Where: Ají Peruvian Restaurant, 9413 Apison Pike, Suite 106, Collegedale.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday.
Price range: $4.95 (Ruso or Trigo salads)-$12.95 (whole rotisserie chicken or Churrasco).
Directions: From Chattanooga, take Collegedale exit off I-75 North; at fork, bear right on Apison Pike; at Ooltewah-Ringgold Road, turn left (restaurant on left).
When my nose began running, I knew the sauce served with my entree at Ají Peruvian Restaurant was spiced just right for me.
The restaurant, tucked into a strip center near the corner of Ooltewah-Ringgold Road and Apison Pike, is the former Machu Picchu and recently opened under new management.
Now, ají means chile pepper in Spanish, and the ají amarillo pepper - the basis for the sauce with my dish - is the No. 1 pepper used for cooking in Peru.
Ají, the restaurant, bills itself as "Chattanooga's first Peruvian restaurant."
Twelve chicken or steak entrees ($8.95-$12.95) are listed along with four fish entrees ($8.95-$9.50) and nine vegetarian entrees ($8.50-$9.50).
Rotisserie chicken, listed separately, is available in whole, half or quarter portions with fries and a side salad or may be purchased as part of two of the three available combination plates.
The menu also features four sandwich/fries combinations ($5.95-$7.50), including El Machu Picchu, which includes grilled, steak or vegetarian meat topped with a fried egg, cheese, lettuce and tomato on wheat or white bread.
In addition, there are five salads ($4.95-$5.95), seven starters ($3.95-$5.95), eight sides ($2.95, $3.95), four desserts ($1.95-$4.95) and three $5 options for kids.
The order (for two): Tamal Peruano, a tamale-based appetizer (to share); Bistec a la Chorrillana, a chicken dish served with sautéed onion and tomatoes on rice (mine); and Arroz Chaufa, a Peruvian fried rice-based dish prepared with sautéed steak, green onions and eggs and seasoned with ginger and soy sauce (which I sampled).
The appetizer, according to the menu, was to be filled with chicken, olives and ají amarillo peppers, then wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf. Instead, there was no banana leaf, but it came topped with sautéed red onions (OK by me), and the chicken and olives were sparse. Still, the rectangular tamale was flavorful, perhaps from the influence of the ají amarillo peppers.
My entree was colorful and delicious, the red onions and the tomatoes atop a flattened, juicy, spiced boneless, skinless chicken breast set against a shamrock of white rice.
My brother's dish, heaped on a large platter with a rice base and seasoned with ginger and soy sauce, seemed almost Chinese in origin, but I can vouch for its good taste.
Tony, our waiter, was quick to seat us, bring us our water and answer all the questions we had. He also was happy to bring extra sauce when we requested it. The dishes didn't come out in five minutes as is often the experience in Mexican restaurants (no matter the order), but the taste of the dishes more than made up for the extra time. When the restaurant began to fill up, Tony's attention was compromised as he was the only waiter, and our water glasses ran low - a minor irritation.
Although its out-of-the-way location for most of Hamilton County may be a drawback, its billing as Chattanooga's only Peruvian restaurant should be a draw for foodees who want to try something a little different. Although all the menu items have Spanish names, their English explanations provide all the information necessary to make a selection that will tickle the palate. I'm looking forward to another visit.