Decades ahead of the “eatertainment” boom of the early 2000s, Bill Waugh had opened the first Casa Bonita in Oklahoma City in 1968, then followed with an even more elaborate spot in metro Denver, on the site of the former tuberculosis sanitarium that was then the JCRS Shopping Center. On Colfax Avenue, of course.
America’s longest main street was originally named Golden Road because it connected Golden and Denver; in 1896, it was renamed for Schuyler Colfax, a prominent Indiana congressman who’d been President Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president. It was already a well-traveled route to the diggings during the Gold Rush days. Early in the twentieth century, it became a gateway to all of the West, as tourists traveled the fabulous U.S. 40 strip on their way to a mountain vacation.
East Colfax Avenue had always gotten the lion’s share of attention, with its long stretch of motels and shops and restaurants leading to the gold-domed State Capitol.
But with the opening of Casa Bonita, more attention shifted to the west — and stayed there long enough for South Park to devote an entire episode to the place in 2003. An early exemplar of immersive art even before that term was coined, Casa Bonita landed on the international map as a kitsch icon. And when it closed in March 2020 as restaurants shut down during the pandemic, fans clamored to know when it would come back. Now, almost twenty years after they celebrated Casa Bonita in their show, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker announced that they have a deal to buy the place, if the bankruptcy court approves. “Awesome,” responded Jared Polis when they broke the news last month on a live Facebook feed with Colorado’s governor.
But Casa Bonita is just the start of the awesomeness that is about to make this stretch of Colfax the coolest strip in the country.
Because just over three miles to the east, and just under five decades after Casa Bonita served its first tray full of “authentic Mexican food,” Meow Wolf Denver will open its doors later this month, introducing the world to Convergence Station, tucked into a new building that rises above the Colfax viaduct at the Interstate 25 exit.
The founders of Meow Wolf — the sensation out of Santa Fe that made its national name with House of Eternal Return, an immersive-art extravaganza that opened in 2016 — had looked all over Denver for a spot to open a second outpost. They found it here, on the convergence corridor that leads you from the past to the future of Denver, that immerses you in history as well as hope for the future.
They’ve even posted billboards along this stretch, noting that tickets to the latest Colfax attraction are now available.
Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station brings its maximalist multiverse to a part of town where Jewish immigrants had a universe of their own in the late 1800s through the early 1950s. There, next to the South Platte River, where Native tribes once thrived, these immigrants got a fresh start in a new country on cheap land prone to flooding. Still, it was safer than Germany, Poland or Russia, where war and anti-semitism raged.
Many came straight from Europe to meet family members who had already settled in Colorado. Others arrived after stints in New York and other East Coast cities. Denver was more affordable, the dry air helped treat the blight of tuberculosis that was killing one in seven people in the United States and Europe, and the Reform and Modern Orthodox communities were growing stronger every year.
Steve Rosen, who now works in real estate in Boulder, was born in 1948 in the westside Jewish community, just before Jews began to disperse around town. His grandfather was born in Russia, where he and his parents had no house; they lived in a dugout in the forest. Rosen’s great-grandfather, a laborer, earned a living digging up tree stumps so they could be turned into turpentine.
After fleeing Russia, Rosen’s grandfather married. He and his wife caught tuberculosis and moved their family to Denver — but the dry air didn’t save Rosen’s grandfather. With seven kids to feed, his grandmother, desperate to pay the bills, opened Rosen’s Kosher Deli, which moved around the city. While she was cooking and feeding customers, her kids raised each other in a neighborhood that was exclusively Jewish.
“There were tons of shops, mom-and-pop grocers, insurance agencies and several different synagogues in the area,” Rosen recalls. “Depending on where you came from in the old country, everybody had their own village and rabbi and their own beliefs.”
But the hub of the community was located under the Colfax viaduct, which was built in 1917 and became known as the “Jewish Passover,” because it literally passed over the Jews, who were living in what was considered the most authentic shtetl in the United States.
“It was just like it was in the old country,” says Rosen. “In the old days, my parents, my friends’ parents, everybody just hung out with Jews.”
Denver’s shtetl life ran on the Jewish calendar, and the culture was all-consuming. Growing up, Rosen went to Hebrew school four days a week, and life shut down on Friday night for Shabbat dinner. People went to services on Saturday and Sunday school on Sunday. Even the public schools in the area, Cheltenham Elementary and Colfax Elementary, closed down for the High Holy Days. If they hadn’t, no students would have shown up.
When people weren’t in synagogue or studying, there was plenty to do: B’nai B’rith bowling, supper clubs and poker nights. “Thursday night poker night, I mean, God, you couldn’t wait for that to happen,” he says. “All the guys were there, and they were smoking their cigars and cigarettes, and you had out salami, rye bread and yada yada yada. You got to see the guys and eat yourself sick, because everything was based on eating.”
Over the decades, as second- and third-generation Jewish Americans made more money, they moved up the bergl — the Yiddish word for hill — above the viaduct, and the community spread along West Colfax from Federal to Sheridan boulevards. Although North High School, which Rosen attended, had fewer resources than schools on the east side of Denver, everybody had a shot at a solid education and learned reading, writing, math and history — something Rosen worries is no longer the case in Denver.
When she wasn’t working, Rosen’s grandmother loved to take a shvitz, traveling to the mountains for the hot springs. In the neighborhood, she was a regular at Lake Steam Baths at 3540 West Colfax, where people could go for a sauna, a soak and a snack.
Over time, Reform and Modern Orthodox Jews became more prosperous and largely left the west side, building friendships and businesses outside the community. Even as new waves of immigrants — Mexicans, Asians — began moving into the area, though, the Hasidic community stayed in the neighborhood, building yeshivas and new congregations, some of which remain today. And the west side maintained its reputation as a hardworking, scrappy community.
Today there are few remaining traces of that early Jewish history along West Colfax — a handful of buildings that include repurposed synagogues and the J. Solf Building at 2644 West Colfax Avenue (a stone’s throw from Meow Wolf), which got its start as a grocery in the late 1800s. Today the Solf Building houses the original Brooklyn’s, and is on Historic Denver’s list of fifty places to watch.
Lake Steam Baths.
Lake Steam Baths was opened in 1927 by Harry and Ethyl Hyman, Russian Jewish immigrants who modeled their business after the baths in the old country. It was a spot where men and women — on separate nights — could undress, relax and catch up with each other. Even as families moved away, they would reconnect at the spa, which was passed down through the Hyman family.
The last Jewish family member to own Lake Steam Baths was Harry and Ethyl’s grandson, Hannon, who passed away in 2015. He left the spa to his wife, Amy, who has hung pictures of the Hymans in the bathhouse’s lobby, even as she has upgraded the facility with new heaters, tiling and a broader menu — including a Best of Denver award-winning egg salad.
These days, a group of Russians shows up every other Sunday morning to smack each other with branches and crank up the heat in the steam room to levels most Americans cannot tolerate, Amy says. But they’re friendly, inviting, and keep the culture of the place intact, teaching newcomers the proper etiquette (including not treating the spot as a sex den akin to the gay bathhouses that emerged in the 1970s).
Occasional rabbis from Yeshiva Toras Chaim Talmudical Seminary enjoy the facility, and older people who frequented the business back in its early days continue to come, bringing their children and their children’s children.
Years ago, Amy watched this stretch of Colfax become riddled with crime, making her uneasy when walking outside the building at night. But new wealth in the area has been changing West Colfax’s character once again.
She recalls first seeing a white couple walking their dog and pushing their baby in a stroller. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” she remembers. “I kept joking with people.... I knew if a Starbucks showed up, we’d made it. Oh, my God, Starbucks shows up. The hookers and shootings all moved away.” Brewpubs, upscale tattoo parlors and ice cream shops replaced them.
But the influx of wealth has brought other changes. Unique old homes are being scraped for generic, blocky condos and apartment buildings. Rosen’s family, which had bought three apartment buildings in the area in the late ’50s and early ’60s, recently sold to new developers who are remodeling the buildings.
“It’s the typical story,” Rosen says. “They’ll renovate apartments and charge twice as much for rent. We always kept our properties up really well, kept them really nice and clean and fresh. We always kept our rents low. We owned them long enough that they were paid off, and we didn’t need to get those kinds of rents. And we didn’t want to get those kinds of rents, because we would have lost the tenant base.”
When it came time to sell, he says, “that was our biggest concern: Where are these people going to go next?” The sad answer: nowhere in Denver.
“It is what it is,” he adds. “What can you do? They had a sixty-year run with people who cared, with people who kept rents low and kept the place up.”
He’s no fan of the new architecture or improved economy, describing it as “a gigantic disgusting boom on the west side.”
But then he adds: “It feels like what’s going on in the rest of Denver. It’s a sea of new construction and packing people into little places at high rents. Every time you see a new building going up, you ask yourself: Where are the people going to come from, and how the hell are they going to afford those rents?”
As a result, it boasted one motel after another, many with mid-century neon signs designed to hook tourists, such as the Pig ’N’ Whistle sign that now adorns a dispensary.
Like the Pig, many of those motels are now gone, while others have been converted to weekly stays. And then there’s the Volunteers of America Family Motel at 4855 West Colfax, which provides emergency housing for Denver families experiencing homelessness.
“It still is a motel. It never stopped being a motel. It operates just like a motel. But the individuals that are being housed there happen to be families that are experiencing homelessness,” explains Lindi Sinton, vice president of program operations at Volunteers of America Colorado. “That’s different from a quote-unquote shelter. A lot of people refer to it as a shelter.”
In the early ’60s, the motel started out as the Aristocrat Motor Lodge — a sign out front attests to that. It was originally run by Delmar H. and Ruby E. Sala and their two sons, Harold and Orville. For a while, it enjoyed a brisk tourism trade, but then I-70 cut across north Denver. The motel stayed in business, though, and even added a wing to the west in 1972.
Over the next two decades, the motel went through multiple owners. Finally, the nonprofit Volunteers of America Colorado purchased it in 1999 at the request of the City of Denver, which was already sending families experiencing homelessness to motels along Colfax Avenue.
Volunteers of America gets $1.2 million annually from the city to run the motel, which typically houses 3,000 people annually. It has 45 rooms: five for veterans, ten for people who have been hospitalized and need a respite room, and thirty for families. Families generally stay for two to three weeks.
Through a joint intake process handled by the city and service providers, a caseworker first looks for shelter space in town.
“Family shelter is really limited in the entire Denver metro area, so that’s usually not an option,” says Sinton. Next, the caseworker figures out if a family member or a friend could take in the family. If not, the family is referred to the VOA Family Motel.
At the motel, case managers work with the families to make sure they have some form of housing after they leave. “The last thing we want to do is have them go back and stay in the shelter system,” says Sinton.
Although the motel’s name and clientele have changed, the VOA has kept the original sign intact. “It’s so iconic and it takes a million neon bulbs, but it’s a landmark,” says Sinton.
“We are in the very preliminary stages of trying to figure out how we can have a facility that doesn’t require the level of maintenance and isn’t as old as this one,” says Sinton. “And we’re looking at what we can do differently on this property that might be more aesthetically pleasing and more useful.”
The motel currently straddles Xavier Street. The VOA wants to replace the building on the west side with a taller structure that would serve more families while also providing community and dining space, according to Sinton. The project would require approximately $14 million in funding, the VOA estimates.
In an analysis report dated July 26, the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development labeled the motel as potentially eligible for historic designation.
“The Aristocrat continues to clearly convey the feeling of a mid-twentieth-century motel type, evoking a strong sense of the past,” it states.
But as with many other motels lining this stretch — including the Big Bunny and the Blue Sky — no one seemed to feel that this particular building needed to be preserved. No objections were filed to the request for a certificate of demolition eligibility.
“The most historic aspects are that signage, which is a sign; it’s not really the building,” says Sinton. “We’re trying to figure out ways to retain that signage, anyway. And then also, it has kind of a scalloped roof, a wavy roof line.”
Sinton, who grew up on East Colfax and has worked with the VOA for 42 years, says she’s fallen in love with West Colfax during her adult years.
“I love to walk down the street, even. There’s just something about the Lake Steam Baths...and the motels and everything.”
That could all change if Parker and Stone make good on their promise to improve the culinary offerings at this oddball institution. But what, exactly, do they intend?
Will they bring in a big-name chef to elevate the experience? We hope not: Getting too fancy with the food at a place beloved by children and adults alike just wouldn’t make sense. In fact, they should keep the cafeteria trays, too. That setup is part of the charm.
Perhaps they’ll take a cue from that new immersive icon a half-dozen miles east on Colfax, where Meow Wolf has brought in a lineup of local vendors for HELLOFOOD, the “fusion cafe” where diners will be able to choose from a variety of options, including Alejandro Flores-Muñoz’s Combi Tacos. In April 2020, Flores-Muñoz, who’s from Guadalajara, Mexico, became the first DACA recipient to receive a Denver business license, and bringing him on board is a smart (and tasty) nod to Denver’s rich Hispanic heritage.
Much of that heritage flavors West Colfax. While the stretch between Casa Bonita and Meow Wolf isn’t as packed with Mexican options as Federal Boulevard is, there are several eateries that serve the community and do it well.
Sadly, Taqueria Mexico, which claimed to have inherited the formula for the original Mexican hamburger made famous fifty years ago at Joe’s Buffet on Santa Fe Drive, has closed. And plans for an Illegal Pete’s to move in next door to the Little Man Ice Cream Factory at 4411 West Colfax Avenue have been stalled by the pandemic and other challenges, though it’s getting closer to becoming a reality pending approval by the city.
“We’re still moving forward with it,” says founder Pete Turner. “We love the neighborhood. We love that section of Colfax, and we’re super stoked to see Meow Wolf, and then, obviously, Matt and Trey from South Park doing Casa Bonita.” Turner went to junior high in Littleton with Stone and attended the University of Colorado with both South Park creators — Stone was actually one of the very first customers at the original Illegal Pete’s location on the Hill in Boulder when it opened in 1995. “It’s kind of funny to see them right up the street now,” Turner adds.
“We love the neighborhood. We love that section of Colfax, and we’re super stoked to see Meow Wolf."
So is there potential for an Illegal Pete’s takeover of the food at Casa Bonita? “Maybe a variation on it. It would be fun to talk to those guys about it,” Turner says. “But I’m obviously nothing but confident that they’re going to do amazing shit there. They’re just going to make it cool.”
But Turner, who grew up going to birthday parties at Casa Bonita, also hopes that Parker and Stone don’t change too much. “It’s kind of like a guilty pleasure,” he says of the often disparaged food. “I didn’t think it was that bad. Obviously, it can be improved, but I hope they don’t go too far.”
If not a version of Illegal Pete’s, Parker and Stone could look to other options nearby for inspiration.
Los Mesones, at 3643 West Colfax, will soon celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. When husband-and-wife owners Hector Hugo Soto and Adriana Chávez first opened their place in 2006, there were three other Mexican restaurants nearby. Now, only Los Mesones remains, bolstered by longtime regulars, many “new neighbors” and a recent increase in online orders, Soto says. The small restaurant has a few patio tables out front and a display case inside loaded with Mexican cookies and desserts such as flan and tres leches.
When you sit down, you’re greeted by a basket of chips and salsa that leans to the hot side. In fact, many of the dishes here embrace spiciness, a reflection of the food from Soto’s hometown of Aguascalientes, Mexico. The sprawling, multi-page menu is loaded with options, from whole, deep-fried tilapia and molcajetes overflowing with meat to staples like enchiladas, tacos and breakfast burritos available all day starting at just $2.25.
On a recent visit, we joined a steady flow of customers, most speaking Spanish. A couple shared a platter of tacos while a man covered in paint-spattered clothes ordered a beer and found a seat outside while he waited for his burrito. Each customer was greeted warmly, some by name, most with a go-to order ready, no menu needed. Some picked up their food and left, while others lingered a while, sipping an agua fresca or michelada. And the food itself was flavorful and satisfying.
If we could get anything at Casa Bonita like the huge platter of soft chiles rellenos blanketed in green chile and shredded white (not electric orange) cheese served at Los Mesones, then Parker and Stone will have truly done right for fans of the pink palace. Throw in some beers from another West Colfax business, the Latino-owned Raíces Brewing Company (which is on board to provide beer at Meow Wolf’s HELLOFOOD), and you’ve got a recipe for food and drink success. Just leave the sopaipillas alone.
When Paul ran for mayor, he wanted to push the creative side of the city, and he’s certainly done that, helping to establish the 40 West Arts District as a major cultural milestone in Colorado. It’s just west of Casa Bonita on Colfax, but soon will have a satellite in the same shopping center, now known as Lamar Station: 40 West has bought the building that once housed the Denver Drumstick, a local chain of eateries that was a family favorite until the kids started clamoring for Casa Bonita. A group of galleries that had been in the former Pasternack’s pawn shop just down the road will be moving into this spot; Pasternack’s, meanwhile, will return to a more familiar Colfax function: as a gas station.
“There’s just so much history and so much potential,” Paul says.
That’s not the only change coming to this stretch of Colfax, as it converges with a brighter future that holds fewer convenience stores, tattoo parlors and used car lots and embraces more creative endeavors. The White Swan, another motel dating back to the days of the fabulous 40 strip, is getting a major makeover courtesy of the Sursy, whose founder, Lauren Coleman, likes to proclaim that “less is bore.” She’ll turn it into a hipster hangout, a “shoppable boutique motel, filled with things made in Colorado and for sale,” as well as a bar and restaurant.
“I had the motel dream before I even moved to Colorado,” says the North Carolina native. But then she got involved with the 40 West Arts District and found that “this community really rallies around its artists.” So she closed the deal to buy the White Swan on Colfax. Of course.
“I hope it keeps its grit,” she says. “I love it.”
And a few blocks away, Danny Newman — the Danny Newman who led a family buyout of My Brother’s Bar, and then a friendly buyout of the Mercury Cafe — is again moving forward with his plans to put the Colfax Country Club in, yes, an old gas station. The name was a joke at first, but it’s grown on him, and it will be backed by such amenities as a real swimming pool, mini-golf, table tennis and a mermaid bar (that last one perhaps not until the second phase). “Attempting to reuse an old building, rather than building from scratch, is extremely hard,” Newman says, glossing over endless wrangling with the City of Denver, which has not been as encouraging of novel projects as its sibling to the west.
“I’m super-impressed with what Lakewood has done with the 40 West Arts District,” Newman adds. “We’ve got this really cool stretch between Meow Wolf and Casa Bonita, and even beyond. I see the ability to make cool, quirky stuff along that whole gap. … Colfax has always been Colfax. I hope it continues to stay weird, and a little off.”
Not surprisingly, Novick is included in the assemblage of local artists who have work at Convergence Station, too. His contribution is a mind-bending room covered with books. And there, in one corner, is a Denver Drumstick sign. He loves Casa Bonita now, but “I loved going to the Drumstick as a kid,” he admits. “We always wanted to go to the Drumstick as kids.”
To bring things full circle, he even added a version of the train that used to run around the Drumstick to the sign. “The train was not on the sign originally, but that was our homage,” he says. “We graffitied our monikers on the train cars.”
What’s old is new again. While Meow Wolf considered sites across Denver — many that already had buildings, like the bowling alley it converted in Santa Fe — it decided to build its impressive new home at one of Denver’s busiest junctions.
No one recognizes the significance of this Colfax corridor convergence — three miles and five decades of immersive art — more than Novick. He may not be able to have Casa Bonita, but Casa Bonita will always have him. And with Meow Wolf’s opening, the Colfax convergence will get him — and everyone else — coming and going.