You Say Tomato Casual spot offers good food for a good price BY TRICIA CHILDRESS Randy Hartley was a commodities trader in Charlotte on 9/11. On that day he decided to change his life and began to look for a new challenge. On March 1, 2002, he opened the 60-seat The Green Tomato. His concept? "Basically it's like Emeril Lagasse walked into a Boston Market and slapped it around a little bit." He named the restaurant for his grandmother's favorite snack.Green Tomato is a relaxed, casual spot and opening it was a gutsy move for Hartley, considering he located in an area with few locally owned restaurants. The physical layout of the former sandwich shop is still apparent. The long rectangular room yields a funky charm with red booths to the side, tables in the middle, a stained concrete floor, a bouncy mix of music, and a large painted green tomato vine wending its way up one wall. A side patio area is open during amenable weather. Diners order at the long counter on the left side, but food is delivered to the table. Although the menu is printed on the sign above the order station, many dishes, including the sides, may be viewed in the deli case. On one evening some folks watched ACC basketball on the television, while others crowded into booths sharing food and drinking beer. Green Tomato is definitely a neighborhood spot. The menu is offered all day and is divided into Southern and Cajun/Creole sections. Hartley, who grew up just outside Atlanta, said many of his recipes are his grandmother's with whom he spent his childhood summers. She lived in Mississippi, New Orleans, and on the Gulf shores of Alabama. Hartley, who worked as a line cook in Atlanta, does some of the cooking, but relies on Shebra Claypool in the kitchen. "She has been cooking for crowds for a long time since she used to cook for churches. She took my family recipes and made them better." Among the menu offerings are fried and rotisserie chicken, ribs, slow roasted beef, catfish, crawfish etoufee, gumbo, gumbalaya (jambalaya topped with gumbo), blackened or grilled chicken salad, and Po' boy sandwiches. The sides are the usual Southern bunch: broccoli, green bean, or sweet potato casserole; mac and cheese; cole slaw; red beans and rice; corn; squash; and potatoes. Long before Fannie Flagg's book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe made eating green tomatoes popular, Southerners have been slicing and frying tomatoes. The key to a good fried tomato is using a tomato, not necessarily green, but unripe and very hard. The fried green tomatoes here arrive piping hot, crispy, and golden. The New Orleans style chicken Po-Boy is even better. This well done sandwich had a bun perfectly grilled and first rate chicken. Entrees are served with Hartley's moist Mississippi cornbread. He said, "The recipe includes sour cream and has been in my family forever. It may even be my great-grandmother's recipe." The pulled pork, served on a divided plate, came without a sauce bath, and was subtly flavored. Collard greens deserved a splash of hot sauce. A collection of hot sauces from around the world are offered for sale. The cheese potatoes were not bad considering the entire plate cost only $6.75. The dish that might knock you out, literally, is the Shrimp Creole, gaining in heat throughout the evening. Dessert lovers will applaud the attackable banana pudding, meringue fluffed high. However, their "homemade" pies could stand homemade crusts and had that made in the morning taste, a dessert syndrome smaller restaurants are at times affected by. Saturdays are all you can eat Louisiana Crawfish for $10 during the season. A kids' menu is offered for three bucks and kids eat for free on Tuesdays. Daily lunch specials are $5.95. "Because you gotta eat and we need the money" is The Green Tomato tag line. But you can't go far wrong in this humble neighborhood spot where good food costs less than eight dollars a plate.