You may be familiar with Tania Merlos-Ruiz’s empanadas from the Evanston Farmers Market, where her fresh, creative fillings are a hit with customers.
The pipian empanada, for example, is based on a family recipe from Guatamela, and combines pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and mustard greens, while the cochinita pibil is made from slow-roasted pork marinated in fresh orange juice, fresh lime juice, achiote and oregano.
“This is our first year doing this, and people have liked them very much,” says Merlos-Ruiz, who also sells empanadas at the Glenwood Farmers Market and the Low-Line Market in Lake View.
Fans of Merlos-Ruiz’s cooking are in luck, since she and her family are opening a bricks and mortar location in Evanston this October, at 914 ½ Noyes St. Called Tomate Fresh Kitchen, the new restaurant will serve carryout and delivery for lunch through dinner.
Merlos-Ruiz says she started selling empanadas at the indoor farmers market in Evanston this year, and people liked them so much that she continued to sell them at the outdoor farmers market over the summer. Then she began getting requests for catering, and opening a standalone location was “the next logical step,” she says.
She began looking for spaces in Chicago, but none seemed quite right. Then, one day, she was driving down Noyes Street in Evanston when she saw the vacant storefront next to Al’s Deli.
“It was just one of those places where you have a gut feeling and you know it’s the place for you,” she said.
In addition to empanadas, Merlos-Ruiz says Tomate Fresh Kitchen will also sell tacos, gourmet burritos, gorditas, tamales and Guatemalan tamales. Many options will be vegetarian or vegan friendly, like the vegetarian empanadas she makes with achiote, butter beans and green beans, or the ones with squash blossom flowers. Merlos-Ruiz plans to source as many ingredients as she can from farmers markets, including soups and salads whenever possible.
She also plans to experiment with sauces from Peru, Argentina and Costa Rica, among other places. Right now, she’s working on a chicken empanada with fig wine sauce, and a mole sauce made from heirloom pumpkins from the farmers market.
“I have so many ideas of what I want to do,” she says. “We’re going to be changing recipes constantly to bring in different types of flavors.”
Merlos-Ruiz says she hopes to open by Oct. 1.