Flavor: Salvadoran cuisine, with Cuban and Spanish influences
Ambiance: Bright, cheery and loud
Service: Short-staffed and somewhat lacking in the basics, but pleasant
It’s somewhat hard to know what to make of Tomato. The restaurant is now in its second incarnation, having recently morphed from a cocina Italiana to a cocina Latina, and it still bears traces of its former self.
Images of Italian chefs still grace the wall and wine menu. One drawing shows a haughty-looking cook lording over pots of various steaming noodles, refusing samples to begging wait staff. Bottles of various wines that the restaurant no longer offers still grace high-hung shelves, catching the sunlight that streams through the windows. Some of the decor, most notably at the bar, suggests the restaurant leans toward fine dining, while much of the atmosphere and the service does not. Somehow, erratic as all this is, it works.
Upon our arrival at Tomato, it didn’t take long for my Picky Companion and me to realize that the place was woefully understaffed, as only one waitress presided over a three-quarters-full dining room, casually assisted by a young man resembling her little brother. We were greeted warmly by little brother and ushered in the general direction of an empty booth.
Tomato is decorated in cheerful tones, with an atmosphere that evokes some of the nicer little places I have dined at in the nontouristy areas of Costa Rica. Looking at the sun-lit patio area with my back toward Patton Avenue and the building that Picky dubbed “the most attractive low-rent motel in Asheville,” I could almost imagine that the coast was not far away, and our conversation turned toward retiring in the tropics.
No mental images of swaying palms and sandy beaches could make our wait for beverages any more endurable, however. Still dry 10 minutes after our arrival, I proclaimed in typical hyperbole that I was absolutely “dying of thirst,” as we’d yet to have even been approached about drink choices, let alone watered.
Before I reached the point of total frustration, however, our smiling waitress appeared with chips and salsa, and we were able to order our appetizers and beverages – beer for Picky, horchata (a rice-milk beverage) from the restaurant’s list of house-made juices, for me. Shortly thereafter, little brother re-emerged with ice water and tried to take our order – at which point he was comically shooed away by our waitress (he disappeared into the kitchen and did not materialize again). Eventually another woman, who had been called in to help, became the third person to attempt to take our dinner order.
We amused ourselves during the wait for appetizers by perusing the menu. Tomato offers a myriad of traditional Latin American foods, peppered with influences from Spain: a paella, patatas bravas (boiled potatoes) and boquerones (fried sardines), as well as Cuban-style breakfast and ropa vieja. For the most part, though, Tomato prides itself mostly on its traditional Salvadoran cuisine, which is (mostly) cooked and served by a Salvadoran family.
We first sampled a pupusa, a dish of lightly stuffed, handmade tortillas served with tomato sauce and lightly pickled cabbage salad spiked with chilies. The tortilla was meaty, fluffy and substantial enough that “you can actually taste the corn,” Picky noted. The restaurant makes the dish fresh to order, stuffed with cheese, meat, beans or squash (or various permutations thereof) for the bargain-basement price of $1.50 a piece.
Then we tried the tamales – also an incomparable deal at $1.50 – and found them to be very good. Wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, they were rich with flavor and had a great texture, though I thought they would benefit from a little something extra – a chili sauce, perhaps. Or maybe I just wanted some meat (we had ordered the vegetarian variety).
The Ensalada Gringo – a salad with a curious title made comical when the waitress delivered three to a trio of white guys, with the query, “Three gringos here?” – was perfectly summery. The fresh greens were tossed with a delicious lemony dressing and then crowned with avocado and cherry tomatoes, but not the promised pepitos. I didn’t notice until after it was gone – and the salad was wonderful – whether the nuts made it onto the plate or not.
For our entrees, we chose the Huachinango a la Veracruzana (a red-snapper dish with tomatoes, olives and capers) and the grilled beef short ribs, that latter of which, sadly, was not in stock that evening. As a replacement, we ordered the ropa vieja, a Cuban dish of sofrito-flavored shredded beef. Both were excellent – and well worth the wait.
The ropa vieja carried a great depth of flavor, and served as it was with ripe, sweet plantains, rice and black beans, the dish was another incredible bargain at $8.50. The meat was tender and juicy, and it had a mild acidity from the bell peppers and tomato that made my mouth water for more.
The snapper was quite fresh, and was accompanied by another of the restaurant’s puffy handmade tortillas (though it arrived some time after the fish). The sauce that topped the fish was tangy with the olives and capers, and a nice complement to the flavor of the snapper. Stuffed to the gills, however, I only managed a few bites of it at the restaurant. But the next day, with its accompaniments of rice and beans, the Huachinago a la Veracruzano made a fabulous stuffing for some overgrown eightball zucchini we found lurking in the corner of our garden.
I sampled the flan for dessert, and found it good, but not great. The caramel that usually tops a flan was undetectable and the custard was a little eggy – but I still ate it all. The restaurant also serves plantains stuffed with sweet cream, arroz en leche, sweet empanadas and an out-of-place but probably welcome-to-some tiramisu.
For the most part, I was satisfied with my experience. The food was good, and an excellent value. For everything that we sampled – three appetizers, horchata, two entrees, dessert, and a total of three beers – our bill was less than 40 dollars. The service was charming for all of its mishaps, although everything (food, drinks and service) moved painfully slowly – an error that can be forgiven in the face of sudden amounts of business, but hopefully one that doesn’t become a habit.
In sum, Tomato, in its new incarnation, is quirky, at times dysfunctional – and surprisingly good. While it remains to be seen how this restaurant will evolve, I, for one, intend to find out.