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Few American restaurant classics are as easy to find on a menu now as they were in the 1950s, but if one item remains, it’s the Caesar salad.
For some, the harmonious blend of garlic, salt, pepper, anchovy, mustard, egg, lemon, and parmesan cheese, tossed with crisp stalks of romaine lettuce and hand-torn, toasted croutons, and more parmesan cheese, is the holy grail of salads.
It’s the salad that precedes steakhouse dinners and plates of fragrant grilled fish alike. A steaming bowl of spaghetti and meatballs will taste better if a Caesar comes first. Purists close their eyes and ponder: “Is this Caesar that I am eating right now the genuine article, the real thing, the Platonic ideal?”
Like many enigmas, the Caesar is the salad that has been reinterpreted and bastardized so many times that the casual or incurious diner can be forgiven for not even knowing—or caring—what the real thing tastes like. It’s often the thing you order reflexively when you don’t know what else to choose.
Therein lies the problem. By surviving for close to a century, the Caesar has become at once ubiquitous and fleeting. It’s the timeless classic that is everywhere, yet hard to find. It rarely evokes the original, the salad that made you swear you’d never love another.
Caesar Cardini could not have foreseen what a contribution he was making to civilized dining. All he had was a food joint—one where he could sell booze—a thriving customer base, and an idea for an appetizer.
The mystery of the Caesar does not fit into one definitive narrative. A leading version is that Cardini, an Italian chef who cooked French cuisine, immigrated to the States around 1910 and migrated to San Diego, where he opened a restaurant. Then he opened a second one in Tijuana, Mexico, where he could avoid prohibition, and called it Caesar’s.
Tijuana at the time attracted Hollywood luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin and Jean Harlow, who were drawn to the drinking and gambling culture that Los Angeles Times called “Vegas before Vegas was Vegas,” according to an annotated history published in Food & Wine this past June.
In 1924, the story goes, Cardini was running out of food to serve all the Americans who had flooded over the border on the Fourth of July when, whether by inspiration or desperation, he conjured up a dish that consisted of what he had on hand: stalks of lettuce, olive oil, raw egg, croutons, parmesan cheese, and Worcestershire sauce. The resulting creation was served not as a salad but as finger food, and it was prepared tableside.
This origin story is from Cardini’s daughter, Rosa Maria Cardini, but it’s not the only version. At least three other versions of the story exist, one of them in a book devoted entirely to the topic: In Search of the Caesar: The Ultimate Caesar Salad Book by Terry D. Greenfield.
Later Cardini’s Tijuana restaurant became a tourist attraction, and in the mid-1920s Julia Child came with her family to have lunch. In From Julia Child’s Kitchen she describes Cardini rolling a cart to the table and tossing the romaine lettuce stalks in a wooden bowl and serving it tableside to the delight of his guests.
In 1938, Cardini moved to Los Angeles and opened a gourmet food store where he bottled the dressing, and in 1948 he patented the recipe, according to Food & Wine. In 1953, the International Society of Epicure in Paris named the Caesar salad “the greatest recipe to originate in the Americas in the last half century.”
Fast forward more than 50 years and Caesar salad has become etched in the international food canon as a theatrical invention rooted in elegance.
So what is the definitive version? A 2013 recipe in Bon Appétit is a good start. First, the dressing: Chop together anchovy fillets, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Mash it into a paste, then scrape it into a bowl. (Purists insist on a garlic-rubbed, wooden bowl.) Whisk in egg yolks, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard. Drizzle in olive oil, whisking gradually, then vegetable oil, and then parmesan. Season the salad with with salt and pepper.
Croutons should be hand-torn for texture and remain crispy on the outside and chewy in the center. The romaine lettuce should be served as whole leaves.
Toss by hand and top with shaved parmesan. Variations call for Worcestershire sauce in the dressing or garlic rubbed croutons. Abominations such as chicken and salmon are not worthy of discussion.
While Caesar lovers may disagree on many aspects, there is near unanimity that the Caesar served tableside is the best Caesar. Though while sampling seven salads across the D.C. dining scene, none employed the theatrical presentation, despite chefs, servers, and bartenders agreeing it’s the best method.
“It emphasizes the freshness,” says Bob Gilbert, who works the side counter at Tadich Grill. The San Francisco import serves a lemony Caesar topped with baby croutons and anchovy filets. At The Riggsby, a lesser version comes with bland boquerones and thin shards of crisped bread.
Chef Spike Mendelsohn owns We, The Pizza, where he serves a Caesar based on a family recipe, using capers for extra brininess, a tad more Dijon mustard for zestiness, and bacon crumbles. While the quick service restaurant can’t accommodate tableside service, Mendelsohn would like to resurrect the tradition elsewhere.
“I think it needs to come back in a big way,” he says. “Everyone’s tired of tableside guacamole. It’s a one-trick pony. Let’s bring the tableside Caesar back.”
As it stands, any quest for the perfect Caesar seems futile. The dressing often is too bland, or the croutons are ignored or neglected, or the romaine is chopped too small, allowing it to get mushy. At La Tomate, the dressing is heavy on the parmesan and plenty garlicky, though a naked crostini prompts a companion to observe: “I was hoping for garlic on that [crouton]. That would have been nice.”
Alas, higher-end restaurants seem to approximate the real thing. All-Purpose Pizzeria boldly substitutes Little Gem lettuce for romaine to good effect, as it stays crisper. The dressing is rich and zesty with a hint of anchovy. But in place of croutons the salad is tossed with breadcrumbs, giving it a texture a companion describes as “sandy.”
Mike Friedman, chef-owner of the Shaw pizzeria, agrees it’s hard to find a good Caesar. “If you’re going to make anything really well, it’s going to demand a lot of attention and respect,” Friedman says. “If you have an average Caesar, it probably didn’t have as much attention to detail … For me, a great Caesar is balanced with really crisp lettuces, lots of parmesan, garlic, anchovy, and a toasted note from bread.”
He continues, “Garlic is a necessity. I believe in real anchovies, not paste. I don’t believe in laying on top, as the texture changes. I’m looking for that flavor throughout the salad itself.”
The best Caesar sampled was the $14 version at BLT Steak, which arrives with some romaine leaves large enough to eat with your hands. It boasts classic texture and flavor, leaving no doubt as to whether real anchovies are in the dressing. It, too, incorporates breadcrumbs and leans on crostini instead of croutons.
On a recent Friday, longtime D.C. bartender José Cox was serving drinks at BLT Steak. He’s from Oaxaca, Mexico, and knows his history. “You know where it comes from, don’t you?” he asks, a touch of excitement in his voice. Of course.
He says people in Mexico are enjoying the salad to this day. “Everyone loves the Caesar.”