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.
That spirit was passed down from the Aitas to one of their favorite employees, a youngster who showed up one day looking for a job busing tables. His name was Marcelino Garcia, but everyone called him Chelino.
Teresa Aita said when Garcia — who in eight years at Nino's rose from busboy to store manager of the Northwest Expressway location — was ready to go it alone, her father supported him.
“He not only supported him, he advised him.”
Teresa said when Garcia stood to speak at her father's funeral, emotion wouldn't allow the words to come. Upon reading a 2000 interview Garcia gave to The Oklahoman, it's easy to see why. Garcia said then he would love Nino for the rest of his life because “he gave me my chance.”
Teresa Aita said the feeling was mutual, and the favor returned. After her father sold his restaurants to a national chain, the transition was extremely difficult for him.
“Without work, he didn't know what to do,” Aita said. “It was a difficult time for him; he was a worker with nowhere to show up.”
Seeing his old friend was restless, Garcia invited Aita to manage the Chelino's on SW 89. As usual, Aita succeeded. The restaurant performed so well it was expanded. Teresa said the patio added after her father's arrival has been dedicated to him.
But Nino Aita's legacy is in every Chelino's location, just as Luis Alvarado's legacy was in every Nino's. But Nino's legacy also is in introducing this market to Peruvian food. Nino's was the first place I ever saw Lomo Saltado on a menu.
Growing up in Austin, Texas, and San Diego, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of Mexican cuisine, so this dish, which I'd never heard of, intrigued me. A stir-fry of beef, chicken or pork with onions, sweet peppers and hunks of tomato in a rich, spicy sauce served over rice, Lomo Saltado became a go-to dish for me.
Trapped in a world without Internet, it took many years to learn the reason I'd never heard of Lomo Saltado was because it wasn't a Mexican dish, but a Peruvian one.
Just like a great dish is made by flavor, a patriot is made by his or her deeds. Nino Aita's patriotism wasn't just in his military service, but in recognizing what a two-way street the Land of Opportunity must be to survive.
Following something as simple as the Golden Rule, Aita didn't just live the American dream; he cultivated it and paid it forward. Sounds like what a bunch of pilgrims and their descendants did after bumping into a rock off the coast of what would someday be Massachusetts.
And all the combination dinners Aita ever sold can't buy that kind of legacy.