R.I.P. Hotel Caesars

I love that there's a Carl's Jr. on the ground floor.
Casa, Sweet Casa: I love that there's a Carl's Jr. on the ground floor.

In honor of the Caesar Hotel, where the Caesar salad was invented, which died today


With its ornate facade (what is this style called?), and a sort of museum to trajes de luces,—which translates “suits of lights,” the shimmering, adorned outfits that bullfighters wear—in the lobby, the Hotel Caesars somehow managed to be, to the end, a remnant of Old Tijuana. I remember going there with my dad, who had a restaurant across the street, and who, when he first moved to Tijuana from Acapulco in the 1950s, used to work as a waiter at the Caesar Hotel and toss the salads table side himself. I love that Tijuana. I love that salad. And even when the restaurant renamed itself the Caesar Sports Bar & Grill and hung a row of track lights and televisions, they still turned out one of the best Caesar Salads I have ever eaten. I wish I knew the secret. Is it the fake Parmesan cheese that comes out of a can? The hot dog mustard? Why did the drug lords have to go and ruin everything? Pinche greed.

This is an old post introducing an older letter. But the story of the Caesar is older still, so it is all still current. Sort of.

* * *

This is a letter I wrote a few years ago (March, 2004, to be exact) to the editor of The Los Angeles Times in response to a small round-up their intrepid reporter, Leslee Komaiko, had done on Caesar salads. I think it may be the single most important thing I have ever written. Why is it so important? Because it is so good—not the writing, silly, the salad! And because sometimes leaving well enough alone is the best idea by far—and I think that in the current climate of foams and Food, Inc. we need to remember that simple fact.

The Whole Caesar Story

I wanted to comment on Leslee Komaiko’s Caesar salad bit in Restaurant Journal (“Render Unto Caesar That Which is Leafy,” Feb 25).

I have strong opinions about the Caesar Salad and know a little about it as a result of my being from Tijuana, my dad having owned a Caesar-serving steakhouse there in the 1960’s, and my having done research in Tijuana, as a freelance food writer, for various food stories. I too have noticed a lot of whole-leaf Caesars (WLCs) out there [that’s what Komaiko’s story was about], and as far as I’m concerned, this is good news. These simple, whole-leaf Caesars are a welcome respite from all those whacked-out reinvented Caesars. Copious amounts of garlic and the ubiquitous sliced breast of chicken aside, I’ve seen offenses from jalapeño polenta croutons to a salad of dandelion greens, arugula and mâche with caviar “Caesar” dressing and watermelon “croutons.”

But the main reason I get that heart-swelling sensation every time I see a well-executed whole-leaf Caesar is because, contrary to the idea stated in the article—that it’s “an affront to muck with the classic”—the WLC is not only the better Caesar, it is the classic Caesar.

At the Caesar Hotel in Tijuana [which last I saw had sadly changed its name to the Caesar Sports Bar & Grill], where it was invented, the salad is served whole leaf, as it always was. At my dad’s restaurant, El Bodegon de Guillermo, which was across the street from the Caesar Hotel, he served it whole leaf. And the recipe that [Mexican culinary authority] Diana Kennedy gave me for the salad, which she got from its inventor, Caesar Cardini, when she met him in Mexico City some 40 years or more ago, calls for the hearts of romaine leaves to be whole. As for the fact that you have to use a knife and fork, well, the salad is intended to be eaten—or at least you have the option to eat it—with your fingers.

Simple and straightforward as the Caesar is, there are tricks to making a good one. Start with sweet romaine lettuce and be wiling to throw out more than your good conscience allows: Chuck all the outer dark leaves and cut off all floppy dark green ends of even the inner romaine leaves. What you’re left with will be only the crispy, light green hearts of the romaine, which stand up to the heavy dressing. Use key lime (a.k.a Mexican lime) juice in place of the lemon juice, of course use fresh eggs (not mayo) and good Parmesan. Mash and whisk the dressing in a big, wooden salad bowl to which you’ll then add those light, crispy romaine leaves and croutons and, yes, toss. The only other piece of advice for making a good Caesar is: Do not lay those dead canned fish on the salad. Traditionally the dead fish go onto the croutons. Nowadays, even at the hotel in Tijuana, the anchovies are mashed into the dressing (rather than on the crouton). But no self-respecting Caesar making chef would ever lay the things on the lettuce. May the table side tossing of the classic whole-leaf hearts of romaine Caesar begin. Again.

This is what a real Caesar salad looks like. Look mom, no fork!
This is what a real Caesar salad looks like. Look mom, no fork!

Original Caesar Salad

From the Caesar Hotel on Avenída Revolución, Tijuana

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

16 three-eight inch slices baguette

4 teaspoons anchovy paste

1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh juice of limes (preferably Mexican or Key limes)

1 one-minute coddled egg

Dash of Worcestershire Sauce

1/3 cup garlic-infused olive oil [skeptical about this only because there are so few good ones]

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese [If I were writing this recipe, I would write, “6 tablespoons grated Parm, plus a wedge for grating cheese over the finished salad]

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 heads romaine lettuce leaves, trimmed mercilessly, washed, drained, and chilled

1. To make the croutons, heat the olive oil and garlic in a skillet. Spread anchovy paste on one side of each baguette slice. Place the slices paste side down in hot oil and cook for 30 to 40 seconds, then turn and toast the other side. Place them on paper towels to drain and continue until you’ve fried up all the croutons. [Here I would tell you to buy one of Nancy Silverton’s books that have her recipe for torn croutons.]

2. Stir together the vinegar, lime juice, coddled egg and Worcestershire sauce in a big wooden salad bowl. [I seem to remember DK and my dad and the waiter at the Caesar hotel adding mustard and Tobasco at this point. I’ll have to find the old Diana Kennedy recipe.] Then add the garlic-infused olive oil in a thin stead stream, whisking constantly to form an emulsion. Stir in 6 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Add the romaine leaves and croutons and toss until the lettuce is coated with the dressing.

To serve, divide the salad among 4 chilled plates and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. [Alternatively, grate a nice thin layer dusting of Parm over the salads, like freshly fallen snow…]


2 thoughts on “R.I.P. Hotel Caesars

  1. That was a heartfelt story . VEry nicely done but do we have to blame the drug lords and not the pissashit drug users.or at least spread the blame.

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