Colorado’s defining features include glorious mountain peaks, vivid seasonal colors, skiing and a widespread compulsion to exercise and eat well. But for generations of Colorado children, arguably the most commonly shared experience involved Casa Bonita, a vast, filthy, poorly lit, underground restaurant with food that many diners deemed barely edible.
Casa Bonita — sprawling over 52,000 square feet in Lakewood, a Denver suburb — served steamed refried beans, tacos and enchiladas to thousands of people a day, buffet-style. The dinner entertainment was a child’s fever dream: waterfalls, cliff divers, Black Bart’s Cave, faux gold and silver mines, puppet shows and a person in a gorilla costume chased by a sheriff, who sometimes joined in the cliff diving. Casa Bonita’s curious childhood grip was chronicled in an episode of “South Park.”
After that episode ran, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the show’s creators, were regularly asked whether such a place actually existed. “Oh, that’s a place,” Parker would respond, he said recently. “It’s crazy. It’s weird.” Like so many Colorado children, Parker had held his birthday parties there.
Then, in 2020, Casa Bonita went bankrupt, hit by the pandemic slump. The place was already in disrepair, crumbling from deferred maintenance, rife with electrical hazards, the ventilation systems coated with grease and the carpet encrusted into something like concrete. The jokes about the food had earned it the nickname Casa NoEata. Still, its passing was mourned.
But in the coming weeks, the enormous casita will reopen with new owners: Parker and Stone, both native Coloradans, who have spent upward of $40 million to tear it down, rebuild it and, they joke, to keep everything the same, except now sanitary.
“It doesn’t stink like chlorine anymore,” Stone said in an interview in late May, during the final, frantic stretch to reopen. “We could have rebuilt this twice as big, for half as much money, but we spent so much restoring it, like a piece of art.”
Parker added: “And the food is excellent.”
Indeed, Casa Bonita returns as one of the biggest Mexican restaurants in the world, and the new executive chef, Dana Rodriguez, is a six-time James Beard Award nominee. Local fans of Casa Bonita speak of the reopening as if the beloved “Orange Crush” Denver Broncos of 1977 had been revived from a cryogenic state. More than 100,000 potential customers have signed up on the restaurant’s website to make a reservation, Stone said.
“It’s its own Colorado thing,” said Rick Johnson last Friday night, when some 400 guests were invited for a test run, in the company of Stone and Parker. Johnson, 44, had come to the restaurant as a child and had now brought his own sons. “There are these certain places that bring you back — that bring the nostalgia,” he said.
His son Isaac, 10, was struck by his father’s enthusiasm. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him more excited,” he said.
Isaac had just joined a dozen other children watching a puppet show, during which a friendly taco puppet introduced a somber burrito puppet that sang an Italian aria. The puppet stage was tucked next to Black Bart’s Cave, a windy maze minded by two skeletons. Steps away, the mercado sold Casa Bonita T-shirts, mugs and other trinkets. Every 20 minutes, divers splashed from faux cliffs into a blue pool.
“This is heaven on Earth,” Isaac said.
Stone, smiling, took in a mariachi band near the bar. The original cost of renovations was projected at $10 million. When the figure reached $20 million, business advisers encouraged Stone and Parker to pack it in. These days, Stone said, the investment was closer to “infinity dollars.”
As Parker put it, “It would be way cheaper if we just went hang gliding over volcanoes.”
The danger room
Casa Bonita occupies a building colored a signature pink that looms like a flamingo’s neck over an outdoor shopping complex; other tenants include a Dollar Store, a Ross Dress for Less, an H&R Block and a coin-operated laundry. The restaurant first opened to the public at the same spot in 1974, patterned after another with the same name, and the same owner, that had opened in Oklahoma City a few years earlier.
Finding the right shade of pink was one of the more benign refurbishing challenges, but still demanding. “Twenty seven different tries,” said Scott Shoemaker, who has overseen the renovations. Finding the right shade of gold for the lettering took nine. Some features, like the four fake deciduous trees and the 62 fake palm trees inside the restaurant, could simply be touched up: fake leaves removed, cleaned, trees repainted, leaves reattached.
“There aren’t many construction projects where you have to re-frond the palms,” Shoemaker said. “Which is the name of my new band.”
Other features, like the old cliff-diving pool, were actual physical hazards. It turned out that divers, once they leaped into the pool, could only exit through a 30-inch-wide underwater tunnel brimming with pipes, Shoemaker said. Then they emerged from the water into an electrical room.
“There were 200 amps of power directly to the left,” Shoemaker said. “When I saw it, I called Matt and told him, ‘This is the most dangerous room I’ve ever seen.’”
Other changes will be more evident to customers. There are four new bars. A new indoor ticketing plaza, meant to recall a street in Oaxaca, Mexico, is intended to reduce waiting times before sitting down and eating. Some attractions, like Black Bart’s Cave, have received some narrative polish to help them make actual sense.
The original Black Bart character “was a cross between a weird pirate and a bank robber,” said Chris Brion, the creative director of both “South Park” and Casa Bonita, and who goes by the nickname Crispy. “He was an amalgam of 16 different comical bad guys.” The new Black Bart, he said, was based on “the actual character who robbed stage coaches.”
But part of Casa Bonita’s appeal was the thematic smorgasbord, and much of the original weirdness has been left untouched. “We sat down and talked a lot about it: We know how to clean this up, narratively,” Parker said. But they opted against, he said, and instead embraced a unifying theme of exploration.
“It’s about discovery,” he said. “Little kids like to say, ‘What’s in that hole?’ There’s a lot of that.”
Mole by Loca
The whimsy of the original Casa Bonita was matched by culinary mystery: Why was the food so-so at best? “There’s got to be a place in hell for people who serve food like that,” said Victoria Gagnon, 57; she said she and her family got food poisoning after a visit to Casa Bonita in 2013.
Nonetheless, she said, she was eager to go back to her favorite childhood destination. Years ago, when her father, a construction worker, received his pay, the family voted on where to dine. “Hands down, Casa Bonita,” Gagnon said. “I know it sounds corny.”
During the demolition phase, one cause of Casa Bonita’s subpar cuisine became clear. “There were no ovens, no range tops,” Stone said. “It was all steamers. They steamed everything.”
There were other surprises. The old gas lines leaked, and the gas service to the building had to be redone. All the drains had been plumbed improperly, allowing cooking grease to “get into the city wastewater,” Shoemaker said. The list went on.
The quality of the food, at least, is being addressed by Rodriquez, who is known by the nickname Loca, owing to her relentless enthusiasm and her sailor’s vocabulary.
Rodriquez immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1998, and applied for her first job at Casa Bonita; she was turned down as being underqualified. She went on to establish and own several celebrated restaurants, including Work & Class, in Denver, and has her own Tequila brand, Dona Loca. In 2021, when she heard that Casa Bonita might reopen under new ownership, she applied for the top job. “Now am I qualified?” she said she had asked.
Her kitchen staff, numbering 110, will cook everything from scratch, in a modern, stainless-steel kitchen built to produce huge quantities. One hundred and ninety-eight gallons of mole sauce will be made for the chicken, every night. Also: enchiladas with red and green sauce; green chile-braised brisket; chile relleno, with vegan and vegetarian options, served with refried beans (not from a can, thank you very much) and rice; and of course, sopaipillas with honey.
The Casa Bonita team said they were still working out the pricing, an area of uncertainty that reflected their inexperience in running a restaurant. “What we’ve come to realize over the last couple of months is, now we have a lot of work to do to make it a sustainable business,” Parker said.
Not to mention balancing the weight of tradition and nostalgia, and their own high expectations.
“It’s such a visceral place,” Parker said. “That’s what I hope makes it so cool.”
Stone said: “That’s worth infinity dollars.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.