Even the most carnivorous among us concede there's something special about a Caesar salad. It could be a nostalgic association with haute tableside service, or perhaps it's the body's occasional hankering for something raw and green. More likely, the core attraction is the synergistic combination of tastes and textures found in the supreme salad course.
Not that there is an exacting standard for the perfect Caesar. Reportedly invented in Mexico by a chef of Italian extraction, the prospect of madcap variation is inherent in the dish. Usually, however, whole leaves of romaine are the base green and are dressed with some combination of oil, garlic, lemon and raw or coddled egg. Anchovy-rich Worcestershire sauce was used in Caesar Cardini's Tijuana original, and the salty, fishy, oily critters are a common component, whether whole on top of the salad or in paste form mixed into the dressing. The other semi-essential elements: plenty of toasty croutons and a flurry of hard, nutty cheese grated over the greens.
In our food-crazed local empire, the Caesar may not yet have its own dedicated cart, but it is well represented on area menus. Here are a few of our favorites.
1212 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 234-7786, lardopdx.com.
A super Caesar in a sandwich shop? Yes, the offerings here include a couple of serious salads, one of which is an offbeat variation of the original Tijuana invention. Coarsely chopped escarole subs for the romaine, and boquerones—Spanish white anchovies—fill in for their saltier, oiler cousins. Salty, piquant fried capers also go into the mix. Brioche croutons complete an unusual ensemble that, despite its quirks, still manages to taste pretty much like a straight-ahead Caesar.
Reason to go: Most folks go to Lardo for the crazy-good, fairly priced sandwiches and the unreasonably delicious sweets from the Sugar Cube cart that shares Lardo's outdoor seating area. For the sandwich averse or just for a change, the Caesar is a welcome presence on the menu and comes in both side- and main-dish sizes ($4, $7).
Downside: Lunch-hour lines can be wearisome, especially if you have an actual job to return to—something that doesn't seem to stress the twentysomethings who congregate here.
Tip: The small Caesar, together with a pork belly/egg/cheese sandwich, a side of skin-on golden fries and a chocolate bread pudding from the Sugar Cube may be the best lunch in Portland.
2103 N Killingsworth St., 289-3709, mextiza.com.
The menu at Oswaldo Bibiano's North Portland restaurant lists regional specialties from all over Mexico. Tijuana has only a single listing which, of course, is Caesar salad. It begins traditionally, with a large plate piled high with large romaine leaves. Anchovies unmistakably announce their presence in the dressing generously drizzled over the greens. The cheese showered over the plate is grated Cotija, a long-aged cow's milk cheese with characteristics similar to Parmesan. This version has Cotija's typical high-salt content, but also exhibits a flavor intensity similar to an aged chevre. Housemade focaccia croutons—crunchy outside, pillowy inside—round out the presentation.
Reason to go: Is it mere fancy that a Mexico-conceived dish is at its very best in a Mexican restaurant? This is a stellar version of the Caesar salad, and the setting at Mextiza strikes just the right balance between fancy and frumpy. The price is right, too: $8 for a portion that can easily serve as a starter for two.
Downside: The location is a bit of a schlep coming from anywhere south of Burnside Street.
Tip: Though it's a neighborhood favorite, an early arrival should yield plenty of empty seats, even on a Saturday without a reservation.
319 SW Broadway, 227-8794, elgaucho.com.
This is your classic tableside-prepared, steakhouse Caesar. The cart rolls up and a tuxedoed server begins the ritual. Garlic is first rubbed around a large wooden mixing bowl. Then, all the classic ingredients go in with a flourish, one at a time, along with a bit of Dijon mustard for extra bite. Well-washed and dried leaves of fresh romaine go in next to get an even coating of dressing. Voilà! Magic.
Reason to go: At El Gaucho, the Caesar is one of the main attractions, both for the quality of the rendition and the show. Let's face it, tableside preparation is damn near a dinosaur, and this may be one of your only chances to check it out. Beyond the salad, you can enjoy some serious steak.
Downside: On a tight budget? Well, maybe you want to skip this Caesar, priced at $12 per person (minimum of two).
Tip: For local casualistas, El Gaucho will wheel the salad cart right into the bar, which has a slightly less formal feel than the main dining room.
4741 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 233-1286, apizzascholls.com.
The best-in-class pizza gets the raves here, but a stellar Caesar lurks just out of the limelight. As with the pizza, greatness is expressed simply. The plate of romaine mixes longer, larger spears with the paler, more tender interior leaves for a bit of textural variation. There is nothing fancy about the dressing, just a combination of ingredients that properly coats the leaves with accents of lemon and garlic in equipoise. Parmesan is shaved over the plate in longish, paper-thin shards. Croutons are made from bread baked in-house for that purpose. Oil-packed anchovies—the salty, dark classics—are available on request.
Reason to go: Eating a salad will help mitigate the guilt that comes with making a molten combination of bread, cheese and meat the mainstay of your evening meal. But let there be no doubt: You come here for pizza, and the fact Apizza Scholls happens to have a top-notch salad to eat while the pizza's being prepared is a bonus.
Downside: The wait at Apizza Scholls at 7 pm on a Saturday seems infinite. Is any food worth it? That's your call.
Tip: To satisfy those pizza and Caesar cravings, show up early in the week, as early as you can get there, preferably avoiding summer tourist season. It's usually pretty quiet. If there's a wait, pass the time playing Galaxian, Ms. Pac-Man or Donkey Kong.
1220 SW 1st Ave., 227-7342, veritablequandary.com.
The Caesar at this downtown mainstay—more than 40 years under the same roof and ownership—has been a top contender for better than a decade. Coarsely chopped romaine leaves get a creamy, garlicky dressing bath, a dusting of black pepper, a light shower of grated Parmesan and a fistful of buttery-crunchy croutons. A wedge of lemon on the side lets diners customize their salad. Overall, it's a restrained variation, well-suited to the well-heeled suits that pack the place at lunchtime. The Caesar comes in side and entree portions ($9, $12) along with a menu long on local, seasonal choices.
Reason to go: The VQ is real Portland—if maybe a throwback version—every bit the same as the come-as-you-are, do-as-you-please Portland now celebrated and skewered by the national media. So it's worth a visit both to sample the Caesar and celebrate the city's distinctive vibe.
Downside: For all its gustatory adventurism, the VQ still looks and feels like an old-time bar. Some may like it, but I smell phantom cigarette smoke.
Tip: Over the years, longtime VQ chef Annie Cuggino has earned plaudits for her cooking, but the place remains stubbornly off the local food enthusiast radar. If the Caesar is any indication, serious diners may be missing out.