When guests arrived, César’s larder was bare, and he made a big tableside deal out of the few things he had left to offer them.
Avenida Revolución 1059, Tijuana, BC
It’s Willy’s badge that gets everyone’s attention. The sheriff’s badge. People run for the exit. Others yell, “Sheriff! Sing us ‘La Bamba’!”
Okay, nobody ran. And not everybody recognized the blue eyes, the badge, the charro hat, and the red-gray beard of William Clauson, the guy who brought the world “La Bamba.”
Actually, you can see some people thinking, Who is that guy? Truth to tell, Willy does look like an hombre who just rode in from the old West. It really sticks out here because we’re in Caesar’s. Yes, that Caesar’s: the TJ eatery where César Cardini invented (drum roll, please) the Caesar salad, just the most famous salad in the world. On this spot, back on the Fourth of July, 1924 — d’agh — or maybe a few doors away, because the hotel was only built in 1927.
Whatever, it’s a small miracle that this restaurant’s here, again, because last I heard, Caesar’s had gone bankrupt and closed its doors, what with la violencia and TJ tourism tanking. Seems that seven months ago, new owners came in with money and refurbished and reopened a much classier joint than the one that had closed.
In fact, it’s really looking good. Maybe too good. No more black Naugahyde booths and old carpeting. Now it’s black-and-white tile flooring, dark-wood chairs, white tablecloths, a heavy-timbered ceiling, dozens of black-aproned waiters, low lights, a classy bar with a huge copper/brass espresso machine glowing against the mahogany and mirrored walls... How much is everything gonna cost now?
I decide to go hunt down Willy to give me support. He used to sing in here as the charro güero — the blonde cowboy — and he’s an icon on this street. See, Willy’s been a singer ever since his American parents brought him to this restaurant when he was ten years old, sat him down out on the streetside patio, first table on the left (one table remains), and had him listen to a group of mariachis. “That moment transformed my life,” he says. “I was from Swedish-American stock, but from that day I wanted to be Mexican and sing like the mariachis.” It was Willy who discovered the fisherman’s song “La Bamba” when he was in Veracruz. He slowed it down, simplified it, sang it, then gave it to Ritchie Valens who…well, you know the rest.
I find him in his museum–folk club in the pasaje down the block and offer to buy him lunch — if it’s cheap enough.
“I’ve had lunch,” he says. “But I’ll come with you.”
We sit down. Waiter throws cloth napkins over our laps.
’Course, there’s no discussion as to what I’m having.
“The salad?” Willy says.
“The salad,” I say. Last time I had it, 2004, it was a really good and tasty experience. Have to see if the new guys have got it right.
“Salad? ¡Salúd!” says Willy.
He should know if it’s right, too, because Willy’s old enough to have known César. “Oh, yes,” he says. “Back in the ’50s, Mr. Cardini served his salad tableside to me.”
José Antonio, the waiter, has brought a menu anyway. The prices are mostly way above what I wanna outlay. Like, the beef ribeye is 210 pesos, say, $17.50; Caesar’s carne asada with “Spanish and Argentinean chorizo” is 190 ($16); and fish dishes, like the salmon meunière, are about the same. I mean, compared with San Diego, great. Just more than I can handle right now. And way more than the TJ hotdog guys down in Plaza Santa Cecilia. Yes, prosciutto-stuffed chicken breast is less, but not by much — 175 pesos (about $14.50). Some of the pastas (’cause, hey, César was Italian, right?) are cheaper: fettuccine Alfredo is 90 pesos ($7.50), and the house ravioli goes for 110 ($9).
“Still do the Caesar’s salad tableside?” I ask.
“Most certainly,” José Antonio says.
He rolls up a wheeled table and starts crushing garlic into a large, dark, wooden salad bowl, then squishing anchovies and adding mustard. He holds up each ingredient so we can see. He shakes in some Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, some Maggi soy, squeezes in lime, grinds in pepper. Then he takes two raw eggs that have been floating in a bowl of hot water (“for two minutes”), cracks off the shell tops, siphons off the whites, then drops the yolks in, stirs, and adds olive oil. Now he hauls out four giant romaine lettuce leaves (“Always leaves from the heart,” he says, “never the outer ones”), slides them through the gloop in the bowl, and places them, splaying out from the middle, on the plate. He adds croutons and parmesan cheese and hands the plate to me. He also brings out a basket of hot French bread.
I mean, maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but it looks like plenty on the plate.
I grab a fork.
“Uh, no,” says Willy. “Mr. Cardini always said it tastes so much better if you eat it by hand. If you’re seen using a knife and fork in here…well, I have a reputation to uphold.”
’Course, he’s right. Tradition and all that. And, boy. This whole ceremony is exactly how I remember it from 7 years ago, and, Willy says, exactly as it first happened 87 years ago, that fateful Fourth of July night when guests arrived, César’s larder was bare, and he made a big tableside deal out of the few things he had left to offer them — as the legend goes.
Yes, I could have added grilled chicken breast for another $2, and maybe I should have, just to bulk out ye olde belly, but I’m happy, and the taste of the garlic-olive-anchovy mix is really good, and the bread does the filling.
But mainly what I feel is relief. That the old heart of Tijuana’s pumping again. That the simplest, most famous salad in the world is, well, back where it belongs.
“Willy,” I say. “Let’s go to your place. Maybe ‘La Bamba,’ one more time?” ■
The Place: Caesar’s Restaurante Bar, in Caesar’s Hotel, 1059 Revolución Avenue, near Calle 5, Tijuana, (011-52-664) 685-5608
Type of Food: Mexican
Prices: (All figures are approximate, depending on daily exchange rate.) Caesar salad, $6 (with chicken, add $2); beef ribeye, $17.50; carne asada, $16; salmon meunière, $16; prosciutto-stuffed chicken breast, $14.50; fettucine Alfredo, $7.50; ravioli, $9
Hours: 12:00 p.m.–11:00 p.m., daily (Sundays, till 8:00 p.m.)
Bus: Mexicoach from border
Nearest Bus Stop: At Mexicoach booth on Revolución and 7th, nearly opposite the Chiki Jai restaurant