South Park exposed our secret. After an episode aptly titled "Casa Bonita" aired in 2003, the existence of Casa Bonita became known to the world outside of Colorado.
Up until that point, Casa Bonita was mostly a regional gem. If you grew up in Colorado, chances are you celebrated at least one birthday at the 50,000 square-foot Mexican Village/restaurant inside of a Lakewood strip mall. I'm not just talking elementary school birthdays where you dressed up like a Tex-Mex "criminal" and got to pose inside of a jail cell with your bogus loot and fake booze for a sepia-toned "Wanted" poster; I also mean adult birthdays like my own 21st, when I threw up into a planter after one too many Casa Bonita margaritas.
But now it's time to celebrate Casa Bonita's own big birthday, as the glorious pink palace on West Colfax turns forty years old on Thursday, March 27. If a monumental event like four decades of being Colorado's most fascinating eating establishment isn't enough to persuade you to take a trip there, I hope I can convince you with some of my own feelings on one of the best places in Colorado to eat sopapillas while watching a gun fight between a kid in cowboy hat and a guy in a gorilla costume.
I guess I should start by getting the topic of vomit in relation to Casa Bonita out of the way, since hurling is a common experience shared by many of us who have been to CB. There's a lot of whining about the food being "disgusting" (a bemoaning I find to be over-exaggerated and sourced from super-dramatic folks who don't like to have fun, anyway.)
I personally think the high volume of puking stories is actually related to the fact that the restaurant is so unique that you remember the experiences where it made you sick -- unlike, say, Taco Bell, which has probably made you throw up many more times. But the process of going to a Taco Bell is often too rapid and trivial to be remotely memorable. If you throw up from Casa Bonita's West-Mex fair, it's most likely because you got drunk or ate too much -- and that's your own fault.
If you've never been to Casa Bonita, something you should understand is that though CB is a restaurant, food is just your ticket in -- literally. Upon entering the building, you join a train of folks and crawl through a strange maze of faux mission-style barricades covered in pretend-vintage bull-fighting posters, all just to get to a gate where a cashier takes your order.
Then, you continue on through a network of twists and turns with your ticket in hand, a small piece of paper that you will eventually exchange for a scalding hot plate of cheese that comes out of a hole in a wall. You will then take this meal with you on a wobbly tray, stopping only at a beverage corral where a teenager hands you an already spilling plastic glass of Coca-Cola, one that you then must balance and carry up a steep hill and use as proof of purchase to enter the village where you will finally be seated.
Because the meal is the ticket, you cannot go through this tangle of tiled halls and into the wide Casa Bonita world without a tray of food and very spilly drink (but keep reading, because even if you don't like "Spanish" rice with frozen peas in it, there may still be a way to enter this guarded city without buying a hot plate).
I have some friends who used to host a group birthday party of sorts at Casa Bonita that also doubled as an eating contest -- which was won once someone finally ate enough to puke onsite. I never accepted an invitation to these gatherings because I didn't want to taint my love of the Casa. Besides, there are only so many plates of all-you-can-eat enchiladas that you can attempt to stomach before before heaving becomes the only option, and I happen to not mind those enchiladas and know that as long as CB is open, I'm gonna be consuming them.
And speaking of enchiladas, like other legendary American eating institutions, Casa Bonita has "secret" menu items - like an order of all-you-can-eat enchiladas that are available without meat. But you won't see "vegetarian enchiladas" written anywhere on the paper menu; you've got to ask.
Also, though I've never seen it happen, I've heard you can simply order a bucket of beer in place of a meal or simply sopapillas (which are normally free with every food purchase) and those can count as your ticket if you don't want to sample more of CB's fare. (And for the record, Casa Bonita, you should make an adult version of your "Piñata Plate," because everyone I talked to about the restaurant for this story mentioned wishing they could order it.)
If you're wondering what's so great about Casa Bonita if it's not the food, well, you're in for a real treat. An indoor two-story waterfall poses as the restaurant's main attraction, but that is meant to be merely a distracting, shiny object; Casa Bonita's real charm is its hundreds of feet of undiscovered caverns, mines and generally freaky seating areas. Deep in the plaster-covered walls of this Mexican restaurant that smells like a public pool, you can hear the sounds of the resident mariachi band bouncing around rooms of "mining" caves, carpet and rock-covered caverns that have booths positioned under kerosene lamps where children consume food hastily and adults can sit and soak in the ambiance.
If you're an adult, I recommend kicking back and enjoying your meal in one of these dank spaces, because eventually it will begin to feel like you're eating dinner in a haunted house with the lights on. If cold, wet and dark aren't part of an atmosphere you prefer, there are always tables by the waterfall, tables hidden in lava rock and under plastic palm trees, and tables up in a grand, ornate-for-no-reason pink room with chandeliers and curved walls where sounds move around in magically acoustic ways, allowing you to hear a table on the other side of the room's conversation.
The only place I don't recommend being seated is the basement theater room on a busy night -- you would think a room with a stage would yield cool entertainment, but when I was there last it was just a guy trying to do sad magic tricks in front of a too-crowded dining hall of hungry folks who did not want to be crammed into the small space. It felt like being smashed shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers in the hull of a very old ship, and not in a cool way.
There are so many other great things about Casa Bonita worth mentioning, but part of its charm lies in discovering these for yourself. There is a puppet theater, Black Bart's Cave, a skimpy arcade and a wishing well. There are theatrical gun fights and live music and, of course, cliff divers jumping from the lava rock into a mysterious turquoise pool at the bottom. The restaurant is also home to one of the best gift shops in the state -- if you're looking for awesome T-shirts and water bottles wearing the Casa's famous curved-font logo or just lots of trinket-box options perfect for stashing your weed.
From the outside, yes, CB is a grand gesture in the corner of a shoppette that used to sit next to a waterbed store. It has a beautiful mosaic fountain that splashes water year-round and big wooden doors that signal the entrance to a magical world. But it is hard to understand what you're getting into just by looking at the outside of Colorado's Western Mexican food capital; nothing will prepare you for the bizarre world CB brought to Colorado in 1974. (A location that opened in Tulsa in 1971 is long gone.)
Today Colorado's Casa Bonita is a living urban legend, a place that is actually better than the myth that surrounds it. Years after the South Park episode's first airing, people still visit Colorado unaware that Casa Bonita is really real -- that is, until some native freaks out in a fit of devotion to the fabled restaurant and demands that their tourist friend pay a visit.
So, if you haven't been to Colorado's unofficial top tourist attraction, it's high time. Stop by Casa Bonita this week and wish it a very happy forty years in the business of being the only surviving re-creation of a Mexican village in a strip mall. And seriously, don't be afraid of the food: Get stoned and you'll be fine.
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