September 30, 2009
This time, Brutus had nothing to do with the death of Caesar. Instead, it was a drop-off in tourism—partly due to fears about swine flu and escalating drug violence, on top of a bad economy—that hastened the demise of the Tijuana restaurant credited with inventing the Caesar salad.
As seems to happen with most enduring recipes, there are different stories about who originally concocted the combination of romaine lettuce, creamy dressing and croutons. The generally accepted version is that it was created in the 1920s by an Italian immigrant, Caesar Cardini, who lived in San Diego but opened a restaurant on the other side of the border to cater to Americans trying to skirt Prohibition. Echoing another common food-invention theme, the salad was said to have been created out of necessity, when there wasn’t much left in the kitchen.
Others, including Cardini’s brother and a business partner, later claimed they were the ones who first whipped up the dish, which was served to American airmen and named Aviator salad. This version contains anchovies, which, according to Cardini’s daughter Rosa, the original Caesar recipe does not (except via Worcestershire sauce). Julia Child, who ate at Caesar’s in her youth, retrieved the recipe from Rosa and put it in one of her cookbooks (it can also be found at Epicurious).
Regardless of how it began, the Caesar salad—often prepared tableside, as Cardini did—was a hit. It’s now a standard item on many American menus, and for decades a stop at the Tijuana restaurant (and its later incarnation in another location) was a tourist must-do.
But now the tourists aren’t coming. And, according to the Associated Press, Caesar’s wasn’t the only culinary casualty of Mexico’s tourism woes: Restaurant Moderno in the border town Piedras Negras, where nachos were invented (or, to be more precise, where the inventor of nachos used to work), closed over the summer.
The history of nachos is less disputed than its Tijuana counterpart. Ignacio Anaya, nicknamed Nacho, is credited with their invention in the 1940s—again, out of necessity. When a large group of American military wives from across the border in Texas came into the restaurant where Anaya worked as maitre d’, he wasn’t able to find the cook. He had to improvise an appetizer. He topped some fried tortilla triangles with cheese and jalapeño slices and put it under the broiler. One of the ladies dubbed the creation Nacho’s especiales, and its popularity spread through Texas. Anaya later moved to the Moderno, and never managed to capitalize on his invention. He died two years before his namesake dish truly made the big-time: Howard Cosell tried nachos during a 1977 Texas Rangers game and talked up the then-novel munchies on “Monday Night Football.”
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sports arena that doesn’t sell nachos—at least a sad, goopy version of them. But you won’t find them at Restaurant Moderno anymore.
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