Tomato Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Tomato Cafe on San Pedro Just South of Paseo Del Norte

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

Prior to the introduction of tomatoes in 1548, the Italian diet was largely similar to the diet throughout the rest of the Mediterranean. Such staples as bread, pasta, olives, and beans were commonplace, as was a variety of different types of polenta. The Italian diet of the time varied depending on region: fish featured heavily near the coast while inland regions would rely more on pork and wild game. Garlic, onion, pepper and onion oil was used to add flavor.  Olive oil also held a central role in the region’s cuisine.  While a Mediterranean diet is delicious and even healthy, it’s certainly not as popular as Italian food has become across the world thanks largely to the now ubiquitous tomato.

Tomatoes were initially received with skepticism on account of their unusual qualities. They were associated with eggplant, another foreign vegetable introduced to Europe from abroad (in this case from the Middle East). Similar to tomatoes, it took hundreds of years for eggplant to become an accepted ingredient in the Italian diet.  Both vegetables were believed to have malevolent effects on the body. European colonists had no interest in learning about the cuisines of the New World peoples they conquered.  They lacked and were not interested in acquiring the proper knowledge on how to prepare and make edible and tasty such vegetables as tomatoes, potatoes, and other New World staples.

The Capacious Dining Room and Buffet Bars

For nearly a century and a half after being brought from the new world the much maligned (some would say 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 about the tomato.  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. 

Best of The City Awards

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 “best of” annual restaurant polls.  In 2002, manager Deborah Gagnon was named “restaurateur of the year” by the New Mexico Restaurant Association, a tribute to this restaurant’s success.

When my Kim and I returned to New Mexico after eight years of living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Tomato Cafe was one of the very first restaurants we tried.  Over the years we’ve returned many times and still haven’t tried any of the salad ingredients that aren’t atop a pizza.  That’s how eager we are 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.  If you think the build-back-better economy has made “quality” and “inexpensive” an anachronism, you owe it to yourself to visit the Tomato Cafe.  The only sticker shock you’ll experience here is when you see how low the bill of fare is.

Pasta With Red Clam Sauce, Meatballs and Ravioli

7 January 2022: 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.    My Kim’s favorite is a plain cheese pizza.  Right out of the oven, it may be the best cheese pizza in town.  Needless to say, any pizza constructed with green chile is gone quickly.

Two types of soup–a vegetarian posole and a roasted 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.  Avert your eyes if you’re as determined as we are not to have salad.  If the leafy green stuff doesn’t get you, maybe one of the gluten-free dressing choices–Italian, Ranch, Parmesan Peppercorn, Feta Vinaigrette and Tomato Basil Vinaigrette–just might.

Two Slices of Lobo Pizza and One of Barbecue Chicken Pizza

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.  Other than red or green chile, there’s perhaps 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  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 spinach and ricotta cheese ravioli (available only for dinner and Sunday lunch) which is nearly as big as an iPhone.

Soft Serve Swirl Ice Cream with Chocolate Sauce

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
7900 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-9300
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 January 2022
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gourmet Pizza, Ravioli with Green Chile Alfredo Sauce, Red Clam Sauce, Meatballs

17 thoughts on “Tomato Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

  1. The unique original design of the Tomato Cafe indicates the strategic importance that design brings to the ambiance of the dining experience and the innovation and creativity of the menu. The menu items evolve but remain true to the original healthy and Tuscan menu. I have dined in all fifty states and over thirty countries, but the Tomato Cafe stands above the rest.

  2. What an informative and helpful guide to the Tomato Cafe. It’s a rare thing on the internet these days to find such a first-hand write up. Thank you for keeping us posted and spinning a lovely yarn while we’re at it. I might not ever make it to Albuquerque, but if I do, now I know where to head for lunch.

  3. Driving on Paseo this past Tuesday, I noticed the Tomato Cafe space now appears to be inhabited by a Pizza Hut carryout. I was not aware it had closed.

    1. According to the Tomato Cafe website and Facebook page, the all-you-can-eat Italian food bar is relocating to 7900 San Pedro, N.E., one block south of Paseo Del Norte. It’s expected to reopen in “late 2018.” Over the years, the Tomato Cafe has probably moved more often than any restaurant in Albuquerque.

      1. They said they were going to open in October now late 2018? It’s getting to be very late 2018. Don’t do anybody get their hopes up too high!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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).

  7. 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.

  8. 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…

  9. 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.

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