It’s 6:30 p.m. and there are three empanadas left, huddled under the heat lamp like survivors of a storm. Now is the calm. Alexis Renteria, who’s manning the front counter tonight, tells me he's sorry: It’s been hard to keep a lot of the more popular items on Tomate’s menu in stock.
The kitchen behind Renteria is a far cry from the street food that inspires the cooking at Tomate. Industrial-size stoves sport dozens of flickering burners and a griddle the size of a washing machine warms tortillas. In the back, there are some vegetables waiting in cold storage, but most of the ingredients are out on the counter, fresh and ready. A row of rotisserie chickens waits to be incorporated into tomorrow's gorditas and empanadas.
Located on Noyes Street, you wouldn’t guess that there was a line out the door just a half hour before, and that the restaurant has only been open for two weeks. The occasional stray student or Evanston family wanders in, but there’s not much left for them to order. The phones trills from the corner every now and then and Tania Ruiz, owner and operator of Tomate, answers it dutifully, offering whatever items she has left in her kitchen.
“It’s been a lot more than what we had anticipated, expected,” says Ruiz. “I mean, our first day open – we were all like deer in front of headlights. It’s been overwhelming, but it’s a happy feeling.”
Tomate’s tenure, thus far, been full of such happy accidents. Tomate wouldn’t be more than an empanada stand at the Evanston Indoor Market if it weren’t for Ruiz's chance sighting of a space for rent on Noyes Street. She recalls having a gut feeling about it, seeing her dream in empty space like a sculptor sees a form in marble. The rest is quickly becoming history. What’s more, Renteria, age 19, got his job in Ruiz’s kitchen when he got a flat tire just off Noyes in the days leading up to the restaurant’s opening.
“I was going into businesses to see if they had an air pump and I saw that [Tomate] had a help wanted sign. But I just asked about it, I didn’t apply for the job.”
But the next day, he came back just in case they still needed an extra pair of hands. Ruiz put him to work within a few minutes of walking in the door.
“She’s like, ‘If I asked you to do something right now, do you think you could do it?’" says Renteria. "I was like, ‘Sure, no problem’, and then I’m in the kitchen. I started cutting meat and she liked how I worked, so I got hired.”
But since then, Renteria says, things have been more formal. At first, his shifts started early - 6:00 a.m. Opening day came and went and Tomate sold out of their signature empanadas, made more and sold out again. Now, he gets in about an hour before opening and starts the day’s cooking. Almost every item on the menu, he and Ruiz are both keen to emphasize, is made completely from scratch each day.
Things are still settling at Tomate, but it’s clear that they’ve got what matters: The empanadas are definitely worth the long wait in lines (I had two of the three surviving pastries, one with cauliflower and beans and one with beef and mushrooms) and the staff is both gracious and patient. For each item crossed off the menu, they do their best to accomodate and offer alternatives. Sometimes this takes a few minutes of precious time, but Ruiz and her staff seem happy to give it. In the mean time, Ruiz continues to restructure. She's trying to run an efficient kitchen while keeping things fresh, true to her urban roots. Her hope is to spare her customers the heartbreak of missing out on her cooking and maybe to introduce them to some new Latin flavors in the process.
“In the next few weeks, we’re definitely going to be more prepared,” she says. “We’ve been changing how we structure ourselves so we don’t have this problem. We want everybody to get fresh food, to get every thing they order, everything they want. Even if it means staying late or getting up early like we’ve been doing. I just want people to be happy coming here.”
Beyond that, Ruiz is invested in bringing the diverse flavors familiar to her into the Evanston taste-palate. She’s also concerned with staying true to her street food roots, crafting meals that are portable as well as unique and delicious.
“I want to be able to bring in different foods from Latin America, from Guatemala.” Ruiz is from Gautemala herself. “Things that are different, savory, flavors that [people] can’t enjoy all the time without having to go to a sit-down restaurant for a big meal. I want to give them something that’s small, tasty, so that they’ll be full and happy. That’s what I want.”