First Bite

I can’t believe I had to move all the way from Arizona to find some of the best Sonoran-style Mexican food I’ve enjoyed in a long time. And this in a Raley’s strip mall in Rohnert Park, of all places. But it’s true. Tonayan is putting out such wonderful burritos, enchiladas, tacos and such, that I’m happier eating here than at most restaurants in the Southwestern state that birthed the stuff.

It doesn’t hurt that the combination plate I’ve ordered is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen outside of a restaurant in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, a terrific spot that catered to sunburned tourists until it exploded right before happy hour one day, the result of a faulty propane tank. A specialty was a combo that packed a half dozen of the restaurant’s best dishes on a single enormous platter for less than $10.

It was my home away from home for decades, and I’ve deeply mourned its loss until minutes ago, when my waitress set down the “El Jefe” platter in front of me. It’s brimming with a shredded beef burrito, a ground beef enchilada, a chicken taco, a chile relleno, a slab of grilled steak, rice, beans and corn tortillas. I’ve chosen my meat stuffings and my beans (silky refrieds, though the whole black or pintos tempted, too). The cost: a jaw-droppingly cheap $11.95, including a basket of fresh chips and thin, spicy salsa.

The burrito is simple greatness, just a thin tortilla rolled around an exceptionally savory tangle of beef with juices so rich I use my spoon. I need my spoon for the masterful enchilada sauce, too, and the taco is packed so full of chile-seasoned chicken and vinegary coleslaw that I have to take it on with a fork. Steak is traditional carne asada as I’ve enjoyed so many times at sleepy Peñasco beachfront cafes, the meat pounded thin, deeply marinated and grilled to tender-chewy.

The star of the whole sensational thing, though, is the chile relleno. It’s almost a donut, with its airy batter cocoon gorged with gooey queso inside a still crunchy, fiery-but-not-fatal Anaheim.

Tonayan has been open about a year, explains my waitress, and comes from the former owner of Velasco’s in Petaluma. Its clean, coffee-shop-style space doesn’t hint of the authentic Sonoran specialties within. On other visits, I’ve sampled in near disbelief the excellent whole deep-fried fish ($8.95); a tostada piled with buttery chunks of avocado, choice of meat and cheese ($3.25); rich chile verde in green tomatillo sauce ($9.75); and jumbo prawns stuffed with Jack cheese, wrapped in bacon and smothered in mild salsa ($11.95).

Today, I’m nursing the last dribbles of a properly not-too-sweet margarita ($3.50) while watching the colorful antics of two gentlemen at the bar, arguing over who the best player is on a televised soccer match that they appear to have bet on.

I’ll be leaving with a sack of leftovers that will feed me for days, a full wallet and a huge grin.

Welcome home.

Tonayan, 500 Raleys Towne Center, Rohnert Park. Open daily for lunch and dinner. 707.588.0893.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren’t your standard “bring five friends and order everything on the menu” dining reviews.

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