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Trying out tomatoes

The crowd at Roger's Gardens on Saturday morning gasped with excitement when they learned 90 different varieties of tomatoes were waiting for them in a nearby tasting area.

"What I want you to do is eat until your lips bleed," said Steve Goto, who'd just been introduced as Mr. Tomato.

Minutes later, a few hundred people were off. Armed with toothpicks, they crowding around tables filled with sliced tomatoes. Others rushed toward Goto and peppered him questions about the best fertilizer or pruning method.

For 14 years, Roger's Gardens has invited Goto to host their annual tomato tasting. It's the finale to a growing seminar he hosts earlier in the year.

Each year, the masses swarm the tomatoes and mark score cards to rank their favorites. Roger's Gardens will tabulate the votes and post results their website in about a week, Goto said.

Stephanie Walton, who helps maintain a community garden in Anaheim, said her favorite was the dainty Japanese pink cherry.

"It was just bursting with flavor," she said. "There are some that are really pretty but they have no flavor at all."

Sue Coats, who traveled to Newport Beach from Walnut, preferred a more rustic specimen.

The foot-shaped blue beauty's odd protrusions and splotchy coloring contained the dessert-like flavor she wanted.

"It's sweeter," she said. "It's a little bit more rich."

At this years event, Roger's Gardens also reprised its pepper tasting that appeared for the first time last year.

Alongside the tomato lovers, crowds lined up to compare hatch, habanero or ghost chilies.

The dozen or so varieties came from the garden of staff horticulturist David Rizzo.

They ranged from the tamer Anaheim to the extreme scorpion — 10 times hotter than the already spicy habanero.

Riverside resident Mark Sterner was up to the challenge.

He scooped a tiny sliver of the wrinkly red scorpion pepper onto a chip and ate it.

"Wow," he said, immediately opening his eyes a little wider. "It's a hot that hits you right away. It doesn't fool around."

But it was a good heat he said, one that enveloped his whole mouth. It wasn't enough to scare him off from the chili table or send him scrambling for something to cool the burning.

"What the heck," he said mopping some sweat with a napkin. "You gotta try it once."

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