A Taste of Tomate: New Evanston restaurant owner describes beginnings

Tania Merlos-Ruiz, owner of Tomate Fresh Kitchen, poses with one of her cakes. Tomate is set to reopen Feb. 15.

Lizzey Johnson, Reporter

Open the door of Tomate Fresh Kitchen, and wrap yourself in the warm scent of sizzling tortillas being fried to perfection. The restaurant has already formed a line of loyal patrons longer than its short entryway can accommodate. Still, the prospect of having to wait outside in frigid temperatures doesn’t taint the allure of made-to-order Latin meals.

The staggering success of Tomate means chef and owner Tania Merlos-Ruiz deserves high praise, yet she deflects the divine accomplishment of selling out of food in their first week.

“We didn’t expect the turnout we’ve been getting,” Merlos-Ruiz said.

Her dear friend and co-worker, Mary Lewis, recalls how frazzled the restaurant was by the crazed crowd of customers.

“You all looked like a pinball machine,” Lewis said.

Merlos-Ruiz echoes her sentiment, “I wanted to close the door!”

Much attributed to her vast background in the culinary world, Merlos-Ruiz’s tastes don’t merely subscribe to the Latin standard. Instead, she incorporates seasonal fare into traditional favorites. Her favorite dish on the menu may be the tilapia fish taco, but she contends that her salads are a top competitor.

“If you’re going to have a salad, you may as well have a good salad!” Merlos-Ruiz said.

And let’s not forget the most important part of the meal: dessert.

“When I worked at restaurants, desserts weren’t a big thing,” Merlos-Ruiz said. “A cake would last a week — but here, two days.”

Merlos-Ruiz said she enjoys bringing some of Latin America’s less mainstream produce to Evanston, such as Guatemalan chipilin and yucca from Mexico. She complements these foreign flavors with nearby products, deriving a significant portion of the restaurant’s ingredients from local farms. Her ability to transcend traditional Latin food norms, while preserving the authenticity of the dish, is nothing short of wonderful. But what exactly makes her fare so fantastic? A collection of secret recipes and a dough worth dreaming about … literally.

Merlos-Ruiz’s concept for her empanada dough came calling in the middle of the night.

“The dough (when I first started making empanadas) was a little thick,” Merlos-Ruiz said.

By the grace of a dream, she remembered rolling pasta during her stint at an Italian restaurant and realized this could be the fateful resolution to her dough dilemma.

Once she had streamlined her empanada, she set up shop at outdoor farmers’ markets, where she would eagerly watch customers’ faces to gauge their enjoyment. Word of the “Empanada Lady” took to the North Shore, and soon, numerous town farmers’ markets were inviting her to move her Latin delicacies indoors. She gathered a regular customer base and, in quintessential Merlos-Ruiz fashion, garnered great friends from her food.

Lewis was one of these farmers’ market followers.

“I met her just over a year ago,” Lewis said. “But I feel like I’ve known her for years because I love her to pieces.”

She watched as Merlos-Ruiz’s simple dream blossomed into a quaint Noyes storefront lacking in seating but overflowing with great service. Lewis admires how Merlos-Ruiz and her employees — all of whom possess a unique story about their employment — work tirelessly to produce custom products. After all, “This isn’t Chipotle!” Lewis said.

Though her employee base has grown steadily, Merlos-Ruiz maintains an intimate network of a few men who she oversees all-day, everyday. Yet still, she maintains that her favorite employee is her husband. Why?

“He’s free, and he works hard,” Merlos-Ruiz said.

This family, as fate would have it, is what led Merlos-Ruiz to her culinary induction. When her mother was battling stomach cancer in 2005, the doctors told her that their diets needed to be richer in vegetables and fresher foods.

“As Latinos, we come from a country with lots of agriculture,” Merlos-Ruiz said. “When we come here, we don’t eat as many vegetables as we should, and I thought we could do different things. It’s a matter of getting your creativity out there.”

Her mother’s passing was the chief catalyst for her culinary movement, and her influence remains the central force that propels her work.

“She is looking out for you,” Lewis said to Merlos-Ruiz. “There are lucky stars over this one.”

“She really is,” Merlos-Ruiz echoed pensively.

Leave Tomate, and carry with you a deliciously fresh pumpkin empanada, a piece of homemade flan, Merlos-Ruiz’s warm smile and the trademark scent you inhaled when you first walked in. After all, as Merlos-Ruiz said, “It’s my new perfume!”

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