The Curious Case of the Caesar Salad

By agringoinmexico on April 29th, 2016

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Courtesy of Caesar’s Restaurant

Caesar salad – everybody has eaten one, yet few know where it originated. With National Salad Month coming up in May, we asked our long-time contributor to Mexico, W. Scott Koenig, to investigate for us.

Given its noble nomenclature, the Caesar salad is mistakenly believed by many to be a preparation dating to the Roman Empire. Though leafy greens with vinegar dressings were eaten as salads during the era of Julius and Augustus, it was another Italian, Caesar Cardini – a Tijuana restaurant owner – who is widely credited with the creation of the famous salad. Today, his eponymous entrada can be found on menus worldwide, from white tablecloth dining rooms to casual chain and fast-food restaurants.

Cardini immigrated to the United States twice from his hometown of Baveno, a commune in the Piedmont region of Italy. His second immigration in the 1920s found him settling in San Diego, where he opened and operated several successful restaurants. To avoid strident prohibition laws in the United States and be able to offer alcoholic beverages to a thirsty north-of-the-border clientele, Cardini opened Caesar’s Restaurant and Bar in Tijuana, then a small Mexican town just across the border from San Diego, California.

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Caesar’s Restaurant and Bar in the 1950s / Courtesy of Caesar’s Restaurant

The popular story is that Cardini invented the salad in 1924 at the end of a busy shift at Caesar’s Restaurant. Although his food supplies were running low, he didn’t want to disappoint a few straggling customers who had just arrived. He made the most of what ingredients he had left in the kitchen – which apparently included a surplus of Romaine lettuce – and voila, the Caesar salad was born. 

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Caesar Cardini tosses his namesake salad / Courtesy of Caesar’s Restaurant

Over the years, several of Cardini’s partners, staff and family members have laid claim to the title of the salad’s creator. A popular contender was his nephew, Alex Cardini, who alleged he made the first Caesar salad for a group of airmen from San Diego who woke up at Caesar’s adjoining hotel. Alex Cardini added the element of protein in the form of anchovies to help nurture the hung-over airmen and called his concoction the “Aviator’s” salad.

Regardless of its inventor, the salad was a hit with visitors. Cardini’s restaurant was at the center of Tijuana’s first “boom” during the U.S. prohibition when Hollywood stars and Southern California day-trippers flocked to “TJ” to imbibe, eat and gamble. Black-and-white photos of visiting celebrities of that era can still be found on the walls of Caesar’s Restaurant Bar today.

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Hollywood stars such as Oliver Hardy visited Tijuana in the early 20th century / Courtesy of

Julia Child visited Caesar’s with her family in 1925 and was fascinated enough with the salad to include a passage about it in her book, “From Julia Child’s Kitchen.” The attention was a springboard to the salad’s international fame.

"Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl, and I wish I could say I remember his every move, but I don’t. The only things I see again clearly are the eggs. I can see him break two eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going creamy as the eggs flowed over them. Two eggs in a salad? Two one-minute coddled eggs? And garlic-flavored croutons, and grated Parmesan cheese?"

The classic Caesar is still tossed tableside at Caesar’s Restaurant Bar today by experienced saladeros, some who have been with the restaurant for decades. To refresh Child’s childhood memory, the salad is made by whisking olive oil, lime juice, Dijon mustard, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and ground black pepper together in a large wooden bowl.

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Saladero Efrain Montoya tosses the classic Caesar salad / Courtesy of

Unless you believe Alex Cardini’s claim, the original recipe did not call for anchovies, which are used in most of today’s preparations. It’s thought that Cardini’s addition of Worcestershire provided the umami many imitators attributed to the salty fish.

After mixing the base, a coddled egg yolk is whisked in, and a bit more olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese are added. The romaine is then gently dropped into the bowl and rolled in the dressing until the leaves are well coated. The salad is finished with another dash of Parmesan, topped with a single crouton and served.

The most striking thing about the original Caesar salad is that the lettuce remains unchopped. Three or four whole leaves are presented on the dish, giving the diner the option of picking up a leaf by the stalk and eating it by hand, should they prefer.

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The finished classic Caesar salad / Courtesy of  Caesar’s Restaurant

There is a little-known variation on the classic Caesar salad in Tijuana, known as the Victor’s salad. Victor’s Restaurant opened in 1955 and featured the Caesar salad on their menu. During the peso devaluation of the 1970s, the cost of olive oil and Parmesan became cost-prohibitive. So the restaurant’s owner and chef – with input from long-time customers – substituted corn oil infused in garlic and Cotija cheese. A.1. steak sauce and Tabasco were added to give the salad an extra tang and anchovies were not in the mix.

Any dish that’s nearly a century old and has made its way around the globe is going to have even more variations. Outside of Tijuana, it’s rare to find a Caesar salad that is served whole leaf. Most are of chopped romaine, mixed with smaller croutons and often substitute an anchovy paste-based dressing for canned anchovies. And while Cardini’s original salad was a meal in and of itself, today’s hungrier diners insist on having it topped with chicken, steak, shrimp and other seafood.

In 2010, Tijuana restaurateurs Grupo Plascencia took over ownership and operation of the then-flailing Caesar’s Restaurant Bar. They restored the dining room to its former jazz era glory and the restaurant’s original long bar remains as the centerpiece. Taking in the rich wood and mahogany classic brasserie, the first crunch of the romaine and the tang of the salty, savory dressing is transporting — one is whisked back to the 1920s when Caesar Cardini first tossed this most classic of the world’s salads.

Meet the author


W. Scott Koenig (aka El Gringo) has traveled extensively around Mexico since the mid-’90s. His blog,, reports on Mexican destinations, culture, events and cuisine. He also blogs for and has been published in the Baja Times (Baja’s largest English language newspaper), Destino magazine in Los Cabos, and the Oaxaca Times. In 2013, he was invited as a guest of the Mexican government to attend and report on the Interna…... More