When former Four Square sous chef Andre Macias opened Tonali (3642-1 Shannon Road, Durham; 489-8000) in 2006, he brought a new level of culinary sophistication to Mexican cuisine in the Triangle. Macias' seasonally changing menu offered an exhilarating tour of traditional and contemporary fare, from classic carne asada a la Tampiquena to caramelized cauliflower and porcini tacos in house-made corn tortillas. The creamy tortilla soup with guajillo chantilly remains the most complex and satisfying version of that soup I have ever tasted.
Unfortunately -- and ironically, given that the restaurant's name means "sun" in an ancient Aztec language -- Tonali has always seemed to exist in the shadows, metaphorically speaking. There's the shadow of the restaurant's off-the-beaten-path location, and the fact that Tonali's opening was eclipsed by that of the even more ambitious and high-profile Jibarra, which opened a mere six months earlier. Some customers were put off by uneven service in the early months. Others, by the unfinished look of the dining room, or the fact that the restaurant didn't have a bar.
Curious about how Tonali has fared over time, I met a friend there for lunch recently. My, what a difference three years makes. The dining room is now attractively decorated with abstract paintings on tomato red walls and silk hyacinths on tables draped in white linens. A bar now offers several Mexican beers, a modest selection of mostly Spanish wines, and margaritas -- including exotic variations made with freshly squeezed tropical fruits. Service went off without a hitch.
One thing that hasn't changed, happily, is the quality of the food. Pork loin carnitas in salsa verde, served over soupy ranchero beans, was an earthy, deeply satisfying delight. And if there's a local rival to Macias' chile relleno, stuffed with a creamy blend of queso blanco and mashed organic potatoes, and served in a vibrant cascabel tomato sauce, I'm not aware of it.
My sampling was admittedly a limited one, and whetted my appetite to return for more. Next time I'll make it dinner. I think I'll start off with a passionfruit margarita. And I'll drink a toast to Tonali, a bright sun in the local constellation of restaurants.