Bohemian Salad

Oh, man. Avenida Revolución is hurting. It's around eight on a Wednesday night, and only three clubs are thumping. The rest, blacked. Is it Homeland Security? I'm heading for the little store La Voz del Pueblo to get my buddy Cisco some cigarettes. (Tigres.) Except I feel peckish. "Special tonight," says this guy outside Caesar's hotel. I've always liked the creamy, castley old building. So what the heck. I decide to do something I've never done before: eat a Caesar's Salad where Caesar's Salad was invented. Right here.

As I start in, the waiter slips me a piece of paper. It lists a whole lot of cultural performances. Poetry, paintings, dance music, Hindu dance, Colombian meringue, cha cha cha, electronic music, songs by a singer named "Midnight."

"Here, tonight?"

"Sí, Señor," says the waiter, Pedro. "Every Wednesday in the fall season."

I sit down in a big black booth. Now I see this was meant to be. The menu says César Cardini created the first Caesar's Salad in October 1924. Exactly 80 years ago this month. I look under "Soups and Salads." Aha. Caesar's Salad, $6.00; with grilled chicken breast, $8.00. I settle for the straight salad and an iced tea ($2.00).

I could have had steaks, fish, or lobster, but they're nearer the 12-, 15-, 20-dollar range. Still, I see they have some other items I could afford. The hamburger, with fries and salad, for $5.00; enchiladas with rice, beans, guacamole, $5.00; and different Mexican combination dishes that go for five or six bucks.

Pedro arrives with chips and salsa and the iced tea, served in a plastic tulip glass. I sit chomping, slurping, and looking around, wondering about all these poets and artists. The place used to be a big hangout for matadors and movie stars, and it still has some of that elegance. Kind of like the U.S. Grant. Roman Empire. Fluted gold columns, busts of gods, goddesses, whatever, delicate pyramids of upturned champagne glasses, Turkish carpets on the floor, and at each table, an Art Nouveau brass sculpture lamp. Mine has a gal lying down, holding up the actual lamp in her outstretched hands. Beautiful. Behind the bar they have a big photo of Paul McCartney, sipping a margarita with his second wife, Heather Mills. Jorge, the manager, says they're the latest in a long line of celebs that dates back to Al Capone.

I notice people are starting to turn up. Ché Guevara--looking guys wearing berets, paintings in hand, plus notebooks and musical instruments. This could be interesting.

Naturally, right now, soccer rules.


The TV announcer takes another deep breath.


"Mexico's playing Trinidad-Tobago," says Pedro. "World Series. We just went one up."

He has rolled up a cart laden with salad and...stuff. All right. The show starts here.

"Señor César Cardini invented this 80 years ago," he says. "We keep strictly to his recipe, and his preparation."

Wow. Hadn't expected this. Pedro positions a molded-wood bowl. "First, anchoa," he says. He lifts three anchovies from a saucer, drops them in the wooden bowl. He drips a lime over them, then grinds some pepper. Now he takes the back of a spoon and squeezes them until they're mush.

"Aceite de oliva," he says and pours out the golden oil from a small bottle. "Vinagre." He splashes wine vinegar, then mustard, then "Salsa Inglésa" -- Lea and Perrin's Worcestershire sauce -- and a few healthy teaspoons of chopped garlic into the mix. He squishes it all together till the wooden bowl glistens.

"And now: huevo." I notice an egg has been lolling in a bowl of hot water.

"It must warm for one minute only," he says.

Pedro takes the egg out, chops off the end, and lets the white slide out. Next he glops the yolk into the bowl, mixes that in, adds a clutch of toasted croutons, then brings up a plate with nine giant lettuce leaves. "Romaine," he says, "and always the corazón. The heart of the lettuce. Never the outside leaves."

He swirls the sauce around them, then lays them out on an oval plate, sprinkles them with Parmesan cheese, one final fling of pepper, and voilá!

"If you don't like it, you pay nothing," he says. "If you do, you pay double."

Right. I chomp in. Oh, yeah. The anchovy and olive taste comes through, and with the hot bread rolls, it's nice and filling. Next time, I'd pay the two bucks extra for the grilled chicken, just to give it more stomach-filling heft.

But right now the place is filling up. It's artists' night. I'm a little in awe. The guy sitting on my right is Angel ValRa, a painter. He's exhibited in France, the States, UCSD, everywhere. On my left León Rhon. He's been painting 21 years. He's the cousin of the mayor elect. Antonio Quinterón is a portrait guy. Shows me work he's done of everyone from President Fox to his own dad.

"Something's happening here at Caesar's," says León. "This is becoming a place for philosophers, for artists. A kind of Bohemian café."

Carmen, the lady organizing the evening, comes up. "Would you like a glass of wine? It's free tonight."

That's it. I'm here. Free wine, Hindu dancing, poetry, Colombian music. Just as well La Voz del Pueblo is open 24 hours.

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