It's a shame that Abuelita's owner/chef Rhiannon Fleming and manager Roberto Alfaro didn't commit to starting a Peruvian revolution in the southern Colorado Springs cuisine scene. The Broadmoor-south neighborhood where Abuelita's stands could use the kind of kick in the trousers that healthy helpings of fish, quinoa and ají amarillo peppers could bring. Instead, this pink-painted dining room and its menu get overshadowed, physically by the adjacent Pizza Hut, and culinarily by better-refined Tex-Mex options that pervade the city.
Take the guacamole. Made tableside to order, Abuelita's guac tastes as fresh and pleasant as could be expected. But whether it's Abuelita's, Sonterra or Hacienda Colorado, nine bucks for guac is highway robbery. Worse, the queso fundido with chorizo came out broken, with red grease seeping out of grainy, tortured milk proteins. Sure, the earthy chorizo taste was johnny-on-the-spot, but the texture was FUBAR.
The lunch specials are generously portioned, landing in the $7 to $8 price range, paired with refried beans and rice. Three tacos come in crispy shells that, to their credit, have enough give and chew to avoid exploding like tempered glass on first bite. With chicken, they're good, but the barbacoa has a deeper flavor, rich and sweet in its marinade. As tempting as getting more of that barbacoa in the sizable lunch chimichanga might be, the by-default red-or-green-chile smother sogs and sags any crispiness. Said smother also dampens any texture from the chile relleno.
Of note, the horchata is unique, less teeth-achingly sugary than that found most places. Purists may scoff, but it's still plenty sweet. The chicken tortilla soup, served with a lime wedge and sliced avocado on the side, bears tortilla strips that keep their crunch, and the chicken meat tastes pleasant enough. Try it with a chicken mango salad, which gets a zesty and lively house vinaigrette on its greens, tortilla strips and chicken slices.
Leaving the Tex-Mex well behind, the tacos al pastor stand out as well-executed and well-seasoned. Maybe the achiote-marinated pork could use a tad more acid from the pineapple, but the well-cooked onions and fresh cilantro make for a great bite. They're bigger than street tacos, too, with tortillas around six inches across. Unfortunately, charging $13.25 for two tacos, rice and beans is hard to swallow.
The Pollo Guerrero — chicken breast sautéed in a gravy-thick peanut and red chile sauce — comes cooked and seasoned well with white rice. Peanuts and chilies together evoke east Asia, and this dish has that kind of Thai/curry vibe going. It's well-executed and possibly the best thing on the menu, and the price is a little better than the pastor.
Encouragingly, Alfaro is also testing out dishes from his native Peru, which he hopes to introduce as weekend specials. He shared a few small samples on each visit, unprompted. The tilapia ceviche had promise, enhanced with the addition of a little ají amarillo, a spicy pepper ubiquitous in Peruvian cuisine. The Papa a la Huancaína, a cold starter of boiled potatoes in a sauce of queso fresco and ají amarillo, came perfectly cooked. The velvety Huancaína sauce got everything right that the chewing-gum-textured queso fundido failed to.
So Abuelita's mid-range options tend to be hit-or-miss, the stronger items are expensive for the portion size, and the most interesting options haven't hit the menu.