Caesar salads are so ubiquitous these days—with their packets of preserved dressing and slimy buffalo chicken strip toppings—that it’s easy to forget how perfect and amazing a proper Caesar salad can be. The difference between a good Caesar salad and a bad one is so epic that that they aren’t anything alike.

The Caesar salad is one of my favorites, especially when I stumble across one at a gastropub like The Breslin in NYC, or an authentic Mexican restaurant, where they do it up right at table-side.

On the other hand, there is nothing more abhorrent to me than the generic version that sits squarely on salad menus across America. The fact that the potentially beautiful Caesar salad should be made with bottled, gloppy Caesar dressing, is revolting to me.

The Caesar salad is so simple that quality ingredients are essential.

I’m thinking about the Caesar salad today—on Cinco de Mayo—because of its Mexican origins. Much like the margarita, there are some conflicting theories about the exact origin of the Caesar salad, but it is generally credited to Caesar Cardini, who is said to have created the salad late one night in his Tijuana, Mexico restaurant.

Cardini was Italian-born but emigrated to San Diego after World War 1. During Prohibition, many Californians would slip across the border to Tijuana to enjoy a cocktail or two, and the Cardini family opened a restaurant to take advantage of this, eventually settling in Mexico.

The story goes that on a Fourth of July weekend in 1924 in Tijuana, the restaurant experienced such a rush that most of Cardini’s ingredients were 86’d. Instead of throwing in the towel and closing up shop, Cardini decided to do what most good chefs and restaurateurs would do—he utilized the ingredients he had available: Dijon mustard, romaine lettuce, Parmesan cheese, lemons, Worcestershire sauce, garlic oil, salt, pepper, eggs, and one-day-old bread.  With these 10 ingredients, Caesar Cardini whipped up a beautiful salad and served it table-side, and the Caesar salad was born in Mexico.  

In a traditional Caesar, raw egg is one of the most important ingredients because it gives the dressing a creamy texture. Obviously, the risk of salmonella is a major concern, but the egg is a major part of the final dish, so I just coddle the egg briefly, which kills most of the bacteria.  If you don’t want to use eggs at all, making a yogurt-based vinaigrette is a great substitute.

I’m not a huge fan of Cinco de Mayo bar crowds but I like to be festive, so I’ll make a Caesar Salad, which is a great dish for early May. This year, I’ve decided to make my Caesar spicy; in addition to the traditional ingredients, I’ll be adding cilantro, jalapeños, and spicy croutons.  It’s totally respectable to toss your Caesar salad with different ingredients to your own liking, but just make sure to get the core ingredients right and think “quality, simplicity, flavor”—and if you’ve never had a truly great, traditional Caesar salad, make yourself this one—you’ll be glad to know the difference.

Michael “Falcon” McCutcheon is a graduate Johnson & Wales University and has worked at the Culinary Institute of America. He is also dinner party host extraordinaire.