IF YOU GO
■ What: Ají Peruvian Restaurant, 5035 Ooltewah-Ringgold Road, Ooltewah.
■ Phone: 423-396-3919.
■ Website: www.ajiperuvianrestaurant.com.
■ Hours: Noon-8 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday.
■ Price range: Entrees $9.15-$12.95.
If you’re familiar with Spanish, then the namesake of Ají Peruvian Restaurant offers an idea of what diners will experience at this Ooltewah gem.
The word Ají (pronounced ah-Hee) means chile pepper. In Peruvian culture, it refers to a commonly served, spicy sauce that often contains a mixture of tomatoes, cilantro, onions and Ají pepper, which comes in several varieties.
But don’t worry if you’re not into spicy. Requests are easily managed by this capable eatery, which offers a blend of flavors that delight.
A quick comparison: If your Latin cuisine experience stops at the mostly Americanized Mexican restaurants common across the country, this is a bit different but good.
The food is less salty than typical Mexican food. You won’t get chips and salsa, but you will get toasted slices of buttered bread. The rice clumps for a better texture. There are more potatoes in entrees. And Ají does beef much better than most.
First, drinks. Sorry there is no alcohol served here. But you do have a chance to get to try something new if you venture off the soft-drinks listing.
The Chicha Morada is a purple corn juice blended with apples, pineapples, quince, lime juice and spices. After a few sips, I asked the waitress what the spices were, and I was right: cinnamon and cloves. It’s a cool, refreshing juice drink that reminds me of Christmas.
The Surtido is a staple Peruvian drink, a kind of light smoothie blend of bananas, papaya, pineapple, beets and strawberries sweetened with honey. Natural goodness.
The food choices at Ají run the range. Though most have staples — rice, beans, potatoes or yucca — and a meat option, there is an 11-item vegetarian listing for non-meat eaters.
A light meal could feature reasonably priced salads or a sandwich. The sandwiches come with fries. Fish dishes vary from raw to steamed to fried.
Starters are a great way to sample different items with your main dish. I tried two. The first on the menu are Anticuchos: “fire grilled beef heart kabobs” seasoned with cumin, garlic, ají mirasol and ají panca, served with sliced potatoes.
Probably the best-cooked cut of beef I’ve had in an appetizer, ever.
The kids menu gives affordable $5 items that include chicken or fish, rice and beans or fries and a fountain drink.
Combination dishes are a great deal, with chicken, pinto beans and rice, sweet plantains (a lightly sautéed sweet banana-like fruit) and a fountain drink.
If this is your first Peruvian dining experience, your best bet is the Sabor de Peru (Flavor of Peru). This dish is a few dollars more than others, but with it you get a healthy sampling of three great dishes: Ají de Gallina, Seco Norteno and Pollo Saltado.
The Gallina seems like a Peruvian comfort food. A bold yellow-colored, rich but-not-too-thick sauce bathes shredded chicken and potato slices.
The Norteno is another great beef rendition. It’s a shredded beef, moist like a great gravy-covered roast with cilantro.
And the Saltado is some of the juiciest grilled chicken slices with Ají amarillo, a pepper-based sauce, tomatoes and soy sauce.
For dessert, the Alfajores was a wonderful powdered-sugar-covered crumbly cookie filled with dulce de leche (a slow-heated sweetened milk that has a caramelized taste). For good measure, I also tried the flan, a common sponge cake, a custard-like dessert offered in most Latin countries.
I think of flan more as a texture experience than a taste one. See if you like it.
Ají is sparse and clean. There is mostly booth seating with a few tables. It’s small, so if you have a large party, I would call ahead. Some Peruvian-based art adorns the walls, but it’s tasteful, not a tourist-like overdecorated scene you might have had at a Tex-Mex place.
Peruvian music featuring guitar and quena, a type of flute, plays in the background at a reasonable volume.
I went late on a Sunday afternoon, and there were two other tables present. But with the smaller seating, I think the capable and informed waitstaff could have handled more tables easily.
The servers were very child-friendly, a bonus for parents. And the attire was casual, another bonus for parents.
This out-of-downtown restaurant gives diners a great way to try something new with accommodating staff. The prices are fair, and the flavors are subtle and worth discovering.
Contact Todd South at email@example.com or 423-757-6347.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...