Written By: W. Scott Koenig
Photos By: Cintia Soto
TIJUANA – When it comes to famous entradas, everyone knows the Caesar’s salad — first tossed in 1927 by Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini at his namesake Caesar’s Restaurant and Bar in Tijuana. Visitors to the city ever since have enthused about the salad to their friends and family north of the border. Most notable among them, Julia Child, who brought the dish to international attention with a mention in her famous cookbook From Julia Child’s Kitchen.
But have you ever met Caesar’s younger brother Victor?
As with so many revered dishes, necessity was the mother of invention with the Victor’s salad. In 1955, Victor Rubio opened Victor’s Restaurant in Zona Rio and the city’s beloved Caesar’s salad was featured prominently on the menu. In the late 1970’s, the Mexican peso was massively devalued and olive oil and Parmesan cheese, two key ingredients in the making of the salad, were no longer affordable.
“So instead of using olive oil, they used corn oil infused with garlic, which was less expensive,” shared waiter Efrain Montoya as we sat down at Caesars, owned by Grupo Plascencia since 2010, to sample the Victor’s salad. “And instead of using Parmesan cheese, they replaced it with cotija excelsior cheese.”
Montoya knows what he’s talking about. Prior to his position at Caesar’s, he worked at the once popular Victor’s for 17 years. He’s the only one who remembers the original recipe and can competently toss the salad today.
“If Efrain’s not here, I don’t order it,” San Diego Red publisher and frequent Caesar’s customer Ramon Toledo insisted as we sipped on our lemonades and clamatos. “There’s a lot of debate about what goes into the Victor’s salad. Do you use the egg white, or the yolk? How long do you coddle the egg? Efrain never gives away the real recipe.”
As he began mixing the ingredients for our salads tableside, Montoya continued, “Another difference from the Caesar’s salad is that the Victor’s uses Mexican mayonnaise and wine vinegar from L.A. Cetto. They used the wine vinegar because Don Angelo Cetto would eat at Victor’s three times a week. He would bring his entire family.”
Jose Fimbres, the founder of Calimax in Tijuana, was another local celebrity who patronized Victor’s. Montoya credits Fimbres, owner Rubio and Victor’s long-time chef Jose Guadalupe Moreno with the invention of the Victor’s salad. “In Tijuana, there were only 100,000 people during that era, so everyone knew everyone. And they all had opinions on the flavors of the salad.”
Montoya began by mixing the dressing in the bottom of a large wooden bowl and then added the romaine — giving the salad no less than twenty tosses to ensure the greens were well coated. The cotija cheese was added three times during the process: mixed with the dressing ingredients, sprinkled on the romaine before tossing, and liberally applied to the tossed salad, post-plating.
The salad is good, very good. The A-1 and Tabasco add a nice tang to the original Caesar’s recipe. The cotija cheese is a more than acceptable substitute for the Parmesan and adds flavor and texture. The fresh, crispy romaine leaves are served whole and topped with a single lightly toasted crouton. I was missing the umami and saltiness of the Caesar’s anchovy, however, the ingredient that sparked my initial love for the salad.
Caesar’s no longer use garlic infused corn oil for the dressing as did the original Victor’s – having reverted to the formerly cost-inhibitive yet, I assume, more palatable olive oil. Though it would have been interesting to try the exact oil used back in the day, I didn’t regret the alteration.
Ultimately, Victor’s restaurant was a victim of the global recession in the early 2000’s and was demolished. Rents were too high and Rubio’s children – who inherited the business from their father – could no longer afford to continue operation.
“Visitors from the United States used to come and eat at Victor’s in the 1970’s, “ Montoya added as we finished our salads. “They don’t realize that Caesar’s now carries on the tradition of the salad and they can still get it here.”
Here’s a list of the ingredients used in the Victor’s salad. This may or may not be accurate. Only Efrain Montoya knows for sure, “…and he’s not telling!” concluded Toledo.
- Romaine hearts
- Corn oil infused with garlic
- Mexican mayonnaise
- Cotija Excelsior cheese
- 3 minute egg white
- A-1 steak sauce
- Lea & Perrins
- Red wine vinegar
- Fresh pepper
Was necessity a benefit in the creation of Caesar’s lesser-known sibling? Order the Victor’s instead of the Caesar’s salad the next time you visit Caesar’s Restaurant and Bar in Tijuana and let us know what you think.
Caesar’s Bar and Restaurant is located at Avenida Revolución 1927, Zona Centro, 22000 Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. www.caesarstijuana.com.