The Century-Long Saga of the Caesar Salad

In the dimly lit dining room of Caesar’s, just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, Efraín Montoya stood beside a table draped in white cloth, tossing whole romaine lettuce leaves in an intensely pungent, creamy dressing, before topping them with garlicky, golden croutons. Above the checkered floors of the dining room hung a large portrait of the man for whom the salad — and the restaurant — are named: Césare Cardini.

Over his 14-year tenure, Mr. Montoya, an ensaladero, has made tens of thousands of the Caesar salads served at the restaurant, hailed by many as the dish’s birthplace.

The winding legacy of the Caesar salad is inextricable from Tijuana, which plans to commemorate the dish’s 100th birthday on July 4 with a four-day festival. “If you come to Tijuana and don’t visit Caesar’s,” Mr. Montoya says, “it’s as if you didn’t come to Tijuana at all.”

The celebration kicks off on Avenida Revolución on Thursday, complete with a gala and a cocktail party featuring chefs like José Andrés and Dominique Crenn, and the unveiling of a new sculpture of Mr. Cardini. Grupo Plascencia, the company that now operates Caesar’s, hopes that the festival can restore some glory to a city long derided as dangerous.

“The Caesar salad is our heritage,” said Javier Plascencia, a chef whose family of restaurateurs took over Caesar’s in 2010.

Diners have long flocked to the restaurant for a taste of the original Caesar salad. But the version on the menu today — which has garlic, anchovies, Dijon mustard, Parmigiano-Reggiano, lime juice, olive oil, salt, freshly cracked black pepper and a coddled egg yolk in the dressing — is but a distant cousin of the one served 100 years ago. And like many cuisine cornerstones, aspects of the original recipe — including Mr. Cardini’s role in its creation — continue to be disputed.

Armando Avakian Gámez, whose family owns the building that has housed Caesar’s since 1945, hired a local historian, Fernando Escobedo de la Torre, to untangle the origins and evolution of the salad. The two have contributed their findings to a new coffee table book, “Caesar: La Ensalada Más Famosa” (Larousse, 2024), whose release coincides with the festival. Many in Tijuana hope the book will “once and for all end all controversies,” Mr. Plascencia said.

According to Mr. Escobedo, Mr. Cardini, an Italian immigrant to the United States, arrived in Tijuana in 1920. As prohibition sent wealthy Americans streaming into Mexico to drink, feast, smoke and take in horse races and boxing matches, Italian hospitality professionals, including Mr. Cardini, followed suit to cater to them.

Within a few years, Mr. Cardini was creating a spectacle of his own as he rolled out imported ingredients and an immense wooden bowl in front of glamorous diners at the first location of Caesar’s, which he opened in 1926. But according to Mr. Escobedo, Mr. Cardini had created the salad two years prior — on July 4, 1924 — at another restaurant he’d owned, the Alhambra Cafe.

“It’s easy to track facts outside of Mexico,” Mr. Escobedo said, “but once you get to Tijuana, it’s impossible to navigate if you’re not a local, as the origins were not well documented or archived.”

Mr. Plascencia has subscribed to another prevailing origin story — that Mr. Cardini used a recipe from the mother of one of his cooks, Livio Santini, a fellow Italian immigrant. A portrait of Mr. Santini hangs across from the one of Mr. Cardini in the Caesar’s dining room.

According to Mr. Santini’s youngest son, Aldo Santini, a customer had seen the cook preparing the salad for himself, as he’d do whenever he was homesick, and requested one for herself. Mr. Cardini put it on the menu the next day, he said.

“The story I know is the one that my father told again and again,” said Aldo Santini, 71.

Mr. Escobedo says immigration documents dispute this, proving that Mr. Santini did not arrive in the port of Veracruz on the southeastern coast of Mexico until July 7, 1924. Aldo Santini, meanwhile, rejects the salad’s purported birthday entirely.

“That date was set conveniently to match the biggest holiday of the U.S.A. — and to dispute my father’s legacy,” Aldo Santini said.

The original recipe included a whole coddled egg, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce, and did not include anchovies, Mr. Escobedo said. Instead of emulsifying the dressing before tossing the salad, the lettuce was laid in the bowl and topped with the dressing ingredients, one by one, then mixed.

As the salad’s profile grew, Césare Cardini’s own brother, Alex Cardini, claimed responsibility for its creation, further complicating the tale. But the Hollywood personalities, restaurateurs and politicians who visited Tijuana returned home with tales of a salad they called by one name.

“Everyone in my family agrees that it is correct for the salad to be named after Caesar, as my father was a worker there,” Aldo Santini said. “But that doesn’t mean my father didn’t create it in Tijuana first.”

Just when it seemed like diners could not get enough of the salad, Mr. Cardini sold Caesar’s in 1936 on the heels of a yearslong economic recession and a gambling ban instated in Mexico 1935. He returned to the United States, where he started Caesar Cardini Foods Inc., a business he eventually shared with his only daughter, Rosa.

Back in Tijuana, Caesar’s struggled through a revolving door of new management. “My clients laugh when I tell them,” Mr. Plascencia said of the restaurant’s downward spiral. “When I was a teen, there was a pharmacy at the front, followed by booths, and a curtain in the back. American tourists would come in, make a stop at the pharmacy, eat the salad and go past the curtain for a lap dance.”

By the 1980s, the salad was still prepared tableside, but with store-bought croutons, shelf-stable, pregrated Parmesan and little care.

A halt in tourism to Tijuana after Sept. 11, 2001, coupled with the worst decade of crime, kidnappings and cartel violence in the city’s history, hampered business at Caesar’s. The restaurant shuttered in 2008.

“People wondered why we were investing in a place that was closed and dead on Avenida Revolución, which had turned into a ghost town,” Mr. Plascencia said.

But his family felt a deep responsibility to honor the legacy of Caesar’s and the dish it made famous. “The Caesar salad has helped to show the world a different face of our city.”

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