Nestled on a tranquil, tree lined block on Front and Morris streets, Tonalli is the latest addition to South Philadelphia’s vibrant restaurant scene. In a neighborhood renowned for both its pizza and Mexican cuisine, Tonalli truly stands out. Co–founded by lifelong friends Odilón Sandoval and Israel Cortes, this BYOB skillfully blends traditional pizza recipes with the vibrant flavors of their hometown, San Mateo Ozolco, Mexico.
Passersby are beckoned in by the restaurant's pleasant outdoor seating, underneath festive papel picado that flutter among the branches of the old growth trees. Just a step inside the restaurant, and the warmth and passion that the owners have is palpable. When photographer Victoria Navarrete–Ortiz and I walk through the doors, Sandoval, who works at the front of the house, welcomes us inside. Surrounded by lively music and the enticing aromas of roasting trompo al pastor and their signature house–made adobo sauce, we take our seats.
Sandoval explains that over the past 20 years in Philadelphia, he and his business partner Cortes have worked their way up the city's restaurant scene. After working preparing pizzas, combining this classic Italian fare with flavors from their hometown seemed like a natural move for the duo. And with Sandoval’s sister and Cortes's brother recently marrying, what started as a partnership between the childhood friends has grown into a family affair.
"Tonalli" translates to "sunshine" in Nahualt, the language of Sandoval's mother. When he told her about his plans to open the restaurant, she said "it's time for the sun to shine" on him, and her words became the inspiration for the restaurant’s name. It's a fitting one, as flavor and love shines through each dish at Tonalli.
The menu features classic pizzas such as margherita and buffalo chicken, as well as traditional dishes from Southern Mexico, like the borrego en adobo artesanal, a lamb shank in a sweet and spicy sauce. But what sets Tonalli apart is its selection of pizzas with Southern Mexican flavors, like its Tonalli pizza, topped with refried beans, chorizo, sweet corn, and poblano peppers. Sandoval recommends I sample the borrego en adobo artesanal pizza, tacos de camaron, borrego en adobo artesanal, and the nachos.
I begin with the borrego en adobo artesanal pizza, topped with braised lamb, cactus salsa, their house–made adobo sauce, and mozzarella. The thin crust pizza exemplifies what Tonalli does best, seamlessly melding the flavors of Southern Mexico and Italian pizza. The pizza is generously topped with tender lamb and the adobo—a sweet, savory sauce made from chili powder, vinegar and sugar—paired well with the mozzarella.
I move on to the tacos de camaron, and as someone who orders shrimp tacos whenever they’re on a menu, I can attest that these are the best I’ve had in Philadelphia. The shrimp are tender and juicy, paired with freshly chopped pico de gallo and a chipotle mayo sauce. Next, I sample the nachos, a must–order side if visiting Tonalli. They're piled high with three types of cheese (chihuahua, oaxaca, and queso fresco) along with refried black beans, pico de gallo, and guacamole.
Toward the end of the meal, I dig into the borrego en adobo artesanal, a lamb shank in adobo sauce served with cactus salad and guacamole. The recipe comes from Cortes’ mother, and Sandoval explains that in their childhood town of San Mateo Ozolco, it's served on special occasions. The lamb is cooked to perfection, falling off of the bone, while the side of guacamole and cooked cactus cut its richness. I would order the lamb shank if you are in the mood for an indulgent dish and have a strong spice tolerance. Conversely, the borrego en adobo artesanal pizza balances the spice of the lamb with the crust, and is an easier dish to split family–style.
The best way to enjoy Tonalli is undoubtedly with others, allowing everyone to sample its many flavors. By the end of lunch, I'm glad to have come with a friend. We spent the meal passing dishes back and forth, exclaiming at the meal's many unexpected, delicious flavor profiles.
After leaving Tonalli, the warmth of the restaurant’s atmosphere and the flavors of the lunch linger for the rest of the day. The care that Sandoval and Cortes have imparted into their restaurant is there in every bite. Now I'm eager to tell everyone I cross paths with about this gem, and with menu items left to try, like their trompo al pastor pizza topped with slow roasted pork, pineapple, and red salsa or the memelas stuffed with refried beans and cactus salad, I know I’ll be returning.
TL;DR: Tonalli offers a totally unique blend of Italian fare with the flavors of Odilón Sandoval and Israel Cortes' Mexican childhoods.
Location: 100 Morris St.
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 12 p.m.–10 p.m.