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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.

        Best,
        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.