Saturday, July 14, 2007

Tonali: Gourmet Mexican

Last night I finally went to Tonali on Shannon Road. It must've opened about 8 months ago. The only way I can think to describe the food is as gourmet Mexican. It is located in a strip mall over by the Post Office. The decor is warm and inviting. Instead of velvet sombreros or cattle horns adoring the walls, there are abstract paintings.

The food bears little resemblance to the food at El Rodeo or Torero's. The menu changes often and is, rather than a compendium of all things Mexican, limited to a handful of starters, around 6 main courses, and 3 desserts.

My friend and I shared a wonderfully fresh and delicious mixed green salad with papaya, avocado, and jicama in a citrus vinaigrette. The textures of papaya and avocado provided a lovely contrast to the crisp jicama and mixed greens.

I ordered a main course was red snapper Veracruzana with fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and capers in a mild vinaigrette and served on a bed of lettuce. My friend had a pork loin marinated in chili spices with mashed potatoes. Both of our dinners were delicious. We practically inhaled them. I think we must've been very hungry!

Tonali only recently got its liquor license so now they serve a small selection of beers and wines. There was only one white wine by the glass. It was Spanish, crisp, easy to drink.

I will go out on a limb and say that Tonali is one of the top restaurants in Durham. It is better than Pop's and all of George's restaurants. I'd say it is comparable to Alivia's and right behind Nana's and Magnolia Grill.

It is somewhat expensive especially for a Mexican restaurant, but Tonali is anything but a typical Mexican restaurant! You must go.


Michael said...

Wow. You put Alivia's above Pop's and just below Magnolia Grill? I've got to be ordering the wrong things there. I've eaten there three times, and was hugely underwhelmed each time.

Regardless, thanks for the update on Tonali. I kept hearing rumors about it, but was never sure where it was.

Kelly said...

I think Pop's is not as good as it used to be. That's for sure! I've always had very good food at Alivia's. I put Alivia's under both Nana's and Magnolia Grill.

Phil said...

I'll have to try Tonali again. My earlier impressions were both different and not as positive.

My sense of Tonali is that it is two things:

(1) hybrid Latin American food that begins with traditional recipes then-modified to reflect (a) northern (i.e., US) tastes and (b) interest in fresh foods, and "new" taste combinations that may have never shown up in Mexico, but are more in line with how American chefs currently innovate.


(2) an effort to make more-authentic Mexican food available to gringos who aren't likely to visit a restaurant where Spanish may be required if you want to order with efficiency.

Sure, El Rodeo, Torero's and the rest are neither gourmet nor particularly authentic to Mexico or other points south.

If you want authentic Latin-American food, most of the local choices are on the gritty side: Azteca across from Lakewood Shopping Center, the place-I-can't-remember by Big Lots and Super Compare Grocery, and the to-go stand at the Cow Store on W. Chapel Hill St. are examples.

In the last few years, we have been getting more and more restaurants with higher-quality menu items and regional variety. Taqueria Lopez on Hillsborough is one good example. Their 7-seafood soup costs $15, is yummy, and wouldn't have been on any local menus in 1997. Around town you can find a Honduran restaurant, a Salvadoran restaurant, a Nicaraguan restaurant, etc. (T. Lopez is Oaxacan). I look forward to the time when we can get more "upscale" authentic Mexican food -- a restaurant where, say, the mojarra frita costs $25 but uses only ingredients that would be typical if were served in, say, Veracruz.

Anonymous said...

The go-to stand on chapel hill road opposite four square is called "la vaquita." If your spanish isn't so good, don't fret, they are really friendly.

Does anyone know a place to get champurrado in durham?

Michael said...

The one near Big Lots is La Fontina. Los tacos diablos (sorry, my Spanish is next to non-existant) are top notch for those who like to feel the burn...

Brian said...

Las Portales at Holloway and Hoover has the best Mexican street food I've had outside of the southern Arizona/California (and of course, Mexico). I moved here from Tucson, so finding this kind of food has been kind of a priority for me...

The asada and barbacoa burritos are especially good, and either will set you back less than $5.

English is rarely spoken there.

Eric said...

I and my girlfriend went there tonight based on this glowing review. We've been craving something a step up (or three) from El Rodeo. We were both disappointed.

We ordered the "first course" fish taco as an appetizer. One word: Gorton's. Honestly, the fish was an overly breaded deep fried mystery fish that compared to frozen fish sticks in a box. While the rest of the ingredients tasted good and were fresh, the fish detracted from the dish.

I ordered a smoked turkey dish with a mole sauce. It turned out to be a thick *deli sliced* smoked turkey and cheese quesadilla with mole on the side. The mole sauce was good but overall it was disappointing. Who puts lunch meat in a quesadilla?

My girlfriend ordered red snapper. It looked good but the fish was slightly overcooked and chewy.

For an appetizer, two entrees, and two drinks and tip we came in about $60 for the two of us. Neither one of us finished our food (rare for us!).

The service was polite and prompt but not overly talkative. The atmosphere nice. It was nearly empty on a Tuesday night.

We won't be going back.

Kelly said...

When I ordered the snapper, on Friday night it was perfect. Not chewy or overcooked. The quality might depend on staff. The pork was excellent too.

As far as Tonali being "authentic" I never claimed that.

palegreen said...
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Anonymous said...

Tonali is simply one of the four or five best restaurants in the whole triangle region. in fact, it's amusing that some of your posters don't get it. incidently you can get mexican wine there, not an easy feat in the united state.