I just finished reading the story in The New Yorker about the Tijuana restaurateur and pioneer, Javier Placencia, and I couldn’t be more proud. Proud of Javier Placencia and what he and his family are doing, proud of Tijuana itself, and proud of the fact that I am from Tijuana. I was born there, at the end of that town’s heyday, a period that would fall at the top of page 52 of the story, somewhere between the line that quotes a French epicurean claiming the Caesar salad to be “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in fifty years!” and the next line: “Over time, Revolución devolved into a depressing string of curio shops and…” my father’s restaurant.
El Bodegón de Guillermo, said to have been the most famous in Tijuana during that time, was located just off Tijuana’s main drag, Revolución, two blocks up from the Caesar Hotel. It was my father, Guillermo’s, own sort of Rick’s Cafe during the era between those lines, where, when he wasn’t mingling among the Spanish bullfighters and the politicians and movie stars from both sides of the border, he was tossing Caesar salads table side in a flurry of lettuce leaves and showmanship that would make the women giggle and invariably call him back for a little more of the “secret ingredient” he kept in a shaker in his coat pocket. (My sister and I, little girls then, knew the secret: it was salt.) On this side of the border, the Caesar salad at Zuni Cafe is widely considered to be the best, but to me, none has ever compared to those I remember eating as a child in my dad’s place. It could be nostalgia, but I think it’s the acid.
The original salad, according to me, myself, and Javier Placencia (oh, yes, and the Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy, who sent me the recipe about a dozen years ago that she claims to have gotten directly from Caesar Cardini), was made not with lemons, but limes–the little ones that we refer to as key limes or Mexican limes, but that in Mexico are simply called “limes.” The problem, as I see it, is that the word in Spanish for lime is “limón,” (pronounced “lee-MON”), which of course sounds an awful lot like “lemon.” See where I’m going with this…? (Even the famously fact-checked New Yorker printed that the salad is made with lemons and, with all due respect, I think they’re wrong!) Mexicans don’t traditionally eat lemons. As Jimmy Shaw, a Mexico City-born Los Angeles restaurateur (he owns the wonderful Loteria Grill) and Mexican food authority, says: “To a Mexican, the taste of a lemon is one of the weirdest, most off-putting things you can think of. I freaked out the first time I tasted a lemon.”
Besides the correct ingredients, the one thing you need to make a good Caesar Salad is a wide mouth wooden bowl. Those they used in TJ were always those super-thin kind with the checkered pattern. Looked like wood, but no idea what they were made of. They certainly do the trick, but that doesn’t stop me from coveting these beautiful hand-turned bowls by Spencer Peterman, in maple, cherry, or walnut. (In Los Angeles, you can buy them at the very special clothing store, Noodle Stories.) They’re not cheap, but you can save money on the tongs. Unless you are standing in front of a dazzled crowd in a waiter’s tuxedo, I recommend you toss the salad with your hands.
Javier Placencia’s Caesar Salad
Javier Placencia gave me this recipe before his family bought the Caesar Hotel; this is how they make it at Villa Saverio’s. Itals are mine.
Tijuana, B.C. Mexico
Makes 1 salad, for two people
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 anchovy fillets
¼ cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh Mexican (aka key) lime juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 egg yolk, sitting in hot water
Dash of Worcestershire Sauce
Dash of Maggi Sauce (this is a liquid sauce, not a seasoning; I think I’d read the back for MSG, but he uses it, so I put it here)
Freshly cracked black pepper to taste (use lots! And it must be fresh.)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 whole hearts of romaine lettuce, leaves separated, cleaned and trimmed of dark green ends
Baguette croutons (for croutons, torn are the best kind; more surface area for crunchy bits. officially the garlic and anchovy go on the crouton, not in the salad, but it has evolved.)
In a large bowl (preferably wooden) combine the garlic, anchovies, and a few drops of the olive oil and use the back of a soup spoon to press on garlic and anchovies to make a paste. Add the mustard, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Maggi sauce, several turns of pepper and stir to combine. Add the egg yolk and continue stirring until it is incorporated and the lumps disappear. Add the remaining olive oil in a thin steady stream, stirring constantly to form a thick dressing. Stir in half of the Parmesan cheese. Add the Romaine leaves and toss to coat the lettuce with the dressing. Add the croutons and toss again gently. Transfer the salad to a platter or individual serving plates, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and several turns of black pepper, and serve. Pick a piece up of lettuce and put it in the mouth of someone you love.