ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Imagine you are having an all-you-can-eat experience where the service is sociable and the food appealing and fresh. Rather than facing 82 options, choose from a restrained number of high-quality items to keep your taste buds happy but your plate not overwhelmed.
While savoring the meal, don’t forget to take a sip from your glass of wine or beer. No cookie-cutter buffet can do this. You are in a two-decades-old local restaurant in love with feeding you well. That restaurant is called Tomato Cafe, and its two locations are the pride of owner Deborah Gagnon.
During lunch, a mere $8.49 gains one access to a spread containing pizzas, pasta, sauces and salad – even soft-serve ice cream for the finale. The salad bar is exceedingly fresh but more limited than I prefer. I tend to adorn my salads with dozens of toppings, but with spinach this vibrant the usual veggies like mushrooms, tomatoes and carrots will suffice.
LOCATION: 5920 Holly NE (near Paseo del Norte and San Pedro), 821-9300
Open Everyday – 11:00 AM to 8:30 PM
BEER AND WINE
Tomato Cafe focuses primarily on pasta and pizza. With a half-dozen pizzas on display at any moment, both meat eaters and lovers of gourmet combinations like feta cheese and pine nuts will find a match. The crust is thin but sturdy enough for any of the toppings and rises above any buffet pizza I have ever had – ignore the heat lamps and you’d swear they cooked the pizza just for you.
My server came by often to check on me, making sure everything was up to par. After a while his friendliness bordered on too much attention, and in a lightly populated dining room he certainly had the time.
Pastas offer a selection from traditional spaghetti to whole wheat to the shorter sauce-catchers like rigatoni or penne. You’ll need those ridges – with many sauces on display, sampling is an easy affair. The hearty red clam sauce is one of my favorites, even beating out the hugely popular green chile alfredo. Simple marinara gets a few variations as well, with or without mushrooms and garlic, each with a vibrant tang that is a great counterpart to the whole wheat pasta. Tender meatballs rank high on my list, on their own or augmenting one of the other sauces.
Dinner brings a stiffer entry fee ($10.49) and fresh ravioli, but the rest of the spread is the same. Soups change often, but if the posole is available it is a must-try, with just a bit of heat for a local’s palate. Even on a hot day good posole is appreciated, but something lighter and cool such as gazpacho would be a great addition.
A cup of chocolate soft-serve will be mandatory for the kids at the table, but they will balk at the lack of colorful toppings – even lower-priced salad buffets feature a variety of sprinkles and such.