Have you ever stepped into a restaurant and seen immediately that it's meant for families rather than single people? Walking into Sweet Tomatoes, I felt like I was entering a large daycare center with a baked potato bar. Now I know how people with children in tow feel at a hipster joint or a cocktail party. The doors of the Sweet Tomatoes restaurant at 14015 East Evans Avenue in Aurora open up to a hefty, oval wooden salad bar where customers get salads first -- and pay at the end of the bar. That's a clever business decision, since if folks are going to do a hog & jog they'd only get away with a few tongs of lettuce.
I grabbed a war-torn plastic tray and studiously examined the bowls of chopped iceberg (ew), rather rusty-tipped Romaine and wilty, pre-prepped Asiago Caesar salad. The chilly bin of mixed baby greens and spinach looked fresh and hydrated, and the long bar of salad vegetables and fixin's was clean and organized, but the choices were typical, no-frills choices like slabs of pickled beets, cuts of celery, garbanzo beans in their cloudy broth, clumpy shredded cheese, cold peas, mushy tomato wedges, dry button mushroom slices and two containers of pickles.
I decided to be a risk-taker and scoop myself two of the featured pasta salads: Mandarin shells with almonds and tuna tarragon. They did not look promising, but I'm a game-day player.
I stacked my salad plate with greens, cheese, red onion slivers, sliced black olives and daubed the whole masterpiece with blue cheese crumbles and then slathered it with blue cheese dressing for that double-blue-cheese effect. Besides, salad bar dressing is usually bereft of chunks.
I slid my tray to the cashier, paid (this place is el cheapo -- $10 and some change per adult meal), discovered that the buffet does not include beverages--well-played, Sweet Tomatoes -- and found a comparably less-battered booth. The dining room was dingy and crowded with parents and their noisy, unsupervised children. I get all pet-peevy about people who use buffets as babysitters, since kids usually slam into my knees and poke their chubby little digits into the ice cream toppings.
The hot and dessert bars are on the other side of the dining room, and I abandoned my salad tray, nearly missed getting shin-tagged by a gang of eight-year-olds, and served myself a particularly good glass of strawberry-pureed lemonade.
Next up was the baked potato bar, beginning with a steamy bin of undersized, leathery, un-foiled taters parked next to a few almost-empty bins of moist bacon-bit clusters and warm, droopy cheese shreds. The sour cream bin had old, cream-crusties up the sides, and I couldn't spot butter anywhere -- it was across the way at the bread station, which had a few equally lackluster offerings like lowfat cornbread (dry as f*ck), blueberry muffins (dry as f*ck), a metal pan of chocolate lava cake that had a line of people in front of it, and what I'd assumed was pizza but was actually topped focaccia bread. The chicken and peanut had too little chicken and too much shredded carrot; the cheese-topped ones looked passable.
The dessert bar was unbearably forlorn. There was a metal bin of suspicious-looking stuff that was either chocolate pudding or mousse, some skanky-looking red grapes and mush-tipped honeydew melon slices. As I peered over at the line of antsy kids waiting to use the soft-serve machine, I decided to head back to the table.
My salad was fine: It was a salad, so no excitement there. But the two pasta salads were awful in ways that have me turned off of pasta salads for the foreseeable future: over-boiled shell pasta in a sticky soy dressing with too much carrot and a few flaccid broccoli bits, and tuna salad with no tuna.
The baked potato was dry so I quickly gutted it, leaving a parched shell, and went back to the hot bar for soup. There was pinto bean and brown rice, chicken and rice, chicken noodle, clam chowder, Indian lentil and beef chili. The chowder had a fake-smoke seasoning flavor to it, the lentil was bland, but the pinto bean and rice was well-seasoned, and aside from being a tad watery the chili wasn't bad -- plenty of ground beef, nice tomato broth, and easy on the carrots and celery.
On the way back to my seat I got whacked in the side by an employee hauling a high chair. Still, better to be accosted by a kid's chair than a kid.
Before I left, I'd pretty much decided that rather than visit Sweet Tomatoes again, I'd take take my $13 and grab a make-my-own salad and an Italian soda at Whole Foods, take them home, and then savor every bite and sip while catching up on Breaking Bad in my quiet, injury-and-spawn-free house.
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Someday I may decide to squeeze out a few tadpoles and learn to appreciate the merits of someplace like Sweet Tomatoes, but today is not that day.