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Dive! Dive!

Tortilla flat: Casa Bonita bubbles over with entertainment -- but the food is all wet.
Q Crutchfield

The cute college-age guy is wearing nothing but a pair of denim shorts, and he's obviously freezing his butt off. He sticks his hand into the waterfall, shivers, then turns to his diving partner, another cute college-age guy, and asks, "Man, can't they turn the heat up?" as he runs his hands over his smooth chest, which is about to be wet and covered with goosebumps. A gal wearing a brightly colored long skirt appears on the fake rock formation to announce that this fellow is going to do some amazing dives into the "lagoon" below, and both cute guys start flexing their rippling muscles.

Okay, this could be entertaining.

In fact, the cliff divers at Casa Bonita are fun -- not just for kids, who outnumber adults two to one at this Denver institution, but for moms as well.

What we all have to eat, however, is not amusing...and this is Casa Bonita's "new and improved" menu.

Casa Bonita featured eatertainment before it was cool. The massive, pink-on-the-outside-chaotic-on-the-inside complex -- at 1,100 seats, it's allegedly the largest indoor restaurant in the Western Hemisphere -- has been serving up Mexican food with sides of hokey distraction such as cliff-diving, mariachis, piñata-bursting and shoot-'em-ups since 1973. That's when the Black-Eyed Pea Corporation decided to build this Pepto-Bismol (as in the color and a possible after-dinner drink) palace dedicated to family fun and mediocre fare. A few years later the company added a second Casa in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then, perhaps wisely, stopped there. Several years ago, Texas StarMart Corporation bought the place. Shortly after that, according to training manager Mark Stout, a rotten review in one of the Denver dailies prompted the new owners to take a hard look at Casa Bonita's recipes and subsequently revamp all of them.

They didn't go far enough, however.

Still, on my recent visit to Casa Bonita, I found the food much improved over what I'd encountered there six years ago, when I'd just moved here and someone I'm no longer talking to insisted that I go to Casa Bonita at least once for the authentic Denver "experience." At the time, I had no kids, so I didn't understand why anyone would willingly eat the swill Casa Bonita was purveying. There was also some problem with either the lagoon or the cliff divers that night, and so my very long hour was spent listening to the mariachis and eating a blob of sour cream, the only edible thing on my plate. And this after an extremely annoying pass through the Casa Bonita serving setup, which involved diners being herded through a series of lines reminiscent of those at Elitch's.

Unfortunately, this setup wasn't overhauled when the recipes were. We registered our order with one of the cashiers -- everyone over the age of two must purchase a meal, the menu says, "Because We Feature Live Entertainment and Because the Atmosphere Is So Unique" -- and then each grabbed a tray and a silverware-filled napkin bundle (this is tough for little kids, by the way, even if they have passed the immense age of two) before shimmying up to the food section and waiting for the dishes and drinks to be distributed to the correct trays. Then we had to shlep our stuff through the cavernous, fake-rock-filled building until we were stopped by another cashier, who looked at our order slip -- seemingly very slowly, from the perspective of someone holding a heavy tray -- and picked out an appropriate table for our party. She had thirteen dining rooms to choose from, each of which is designed to look like a different type of Mexican dwelling, complete with twinkling white lights, elaborate gazebos and patios, and enough faux foliage to restock the rainforest once we're through decimating it.

All of the eating areas have views, in varying degrees, of the cliffs and the waterfall, but the best seat in the house is right up against the railing that overlooks the lagoon 28 feet below the top of the waterfall. The pool itself is fourteen feet deep, and occasionally water splashes up onto the audience, so the folks at Casa Bonita are very good about informing diners that they use bromide, not chlorine, to keep the lagoon clean and to avoid problems with the health department. For that matter, every staffer we encountered was friendly, helpful, informative and efficient, even if one server about fifteen years my junior did call me "hon." And despite the fact that they don't have to take orders or bring the first round of food, those servers are kept busy, mostly responding to diners who raise the little red flags on their tables to signal that they need more, more, more of the "delicious deluxe dinners." But is more bad food a good thing?

The deluxe dinners cost $8.99 for all-you-can-eat tacos and enchiladas, along with as much dark-brown (is it chile powder?) rice, baby-food-consistency refried beans, chile con queso, guacamole, sour cream, chips, salsa, sopaipillas and honey as you can handle. But the tacos were all shell, hiding no more than two tablespoons of bland ground beef or three small strips of dry chicken, a smattering of lettuce and seven shreds of cheese (yes, I counted, and, no, it hadn't melted into the lukewarm meat). The beef enchiladas contained another two tablespoons of bland beef (the minimum required to raise the folded-over tortilla to enchilada status) and were covered with just enough red chile -- which tasted like tomato paste -- to cover three bites; the chicken enchiladas came with a sour-cream sauce -- which, from the looks and taste of it, was melted sour cream; and the cheese enchiladas held no more cheese than those sorry tacos.

Although Casa Bonita's motto is "Lots of Food. Peso Little," you can get just as much food -- and good food, at that -- for less money at dozens of Mexican restaurants around town. So Casa Bonita's green chile burrito platter ($7.99), which consisted of one meager beef taco and two bean burritos that were supposed to be smothered in chile but seemed to have been simply swiped with diced mild chiles spooned up from a Safeway can, was no bargain. Sure, there was enough lettuce on the plate to make two dinner salads, and the guacamole -- a scoop so small it looked as though it had been portioned with a melon baller -- was okay, if a little overprocessed and squishy, and the chips and salsa that come with every meal were decent. But the chile con queso would have fit nicely in the corner pocket of one of those little cardboard trays at a movie theater.

More chile con queso covered the gorditas ($7.99), a wad of dough soaked with grease and filled with bland beef that was again ground, not shredded. By contrast, the beef in the Fajitas! Fajitas! Fajitas! ($8.89) was blackened around the edges and chewier than jerky; while the onions and green peppers were nicely grilled, you couldn't make a meal out of those -- although we did try.

The kids had abandoned their meals -- soggy chicken fingers ($2.99) and a charred, chewy cheeseburger ($2.99), both served with the limpest fries imaginable -- early on. But really, once they realized that someone was actually going to fling himself from the top of the rocks, it was as if their stomachs had left the building. I know mine did when I took one taste of our single gringo dinner, a very scary country-fried steak ($7.99) that wasn't worthy of digesting, much less discussing.

And I couldn't drown my sorrows in alcohol, because there didn't seem to be any in the sangria swirl ($3.75), which was supposedly frozen lime margarita mixed with frozen sangria but tasted like something my kids could have made with a Sno-Cone machine. Much more satisfying was to imagine myself plunging into that pool and being rescued from near-drowning by one of those cute guys.

While we moms fantasized, the kids had a great time. Periodically they were encouraged to whack piñatas for candy, watch a puppet show or hoot and holler at budding thespians performing shoot-'em-ups. There were also more retail opportunities in the place than at a Las Vegas hotel -- kids can get their pictures taken in Western attire, buy tiny Mexican blankets at El Mercado and feed every last quarter their parents have into the video games in El Arcado.

I had just emptied my wallet and returned to thinking about toweling off that diver's goosebumpy chest with my napkin when, as if by magic, something worth eating finally appeared. The sopaipillas were the stuff of dreams: big, air-filled rectangles of golden dough, puffed out like pillows and shedding flaky pastry bits with every bite. These marvels alone were worth the price of admission.

Particularly if you throw in those hunky college boys, ¿no? Casa Bonita, 6715 West Colfax Avenue, 303-232-5115. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

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