If Matt Stone and Trey Parker were writing a script for South Park, they could not have devised a more fantastic story.
Dana Rodriguez was fresh from Chihuahua, Mexico, a broke single mother looking for a better life for her three daughters, when she landed in Denver. The first job for which she applied: a position in the kitchen at Casa Bonita. That was in 1998, and the management at the time told her she was "not qualified," she recalls.
Twenty-three years later, Rodriguez is one of Denver's most acclaimed chefs, with a national reputation that has snagged her three James Beard nominations. Although she suffered a few more rejections in her initial Denver job hunt (including a job on a night cleaning crew), she finally was hired on at Panzano, where she was mentored by Jen Jasinski. When Jasinski went on to open Rioja in Larimer Square with Beth Gruitch, Rodriguez went with her.
Finally, Rodriguez struck out on her own, co-founding Work & Class and then Super Mega Bien; her first bar, Cantina Loca (her nickname is "Loca"), is set to open next month in Highland. And now she has one of the greatest side gigs of all time: Rodriguez is the new executive chef in a partnership with the new owners of Casa Bonita, Colorado natives Stone and Parker, who introduced South Park a year before Rodriguez applied for that job at Casa Bonita.
Bringing her on could the Stone and Parker's most genius move. After all, the food — or what has been called food at Casa Bonita — is one of the most legendary aspects of this pink eatertainment palace, which opened its doors at 6715 West Colfax in Lakewood in 1974. Founder Bill Waugh had a few other versions of the concept; he wound up selling this one to Robert Wheaton of Summit Family Restaurants — the group that filed for bankruptcy protection in April. The Lakewood location is the last location left, and for a while it looked like it might disappear altogether.
But then Stone and Parker made their $3.1 million offer, revealed in a Facebook Live with Governor Jared Pols in August. After the bankruptcy judge approved the deal, the Rodriguez partnership was announced on November 16.
The call for her services came out of the blue, but Rodriguez was intrigued. In fact, she'd already thought about how much she'd liked to be involved with the spot which had once snubbed her.
Now she's hard at work, analyzing what has to be done to update the kitchen equipment. The food will get an update, too, as will the drink offerings. "We'll change nothing and we'll improve everything," she says. And that means everything will be "fresh and delicious," she promises. "Freaking delicious."
While Casa Bonita, which seats 1,000, is a far cry from the tiny Work & Class, Rodriguez thinks she'll have no problem scaling up. After all, she and two others manage to make 500 dinners a night there. "I'm not afraid of new things," she notes.
New things like taking on the kitchen at Denver's most famous restaurant, the one that wouldn't hire her two decades ago. But there were no hard feelings; Rodriguez took her kids there for birthday parties, and even borrowed a Casa Bonita signature for Super Mega Bien: the flags that customers raise when they want more food. Now she figures she doesn't need to worry about any trademark violation.
And, yes, there will be sopapillas at Casa Bonita, "fucking 100 percent," she says. "We'll change nothing and we'll improve everything," she repeats.
"Everything happens for a reason," Rodriguez concludes.
And this reason is particularly delicious. Parker and Stone have written another great chapter for this uniquely Colorado story.