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Tomato Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Tomato Cafe on Academy

The Tomato Cafe at its former site on Academy

You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let’s call the whole thing off
-
Ira & George Gershwin

Let’s call the whole thing off.  If the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century had had its way, the tomato might not be a ubiquitous ingredient in the cooking of many cultures today.  So, just what is it about the seemingly innocuous tomato that once earned it a scurrilous reputation in the Church, the type of reputation which made it the  Paris Hilton of the nightshade family?  Brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, it was initially viewed with apprehension, thought not to be edible but purely decorative–and poisonous.  Leave it to the French to change that perception by ascribing aphrodisiac properties to what they called pomme d’amour or love apple.  This prompted the Roman Catholic Church of the time to declare the tomato the “fruit of the devil,” a sinful indulgence. 

The scandalous tomato, its sensuous red color and sweet-tangy flesh spurting with red juiciness, was even thought to be the fruit Eve offered to Adam.  Because of its role in original sin, the Church believed the tomato to have been cast off to the furthest reaches of man, where it could no longer be the tempting source of transgression.  More disconcerting to the Church fathers was that the tomato was deemed a symbol of tempting, bewitching femininity, a threat to the patriarchal boy’s club of the age.  Worse, the hermaphroditic tomato plant self-pollinated, needing not the seed of man. 

The exhibition kitchen at the Tomato Cafe on Montano and Coors

For nearly a century and a half after being brought from the new world, the forbidden fruit was avoided throughout Italy.  Its use was eventually spurred on by the poor in Naples who cared more about filling empty bellies than subscribing to the wrongful notions of the Church.  It was in Naples that in 1889, the tomato became forever entrenched in culinary history when an Italian pizzaiolo crafted a pizza whose colors reflected the red (marinara sauce), white (mozzarella cheese) and green (fresh basil colors of the Italian Sabauda flag.  He named the pizza the Margherita, for his queen.  

Today the once scandalized tomato is as revered as it once was reviled.  The notion of Italian food without tomatoes is nearly impossible to conceive–like a day without sunshine.  Can you imagine salsa–America’s favorite condiment–made without tomatoes?  Without tomatoes, there would be no Bloody Mary, no Caprese salad, no BLT sandwich, no ketchup and no gazpacho.  Soups, barbecue sauces, stews, ceviches, meat loaf–they would all be forever different without the ubiquitous, nutritious, delicious tomato.  To say tomatoes are the fabulous foundation of many a meal is a vast understatement. 

Slice of vegetarian pizza, ravioli (available only for dinner and Sunday lunch) and meatballs

In 1993, Deborah Gagnon and Don Watroba founded an upscale, all-you-can-eat Italian buffet restaurant named Mama Lena’s.  Within a year, the restaurant changed its name to the Tomato Cafe, but by any name, this award-winning treasure can’t be mistaken for anything but a unique restaurant concept that provides great value while serving generally very good Italian favorites.  The Tomato Cafe’s mission statement is to “Provide our guests with delicious, high quality food, friendly service in a pleasant atmosphere at a good value.”  Mission Accomplished!  The restaurant has earned a gaggle of accolades, consistently winning or placing high on the Alibi’s coveted “best all-you-can-eat restaurant” category in its annual restaurant poll.  In 2002, manager Deborah Gagnon was named “restaurateur of the year” by the New Mexico Restaurant Association, a tribute to this restaurant’s success.

For me, however, the endorsement I trust most comes from my esteemed friend Jacob Muller, the most precocious fourteen year old I know, who considers the Tomato Cafe his favorite restaurant.  Considering he already knows more about dinosaurs than I’ll ever learn, I put a lot of stock on his opinion.  Like Jacob, I’ve never tried any of the salad ingredients, so eager am I to dig into the main event–five handcrafted pizzas, two homemade soups, three types of pasta, breadsticks, polenta, garlic green beans, fresh broccoli, six sauces, meatballs, ravioli and ice cream with toppings included.

Gourmet pizza

Gourmet pizza

An exhibition kitchen gives you the opportunity to watch as pizza pies are deftly tossed into the air and fashioned into thin crusted orbs of deliciousness.  If a specific type of pizza isn’t available on the buffet line, one of the accommodating pizzaioli artisans can craft it for you.  The gourmet pizza is sometimes ameliorated by non-traditional pizza ingredients–feta cheese, barbecue sauce, piñon nuts, and other savory offerings.  You’ll only find thin-crusted pizza here, but it’s substantial enough to hold the great ingredients that adorn each pizza.  My very favorite is the barbecue chicken pizza in which the barbecue sauce has just the right amount of tang to make it interesting.  The chicken is applied parsimoniously, but what lands on the pizza is moist and delicious.    Also quite good is any pizza in which New Mexico green chile is added. 

Two types of soup–a vegetarian posole and a tomato basil–are positioned next to the salad ingredients in the family-style buffet line-up.  The roasted tomato basil soup is one of those comforting home-style soups which will give you pause to contemplate the greatness that is the tomato.  This flavor-rich elixir for whatever ails you is redolent with the aromas of fresh vegetables and Italian seasonings in perfect proportions.

Meatballs and penne pasta with green chile Alfredo sauce

Meatballs and penne pasta with green chile Alfredo sauce

Six sauces such as roasted tomato garlic, white clam, green chili Alfredo, sausage and Bolognese will embellish your choice of pasta.  The white and red clam sauces actually reminds me of my halcyon days in Massachusetts when my palate (and waistline) began to expand as I experienced theretofore foods outside my New Mexican comfort zone.  There’s nothing better on a cold winter day than a bowl of pasta with a generous amount of deliciously chewy clams and a tangy tomato sauce.

New Mexicans might prefer the tasty green chile Alfredo sauce (pictured above) as a pasta topper.  This sauce has a surprisingly piquant taste chile aficionados appreciate.  Next to the pizza, the favorite fare for children of all ages just might be the meatballs.  A tray of meatballs swimming in a tangy tomato sauce is frequently replenished as it seems most diners load their plates with these delicious orbs.  Other patrons prefer the ravioli (available only for dinner and Sunday lunch) which is nearly as big as a Big Chief tablet.

Tomato Basil Soup

After fifteen years at its original location on Academy, the Tomato Cafe moved to the Holly Place Center at Paseo del Norte and San Pedro.  In 2010, the restaurant expanded, adding a second store in the Montano Plaza (Coors and Montano).  Since 2002, the Tomato Cafe has donated all unused food to feed the homeless, the type of civic mindedness which endears this terrific restaurant to its patrons almost as much as the food does.

Tomato Cafe
5920 Holly Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
821-9300
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 12
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gourmet Pizza, Ravioli with Green Chile Alfredo Sauce, Red Clam Sauce, Meatballs

Tomato Cafe All-You-Can-Eat Gourmet Italian Food Bar on Urbanspoon

  • Richard says:

    Love the Tomato Cafe although I wish they weren’t moving- perhaps moved by now. Nice to go in for fast service, very good food and the variety is perfect for our tastes. Little bit of salad, lots of pizza choices, soups and pasta. While I am not one for ice cream with every meal the kids can’t resist. Looking forward to seeing how the new digs works for them but will miss the Academy location.

    July 28, 2009 at 6:13 PM
  • Sr Plata says:

    The family and I went to the Tomato Cafe off Paseo just east of the I25. I would say the food for the price is fairly good. There is a wide variety of food from salads, pizza, pastas, sauces and vegetables. I have to say my favorite was combining the garlic immersed green beans and mixing with the brocolli to create a very delicious blend. I also very much enjoyed the fact they had whole wheat pasta and for some of us who are (should be) watching ourselves, makes for a good alternative to the other assorted pastas available. I would have like to see more in the pizza, perhaps a choice of thicker dough as well as more items and more cheese on the pieces. The pizza was the one thing that reminded me I was in a mid end pasta house. Perhaps a specialty of the day would be great. I did like the idea they serve wine but it was too early in the day to consider. The servers were very nice and seemed a very family friendly place. Its a place I would go to when pretty hungry for pasta. Almost forgot, the green chie alfredo sauce was very good, I mixed it with marinara to feel like it was 1/2 healthy…

    April 4, 2011 at 3:45 PM
    • randall says:

      wine early in the day as opposed to late in the day? whats the difference?

      February 23, 2014 at 10:59 AM
  • Roland says:

    Check the original location. Tomato Cafe was located on Juan Tabo a couple of blocks south of Menaul in a strip mall with a second location on Montgomery in another strip mall where there is now a Vietnamese restaurant. I was very sorry to see it move to Academy; even more sad to see it move even further toward I-25, but still glad they are serving. It is probably the highest end buffet in ABQ.

    September 25, 2011 at 9:27 PM
  • Morgain says:

    Ooooh, the green beans. I crave them fortnightly, and having moved even farther from I-25, I have them less often than I would like (though, my waistline probably appreciates that).

    September 26, 2011 at 8:30 AM
  • Bruce Schor says:

    Call me an elitist but buffets, especially Italian buffets are not my cup of tea.
    My one experience at Tomato Cafe was just mediocre.
    Perhaps it was between the lunch buffet and dinner time and perhaps the turnaround is slower at that time of the day. There was nothing about the food that stood out.
    For better value for your buck and much better Italian fare I opt for Joe’s Pasta House.

    September 26, 2011 at 10:03 AM
    • randall says:

      joes pasta house has the worst pesto sauce in the world!

      February 23, 2014 at 11:01 AM
  • Jim Millington says:

    I only ate there once and it was so long ago that much could have changed. It was at the actual original location on Juan Tabo which they closed when they opened on Academy. I must say that I found it so mediocre that we never returned even though it was a short walk from the front door. Maybe we should try again-you make it sound good.

    September 29, 2011 at 3:55 PM

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