Fresh Ingredients Shake Up the Traditional Caesar Salad

Why putting a spin on a classic can lead to serious profits.

The venerable Caesar salad isn't just a survivor; it's a conqueror. 

Ever since the mid-1920s, when Caesar Cardini created his eponymous salad for Southern California elites in Tijuana, Mexico, it has proven to be a low-cost, high price salad all-star.

The NPD Group’s CREST foodservice research estimates that 85.9 million Caesar salads were served as main courses in U.S. restaurants between September 2016 and September 2017, and it’s ranked as the second most popular salad in the country according to Datassential, trailing only the catchall garden salad.

To stand out in a crowded field—and turn a solid profit—stay true to the spirit of the salad but give it a little more love. Try upgrades such as changing up the crouton or spiking the dressing with some heat. Swap out romaine for kale or other greens. Rethink your cheese. Add some beer. Just don’t serve a Caesar that diners can buy in a bag or whip up at home.

At Fusco in New York, Chef Scott Conant tosses truffled seasonal vegetables in a Caesar dressing and rings them around burrata topped with brioche croutons. Chef Troy Guard of TAG in Denver dresses romaine with togarashi vinaigrette and a thick Caesar puree before crowning his mix with grated cured egg yolk, avocado and grilled shrimp.

The great thing about a Caesar is that its base flavors are versatile enough to tap into whatever’s on trend, as evidenced by these two riffs on the classic.

Play with your food

At SER Steak + Spirits in Dallas, Executive Chef Mike Shetsky’s dressing pulls umami notes from fish sauce. Then the sauce is encapsulated into jiggly spheres by leaning on some simple molecular gastronomy techniques to produce a yolk-like film around the dressing. Instead of croutons, bread and Parmesan get baked into Italian shortbread called sbrisolona and crumbled atop romaine leaves. Shetsky also adds preserved lemon zest, fried white anchovies and neutral-flavored pop rocks, though the latter is optional.

The Appeal: The sheer novelty of the dish, including the fun of breaking open gooey spheres of Caesar dressing, has made it the most talked about offering on the menu. “We have our servers tell guests, ‘You’re going to get a nice little ‘pop’ with the dish,’” says Shetsky. “It’s a dish that creates a dialogue.” 

The Payoff: No one has ever complained about the $14 price because diners want to say they’ve tried SER’s Caesar. It’s become a bucket list offering, a salad guests know they aren’t likely to find elsewhere. “We explain the process so they know how labor intensive it is to make the spheres and the sbrisolona,” he says. “They can see and taste that value.”

Menu price: $14
Food cost: 7 percent

Go vegan

Inspired by the Caesar’s Mexican-California roots, Toca Madera in Los Angeles fuses flavors from Mexico with a health-conscious approach that West Coasters demand. Vitamin-rich kale and Boston lettuces get tossed with a chipotle Caesar made from vegan mayonnaise, paprika, chipotle, cumin and white vinegar. Paprika-dusted pumpkin seeds and croutons made from talera bread add extra crunch, which give the dish “sweeter flavors that pair well with the spice,” says Chef Ben Diaz.

The Appeal: It’s as customizable as a burrito, including vegan options. Since the Caesar dressing is already egg- and anchovy-free, the kitchen adds cashew-based mozzarella to appease vegan diners. For those who want to add protein, premium add-ons include sea bass, tofu or skirt steak, which can increase the price as much as $9 and transforms it into a standalone lunch or dinner entree.

The Payoff: Not only has it remained one of the kitchen’s most popular menu items since the restaurant opened, it also reaps big profits with its low food cost. “It’s recognizable as a Caesar, but it feels modern and locally inspired,” says Diaz. “Diners want simple familiar flavors but new ingredients.”

Menu price: $14
Food cost: 11 percent

Replace and Conquer
Boost profits with creative swaps.

Make things saucy ]
The Caesar dressing at Mr. Brown’s Lounge in Chicago is spiked with a housemade jerk sauce, creating a spicy Jamaican riff on the classic.

Step up the croutons ]
At FarmBloomington in Bloomington, Indiana, Chef Daniel Orr cools stoneground grits and cuts them into squares, adding a chewy texture to his endive Caesar.

Apply some fire ]
Tufts of romaine are roasted in a woodfired oven at Treno Pizza Bar in Westmont, New Jersey, creating a charred Caesar with a smoky accent.

Pour some beer ]
Chef Jay Mitchell of Tennessee Brew Works in Nashville, Tennessee, incorporates the brewery’s floral 1927 IPA to the house Caesar dressing, along with beer bread croutons and shaved cured egg yolk as a way of cutting the salad’s richness.