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Patriotism: A dish best served forward

Restaurateur Nino Aita might not have been born in the U.S.A., but he leaves behind a legacy of pure America.
by Dave Cathey Modified: July 3, 2012 at 1:18 am •  Published: July 4, 2012

We recently lost a local patriot who served in the U.S. Army and ran a group of local restaurants for nearly 30 years.

His call to service might have come from being born amid World War II, but those who knew him would say he enlisted for love of country.

Not the country he was born in but the country he called home.

The patriot's name was Cesar Aita, but everyone called him Nino. Aita, who was born in Lima, Peru, in March of 1943, died of complications from kidney problems at the age of 69. Aita leaves behind his former wife and lifelong friend Sonia, daughter Teresa, grandson Jordon Leeman and thousands of lives touched.

Aita opened his first Nino's Mexican Restaurant with Forrest Pruitt in 1978, just north of Interstate 240 on South Western Avenue. An American flag hung in a corner of the original Nino's, a token of appreciation from the owner of this humble new business to the land he loved. It represented his gratitude for a country that afforded him the opportunity to create security for his family and the hundreds who would eventually work for him.

Aita came to Oklahoma City about 1960, enlisting shortly thereafter. When he was honorably discharged in 1963, Aita returned to Oklahoma City to settle. Before enlisting, Aita worked as a busboy at El Charrito, so that's where he returned to work after the Army.

“My father was a hard worker,” Teresa Aita said. “I get my work ethic from him. He was most happy when he was working, solving problems.”

It didn't take long for Aita to ascend to assistant manager, then manager as the El Charrito chain grew. More importantly, he met a pretty girl named Sonia, who happened to be niece to El Charrito co-founder Luis Alvarado.

Aita was popular with customers. One in particular kept asking him if he'd ever thought about opening his own place. Aita shrugged off those suggestions until the El Charrito restaurants gradually turned into El Chico stores.

“Things just weren't the same,” said Sonia Aita. “El Chico required us to do things differently, and that wasn't good.”

That persistent guest was Pruitt, who would become Aita's partner in Nino's Mexican Restaurants, which was an immediate success so overwhelming that a second location at 5425 S Pennsylvania Ave. opened in December 1979.

“We had a tortilla factory on the premises,” Teresa Aita explained. “We made tortillas from corn, not cornmeal — that makes a difference.”

Ironic such care was taken to ensure quality tortillas, considering Nino never like them much.

“Maybe a flour tortilla once in a while, usually he just liked some rice with things,” Teresa said.

Before he sold his business in 2006, Aita opened a total of five Nino's locations plus one barbecue joint. The last three Nino's locations, which were owned by yet another group, all closed simultaneously last year.

Sonia and Teresa Aita said the subculture of local Mexican restaurants has always been tightly knit. Growing up in the first family of Oklahoma City's Mexican food community, Sonia said the Alvarados always sought to help others establish themselves. She said when she and Nino embarked on their own concept they had the full support of her family.