The sweet (tomatoes) life

When I was talking to my brother to make plans for flying in last weekend to pick up the car, I originally looked at flying directly into Fayetteville. But Mike urged me to also look at flying into Raleigh-Durham, and sure enough it worked out better. I was using frequent flyer miles, and the only flight into Fayetteville that used the minimum number of miles would have arrived at 10 p.m. Saturday — giving me no time to spend with Mike and Kelly and the kids, since I’d have to leave first thing Sunday morning. By flying into Raleigh, about an hour’s drive north of Fayetteville, I had more options, and in fact I got there about 12:30, which gave us a nice afternoon and evening.

In fact, I think Mike and Kelly and the kids enjoy driving into Raleigh, and so they didn’t mind as much going out of their way to pick me up. We went by an outstanding farmer’s market there in Raleigh to pick up some produce, and we also went to eat at Sweet Tomatoes.

Sweet Tomatoes is known as Souplantation in some parts of the country, including California, where there was a Souplantation within walking distance of Mike and Kelly’s old apartment in Costa Mesa. I ate there with them on one of the two times I visited them in California. It’s all the same chain, regardless of which name is on the building.

It’s a national chain, but there are no locations in Tennessee yet. I think Murfreesboro would be a perfect place for one — I’m assuming their business plan would not allow a small-town site — and I’d certainly eat there if they located in the ‘boro.

The restaurant features a huge salad bar, plus a buffet of all-you-can-eat soups and pasta dishes, with breads (including a cheesy focaccia which kids can eat like pizza) and other side items, plus soft-serve ice cream and a couple of other options for dessert. You pay one all-inclusive price before sitting down to eat. I remember from the Costa Mesa location that you could, optionally, spend a little bit extra for a little tub of chicken to top your salad with; I didn’t notice that Saturday in Raleigh, but it may well have been there too. I wasn’t looking for it.

The soups rotate in and out with the seasons. Pop culture blogger and comedy writer Mark Evanier blogs about the creamy tomato soup every time it pops back up on the menu; it’s there now, and I tried a few spoonfuls of it in his honor once I had polished off a cup of clam chowder.

Unfortunately, on Saturday the soft-serve machine in Raleigh was broken. As consolation, you could ask one of the cashiers for a little bitty paper tub of ice cream — the kind you used to get with school lunches and things like that, accompanied by a little flat wooden spoon. Mine had some ice crystals in it, as if it had been in their freezer as an emergency backup for quite some time.

Everything else, though, was wonderful. The clam chowder was great and the tomato soup was great. One of the many options on the salad bar was a limited-time avocado BLT salad mix, already tossed with mashed avocado and bacon.

Seriously, we need this chain to open up in Middle Tennessee.

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