Chef Tania Merlos-Ruiz, who runs the new Tomate Fresh Kitchen at 914 ½ Noyes St., studied baking, pastry and savory dishes at Washburne Culinary Institute. She counted the late Maggie Daley as a big fan of her black bean soup, and has received numerous accolades, including a Les Dames d’Escoffier and Diageo scholarships. Recently, she won first prize for her Latin-inspired fusion of spices and chilies at the Glenwood Chili Cook-Off.
Last year, she began offering her homemade empanadas at Evanston’s indoor winter Farmer and Artisan Food Market, and moved to the Downtown Farmers’ Market in the spring. The contemporary Latin flavors she produced with fresh local ingredients were a hit with customers, she says, and she began getting more requests for catering.
Chef Ruiz, encouraged by this success, began to look for space for a brick-and-mortar store where she could pursue her creative passion for cooking – “the next logical step,” she says. She began looking for space in Chicago, but she says the warm reception she had received from Evanston shoppers kept bringing her back up north. Ms. Ruiz and her family opened Tomate Fresh in October, where they offer “gourmet street food” for carryout and delivery, lunch through dinner, and cater everything from birthday parties to board meetings and university-sponsored cultural celebrations.
Ms. Ruiz says that as soon as she walked in the door of the vacant storefront next to Al’s Deli, she had “a gut feeling.” She says she knew “it was just the perfect spot.”
In addition to traditional and contemporary desserts and empanadas, the café sells tacos, burritos, gorditas and nachos, sourcing as many fresh ingredients as she can from local farms. Her popular chicken empanada features mole sauce made from farmers’ market heirloom pumpkins. Many options are vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, such as fillings of roasted sweet potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, and charred corn with guajillo sauce and cotija cheese.
“Years before I started culinary training,” she says, “my mom was seriously ill. … The doctors stressed that mindful eating is key to good health: fresh wholesome foods, especially vegetables. Traditional Latin food uses mainly meat and a limited variety of herbs. I began my culinary career because I love our traditional foods, but know that we need to add more veggies to our meals.”
Ms. Ruiz says she experiments with produce mainstream in Latin America, but less known here: pacaya and chipilin from Guatemala; nopales, chayotes, yucca from Mexico; chilis aji and purple potatoes from Peru; chimichurri from Argentina. She says she is working on a pipian empanada based on a family recipe from Guatemala that combines pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and mustard greens. “I have so many ideas of what I want to do,” she says. “My food is far from traditional. We’re going to be offering specials constantly to bring in new and unique flavors.”