If you’ve never had grilled beef hearts or drinks made from purple corn, Peruvian cuisine might be something new to try.
It’s not very common in Fresno, but there’s about to be a lot more of it. Señor Aji Peruvian Bistro, a little bistro in northwest Fresno run by a couple from Peru, opened last month. And Limón Peruvian Cuisine at Friant and Fort Washington roads is gearing up to open a second location on the other side of Fresno.
Señor Aji (pronounced “ah-hee”) is a reference to the Peruvian yellow pepper “aji amarillo” (which technically is mislabeled because it’s orange). Strangely, another new restaurant in Fresno has a similar name. Aji Sushi (pronounced “ah-jee”) opened about six months ago at Shaw Avenue and Fresno Street. Aji in this case is Japanese for “taste,” according to a worker at the restaurant, and it clearly has nothing to do with Peru.
The people behind Señor Aji, married couple Lily, 32, and Mauricio, 33, Arizola, took a twisty path to opening the restaurant. It started in Peru, went to Fresno and then to Knoxville, Tenn., for Mauricio’s job as a petroleum engineer.
The idea to open Señor Aji had been percolating for a while, and they considered opening it in Knoxville.
Lily had studied hospitality management and worked every job from dishwasher and housekeeper at a hotel on up to managing restaurants and working as a manager at Table Mountain Casino.
Mauricio loves to cook, having grown up with his mom’s home cooking. His brother is a chef in Peru.
When the couple came back to Fresno and dropping oil prices made the future of Mauricio’s job shaky, they decided to open the restaurant. It opened July 13 at Herndon and Milburn avenues, in the same shopping center as Save Mart and GB3.
In the middle of all these changes, their daughter Micaela (which they pronounce “Mi-KYE-la”), now 13 months old, was born.
If you’re not familiar with Peruvian cuisine, there will be a lot of unfamiliar words on Señor Aji’s menu. But never be afraid to ask questions in a place like this. The staff has been trained to answer them.
“We were afraid people were going to be afraid of trying things, but no,” Lily says, adding that about half of her customers have had Peruvian food before.
All our sauces are homemade.
Lily Arizola, Señor Aji
Some suggestions from the Arizolas: The “anticuchos,” which is grilled beef heart marinated in Peruvian spices. You can sub in beef sirloin, but Mauricio says he was surprised at how many people went for the beef heart.
The “lomo saltado” is strips of sirloin stir fried with tomatoes, Peruvian spices and the aji pepper – a safe choice if you’re wary of new cuisine, they say.
You’ll also see quinoa (pronounced “keen-WAH”) on the menu as Peru is one of the few countries that grows the grain. And the Peruvian corn in several dishes is a bigger, chunkier corn than we’re used to in the U.S.
And there’s a fried rice dish. The Asian food comes from Chinese and other Asians living in Peru who have influenced the cuisine over the years. It looks similar to the kind you find at American Chinese restaurants, but it is made with a much more potent soy sauce.
“Oh no, this is a whole different thing,” Lily says. “It has more flavor.”
Pay attention to the non-alcoholic drinks if you go.
The “maracuya” is made from passion fruit and the popular “chicha morada” is made from purple corn, apples and pineapple, with the savory taste of cloves and cinnamon.
There’s a Starbucks two doors down and one day a couple of customers decided to skip their regular Starbucks order and try the chicha morada instead. They liked it so much their Starbucks runs have been replaced with ordering the Peruvian drink, Lily notes.
Cocktails with a Peruvian flair and wine are also on the menu.
Señor Aji is open Tuesdays through Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and from 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner. On Fridays and Saturdays, it’s open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m and from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.
The restaurant will celebrate its grand opening with a ribbon cutting at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31.
Details: (559) 375-1285 or see their Facebook page.
Limón is gearing up to open a second location, this one in northwest Fresno.
It’s been open at Friant and Fort Washington roads for years, and is planning to open another Limón at Herndon and Marks avenues by mid-to-late September.
Where Señor Aji is a little place focused on authentic Peruvian food, Limón is a more upscale restaurant serving Peruvian-influenced food. It calls itself “Nuevo Latino” fusion and serves, for example, lamb shanks with Peruvian spices and Peruvian pinto beans and rice.
Limón had enough customers living northwest Fresno asking when they would open a spot closer to them that they decided to open one, says owner Ana Castillo.
On a sad note, Leonard “Len” Ruggiero, owner of the family-run Mother Mary’s Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria in Clovis, died Sunday, Aug. 21, at age 65.
In addition to owning the pizza shop, he was a musician, a financial adviser and a father figure to many, according to his obituary.
He was loved by family and customers alike, who have flooded the business’ Facebook page with condolences and memories.