A WORLD OF FLAVORS
In an unassuming corner of Ooltewah, under the careful culinary guidance of a small family, a vibrant piece of Peruvian culture is thriving. Ají Peruvian Restaurant, opened in April of 2011, is currently Chattanooga’s only spot to get Peruvian taste literally straight from the Andes, and it is well worth the stop.
By Hannah Vanbiber | Photography by Med Dement
“Our purpose is to give people the authentic, natural, healthy Peruvian experience,” says head chef and matriarch, Pilar Albernas.
Albernas was born in Peru and imports her most important ingredients straight from her homeland – among them the ajíes (peppers) in almost every dish and purple corn, both indigenous to Peru. The flavors give a comfortably warm aroma to the whole place, which features large prints of Peruvian landscapes displayed above cozy booths and tables.
Peruvian food is an interfusion of fl avors from all over the world. Droves of immigrants have been attracted to Lima, bringing with them culinary secrets from Spain, China, Italy, Japan, and more. According to Albernas, the Peruvian cuisine easily integrated the medley of flavors, growing into a 100 percent unique international concoction.
The restaurant and its catering business are entirely a family affair. Albernas and her two daughters, Keila Lazcano and Sakei Riggs, run the main operations in Ooltewah. Their service is warm and energetic – they clearly love what they do. It was Albernas’ son, Sam Sarminto, who originally suggested that she start a restaurant when she was doing freelance catering in the area.
“It’s always been a dream for her,” Keila says. “She has always been an entrepreneur and a hard worker.”
With an emphasis on fresh ingredients and healthy meals, the family prepares each component meticulously by hand. They personally soak and grind the purple corn to prepare it for use in dishes.
“When we import the ají,” Keila says, “we comb and seed each one by hand, to remove the overpowering spiciness. We find that Americans love spice but like to choose the level.” “Don’t worry,” Sakei adds, “we keep some to make our special hot ají sauce.”
Even with the seeds combed out of the spices, the dishes are richly and completely naturally flavored. The menu also includes a full vegan/vegetarian list, and offers vegan options for the meat plates.
Many first-time customers begin with the Sabor de Peru sampler plate. This plate includes samples of three other entrées on the menu, Ají de Gallina, Seco Norteño, and Pollo Saltado. Each dish showcases a unique thread of the Peruvian flavor.
The butter-colored Ají de Gallina is the signature entrée, featuring their ají amarillo (“yellow pepper”) sauce, used in many of their dishes. The gallina is a very mild and creamy dish, with pulled chicken and potato slices, subtle in its flavors and texture. In contrast, the Pollo Saltado has a clear Asian influence, with sautéed onions and brightly colored peppers grilled with juicy chicken breast in a tangy, flavor-packed brown sauce. The Seco Norteño is the heaviest of the bunch, a traditional beef stew from northern Peru. Albernas gives layers of spice to this dish, including two ajíes: ají amarillo and ají panca. The dark shredded meat is stewed to a full, rich flavor. Each dish mixes well with the white rice provided in a cross shape on the plate.
As a family-oriented business, the owners of Ají make the local community a priority. In Ooltewah’s recent tornado crises, they quickly mobilized to become part of the relief effort, and remain involved in local churches.
Albernas and her family have succeeded in bringing a wholly new cuisine to the Chattanooga area. Don’t miss the chance to taste Peru!