Jesus Ayala’s Chirilagua Pollo & Steak makes some of the best roasted chicken in Alexandria. No joke! It’s Peruvian style, all golden and deliciously full of flavor – served with fresh tortillas and beans and rice and salsa. Along with a Mexican Coke in a glass bottle, you’ll pleasantly find yourself taking advantage of an incredible deal, namely buying giant portions of delicious food at a reasonable price from nice folks.
“I have to work hard every day. If we don’t, we have to close the door and we don’t make money,” Ayala told The Zebra. “If you don’t pay attention to your customers you aren’t paying attention to anything.”
The restaurant, which opened in 2010 at 4112 Mount Vernon Avenue, specializes in El Salvadoran and Mexican food. A small handful of employees work at Chirilagua Pollo & Steak and their sister restaurant, El Rancho Peruvian Chicken in Columbia Pike, and Ayala and his wife, Ena Areli Ayala, work at both from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the week.
You’ll also see their son, Elder Ayala, 12, taking orders behind the counter, doing his homework or playing video games. When asked what he wants to be when he’s older, the 6th grader at Francis. C. Hammond Middle School said, “I think I’d like to be a restauranteur and possibly take over these businesses.”
Ayala, 56, moved to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1986 with his wife and young son, Jesus, Jr., who still lives and works in the area. He was raised on a farm with 12 brothers and two sisters in San Salvador and served the army from 1980-1986, was shot twice and then moved to the U.S. during a state of emergency in the country.
“I got a chance to come here, and it was better for me to come here than to fight the Sandinistas over there,” Ayala said. “I had a good opportunity for work here for my family.”
He then spent the next 24 years working in a variety of roles in kitchens all over the region, including the Rainforest Cafe, the old Bullfeathers in Old Town, the Capital Hilton Washington and Outback Steakhouse. And when he wasn’t doing that he spent more than two decades as the mechanic for laundromats at 11 shopping centers around the DMV owned by Butch Kalendari.
“Mr. Butch said to me one day, ‘I want you to work for yourself,’ and he gave me the spaces for this restaurant and the other one on Columbia Pike. He loaned me the money to get them started, and we have almost paid off the loan,” Ayala said. “I’m doing all of this for my son and for Ena.”
Most dishes at Chirilagua Pollo & Steak will run between $10 and $15, and the menu also includes such crowd pleasers as nachos, pupusas and sopa de pollo (chicken soup). A quarter chicken with two sides and a drink will run you about $12. Upgrade to a half chicken and you’re at around $15, and a full chicken with two large sides is $20.
So, what’s easier – owning all these restaurants or doing what he was doing before he became an entrepreneur?
“All those years I learned everything I could about cooking and running a business,” Ayala said. “No job is easy, and you have to plan to work. You have to work hard and give attention to having a clean restaurant. That’s rule number one. It’s very important to have a clean bathroom, a clean kitchen and good food.”
The Ayala family also owns the Jasper Bar and Grill in Jasper, Indiana, and are finalizing the details on buying the Trace Inn at Red Hills State Park in Sumner, Illinois – both of which will be run by Ayala and some of his brothers.