Saturday, July 17, 2010

Home Sweet Colorado Pt. 2: In Which I Visit "The World's Most Exciting Restaurant"



If you've ever lived in Denver (or heck, anywhere in CO), chances are you've been to Casa Bonita. If not, chances are you've at least HEARD of it...Casa Bonita has been open since 1974 and has become legendary amongst Coloradans. The reason: it's probably the most bizarre, mind-blowing, sensory-overloading Mexican dining experience you will EVER have ANYWHERE.

Of course, "dining experience" may be a misnomer; the LAST thing you visit Casa Bonita for is the food. This hilarious article by Denver-area blogger Joel Warner describes the restaurant thusly: "It's like Disney(land) had sex with Tijuana and left the goofy-looking bastard to fend for itself in a random strip mall on Colfax (Ave)." Truer words were never spoken, my man.



South Park fans (myself not included) may remember Casa Bonita from a season 7 episode, called (wait for it) "Casa Bonita." In this episode, Cartman lies, cheats, & manipulates his way into a birthday party for a kid he hates--all because the party is at Casa Bonita. Given how much real kids love this place, I actually buy that scenario. And while South Park often leans toward the surreal, the Casa Bonita scenes are surprisingly true-to-life; waterfall, puppet shows, sopapillas, mariachi bands & all. It's just that nutty, folks (WARNING: contains 2 profanities--not too bad for South Park, actually).



When I was a young kid, Casa Bonita was pretty much the coolest thing ever. It was THE place to go for food & fun...mostly fun, because who CARED how good the food was when you could see cliff divers and climb around a spooky cave? As I grew into adulthood, however, and my palate became more (ahem) refined, I began to see the restaurant in a different light. I saw Casa Bonita as a poorly lit, slowly decaying beast of a place, located in a somewhat seedy part of town, that always smelled slightly of chlorine and sweat. And the food...good grief, the food...

Despite all this, I'm a mom with kids now...kids who need to be entertained on vacation, darn it!! And what better place to entertain kids than a bizarro theme-park-style Mexican restaurant that gave me hours of endless pleasure as a child? So, despite the protests of my gastrointestinal system (which I knew would regret my decision), I piled my girls (plus Grandma Nash) into the minivan and headed to our date...with destiny.

So...have I sufficiently prepared you? READ ON for your exclusive photographic tour into the belly of the great & terrible Casa Bonita!!

The exterior is kind of nice, actually. Sure, you're in a strip mall, but that pink faux-church tower is sort of neat looking, plus there's this big fountain outside! (Just don't look too closely at what's floating in the water). Then you see the sign that says, "Due to the crapload of fun & games inside, we require EVERYONE who enters here to buy a meal. Sorry, amigos...it's just business." Or something like that.

So then, inside we go--down the long, winding, twisty corridor to the booth where we order our meal:

Believe me, this part goes on forever. Thank goodness we went on a Tuesday at lunchtime; for dinner hour, I've heard the line can snake almost outside the building, with an hour-long wait.

After putting in your order (and waiting in line some more), you get to the tray dispensary, where you pick up your tray. You will slide this tray along...

...and along, and along (this counter goes on for a looooong time), before you finally get to the kitchen, where your food is hand-delivered...to your tray. That's right: at Casa Bonita, you carry your own food to your table, cafeteria style (if you're lucky, one of the wait staff will assist you. Luckily, they saw we had a baby in tow and helped us out).

There it is, folks...the door to the kitchen (note the nearby hot plates with meals waiting for pickup). Who knows what goes on in that kitchen?? If you ask me, it's the most mysterious place in all of Casa Bonita...are there vermin running across the floors, as the restaurant's detractors insist? Are they scooping their enchiladas & burritos out of a can, slapping them on plates, then heating them up quickly in the microwave before sliding them out to the unwitting customers? Anything is possible...

So we were led to our seats, and what luck! Our table was situated mere FEET away from the diving stage (located just stage left of the famous waterfall), so we would have a pretty clear view of the Wild West shows & diving exhibitions. Now, to dive into our meal...ugh...

Here's the thing about the food...it's ALWAYS bad (with one exception I'll get to in a minute). Every time I go to Casa Bonita, I think, "It'll probably be better this time...it can't be as bad as I remember!" Bad news...IT CAN. The taco was flat and saturated with oil, the enchilada was drenched in Velveeta cheese (seriously), the rice was bland & kind of chewy, the beans were flat & rehydrated, etc. (also note the "ice-cream-scoop" of sour cream & guacamole). Celeste got a hamburger & fries, and I sampled it, thinking it might be better...no such luck. The price of this Taco Time-quality meal? $13.00!! Ugh...Anyway, I managed to scarf it down (going to the restaurant hungry might help), and I never had to throw it up. So that's a victory, at least.

Anyway, on with the entertainment!!


(Sorry for the bad picture quality; the main dining area of Casa Bonita is dimly lit & cavernous, not conducive to photography). The "Wild West" show, (sort of) seen here, involves a bunch of teenage Casa Bonita employees putting on some token Old West gear, "getting into character," shooting off air pistols, and shouting a bunch of things like "varmint" & "tarnation" at each other for 10 minutes. Finally, one or more of them (surprise!) falls off the stage during a struggle into the diving pool 15-20 feet below. While we had a good view of the proceedings, the actor's microphones are pretty old, and the sound echoes terribly in the dining area. So it's pretty tough to make out anything they say.

Here's the diving pool the actors fall into. At this point, (staying in character), they often curse the names of their dry comrades above...

...and then they'll wade over to the inevitable group of watching kids and joke around with them a bit, still in character. The same "actors" from the Wild West show would usually appear, 20 minutes later, as "Brazilian-style" cliff divers, who would perform dives from higher platforms along the waterfall--one as high as 30 feet! Lorelai & Celeste, as you can imagine, ate all this up...as did the many other kids watching.

Next, it was on to one of my personal Casa Bonita favorites--Black Bart's Cave! These pictures are all from the exterior; inside the cave, it's too dark to see (or photograph) much of anything. Basically, it's an artificial cave, built with lots of twists, turns, and hiding places (all the better for older kids to hide in, then jump out and scare the pants off of other kids passing through). Black Bart's ghost is yelling at you through tinny speakers throughout the cave, and there's glowing skulls on the walls, giant ape-men in cages, shaking bridges, even a demon's mouth you must pass through to exit, complete with smoke machine!! Kind of like a Disneyland "Haunted Mansion" ride that you walk through, only smellier & more Mexican.

Grandma took the girls through twice. Celeste was a LOT more resistant the second time, and when Lorelai wanted to go through it again, Celeste grumpily refused. Lorelai kept telling me how scary it was, and she was always whining & crying towards the end...and yet she kept wanting to go back through. All told, I think Lorelai went through the cave 5 times. Yeah, she's my daughter all right.

But we're not done yet! There's so much more stuff to see at Casa Bonita! For instance...

There's an arcade...

...a puppet-show theater...

... a caricature artist, who will draw your likeness (for an additional price)...

...multiple Old West-style photo studios (the "jail photo" booth was sadly closed today)...

...and a "wishing well" in the main dining area. This well always freaked me out as a kid, because at the bottom of the well is a sensor-activated television. When you peer into the well, a strange green-faced actor appears on the TV and starts yelling at you. You can never understand what he says, either because the speakers are slowly dying, or because the restaurant is too loud, or both. Anyway, I looked in as an adult, waiting to be freaked out again, but...

Yuck! All that's down there is a bunch of candy wrappers & other junk. The TV still works, but the speakers must be completely dead by now, because I couldn't hear a thing. Maybe they should post a sign saying, "The 'Wishing Well' is not a trash can!!"

Sadly, despite the South Park picture posted above, we did not encounter any roving mariachi bands on this particular trip. It may be because we visited on a weekday, during lunch hour...we'll never know. I know they still exist, though, because we saw several musicians on my LAST trip to Casa Bonita, made when Lorelai was still very young...


Oh, well...maybe next time we can experience some sweet "south of the border" tunes...

Besides all the obvious entertainments, though, just walking around Casa Bonita & exploring can be interesting, too. There are about 3 floors of dining areas, most of them with specific "themes." The main area by the waterfall is intended to be a Spanish-style plaza, but other areas look more like high-class haciendas. Then, in the lower levels, there's a "gold mine" style dining area, complete with mine carts & leaky ceilings (don't worry, buckets catch the water). Behind the waterfall, you get a "wet cave" dining experience, complete with fake bats hanging overhead...

Watch out for the guano!

There's also an entire "Magic Theater" on the ground floor, and it's a pretty nice, QUIET place to eat (though it's often used for special events & so rarely eaten in)...

Last of all, there's a rope bridge that runs directly behind the waterfall! It's a fun place for kids to walk; it gives a neat perspective on the main dining area. It's also a great location to see the cliff divers up close when they perform!

All the exploring made just enough room in our stomachs for...dessert!

Now HERE'S the best part of the Casa Bonita dining experience, hands-down: their sopaipillas! For the uninitiated, sopaipillas are basically a type of pastry dough, fried until puffy. There's a bottle of honey at each table; you break open the sopaipilla, squirt in a bunch of honey, and voila! Delicious. Hard to believe the same kitchen that can so consistently ruin Mexican food can churn out such good sopaipillas. The best part?

You can eat as many as you want!! This little window here lets you see the tasty treats being made, and they'll keep bringing them to your table as long as your "service flag" stays at the top of its pole. I must have eaten five or six sopaipillas; it pays to go easy on your meal, so you can gorge yourself on these babies.



Lorelai & Celeste had about one sopaipilla each, but they weren't as thrilled by them as I was. Instead, Celeste was irresistably drawn to another snack counter--one that featured Sno-Cones. She asked Grandma, myself, AND the vendor for a Sno-Cone probably about 15 times. When we finally refused (I didn't feel like paying $2.50 for a Sno-Cone!), she finally broke down in tears and wept long & loud. That softened the vendor's heart (he seemed like a very sweet elderly man), and he gave Celeste a Sno-Cone for FREE! Well, actually, it was just a cup of shaved ice, without the flavored syrup. That was fine with Celeste, though (and with Lorelai, who got her own "Shaved Ice Cone"); they thanked the vendor and thus became the happiest kids in Casa Bonita.

It was almost time to bid this crazy place farewell. Grandma, being the generous (and indulgent) gal she is, approached one of the toy vendors scattered throughout the restaurant, and got the girls a (ridiculously overpriced) going-home present...

Glowing laser swords of course! What says "Mexico" more than glowing laser swords with hilts shaped like Barbie hairbrushes?

With that, we headed out the door, back into the garish sunlight of a Denver summer afternoon. Our magical(?) afternoon at Casa Bonita had ended. Our stomachs had thankfully survived the trip; however, some of us were a bit emotionally overwrought from the experience...

Beware, parents: after several hours at a place like Casa Bonita, your kids may crash and burn...just like poor Celeste & Lorelai here. Whether the joy they receive from the visit is worth that tearful breakdown, I leave up to you.

4 comments:

  1. Hey, did you know there's another Casa Bonita in Tulsa? When I lived in Broken Arrow (Tulsa suburb) our school took a field trip to Casa Bonita, which means I've visited the entire chain (at least the extant locations). You do kind of have to raise your eyebrows at a place that has to require its guests to order $13 TV dinners.

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  2. wow, I don't know if I'd find it worth it. although I do love sopapillas! that's one thing I want to learn to make, but I fear it won't turn out well (considering I wouldn't be able to stop eating them.)

    It kind of reminds me of this place we'd eat at all the time in Austin... but that was Pancho's... didn't have as much of the "scenery" inside, but had the same style line (although I remember it tasting good, and not as expensive). and the Mexican flag on the table, that you'd just raise if you wanted more food, or more importantly, the sopapillas. and the best part, the gift shop on the way out, that gave you a free pinata if it was your birthday. (wish they had one here)

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  3. Ah nostalgia... I used to LOVE Casa Bonita!!! Next time I am in Denver we will have to try to take my nieces. We wanted to go last Christmas, but never quite got there.

    -Tara LaForce

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