When I took the first bite of my main course at Nanay Betty's Filipino Restaurant and Karaoke Bar — the Springs' first Filipino restaurant, to my knowledge — I expected some blend of Asian cuisines.
Instead, I got ginger-amped soul food.
The dish was adobo chicken, in a rich red sauce. The slow-stewed chicken thighs reminded me of down-home cooking, as did the taro leaf side that resembled a creamy version of collard greens, but with a milder taste.
I should have known to expect the unexpected when I walked into Nanay Betty's, located in the Pace Shopping Center just off Academy Boulevard and Chelton Road, and passed a customer nibbling on a fish head. Or when from a small stage (for karaoke nights), a big-screen TV broadcast a Filipino game show that had several guests intermittently laughing — which made us realize we were the only non-Filipino diners.
The staff greeted me enthusiastically as I approached the counter at the rear, where heated trays (which could be turned up a bit) filled with colorful stewed meats and fish vied for notice opposite homemade pastries and imported snacks. They explained that each meal comes with a complimentary soup cup and rice, and from there, you choose one entrée item for $3.99, two for $4.99 or three for $5.99. Their 10 selections change daily. (Specialty items like pork belly and fried smelt fish are priced separately.)
When my friend and I dipped into the soup, it started a debate on the mild sourness to the broth. We later learned that it came from Philippine tamarind, an acidic fruit. The crispy, cigar-shaped beef egg rolls looked nothing like their cabbage-filled Chinese cousins, but created a dense and satisfying bite. And the slick and lightly spiced rice noodles side with pork came off lighter than lo mein.
Next came the tender chicken, and a whole tilapia topped with a delicate moist mix of onions, tomatoes and scrambled eggs. The unique combination enhanced what is usually a bland, firm fish.
For dessert, we fawned over ripe plantains wrapped in rice paper and flash-fried ($1.49 for two). Topped with a sugary glaze, these delights are addictive; when I bought extra "for the kids," my server smiled as if she knew I was lying.
We also broke into a dense, bread pudding-like Cassava cake ($5.99); sweet, soft, fresh yeast rolls stuffed with sticky coconut flakes, called pan de coco ($4.99 for eight); and maja-blanco ($2.99), a firm, yellow pudding featuring coconut milk and creamed corn.
Later, at home, I sampled a jar of Nanay Betty's Atchara ($4.49), a pickled papaya with carrots, crushed pineapple and raisins. Maribeth suggested pairing it with fried or barbecued meat, since it's both sweet and sour. I would, if I could stop eating it by itself every few hours.
It's a problem that owner Plenty Groover would probably understand. A self-described "eat-anything" kind of guy, Plenty has spent 24 years married to his Filipino wife, Maribeth, and enjoying the recipes of her and her mother (the original Nanay Betty, who operated her own restaurant in the Phillippines). They came to Colorado Springs in 1996 with Nanay Betty, and then, after Plenty retired from the Air Force, decided to bring those dishes to the public.
I'm glad they did. If you've never tried Filipino cuisine, you're in for a wonderful taste adventure.