5035 Ooltewah-Ringgold Road
Ooltewah, Tennessee 37363
12 p.m.-8 p.m.
11 a.m.-8 p.m.
11 a.m.-3 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
Nestled in a small strip mall on the corner of Apison Pike and Ooltewah-Ringgold Road sits a little piece of Peru. I had heard some good buzz about Ají Peruvian beforehand but was completely unfamiliar with Peruvian cuisine, so I did a little homework and roamed on over to check it out. I wanted to find an array of exotic dishes that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the area, and, oh boy, did I find them.
Because Peru is a former Spanish colony with a heavy influx of Mediterranean, East Asian and West African immigrants-in addition to a sustenance of the former Inca Empire and native South American cultures-populating the region, Peruvian cuisine is a major mishmash of many culinary traditions, uniquely defined with the local ingredients of the area.
Ají Peruvian boasts that they import many of their ingredients directly from Peru, including some of the peppers they use-the word “ají” means “pepper”-to bring an authentic Peruvian flavor to the table. It is a family-owned-and-operated restaurant orchestrated by Chef Pilar Albernas, who opened the restaurant in April 2011 to bring her native cuisine to Chattanooga.
I arrived last Thursday evening and did not have to wait for a table, though most of the restaurant was full. My server was enthusiastic about explaining Peruvian food to my group, who had never experienced it before. In visiting a locally unique restaurant such as this, many adventurous people are attracted to explore something new to them, so she was fully prepared to help guide that journey with clarifications and suggestions.
The menu is also very helpful, providing definitions to key terms and good explanations of each menu option. Much of this menu, and much of Peruvian cuisine in general, is based around the native “ají amarillo” (meaning “yellow pepper”).
While waiting for the dishes, the server brought out a traditional Peruvian snack called “cancha” to munch on. It is made with a special corn called “maiz chulpe,” which is toasted until it puffs up, kind of like half-popped popcorn with the shell still intact. This was interesting and made me thirsty, so I also ordered a couple of specialty juices to help wash these tasty corn puffs down my gullet.
The “surtido” was an iced smoothie of strawberries, bananas, papaya, pineapple, honey and beet juice. But believe me, it worked. The beet juice provided a nice, mild, earthy undertone to the extreme sweetness of the fruits and honey. It was a refreshing mix. The “chicha morada” was a thick, purple, corn-based drink of apples, pineapples, quince, lime and spices, with a strong essence of cinnamon, and it had an a-maize-ingly piquant, fruity flavor. For the appetizer, I kept with this corny theme.
The “tamal Peruano” appetizer is a ground-corn tamale, served spicy or mild with either chicken or vegetarian meat, ají amarillo and steamed in a banana leaf wrapping. I went for the mild, chicken version-I’ll get to the vegetarian meat shortly-which was topped with lightly sautéed red onions, providing a sharp, crunchy consistency to this flavorful, moist maize mixture. Their signature chile sauce had a nice, peppery punch, and I especially enjoyed it with this dish, but it also complemented other dishes well-I tried it with most of them, except the dessert course, of course. This appetizer did take a little while to come out, however, with the main course arriving almost immediately after.
For the main course, I’m leading off with the “tallarín saltado,” which was a sauté of fettuccini noodles with tomatoes, broccoli, onions, green onions, peppers and steak-with chicken available-in a mushroom soy sauce. This is one of my favorite new dishes I’ve discovered in a long time, and my mouth is watering just writing about it-excuse me one second, I just salivated all over my keyboard . OK, sorry about that, how embarrassing. The steak strips were lean, juicy and tantalizingly tender, and the noodles were cooked to a perfect al dente firmness, melding well with the delightful, slightly crunchy veggies smothered in this scrumptious mushroom soy sauce. If I was on death row and had to choose one last meal, this dish would certainly be up for consideration.
I also tried the “el Machu Picchu” sandwich, not only because it sounded good, but also for the completely non-food-related reason that Machu Picchu is one of my top five places in the world I want to visit one day. This sandwich is served on either a white or whole wheat hoagie roll with either chicken or vegetarian meat, along with a fried egg, cheese, tomato and lettuce-and I have no clue what it has to do with Machu Picchu, but it’s cute.
Because of a large Seventh-day Adventist vegetarian population in the surrounding Collegedale area, I’m sure the vegetarian meat is a popular option, so I wanted to try it out on this sandwich. The “meat” is made from wheat gluten rather than soy, and it had a smoky taste with a consistency slightly softer, and a little bit chewier, than chicken, though the flavor somewhat represented beef. It was pretty good, and it is a low-fat/low-sodium meat alternative even some of the most carnivorous could enjoy. The flavor really complemented the fried egg, cheese, veggies and soft, warm wheat bread in a sandwich fit for an Incan emperor-in a lavish estate high in the Andes Mountains.
I also tried the rotisserie chicken. Ají’s signature Peruvian spice rub really gave this chicken a strong, savory flavor. It was perfectly cooked, as the meat was bursting with juices and so tender it slid right off the bones. It was served with a small side salad of lettuce and tomato, and both this dish and the el Machu Picchu were served with fries. These large fries were crispy on the outside and warm and soft on the inside with just the right amount of salt.
Last but not least, I tried the “sabor de Perú,” which is a sampler trio of Peruvian dishes that can also be ordered on their own: the “ají de gallina,” “seco norteño” and “pollo saltado.” I tried this last because it wasn’t brought out with everything else. However, after informing the server, it came out in less than five minutes. Things happen from time to time in any restaurant, and I was impressed with this quick recovery. The server was running the front of the house by herself, and she was running her tail off all evening.
The ají de gallina is their signature entrée, and it consists of pulled chicken and boiled potatoes smothered in their ají amarillo sauce. The creamy sauce had a good flavor, but it wasn’t very strong or spicy. The chicken was juicy, but a few of the potato slices were a tad undercooked-which could have been because they were trying to rush the dish out. Overall it was a good dish, however.
The seco norteño is a traditional beef stew in northern Peru, which had some spice that was very nice-and suddenly I’m turning into Dr. Seuss. Seriously, this beef had some serious flavor, seasoned with my buddy cilantro, ají amarillo and ají panca. The pollo saltado was also highly flavorful and well-seasoned with juicy chicken breast strips sautéed with tomatoes and onions. Steamed white rice was served on the side and complemented all three dishes well.
For dessert, I wanted to go for the “mazamorra morada,” which looked fantastic, but they were out of it, so instead I went for the “alfajores.” This traditional dessert was two soft shortbread cookies sandwiching creamy dulce de leche (caramelized, sweetened milk) and topped with powdered sugar. It was a tasty treat to top off this meal.
Upon leaving, I noticed we were the last people in the place, and the server was locking up behind us. I checked the time, and we had stayed 25 minutes past their 8 p.m. closing time. This also explained why they were out of the dessert I wanted, as it had apparently been right before closing time when I placed the dessert order. Back in my serving days, I hated when people hung around past closing, and I didn’t want to be “that guy,” so I got her attention to unlock the door and gave her an extra tip, as she did not try to rush us even though we had lost track of time.
I am giving Ají Peruvian 3 stars for extremely flavorful dishes exotic to this area-complete with a wide array of healthful options. This small operation-doing big things-is run by a talented family sharing their Peruvian culinary heritage with us, and we are lucky to have them here. I, for one, am hooked after my first experience, and many other menu options have me curious what else they are dishing out.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 1 p.m. on 05/10/12 for clarity.