This article is from the August 1999 - September 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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The Original Caesar Salad

by Robert B. Simmonds, Ph.D. and Cheryl Weller

One of the joys of living in San Diego is having the ability to grab a little Mexico time without much travel. You just drive down Interstate 5 to the border, a trip which may take all of twenty minutes. You can drive through the border crossing at San Ysidro if you like and find a place to park in Tijuana. The drawback to this option is the return trip – you have to wait in a dreadful line which may last as long as two hours, depending on the time of your re-entry, just to be asked by the U.S. border guard where you were born and whether you have anything to declare (it may be best not to say, “I declare you people are slow”). The easier way is to park on the U.S. side of the border for $6.00 all day and to hoof it across on foot. You still have to answer the same questions when you come back on foot, but the lines are much shorter and the characters in line with you much more colorful. (Just don’t say you’re from Guatemala! The border guards don’t seem to have much of a sense of humor.) 

When you cross into Tijuana you can walk to Avenida Revolución or take a cab for a dollar (or if you’re naive, five dollars) a person. And there you’ll find the old Hotel Caesar. Several years ago the bar and dining room in the hotel occupied a larger space, and then about four years ago it was closed down. During the years of the closing you were told to go down the block to Caesar’s Palace, an ornate glassy dining and dancing hall, if you wanted a caesar salad – but this was a far cry from the original and it wasn’t even made at your table. And then, a couple of years ago, blessedly, the dining room in the old Hotel Caesar was reopened, even though it was vastly shrunk. The old black leather booths from the glory years are still there. And the original caesar salad hasn’t changed at all. This is the best caesar salad you’ll ever have. 

The caesar salad just celebrated its 75th anniversary on the Fourth of July, 1999. (Bear in mind, the Society of Epicures in Paris in 1953 called the caesar salad “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years.”) Caesar Cardini (1896 - 1956) was an Italian immigrant who owned a small hotel in Tijuana. The Hollywood crowd and San Diego socialites would drive to Mexico to party during the Prohibition years, and they often ended up at the Hotel Caesar for dinner before returning home. On the Fourth of July, 1924, people arrived in droves for dinner and sent the kitchen into a panic. There weren’t enough fresh vegetables, other than some salad makings – and Americans in the 1920's were not overly fond of salads. But, thought Sr. Cardini, “if it were made at the table...hmmm....” He created a salad that looked so good that every table of diners ordered one. And over the years the drive to Tijuana for a caesar salad became a tradition (as we know so well). Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and W.C. Fields all came, and the gossip columnists wrote about it in the newspapers. In 1948 the Cardinis moved to Los Angeles to be closer to their patrons, and soon bottles of caesar salad dressing were packaged for people all over the world. The company continues today under the direction of Rosa Cardini, Caesar’s daughter. But the bottled dressing, while good, is hardly the real thing.

On our most recent day trip to Tijuana we went to the Hotel Caesar and ordered guacamole with tortilla chips, margaritas and caesar salads. The salad is made right at your table by the experienced waiter. And it’s luscious enough to bring tears to your eyes. We watched the production carefully. And you can make the same thing right at home.


The Original Caesar Salad

(serves 4 to 6)


separated leaves of 2 large heads of romaine lettuce

2 large cloves of garlic, pressed in a garlic press


one can of anchovies, drained

3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil

3 limes

2 tsp Dijon mustard

2 coddled eggs (i.e., boiled for exactly one minute)

Worcestershire sauce

hot pepper sauce

2 cups of freshly toasted croutons    

½ cup parmesan cheese

peppercorns in a grinder                                     


Separate the romaine lettuce leaves, wash them gently, and reserve 6 to 8 whole unblemished leaves per person for the salad. Pat or shake the leaves dry and refrigerate until it’s time to make the salad. In a large bowl combine the garlic, half the anchovies and salt; press them together with a fork until the anchovies are broken up. Add the olive oil. Whisk in the juice from three limes (the waiter covered the limes with a cloth to catch the seeds). Add the Dijon mustard. Add only the yolks from the two coddled eggs (discard the whites). Throw in a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce and a dash of pepper sauce. Mix the dressing together. Now throw in the romaine lettuce leaves, scooping them in the dressing until they are well covered. Throw in the croutons, sprinkle with the parmesan cheese and grind some pepper on top of the bowl of salad. If you like, you can top each serving with two or three of the remaining anchovies.       

An additional note: This is the observed recipe from the Hotel Caesar circa 1999. Legend has it that the original recipe from the 1920's did not contain anchovies (although Worcestershire sauce has anchovies as one of its ingredients). And you may want to think about adding raw egg yolks to your salad dressing; if you’re concerned about the possibility of salmonella, an egg substitute may work for you. In any case, this is a simple recipe, and a fine way to get a quick taste of one of Mexico’s greatest culinary contributions.