Since opening in 2013, Tomate has made a name for itself as a staple lunch spot and game day must-have for hungry Northwestern students. Serving up burritos, tacos and gorditas six days a week, owner Tania Merlos-Ruiz said the inspiration for the Noyes St. location came from her Guatemalan heritage and love of empanadas and traditional Latin street food.

Isabelle May

Starting at a young age, Merlos-Ruiz worked her way through the restaurant ranks as a server, manager and chef. She said the many roles fostered her infatuation with the foodservice industry and ultimately influenced her decision to attend Washburne Culinary School in Chicago. Upon graduation, Merlos-Ruiz hoped to make the plans for her own place a reality, especially given the lack of female representation in professional kitchens.

“It is a male dominated industry,” Merlos-Ruiz said. “I needed to do something if I wanted to be able to make my own creations.”

Merlos-Ruiz started out selling empanadas at the Evanston Farmers’ Market until the opportunity to open a permanent location struck by chance. On the way to a friend's house, Merlos-Ruiz noticed a “For Rent” sign posted outside the small storefront nestled next to Coffee Lab. Taking the serendipitous moment as motivation, a few weeks later, the place was hers.

Upon opening her doors in August of 2013, Merlos-Ruiz said she did not anticipate amassing such a dedicated following of college students. By the time fall quarter came around, Tomate was ingrained in the Northwestern routine. Merlos-Ruiz said she made an effort to keep prices reasonable for all budget-conscious eaters.

Isabelle May

“We are so happy to be a part of students' lives,” Merlos-Ruiz said. “We try to give back to them as much as possible.”

As with many restaurants amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the shutdown challenged Merlos-Ruiz in unforeseen ways. Though she struggled to find her footing as the rest of the world sheltered inside, Merlos-Ruiz said she remained dedicated to providing safe service and an excellent meal for every customer.

To minimize the spread, the Tomate dining room remains closed for the time being, but their delicious Al Pastor burritos, Ropa Vieja empanadas and Mayan Style Guacamole can be easily ordered online for pickup at their takeout window.

Merlos-Ruiz said she couldn't choose between her favorite items on the menu — they all have a special place in her heart. The chicken burrito and spicy mushroom tacos, however, have been endorsed by the student body.

When possible, Merlos-Ruiz strives to include organic produce in all her menu items and sources ingredients from a mix of local vendors and authentic imports.

Isabelle May

Students consider Tomate to be integral to the Northwestern experience — no one should go through their four years without placing an order right beyond the CTA.

During her early months in Evanston, freshman Jesse Perlmutter made it a tradition to pick up a burrito on her way back from football games at Ryan Field.

“It was the perfect treat after a long, exciting Saturday afternoon,” Perlmutter said.

The promise of a satisfying meal at a fair price is what keeps Wildcats coming back to Merlos-Ruiz’s shop time and time again. Whether fueling up after the game or looking for a lunch with friends, Tomate packs efficiency, flavor and Latin flare into every item on the menu.