My quest for the best Caesar salad in Bend began on a whim. I have always loved Caesars, but ordering one in an unfamiliar restaurant is like stopping at a random truck stop for a burger: Probably not a good idea, but you could discover a gem. Now there are great Caesars (think crisp romaine lettuce, lemony dressing with the slightest hint of anchovy and crunchy sourdough croutons), but also really bad ones (think huge pieces of rusty-edge iceberg lettuce, thick, goopy dressing and croutons that may leave you with one less molar). Unfortunately, because of this salad's surge in popularity, even the word Caesar is slightly nebulous. After ordering several mediocre Caesar salads (twice at the same restaurant because I had forgotten that I had already tried it), I decided to keep a log of my Caesar experiences. I developed a rating system that took into account several variables, such as whether or not the restaurant uses raw egg, whether the salad incorporates the controversial anchovy, the quality of the croutons and, most importantly, the authenticity of the dressing.
As a stay-at-home mom and a part-time yoga teacher, the thought of putting on my Dateline reporter hat and scoping out Caesars from Redmond to La Pine sounded sort of exciting. No longer would I be wasting gas driving around the butte while trying to lull my two year old to sleep. I now had a purpose. So began my quest to find the most fabulous Caesar salad in Bend.
I ask a lot of questions normally, so it should come as no real surprise to those who know me that upon ordering a Caesar, I always ask to speak with the chef. (You wouldn't believe how friendly chefs are here in Bend.) Through my culinary interviews, I discovered that most Caesar dressings contain anchovies and that the fish should be packed in salt - not oil. Some restaurants, including 900 Wall, even allow you to order specialty Spanish anchovies as a topper. Additionally, the perfect balance between the lemon, garlic and Worstershire sauce needs to be achieved - not an easy feat; many salads left me popping breath mints for hours. One chef actually allowed me to watch the dressing emulsify while she slowly added just the right amount of virgin olive oil. (You don't want to know how much.)
Once I pump the waiter and chef for all possible information, the fun begins. I have to be sneaky. I casually pull my phone out when my salad arrives and pretend to snap a picture of my husband. (He no longer thinks this is a cute hobby, if you're wondering.) Once I have documentation, I rate the appearance. Not terribly important in my mind, but hey, you never know where your Caesar ratings may end up.
When I began sharing the results of my Caesar investigation with others, the response was overwhelming. People were curious. They were also tired of getting their hopes crushed with a pile of limp lettuce drenched in a dressing that sent them to the bathroom for the afternoon. There were traditionalists, those who wanted tableside preparation in a wooden bowl with the raw egg. Good luck finding this in Bend. I also found many friends who enjoyed the more alternative Caesar. (Think Ahi tuna instead of grilled chicken and poached pears in a tomato-based dressing - sorry, that one's in Arizona.) But I found Bendites are as passionate about their Caesars as they are about the powder days at Bachelor. I soon began receiving calls from friends wanting me to forward my reviews of a specific salad before they ordered.
After taking into consideration the traditionalist viewpoint, freshness of ingredients, appearance, quality of lettuce, croutons and the dressing, I came up with quite a few outstanding Caesars. Here are three of my favorites:
1. The Blacksmith: Brace yourself for a dance party in your mouth. The flavors explode and the deep-friend polenta croutons simple melt in your mouth. Surprisingly, the dressing contains no anchovies or anchovy paste, instead the perfect tartness is achieved by adding Tamarind. Tamarind contains 12 percent tartaric acid and is commonly used in Indian foods. Parmesan crisps add to the presentation and are the perfect partner for those crisp yet creamy polenta croutons. You will not be disappointed. For added protein, you may want to consider ordering this salad with the salmon and calling it a meal.
2. Zydeco: This is for the classic Caesar lover. Although not prepared tableside, the simplicity of this salad allows for each flavor to awaken dormant taste buds. The freshly grated Parmesan cheese covers the salad like a blanket of snow. The cool, crisp Romaine hearts are finely chopped and the there is a slight tartness to the dressing revealing that although anchovies may be in the dressing, you won't taste them later. This salad epitomizes local faire and is paired perfectly with the fresh bread courtesy of the Village Baker.
3. Victorian Café: Those of you who like to live on the wild side will love this variation of the traditional Caesar. The spicy Chipotle dressing gave it a tantalizing zing that nearly knocked my socks off. The diced tomatoes were fresh and the lettuce crisp but not finely chopped. If you enjoy the taste of the good ole' southwest and are open minded enough to allow the word "chipotle" in your Caesar then this one is for you.
Editor's note: Think you've found Central Oregon's perfect Caesar? We'd love to hear about it for a piece in our upcoming Dining Guide. Send us a note telling us where you found the superb salad and why it rocked your world. Send your thoughts to [email protected]