

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IMG_9568 Don Armando, the restaurant legend.

And if there is anyone living today that knows how to tell this story well, it's Don Armando, a man that has spent the last three decades of his life in the Tijuana restaurant business. Nowadays, you can find him at Caesar's—part of chef Javier Plascencia's empire—where he has earned the respect of his customers.

As I sit down at Caesar's to watch Don Armando help prepare the famous salad, he tells me that on July 4, 1924, American pilots celebrated Independence Day by getting wasted on the restaurant property of Caesar Cardini, an Italian-American restaurateur, chef, and hotel owner living in California who took advantage of the Prohibition laws by opening a restaurant in Tijuana. The legend claims that on that day, the restaurant reached its full capacity because of the holiday, so Cardini used an old salad recipe that his mother prepared back in Italy. At Caesar's, the salad is made in a big wooden bowl and the recipe is simple. First, eggs yolks are mixed with anchovies, Dijon mustard, garlic, fresh pepper, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. This mixture is poured over romaine lettuce and served with croutons toasted in garlic and butter.

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But not everyone agrees that Caesar Cardini was the creator. Today, there's at least three different versions of the same story that all include anecdotes about American pilots and some "really old Italian recipe." The first version changes the hero from Caesar to Alex, his brother, while the second claims that the recipe was invented right then and there and was called "The Aviator Salad." The third believes Livio Santini was the culinary genius.

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Just like Cardini, Santini was an Italian immigrant in Mexico, but even when the information gets distorted here and there, it seems like Santini was Cardini's employee, and it was him who came up with the recipe. It is unclear if Cardini took all of the credit since he was the boss. Whatever the case may be, Caesar's chooses to credit both as the inventors of our city's gastronomical pride, a poetic dish that was born from a time when that the notion that Tijuana was a shady place because of America's Prohibition.

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If you have the chance to visit Tijuana, order a Caesar salad and taste the real essence of the city—the one that I always defended to a fault as a kid from the prejudices of gringos and Mexicans alike. But no one needs to defend it, or the salad. Tijuana is badass enough to defend itself.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2016.