Here’s the truth about Colorado’s mostly beloved but sometimes despised Casa Bonita, the 52,000-square-foot restaurant that soars over the top of over the top.
If you don’t get Casa Bonita, you’re never going to get Casa Bonita.
If the idea of eating Mexican food surrounded by Western gunmen, sword fighters, costumed gorillas and strolling mariachi bands, amid throngs of loud and jubilant children and beside a roaring 30-foot waterfall with divers, doesn’t sound like joy to you, then it will not be joy to you.
If you don’t want to depart your somewhat boring reality to embark on an exotic, outlandish escape among hordes of happy diners on West Colfax Avenue, then don’t.
My daughter, Ruth, has adored Casa Bonita since she began to walk. Long ago, she sat at a big, loud table with her Papa and Nana Ramsey. These days, she watches over tiny relatives, barely able to walk, as they discover the wonders of “The World’s Most Exciting Restaurant.”
Ruth has listened to decades of criticism, often from family, about the restaurant that most of us love but a few love to hate.
“I once told my beautiful, stylish and incredibly sophisticated aunt in a general statement, ‘If you don’t like Casa Bonita, I don’t like you,’ and quickly realized she didn’t feel the same way,” Ruth says.
“Instead of embarrassment, I felt solid in that assessment. I’ve forgiven her opinion and hope she sees the light soon enough.”
The light is not coming on, Ruth, but that’s OK.
I toured the restaurant last week with general manager Mike Mason and marketing manager Eileen Mullen. They know the place. They’ve worked there a combined 85 years.
Both grew up in the neighborhood and watched an ordinary Joslins department store transform to extraordinary. When construction ended in 1973, an 85-foot pink tower with glittering gold dome, complete with a statue of Cuauhtémoc (last Aztec emperor of Mexico), loomed large over Colfax.
Eileen soon walked through the completed restaurant. She was in awe.
“We were never exposed to anything like that,” she says.
Ah, Eileen, nobody had been exposed to anything like Casa Bonita. I often hear the restaurant described as “weird.” I’d go with a different description. It is aggressively ambitious.
That ambition was crafted by Bill Waugh, a 1953 graduate of Palmer High School. Waugh, the visionary behind Casa Bonita, had no use for ordinary.
Waugh, who died in 2015, sought bold. He wanted to shock and thrill you.
He did. And he does.
On many summer nights, 900 diners are enjoying meals at Casa Bonita. They dine in rooms, dreamed up by Waugh, that resemble caves and mines or areas that conjure up Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta. It’s common for more than 5,000 meals to be served in a day. In a good year, Casa Bonita prepares nearly 2 million enchiladas.
And so we arrive at Casa Bonita’s food. Trust me, it’s a controversial subject. Critics say the food is bad. I contend the food is understandably mediocre. The massive kitchen is spotless, and all meals are prepared from scratch in house. But, and there’s no way around this, those meals are mass-produced.
My advice is to veer away from the most popular items (the all-you-can-eat tacos and enchiladas) and steer toward fajitas or burritos. They’re not spectacular. They are solid.
These are glory days for Casa Bonita. West Colfax fell on decades of hard times, which took a toll on the restaurant’s strip mall. At the dawn of the 21st century, a drive along Colfax to Casa Bonita produced a serious case of the blighted urban blues, complete with menacing and sad characters in the parking lot.
But Greater Denver is roaring, leaving the strip mall and area surrounding Casa Bonita in their most spiffy shape in decades.
Yesterday has this way of spilling into today at Casa Bonita.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone grew up on the outskirts of Denver, and as children, of course, enjoyed the wonders of Casa Bonita. Those wonders found a home deep in their souls.
Trey and Matt later developed the utterly warped sitcom “South Park.” As deadline fast approached to deliver a 2003 episode, the duo remembered the Mexican wonderland of their youth.
In the episode, Eric Theodore Cartman calls Casa Bonita “My most favorite place in the world.” Fictional Cartman speaks for factual Trey and Matt. “South Park’s” bizarro-deluxe celebration of Casa Bonita delivered a fresh wave of hipsters, who — with great irony, of course — savor the food and atmosphere.
Trey and Matt understand a crucial truth about Casa Bonita.
The restaurant is so stridently and stubbornly and studiously unchic that it’s chic.
And always will be.
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