Friday, September 07, 2007

Sweet Tomatoes / Souplantation

On my recent trip to North Carolina I was able to try a Sweet Tomatoes/Soup Plantation restaurant. On June 15, 2007 I wrote about the Souplantation chain. The furthest north the chain has restaurants is North Carolina. The chain spreads across the country to California, where they originated. The specialty at Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation is salads, soups, and bakery!

The Cary, North Carolina location is a Sweet Tomatoes. The names Sweet Tomatoes and Soup Plantation seem to be interchangeable and dependent on the location. Regardless of which name the location has it is the same. In fact I thought that I was looking for a Souplantation in Cary based on the website located. I almost missed the restaurant driving around the shopping center that corresponded to the address when my wife spotted the Sweet Tomatoes sign and asked if that was what we were looking for. I certainly was!

We went on a very hot day – predicted to be 99 degrees and it felt hotter. We went for lunch on a Monday at around 12:45 pm. It was one of those days that you really do not feel like eating because of the heat – especially a large meal. Well, that did not discourage the Sweet Tomatoes patrons because the restaurant was almost full. This is a place for business people to have lunch as well as families and shoppers. The restaurant is large – perhaps about three quarters the size of an Old Country Buffet, Golden Corral, or Ryans.

Entering the restaurant we were a bit confused. As we entered we were faced with the beginning of the salad bar stretching out down the entrance with the cashiers at the other end. The salad bar had rails for trays along each side and each side was either the same or easily accessed the other side. An employee standing inside the door handed each person who entered a tray and directed them onto the line that went down the salad bar. There was a large sign to explain things but basically it said to take a tray, take a plate, and create your salad. We took plates and followed along the line wondering to each other how one would go back to the salad bar if the cashier is at the end and it is necessary to come through the line if you were to come back for more salad. I started wondering if this was really a buffet or all you care to eat restaurant – but the signs inside all did say buffet and all you can eat. We went along and took salad.

There were salad greens to take at the beginning and several special prepared green salads that followed, I took two of these special salads – the Caesar and a Chinese chicken salad called Wonton Chicken Happiness Salad. I also took a prepared noodle salad that had the name tuna in it but no tuna listed on the ingredients. I had decided that I was not going to fill up on the tossed salad. Many were filling more than one plate full of salad and the many, many toppings and dressings that were offered. If you can think of a salad topping they had it. They had small cups of chicken to top salads but there was a sign under the cups stating that the chicken cost $1.25 extra for one small serving. This struck me as odd but my wife speculates that they do this so that someone does not make a meal of chicken (though if you take the chicken noodle soup – which I will say more about later – you could eat all the chicken you desired. As we got toward the end we were approaching the two cashiers – one on each side of the salad bar right on the bar. Just before you reach the cashier you are asked for your drink order. You are given glasses with ice. If you would like just water at no charge you are given a blue colored glass. All other glasses are clear. We paid for our lunches and my wife asked the cashier what to do if one wants more salad. We were told that you just come back through with your paid receipt. Fair enough!

Price for adult lunch is $7.29. Adult dinner is $8.69. Children’s prices at all times are $4.49 for age six to twelve and $1.49 for age three to five. Under age three is free. Drinks are $1.79 for all at all times. There is an extra charge for salad bar chicken at $1.25 and they were also selling bags of thirteen cookies for $1.69. While cookies are not on the dessert bar there were plenty of other dessert choices.

We sat down and discovered that on each table as part of the little advertising platform was a card to signal that the table is occupied. This is great and comical! It said “See you next thyme” on the back to signal that you have left the table. We set the card and went for drinks. The soft drink bar is extensive and there are signs encouraging you to mix the drinks to create your own. There were fruit juices, coke soda products, “sweet” tea, and “unsweet” ice tea, lemonade, etc. This was one of the best soft drink bars that I have ever seen in a buffet. We returned to our table with our drinks and saw that everyone around us took everything off their trays and put them on the side of the table. Soon someone came to pick them up.

The salad was good. The Chinese chicken salad was exceptional. I would swear that I was eating a Chinese entrée from the taste. It was greens with herbs, a light oil dressing, bits of fried wonton noodles (which are also on the salad bar to add to any salad), and pieces of chicken. It was wonderful! The noodle salad with tuna in the name did not taste like tuna but was very good. If there was not so much more to try I would have been back for more but because this was lunch, and because it was so hot outside, and I would be driving to my next stop four hours away, I decided to make this a tasting lunch and not one where I fill up on everything that I like. (The tasting lunch filled me to the brim!)

After the salad we headed up to the hot buffet bars which lined the wall at the front end of the side of the restaurant. There were seven soups to take. We discovered after we sat down that the chain is having an international feature week from the beginning of August to the end of September. We were there during the second feature which was Mexican. We had just missed Italian. To come will be Greek and then Asian. There is a little folder brochure that is available to take that says passport on the outside and has the features for each of these special weeks. Mexican is good but not on a hot day when you are going to be traveling in a car for five hours with little chance to stop. There were many soups that I would have tried had this visit been under different circumstances. What I did try was the chicken noodle and the cream of mushroom. I also had some of the vegetable soup that my wife took. Everything is clearly marked every where in this restaurant which is really good. You not only know what each item is but also what it is made with. If you are not sure about something there is sign explaining the whole recipe. Every thing that is vegetarian is marked that way. The chicken noodle soup was called big chunk chicken noodle and that was not an exaggeration. There were large pieces of white meat chicken – enough to eat a whole breast of chicken or more along with thick dough noodles. The broth was light. The soup was good. The cream of mushroom soup was thick and hearty. It had large pieces of mushrooms in a thick brown cream soup. This too was good. The vegetable soup had plenty of vegetables in a light tomato based broth – this was a thin broth unlike many vegetable soups. The other soups that were offered were spicy and part of the Mexican theme. They were Albondigas Locas soup, Posole soup with pork, a chile, and a chicken soup with lime that was spiced with chilies.

Moving along the hot bar there was a baked potato bar that included both baked potatoes and baked sweet potatoes, each wrapped in foil. There were little bowls to put the potato in and there were hot and cold toppings. There was melted cheese and a light bean chili.

Following the potatoes there were two pizzas and a Greek style focaccia bread. The pizza was thick and loaded with cheese. One pizza was four cheese pizza and the other went along with the Mexican feature. This pizza had olives, peppers, chunks of tomatoes, cilantro, cheese, etc on top. It did have a mildly spicy taste. The cheese pizza was very good and if you like pan pizza or what is known as Sicilian style pizza you will love this. Moist, thick, and nicely seasoned – all making this a great item. Near the pizza there were fresh baked breads and muffins. This day there were corn muffins, blueberry muffins, double chocolate muffins, crusty bread, and others.

If you are still looking for something more, they have it. The hot bar ends with a pasta bar. Here were two prepared pasta dishes. There was fettuccine Alfredo and Macaroni and Cheese. There was also a hot bean dish (part of the Mexican feature) called (obviously) Hand Crafted Mexican Beans. It seems that they always have two pastas and then a bean of grain dish. When my picky eater wife saw the selections at the pasta bar she was disappointed. She likes things plain or basic and is avoiding high fat items. Behind the counter were trays of plain pasta and servers of sauces. I told her to ask for some plain pasta. The lady behind the counter was creating the pasta dishes out on the bar using these items and large skillets – right there at the counter. My wife asked for plain pasta and there was no problem! The lady scooped up some plain pasta and put it immediately into one of the skillets with some water to heat it. In moments she served my wife plain pasta and asked if she was sure she did not want some kind of sauce. My wife got a big bowl of pasta – more than she really wanted – but she was happy and her request was treated as if it happens all of the time, which given the kids eating here probably does happen all of the time, and all done with a smile. I tried the Fettuccine Alfredo and was a little disappointed. It was very bland and needed salt and pepper. With all of the spices in the Mexican themed dishes I expected this to be better than it was. It was nicely cooked but it should have been prepared with a little more salt and some pepper. I rarely add salt to anything but this pasta needed it.

All done – no, save room for dessert. There is soft serve frozen yogurt and a sundae bar with toppings. There was fresh fruit including grapes, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, watermelon, sugar free chocolate mousse, and jello. Remember those double chocolate muffins on the bread bar? Those made a wonderful dessert – if you have room to eat it. They were rich and chocolaty. Really good, but I really had no more room. I had set out to just have a taste but I was full! (What I do for my readers!)

It was time to turn that little card over to the side that said, “See you next thyme!” and leave. We had a great lunch and this would have made an equally good and filling dinner. We really did not need to know how to get back to the salad bar because we had so much without a return trip, but had we wanted to it would have been no problem! Despite the change in price from lunch to dinner I believe that the menu remains the same all day.

Service was very good. Dishes were cleared regularly from the table. You get your own drinks and refills. The room, the tables, the buffet bars, the floors, and everything was clean. The room was very pleasantly decorated. There was no smoking in this restaurant (even though this is North Carolina). There was a choice of booths or tables spread through out the restaurant with the serving bars to the front end of the dining room.

I only wish there was one of these restaurants near to where I live in the northeast. I had a real surprise one evening watching a re-run of an episode of The Gilmore Girls. This show takes place in State of Connecticut. In the dialog of this episode the “girls” are talking about this great restaurant that they had just been to in a town nearby. They spoke of all you can eat salad, pasta, and soup! My ears picked up as I had been only half paying attention. Then they named it by name – Souplantation! A Souplantation in Connecticut! Not exactly in my backyard – unless you have a boat to cross the Long Island Sound and then you can reach Connecticut in 25 miles but a two to three hour drive taking the land route! I had to check the Souplantation website to see what I had missed. No luck! This was just a bit of Hollywood. Obviously the show is filmed in California and some Hollywood writer must have just discovered Souplantation – and just had to send the Gilmore Girls there even if the nearest one to them is almost 1800 miles away! Ah well!

Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation is a must try! I highly recommend it assuming that they are all like the one that I had the pleasure to try. If any of our readers have been to another location please share your experience in our comments. If you live in North Carolina there is also a location in Raleigh. The chain has a website with menus (they change regularly) and a location finder and it is listed on the side of this page.


LouAnne said...

Hey! Sweet tomatoes is my dh's fav restaurant here in No.CA. It's a 30 min drive away "over the hill", so we often combine a visit there with some shopping. Like tomorrow when we will be finishing up our Christmas shopping and having "Dunch" there. Next time you are there and don't get too full too soon, try the double chocolate muffin split in the bottom of a soup bowl and topped with vanilla soft serve & carmet sauce! It's our traditional dessert when we visit.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the blog. I love Sweet Tomatoes. Whenever my mother visits, we must go! The Cary, NC location was the first I ever dined in years ago. My husband and I are regulars. They send you wonderful coupons when you complete a card to join Club Veg. If you're unable to print them out, just go to your inbox (on your smart phone) and show the cashier your coupon code. The savings will be worth it. My favorite items are the soups and cornbread! The Big Chunk Chicken Noodle Soup is a hug in a bowl. I enjoy it as takeout when necessary. During the summer months they also celebrate strawberries being harvested with (among other strawberry menu items) strawberry muffins and strawberry butter. Yummy. The reason that there is a price change for dinner is that a hot desert from the oven is served after 4:00 pm in the bakery. My favorites have been the cranberry and apple crumble; and plain ole apple crumble! At times, your waiter or waitress will walk around with a basket of complimentary chocolate chip cookies. Once, they gave me a bag if 13 cookies as they sang happy birthday!

Brendiux said...

You just guided a newbie to Souplantation. Thanks!!!