Commercials for that Food Network show The Best Thing I Ever Ate got me thinking about some of the best food I’ve ever had, and the first thing my mind landed on was the Caesar salad from Rojo’s, which used to be just near East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz.

It was the fall of 1991. I was pregnant (unknowingly, but that’s a story for a different blog) with Kid One. We were living on a boat – an extremely pleasant, stripped-down sort of life. LL would often stop and pick up a Rojo’s Caesar on his way home for us to share, and we’d grill a chicken breast on the stern-side barbecue. It all started one day I started asking him to pick up two, then three of the salads; I only picked at the chicken – all I wanted to eat were enormous plates of Caesar salad. I couldn’t get enough.

These weren’t heavy, creamy, anchovy-laden Caesar salads. Made of the deeper green outer leaves, nicely torn into bite-sized pieces, dressed in garlicky Caesar vinaigrette, tossed liberally with Parmesan cheese and sprinkled with golden savory croutons – it was heaven on earth.

At the time I thought it odd that a Mexican restaurant would serve a Caesar salad. The mystery, such as it was, was solved recently when I read that it’s a Mexican creation, invented by one of the Italian-born Cardini brothers – usually attributed to Cesar, although his brother Alex, a business partner, also claimed credit, supposedly causing a rift between brothers.

Circumventing Prohibition, the Cardinis opened their restaurants in Tijuana, where legal alcohol lured luminaries from the Prince of Wales to Al Capone, but the garlicky goodness kept the coming back for more. Julia Child even wrote about how she visited as a child, and here she paints the scene:

One of my early remembrances of restaurant life was going to Tijuana in 1925 or 1926 with my parents, who were wildly excited that they should finally lunch at Caesar’s restaurant. Tijuana, just south of the Mexican border from San Diego, was flourishing then, in the prohibition era. People came down from the Los Angeles area in droves to eat in the restaurants; they drank forbidden beer and cocktails as they toured the bars of the town; they strolled in the flowered patio of Agua Caliente listening to the marimba band, and they gambled wickedly at the casino. Word spread about Tijuana and the good life, and about Caesar Cardini’s restaurant, and about Caesar’s salad.

My parents, of course, ordered the salad. Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl, and I wish I could say I remember his every move, but I don’t. The only thing I see again clearly is the eggs. I can see him break 2 eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them. Two eggs in a salad? Two one-minute coddled eggs? And garlic-flavored croutons, and grated Parmesan cheese? It was a sensation from coast to coast, and there were even rumblings of its success in Europe.

Child, Julia. From Julia Child’s Kitchen. Alfred A. Knopf (New York) 1975. pp 431-434.

The baby came, and I didn’t ever think it was strange that he had a taste for garlic croutons practically from birth, it seems. And I never lost my taste for Caesar salads – I’ve spent the past 17 years trying to duplicate the flavors I loved so much then. Occasionally I take a photo of a memorable Caesar I’ve had out in the world; this is one I had at Bacara in Santa Barbara one anniversary:

Although I do confess, I often toss my romaine, cherry tomatoes, and leftover rotisserie chicken with Kraft Fat Free Caesar Italian dressing. (Convenience does sometimes win out.) But whenever and wherever I have a Caesar, I’m always thinking about boats, and babies, and one of the best things I ever ate.

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