Staff photo by Mike Pare / Work is underway to remake the former Shoney's near Hamilton Place mall into new restaurant space. Plans are to open an eatery with a seafood Mexican concept.

A restaurant site near Hamilton Place mall that for years offered so-called "classic American food" is undergoing a nearly half-million-dollar makeover to serve a menu of Mexican seafood dishes.

"We don't have that in Chattanooga," said Alex Leon, the new restaurant's operator.

Leon, who's currently renovating the former Shoney's at Shallowford Village Drive near Interstate-75 amid a cluster of hotels and restaurants, said his new eatery will have such offerings as octopus and Mexican sushi.

"It will have dishes nobody will have [in Chattanooga]," he said, adding that such menus are prevalent in other cities including Nashville and Atlanta.

Leon said he has run a traditional Mexican food restaurant in nearby Kimball, Tennessee, for about a decade called El Toril. Also, he was formerly involved in area eateries in Dunlap and South Pittsburg.

The 35-year-old restaurateur said he'd been looking for a Chattanooga location in the Hamilton Place area for the past couple of years for his new concept.

"It is so busy," Leon said. "This is perfect, the perfect location for what I want to do."

Rudy Walldorf, president of Herman Walldorf Commercial Real Estate in Chattanooga, said the the former Shoney's building is owned by a New Albany, Indiana, investor.

"It was in pretty rough condition," he said, adding that Leon already has begun the revamp.

Walldorf said the location is a prime one with its proximity to Hamilton Place and the interstate. He said about 92,000 vehicles daily go by that area.

The restaurant site sits on 1.4 acres and has plenty of parking, and there's a tall, large sign for interstate motorists to see, Walldorf said.

Leon said plans are to open the eatery, called Mariscos Vallerta, in July. He said that "mariscos" is "seafood" in Spanish.

The restaurant owner said he's tearing out the kitchen in the existing building and plans are to replace the large Shoney's sign. He expects the restaurant, which will serve a lot of traditional drinks from Mexico, to employ from 25 to 30 people.

With the coronavirus pandemic easing, Leon said he thinks the timing is right to start a new venture.

"It's the perfect time to get back into the restaurant business," he said.

Leon said he was born in Chicago, but his parents took him to Mexico to live until he was 17 years old. He moved to Indianapolis where he worked for a relative, who owned a couple of restaurants there, he said.

At 25, he moved to Winchester, Tennessee, where an uncle owned an eatery, and he later became involved in the Kimball site, Leon said.

He, too, likes the activity around the mall, the array of hotels in that area and that his new restaurant is close to the Shallowford Road and I-75 exit.

"I was looking for a place like that," Leon said.

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