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Secrets of a Caesar Salad Master

A conversation with Efrain Montoya, veteran server and salad artist at Tijuana’s famed Caesar’s restaurant

Efrain Montoya with his masterwork, the classic Caesar salad
Courtesy of Hulu

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At the height of Tijuana’s Prohibition-era decadence, Caesar’s owner Caesar Cardini first created his eponymous Caesar salad. The tableside specialty quickly became a favorite with the many Americans, including Hollywood’s A-list, who were heading south of the border in droves to take advantage of Tijuana’s plentiful drinks, gambling, and live entertainment.

With its golden years long past, the original Caesar’s closed in the late aughts during a slump in Tijuana tourism due to strict border restrictions and intense organized crime activity. However, the Plascencia family, regarded as Tijuana’s leading restaurateurs, revived the restaurant at its original location in 2010, during a time in which the city was shedding its anything-goes reputation for that of a bona fide culinary and arts destination.

Longtime Caesar’s waiter Efrain Montoya is an expert in the restaurant’s iconic dish, having mixed Caesar’s signature salad tableside while sharing tales of its storied past for more than a decade. The 46-year-old Montoya, who appears in the Tijuana episode of Eater’s Guide to the World, recently spoke with Eater about his experience at the historic Avenida Revolución eatery.

How many years have you been working at Caesar’s?
It’s been 10 years and it will be my 11th anniversary of working at Caesar’s soon. I am originally from Guamúchil , Sinaloa. Before working at Caesar’s I worked at Victor’s here in Tijuana. It was a very famous steakhouse located near the Cuauhtémoc monument in the Zona Rio. They closed a long time ago.

What is a typical day like?
It’s usually full of people; it’s always looking good.

Has it changed much over the years?
Things have always been good, really. People have never stopped coming in since I first started. People have always liked the Caesar salad, which is our best-selling item. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us, though. We shut down for about three months. But now we’ve reopened with limited capacity again and our available tables have been full. I’m very glad to go back to work because I got tired and bored of being at home.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
Preparing the Caesar salad. When I arrived in Tijuana I was a cook at Victor’s for 17 years and I loved working in the kitchen, but I like making Caesar salads better. I enjoy talking to the diners and showing them how to make the famous salad that brought them in, so they can learn how to make it themselves.

Okay, you like making the salads, but after all this time, do you still like eating them?
I do like them, but I don’t eat them too often. I smell the mustard and anchovies all day long when I’m working, so in a way that’s like eating it all shift long. You really don’t find the desire to eat one too often in that situation, but I like it.

Where else do you like to eat in Tijuana?
I like eating at Giuseppi’s every now and then, but I also like cooking. Sometimes I’m hired as a private chef for the day and I cook for people at their homes. I prepare Victor’s steak, the Caesar salad, or whatever people request.

Is there another dish at Caesar’s you think should be as famous as the salad?
The bone marrow sopes are the second-best-selling item at Caesar’s. It’s four sopes, bone marrow, gravy, habanero salsa, and coarse salt. Everyone who comes has to try them as well. They’re very good.

But when Caesar’s reopened my boss and Caesar’s owner Juan José Plascencia took up the task of collecting these old recipes from a bunch of Tijuana’s classic restaurants which have closed their doors for a special retro menu. It has a chateaubriand, beef Wellington, and the steak from Victor’s that I used to make when I worked there. They also included the Victor’s salad, which was created in 1955 and was also famous in Tijuana, and now it exists along with the Caesar salad. It’s a way of keeping historic dishes alive.

Caesar’s, Av. Revolución 8190, Zona Centro, 22000 Tijuana, B.C., Mexico; +52 664 685 1927.

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