NATALIA PEREZ, MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS INTERN
In honor of Latin American heritage month, we’ll be devoting the next couple of weeks to spotlighting and celebrating local Latin American businesses, organizations and events within our community, starting with Aji Peruvian Restaurant.
Located in Ooltewah, Tennessee, Aji is a family-owned business committed to providing all guests with an authentic experience of Peruvian cuisine through fresh flavors, music and ambiance.
As soon as you come in, you’ll notice that cultural representation is scattered everywhere: the paintings lining the walls, the welcoming, intimate family atmosphere, the menus written in spanish and the typical instrumentals in Peruvian music. As seen in most Latinx businesses, Aji's Peruvian heritage and family unity are the foundation of the restaurant.
When Chef Pilar Albernas came to the United States more than 20 years ago, she dreamed of building a better life and future for her family. Working with her children in Miami, she launched many successful businesses, instilling an entrepreneurial spirit within her family bond. After moving to Chattanooga in 2006, she started a small catering company servicing mainly small businesses and family events. Her unique style and cooking taste quickly became popular, and they were so well received that her eldest son strongly suggested they open a family restaurant. In April 2011, with the help of her three children and her husband Tony, Pilar opened Ají Peruvian Restaurant, becoming Chattanooga’s first Peruvian restaurant.
In selecting their menu items now served at the restaurant, they wanted to incorporate popular foods known worldwide, highlight the main dishes served in each Peruvian region, from the mountains to the coast, and serve the dishes they'd always made for their family dinners. To cater to their surrounding demographic and keep in tune with their own dietary values, they made sure to dedicate an extensive part of the menu to vegan and vegetarian meals.
“It's difficult to find savory vegetarian dishes,” says Keila Lazcano, one of the three children who helps run the restaurant. “We wanted to incorporate my grandmother's staple vegetarian meals with the popular Peruvian foods. We want our customers to always enjoy the homemade, fresh and authentic flavors of our country.”
Right now, the customer favorites are lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish of steak strips sautéed with onions and tomatoes; served on a bed of fries, with a side of rice; saltado vegetariano, a vegetarian version of the former; chicha morada, a Peruvian beverage made from dried purple corn and spices; and sabor de peru, a sample of three of Peru’s finest dishes served with a side of rice.
To the whole family, Latin American heritage is always celebrated and kept alive. They love sharing their food with their community, when customers try to correctly pronounce the names of the menu items, when customers enjoy a cultural dish for the first time, and ultimately creating a vibrant atmosphere around their family.
“I was born and raised in Peru until I was 10,” Lazcano says. “For me, connecting with my heritage means to be able to not only connect with people within my own culture, but connect others to the aspects of our culture that we love.”