From time to time, I pay return visits to restaurants I haven’t reviewed in a while. This time around, I drop in on a couple of Mexican favorites to see how they’re holding up after a decade.
Note: In December 2007, ratings changed from a 4-star scale to a 5-star scale.
3642 Shannon Road, Durham
Last review: 2006 (☆☆☆ out of 4)
New rating: ☆☆☆☆
When I reviewed Tonali a few months after it opened in 2006, people were just beginning to discover this hidden gem tucked into a nondescript strip mall. The dining room wasn’t much to look at and service was uneven, but the food – a mix of traditional and contemporary Mexican fare prepared from scratch by former Four Square sous chef Andre Macias – kept people coming back for more.
Diners have continued to return in sufficient enough numbers that Macias has been able to spruce up the place. There are linens on the tables now (including colorful Mexican place mats), and the walls have gotten a fresh coat of paint in hues of salsa red and Pacific sky blue. Hanging on those walls is an eclectic collection of paintings – from primitive folk art to abstract – belonging to the chef and an artist friend.
Macias’ menu continues to evolve with the seasons, but the quality remains as high as ever. A number of dishes have become so popular that they’ve earned permanent status. Carnitas de puerco, for one, succulent shreds of slow-cooked pork with salsa verde, served over soupy ranchero beans (a small Mexican variety of pinto bean that Macias favors for their tenderness) and nopales. And a textbook rendition of crème brûlée made with dulce de leche.
And above all, fish tacos. “I took them off the menu once, and people demanded that I put them back on.” says Macias.
No wonder. The fish – fresh grouper when I ordered them recently – is deep-fried in an exemplary tempura batter and served on rustic soft corn tortillas (made, as they have been for years, by Macias’ wife, Juana). The chef has been known to vary the toppings (mine came with Mexican slaw, fresh mango and chipotle aioli), but for my money these are the area’s definitive fish tacos.
It’s hard to imagine getting bored with the regular menu offering, but a supplemental list of half a dozen or so nightly features should delight even the most jaded palate. A recent tomato-watermelon gazpacho garnished with N.C. shrimp ceviche and a shimmer of chile oil had my palate singing. So did a cazuela of shrimp and N.C. flounder with house-made chorizo over saffron-scented Spanish rice.
Service has improved, though a streamlined wait staff and food prepared to order in a small kitchen can combine to make for slower pacing when the dining room gets busy.
The bar that stood unused 10 years ago is now stocked with a solid selection of Mexican beers, Spanish wines and the makings of a rainbow of margarita variations from classic lime to fresh guanabana (aka soursop). It’s a bit late to hoist a glass in honor of Tonali’s 10th anniversary, but I think a toast to another 10 would certainly be in order.
Tacos y Mariscos Vallarta
3177 Capital Blvd., Raleigh
Last review: 2006 (☆☆ 1/2 out of 4)
New rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
According to my notes, I ordered 13 dishes over the course of three meals when I reviewed Vallarta in 2006. But for 10 years now, the memory of one dish in particular has haunted me.
Actually, “dish” doesn’t do justice to the parrillada Vallarta, a massive mixed seafood platter of spice-rubbed whole tilapia, shrimp two ways, mussels, octopus, crab legs and a lobster tail, piled high on a bed of grilled peppers and onions. The menu said the parrillada, which came with side plates of beans, rice, guacamole salad and house-made tortillas, would serve six people. After throwing in the towel far short of the finish line, our party agreed that six was a conservative estimate.
I’ve been back to Vallarta a few times over the years and rarely been disappointed. Those sturdy house-made corn tortillas make a fine foundation for generously filled taqueria style tacos. I’m partial to the lengua and chorizo; I’ve found that the carne asada makes a better showing as an entree than on a taco, where it’s too finely chopped for my taste.
Vallarta’s “estilo Guadalajara” rendition of birria, a hearty chile-spiked beef stew, warmed my bones one February night. And whenever I’m craving a Mexican seafood soup – caldo de cameron when I’m in the mood for something simple, or the aptly named siete mares if want to shoot the works – I can count on Vallarta to scratch the itch.
But I’ve never been able to round up a big enough party for an encore performance of the parrillada. Until recently, that is, when my two brothers came to town. This time around, I figured we’d try a surf-and-turf variation on the theme called parrillada Azteca. We’re all pretty big guys, so I figured we could at least do justice to the half parrillada, which my vintage 2012 paper menu said would serve three.
Wrong. Our jaws dropped when the platter arrived. I counted eight quarters of fried Cornish hen (which would prove as moist and crunchy as they looked), estimated at least a couple pounds of carne asada, more than a pound of shrimp (again, two ways, including the colossal head-on shrimp I’m partial to), a cluster of crab legs and a few cylinders of bacon-wrapped shrimp and crab stick. No lobster in the half parrillada, but the same grilled peppers and onions (plus grilled whole jalapeños and rounds of roasted potato), side plates and warm corn tortillas I recalled.
Long story short, we surrendered after tunneling about halfway into this massive mound of food. We each took home enough leftovers to feed a small family.
As I was paying (at $64.99, the price is a bargain), I had to ask the cashier if there’d been some mistake. Could this be really be the half parrillada? Indeed it is, she said, and pointed out that the menu now says it serves four. Again, in my opinion, a conservative estimate.
Housed in what was obviously once a fast-food joint, Vallarta has become something of a landmark on Capital Boulevard. You can’t miss the building with its vibrant tropical exterior and live palm planted in front. Inside, the decor – an ebullient hodgepodge of folk art, paper cutout banners and twinkle lights – continues the exploration of the visible color spectrum. An unfailingly friendly wait staff (not all of whom speak fluent English, but there’s always someone close at hand who does) reinforces the cheery, homey mood. It gives you a warm feeling that, as I discovered, comes back the next day as you’re reheating leftovers.