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AJ's Inca Peruvian doesn't limit itself ethnically

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 9:26 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Papas a la Huancaina, which is Boiled potaoes sreved with cream of huancaina sauce, peruvian rice server with Grilled Chicken Breast, at AJ's Inca Peruvian restaurant in Downtown Pittsburgh on Friday April 12, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Customers are dining on authentic cuisine at AJ's Inca Peruvian restaurant in Downtown Pittsburgh on Friday April 12, 2013.

Hugo Colan opened his first Pittsburgh restaurant five years ago, serving burgers and Peruvian food in Oakland, across Fifth Avenue from UPMC.

This year, he moved AJ's Inca Peruvian Restaurant to Downtown with a new menu featuring a vastly expanded variety of Peruvian dishes and dropping the burgers in favor of hot dogs and Mexican grilled food (tacos, quesadilla and burritos).

Located just up from the McDonald's at Stanwix and Liberty avenues, Colan's new restaurant opened in January and is adorned with Peruvian-themed art. It offers a relaxed atmosphere in complete contrast with the jangled air of a fast-food place.

Colan learned cooking from his mother, Dora, who taught it professionally in Lima, where he grew up. Peruvian food draws upon many ethnic cuisines, including not only Inca and Spanish traditions but also African and Chinese influences.

Before Colan and his family moved to Pittsburgh, he traveled throughout Peru as a salesman of plastics products. The foodie in him savored the differences between the dishes he encountered in mountain regions and in coastal communities.

The Colans moved directly from Lima to Pittsburgh because they have family here. His wife, Isandra, has a brother and sister who are both on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. The restaurant's name is taken from their children, Ariam, 14, and Jhair, 12. Colan is a soccer fan and named them after two Brazilian stars of the sport.

The luncheon menu includes 22 meat, fish and vegetarian items, plus six Mexican grill options, salads and 17 side dishes. Peruvian rotisserie chicken, marinated overnight, can be ordered with side dishes, and also is an ingredient in many of the many of the menu choices.

Since Peruvian food is more a matter of inclusion than purity of style, Colan felt free to add pieces of hotdog to the Arroz Chaufa ($7.99), which is a fried rice dish with eggs, corn, peas and chicken. He obtains authentic spices from Patterson, N.J., where there is a large Peruvian community.

The lunch menu also includes Arroz Chaufa de Mariscos, $10.99, another fried rice dish with shrimp, calamari and crabmeat. Tallarin Verde con Tilapia ($10.99), serves the grilled fish on a bed of pesto pasta.

Three of the vegetarian dishes include eggs, but Tallarin Saltado Vegetarian ($8.99) will satisfy purists. It combines mushrooms, carrots, cucumbers, green peppers, onion and tomatoes with Peruvian spaghetti.

The dinner menu is more extensive and includes Incan dishes, such as the appetizer Papa a la Huancaina ($8.50), which is boiled potatoes with hardboiled eggs, black olives, and aji amarillo chile pepper sauce served on lettuce. Anticuchos ($9.50) is another Incan dish, made with skewers of beef heart marinated in spices, grilled and served with corn and traditional huancaina cheese sauce.

The aji amarillo sauce is spicy but light and sold separately because it's very popular.

Side dishes include fried sweet plantains and Yucca fries, at slightly different prices for lunch or dinner.

Desserts include Peruvian flan and three-milk (tres leches) cake, each $3.99.

In addition to the usual beverages, the restaurant stocks Inca Kola ($1.89), which has a bubblegum sweetness, and Chicha Morada ($2.35), which is said to be high in anti-oxidants.

AJ's Inca Peruvian Restaurant, 500 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, noon to 8 p.m. Saturdays. Details: 412-642-6606.

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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