Saigon Says, Hail, Caesar! (salad)

It’s a good life we lead here as expats. “Palm trees grow, rents are low, and the feeling is layback.” Being on the far side of the world, however, there are certain things we must do without. Although, I must say, the situation is improving. Back in the day it was impossible to find super premium gin. The best one could do then was a pint of Gordon’s. That’s a perfectly reasonable drop when gin & tonic is your goal. But it’s cold comfort when in the rainy season you’re dying to get out of your wet clothes and into a dry Martini. Then you’ve got to have Bombay, or Tanqueray or such. If you’re without those, you do without the Martini. I’d rather drink warm beer than a bad Martini. Luckily, those dark days are behind us. While few local bartenders, other than the ones I’ve trained, know how to make a proper Martini, I can always enjoy one at home where a bottle of Saphire always awaits me.

Then there was the damnable practice of the short pour at the bar. The innkeeper would typically skimp on his watered down, counterfeit booze and pocket the difference. I was recently commiserating with Geoffrey Deetz of the Black Cat restaurant about this state of affairs. Geoff’s joint gives not merely an honest pour, but a generous pour. And a double is the standard. A drink at Geoff’s is worth as much as four at many of the lesser saloons with which you may be familiar. Happily, we two agree that the egregious practice of the short pour may be alive, but not kicking. We anticipate its early demise.

But then there is still the problem of the dearth of Caesar Salad. I’m from San Francisco, California, where we consider it one of the seven basic food groups. And anyone who has tasted a perfect Caesar Salad will agree that it’s one of the most perfect balances of taste, texture, color and aroma; one of the brightest stars in the gastronomic firmament. And the cruel irony is that we have no end of tattered menus and badly trained waiters and nefarious restaurateurs offering us something they dare to call Caesar Salad. They blaspheme. They know nothing of the dish but its name.

So what exactly is Caesar Salad? It’s the greatest case of culinary serendipity. A happy accident. It began late in the night of July 4, 1924, in Tijuana, Mexico. A gaggle of US Navy aviators from a San Diego airfield staggered into Caesar Cardini’s restaurant seeking sustenance after a night of revels. Caesar had done good business that long day and his larder was all but exhausted. He had but Romaine lettuce, olive oil, eggs, Parmesan cheese, bread and a few staples of the kitchen such as garlic, Worcestershire sauce and lemons. But in taking this all in, he had a vision. Perhaps not as powerful as Saint Paul on the road to Damascus but, dammit, a vision nonetheless! He gathered up the goods and told his chef to take it to the table and toss it all together with the aplomb and show of a juggler’s act. Voila! The world’s most famous salad was born at 1059 Avenida Revolucion, at the corner of Calle Quinta (5th Street), Tijuana, BC, Mexico. In honor of his guests, Cardini called it “Aviator Salad.”

They came back for more. They brought their friends. They all called it “Caesar’s salad,” rather than the original handle Cardini had given it. Eventually, it began to appear on menus north of the border as “Caesar Salad.” A few tweaks were added by Caesar’s brother, Alex. He added anchovy paste by mashing whole anchovies in the salad bowl with the back of a spoon. He made bigger, crunchier croutons. And the two of them made history.

But is the salad made in this city? Every other hash house in town offers it bursting with bacon instead of anchovies! Bacon, dammit! Bacon! I got nothing against bacon. But not in my Caesar anymore than in my ice cream. And they’ve got no Parmesan, no Worcestershire, nothing you could call a crouton. Rather, they have little bits of banh mi (local sandwich bread), soggy from a bath in tropical oil and rice vinegar! Does this sound like a rant? I could go on!

But I won’t, because I have found the genuine article at long last. I have found a Caesar Salad, in Saigon, that Cardini himself would approve of. I found it at Bernie’s Steakhouse, 19 Thai Van Lung, District 1. At first I thought it was a freak occurrence. But I have had it now a dozen times, and each time I feel the presence of Maestro Cardini. I thought it might have been a trick of some kind, using a bottled dressing. But the gracious Bernie took me into his temple of a kitchen and let me watch the preparation of the sacred dish. The ghost of Cardini hovered above, uttering his blessing.

Excited with my discovery, I told Deetz of the Cat about Bernie’s CS. “Yeah,” he says. “I know all about Bernie’s Caesar.”

So you’ve been there and had it,” I ask?

“Well,” he says, “I actually taught him how to make it.”

So, two places for a true Caesar: BC and B’s. See you there.

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