Beware sweeping put-downs. “All border towns bring out the worst in people.” The words of Mexican detective Vargas, hero of Orson Welles’ classic film noir, A Touch of Evil, which is set (though not filmed there) in a widescreen approximation of Tijuana.
Shadowy, seedy, violent, borderline – movie stereotypes stick. Chuck in the country’s more recent reputation for drug cartels and organised crime along with Trump’s fixation on That Wall, 30ft prototypes of which are still in place near Tijuana, despite enterprising locals nicking the razor wire, and there’s a bad press to overcome.
Our intrepid band overcame it instantly on a glorious day trip to this capital of Baja (Lower) California state, which has so much in common with its richer Northern namesake. Not least the food. Which brings us to Caesar Salad.
Back in the 1920s Tijuana was called Satan’s Playground by American preachers aghast at their fellow countrymen fleeing Prohibition to have a Las Vegas style wild time just across the border.
Caesar Cardini ran restaurants here and in San Diego, USA, 20 miles up the the road. On the Fourth of July 2024 a rush of customers depleted kitchen supplies in Tijuana, so Italian-born Caesar tossed together at table all the salad ingredients left. It was a hit, word spread and even Hollywood stars flew down regularly to order a ‘Caesar Salad’. I the crush the obligatory tableside service eased pressure on the kitchen.
Whether today’s recipe was there from the start I’m not sure, but a major pleasure of our visit to the historic Hotel Caesar’s on Avenida Revolucion was to watch our waiter stirring together lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, egg, Worcester Sauce, anchovies, Dijon mustard, Parmegiano and black pepper to enhance a simple green salad with croutons.
Oh and they didn’t enhance it with strip of chicken. And some purists still question the necessity for anchovies with Worcester Sauce already in the emulsion. Some favour cup-style large leaves, messy finger food style; I’m happy with chopped. Whatever, it is pure theatre.
The great Julia Child recalled a childhood encounter: “My parents were so excited, eating this famous salad that was suddenly very chic. Caesar himself was a great big old fellow who stood right in front of us to make it. I remember the turning of the salad in the bowl was very dramatic. And egg in a salad was unheard of at that point.”
These days it all seems very ‘heritage’ against the backdrop of Mexico’s fifth largest city with many poor districts that are less than charming. Compensations are some seriously authentic local dishes such as aguachile shrimp, spicy goat birria and breakfast snack chilaquiles.
All of which seem quite inappropriate as I prepare a swift autumnal lunch in a deluged Pennine mill town. So, store cupboard open, a batch of romaine from Aldi at the ready, Caesar Salad it is…
My chosen Caesar recipe is a hybrid from two versions in my quarter-of-a-century old Dean & DeLuca Cookbook (Ebury Press). The deli chain itself expanded way beyond its original New York base and came a financial cropper in recent years, but I still love the eclectic recipe roster in my faithful smudged kitchen companion.
Author David Rosengarten provides the classic version, minus anchovy fillets but he does parboil rather than leave the egg raw. Alongside he includes an alternative recipe with crispy walnuts replacing croutons and crumbled Roquefort instead of Parmegiano shavings. I crave both cheeses, so straddled the middle ground. I also philistinely added a burrata and basil on the side. Sorry Caesar. At least I didn’t resort to a bottled dressing.
Ingredients 2 big heads of romaine or cos lettuce, 50ml olive oil, 350g garlic-rubbed croutons (I cheated with focaccia cubes), salt and pepper, curls of Parmegiano cheese. For the dressing: 4 anchovy fillets, no egg, 2tsp sherry vinegar, 2tsp lemon juice, 1tsp Worcestershire sauce, ½tsp dry mustard, 125ml extra-virgin olive oil and 125g Roquefort cheese.
Method Make the dressing by mashing the anchovies and garlic into a paste. Whisk together this paste with vinegar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, mustard ad crumbled Roquefort in a small bowl. Add olive oil in a stream, further whisking the mix until is is emulsified. In a large bowl toss the lettuce chunks with the dressing. Fold in the croutons and liberally garnish with the Parmegiano curls.