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Triangle: Tonali -- A Very Mixed Experience

I paid my first visit to Tonali, the two-month-old Mexican bistro in Durham, inspired by rave reviews on this board. The experience was weirdly mixed.

As previous reviewers said, the food is very good in just the way you would expect given the chef's credentials as a former sous chef at Four Square. Everything is very light, precise, fresh, and vibrant, and the salsas are among the best I've ever had. The vaunted tortillas are also good, though not as fragrantly corny as the tortillas at Don Jose Tienda, which I slightly prefer.

This being said, I have two massive reservations.

1) While prices are very reasonable, the portions are miniscule. I ordered a plate of three fish tacos. Each taco included one bitty piece of fish about the size of a largish hush puppy. I finished my entree in somewhere between three and six bites, and was so unsatisfied that I immediately adjourned to Eastern Light for soup and potstickers.

2) The service was perhaps the very worst I have ever experienced. It was complete chaos. Not once but twice we were brought dishes that were not ours. We were also brought the wrong bill. You could see the waitresses shopping dishes to different tables, more or less guessing who had ordered what. Our appetizer arrived with our entrees. We had no silverware, despite requesting some at the start of the meal. I had to scope around the kitchen area trying to find some myself. I finally gave up and we ate our dinner -- including our salad -- with our fingers. Toward the end of the meal, I got the attention of a waitress and requested a fork, but none arrived. I flagged a second waitress, who, as we were finishing our meal, brought us one set of silverware, as if she expected my wife and I to share a fork. At one point, I had to wrestle my plate out of the clutches of a waitress who grabbed it without asking whether I had finished. I am not one to obsess about service, especially when the food is good, but this was way beyond the pale. The weird thing was that the restaurant did not appear to be either understaffed or overbusy.

Would I return? Maybe. The food is very good, but then again you can get great tacos at a much cheaper price at Superior, Miranda's, Chicho, etc.

Close call.

Sinophile (David A.)

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  1. wow, that sounds terrible. at some point bad service impinges on the experience so much the food is no longer enjoyable.

    1. Sounds like a rough meal. When we went, the service was hardly polished, but in a charming sort of way. Sounds like one of those nights.

      As for the portions, when I went, my wife had those same tacos and they were made of grouper. I remember being aghast at how large they were for the money (which I recall being around 7 or 8 bucks. Since grouper typically costs out $10-$12 /lb. once knocked down and ready to go, I figured the guy had at least $4-$5 worth of fish on the plate. Assuming the basic costs that every restaurant faces, that means it likely cost him about $1.75 out of his own pocket to serve that plate of food. This is why I felt he needed to raise his prices. If David's experience was not a fluke, it appears he may have gone the other way and just gave smaller pieces. I, for one, would perfer that he either use a less fancy fish or charge more and give a nice portion.

      The last option, unfortunately, puts him at risk of taking flack for having the audacity to charge $12 for a plate of tacos. An unfair, but rather inevitable reaction from many.

      If it's any consolation, each piece of fish would need to be about 1 - 1.25 oz for him to make anything at all on 3 tacos assuming he's charging $8 and still using grouper. My guess is that would be about the size of a hushpuppy. So, while you may not have been satisfied, at least you weren't ripped off either.

      1. I recommend a less expensive fish and a larger portion. We make fish tacos at home using a killer recipe I found in Saveur magazine. We use catfish. The results are superb.

        Sinophile (David A.)

        1. The tacos are small compared to the tacquerias but as detlefchef says, they use grouper (or at least claim to) and remember they are being served-- eventualy -- on white talb linens. Given this I think the prices are very fair.

          The service complaint is very justified. They are definitely going through some growing pains, but they need to resolve this soon or else they are going to lose followers. This may be happening some already. My wife said she went with her mother for lunch last Friday and the place wasn't very busy.

          My recs for the place would be to raise the prices a little anduse the extra revenue to hire more staff and widen the menu offerings. I want to see moles, pibils, etc. on the menu.

          1. I have also had some bad service experiences here. I was there on a Saturday night and part of my party was finished there meal before two members of the party had even been served. I still go because I really like the food and the price is very affordable (Except for the $2.50 coffee, I guess they need to make up for not serving booze).

            So far I've tried the Sopas (Excellent), Fish Tacos (Good but a little small), Mussels (Nice and fresh, could have used a little more chorizo in the broth to make it an actual stew, and I was also I very curious if any one else had GIANT mussels (which I have never seen before)?), and the chorizo and eggs for brunch (Delicious and surprisingly filling). The tomatillo salsa is good but it would be nice if they offered a spicy salsa.

            Overall, I really like the restaraunt and I hope that they work out all of their kinks.

            1 Reply
            1. re: durhameater

              That's a New Zealand Green Lip Mussel.

            2. Thanks. The menu said they were "PEI Mussels" but the large ones were definitely different than anything I had seen in ol' Prince Edward Island.

              1. Had another lunch there today. Questioning the value at this place is like lookng a gift horse in the mouth and shows an insane level of boldness and self-entitlement. What they're doing down there is borderline philanthropy. His cost of goods has got to be astronomical and he has nothing in common with the types of places that can withstand that. You either need to be a very high-end place (like a steakhouse) or see so much traffic that you're sales are very high (like McDonalds). He's neither.

                Today I had the fish tacos (like David says morsels the size of large hushpuppies) and a mango drink. The drink is $1.25 and comes with unlimited refills. The tacos were cheaper than I recalled at $5.95 and were certainly a fine value. As I mentioned before, Grouper is not a cheap fish. Sub catfish and he's still not laughing all the way to the bank. As for the tacos themselves, they were delicious. I love grouper and would gladly pay a few bucks more for the plate.

                1. I was at the restuarant last night for dinner with a party of eight... it was an interesting experience. While the food was quite good we were in the side room and seemed to have been forgotten by the staff. We had to get up to request drinks, turn on the lights and get our bill. Two of the dishes we ordered never arrived and it took quite awhile to get the food. During the dinner I chalked it up to two waitresses working the entire room, the size of the party and/or a language barrier however after reading the above comments now I wonder if the service was typical. The food we did get was great, personally I had the chicken soup and fish tacos. The tacos were yummy but were missing the micro cilantro. The soup was also nice, big hunks of chicken and vegetables in a spicy broth but instead of chunks of advocado there was a scoop of guacamole. All in all I think I will go back but with a smaller party and more time to kill.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: jean9

                    Scoop of guacamole instead of avacado (chunks or puree) ? For a chicken/avacado soup, and one that has received so much praise, that's peculiar.

                  2. micro cilantro?

                    Detlechef - your reviews are always right on. I'm going to do my best to have lunch their next week and will post my opinion.

                    If only they served mango margaritas!

                    1. Just to add my two cents. The missus and I had dinner at Tonali last night (a Wednesday) around 7:30 PM.

                      First off, the service was attentive, a pleasant surprise given some of the posts here. Our waiter was a little slow to come take our initial order, but afterward 1) everything arrived in a timely fashion; 2) the waiter checked with us regularly to make sure everything was fine, 3) our water and my agua fresca (a delicious horchata, $1.25 with unlimited refills, quite a deal!) were frequently refilled, and 4) we were given silverware.

                      Now for the food: it was pretty darn good, and at this price point I'd say it was phenomenal. We started with some sopes that were beautifully presented and quite delicious; the chicken had a hint of chipolte smoke and heat but was not overwhelmed by them, and the masa puffs on which they sat were fresh, tender, and delicious. The complimentary salsa and tortilla chips were also delicious; the salsa was mild but quite fresh, and the tortilla chips were clearly fried to order.

                      For entrees, my wife had the tacos al pastor, which were prepared with beef rather than pork--unusual in my experience, but it worked so why not? I had a mussel stew with homemade chorizo. The mussels were a little overcooked--the only disappointment of the evening--but the broth more than made up for this small problem. It was delicious; the kitchen understands this and serves the stew with some bread for sopping up broth.

                      We will return, and soon. Thanks to everyone who recommended this place!

                      1. Just for statistical sampling purposes, I'll chime in with our service experience at Tonali (about one month ago). On a weekend early evening, without many tables filled, the two waitresses had no concept of how to handle a restaurant floor. Everything took forever... getting the menus, getting a glass of water, getting a basket of chips (it finally arrived after our entrees), getting the entrees, and getting the check. We were interested in trying some dessert, but couldn't justify the additional investment of time. I watched a family of four come in and eventually leave again after having to wait about 10 minutes just to get a menu or glass of water for their squirming kids.

                        We both tried various tacos (going along with the generally recommended opinion on several boards). While not bad, none of the tacos seemed at all exceptional, and as noted, portions were small. Prices felt reasonable.

                        We liked the freshness of the salsa with the chips, but felt it badly needed more kick.

                        We won't be back until and unless the majority of posted reviews start indicating some attention to service. Spending an entire evening on a few small tacos is not a reasonable use of my time.

                        1. I discovered Tonali a few weeks ago and my guess is that they've made dramatic improvements on their service since the concerns above were posted. We were not only totally impressed with the food, we also couldn't believe how friendly and attentive the staff were...so much so that we left talking about it both times we went. This is by far our new favorite restaurant in the Triangle! Delicious fresh food with beautiful presentation, the right prices and portions, and delightful staff and chef/owner! I'm recommending this place to everyone.

                          1. for more positive reviews of Tonali, read here:


                            1. We ate there for lunch back in August. Arriving after the rush, the service was a bit scattered, but without any real incidents. And the host and hostess were charming. Fish tacos were tasty, if smallish. As described above. We also shared the ceviche, which was delicious. Between the two items, a good lunch. My friend had a seared beef entree that was generously portioned and reportedly quite tasty.

                              I've heard other tales of the service falling apart under stress. If you are concerned about the service stories, I'd recommend visiting outside of the rush hours. But since then I've also heard that there have been effective improvements made. I chalk the early stories up to growing pains, more expertise in the back than the front of the house, and being a victim of their own early success.

                              They are a bit out of the way for me, but I will definitely return.