On Sunday, I tweeted that I was at Casa Bonita. The response was very mixed: Some people loving that for the kitsch/"South Park" connection/Denver shout-out; some people ripping on the place for the food/atmosphere/overall unpleasantness. And that, in a metaphor, is Casa Bonita.
Backtrack. Casa Bonita is a Denver, Colorado, institution -- a Mexican restaurant that doubles as a quasi-amusement park. Its profile was monumentally increased when an episode of "South Park" a few years back passionately extolled its virtues for 22 full minutes. It's the kind of place you'd take out-of-town guests to Denver if they had kids.
More than 20 years ago, I was one of those kids. Around age 9 or 10 (I can't remember exactly), my family took a trip to visit a relative in Denver and we went to Casa Bonita. I only have fleeting memories of that trip.
This weekend, I was back in Denver for my friend Trent's wedding. On Sunday night, with most of my friends already on their way back home out of Denver, I convinced the remaining crew to take a trip to Casa Bonita. So we did.
Here are my 11 random observations at the legend that IS Casa Bonita.
Casa Bonita is actually in a strip mall in a seemingly-questionable area.
Casa Bonita (with "Casa" Midwesternly pronounced by locals like it rhymes with "NASA") has an epic exterior which, in photographs, makes you think it'd be a free-standing behemoth. It is not. It is in a strip mall. And not a sexy strip mall. As my friend Bruce astutely pointed out, when you see a still-not-replaced Hollywood Video, it's never a good sign...
Also, I don't really know Denver's good and bad neighborhoods... but I got a strong vibe that Casa Bonita wasn't exactly in the poshest part of town. Although it was just down the street from a *doll hospital*, and I don't think there's a supply/demand for those in the bad parts of any town.
They most definitely embrace the "South Park" episode.
I can only imagine what the "South Park" has done for Casa Bonita -- but it has to be one hell of a bump. Like what "America's Funniest Home Videos" did for the camcorder. Or what "Saved by the Bell" did for robot butlers.
And Casa Bonita knows it. I snapped a picture of that banner on the wall for two reasons. One: To prove they pay homage to Eric Cartman, their biggest fan. And two: Because it's quite possibly the only piece of decor they've added or updated since 1989.
The video games are incredibly old school.
That 1989 crack sounds dickish, but it's grounded in reality -- or, at least, a nebulous area close to reality. I took this photo of my friend Adam picking his poison in the arcade. Remember Neo-Geo arcade games -- where you could take the memory card from your console to the arcade and continue there? Except Neo-Geo was prohibitively expensive to have at home and arcades were already an endangered species when this came out? Anyone? Nope. Moving on...
I took this photo to prove they did have a game made this century -- although, frankly, it probably wasn't. As Adam would point out: "You don't make a game and name it after the year you make it. If a game came out this year it wouldn't be called 'Whatever 2011', it would be 'Whatever 2030'. That game wasn't made in 2002, it was probably made in 1991."
It has one of the strangest ordering processes you'll ever encounter in a restaurant.
Essentially Casa Bonita's ordering system combines elements of a cafeteria, sit-down restaurant and prison...
You get in line.
You order your meal from a cashier but don't pay her.
Then you walk through a line and grab a tray and silverware.
You reach the spot, pictured above, where trays of food are slid through a small, narrow opening in the wall like you're cellmates with the Count of Monte Cristo.
Finally you carry your tray to a table where you're taken care of by a waiter for the rest of the night.
It's so unnecessarily complicated, like the "Lost" of gimmick restaurants.
The food... um...
You know that scene in "Vegas Vacation" where they go to the cheap booofet and Randy Quaid orders "some of the yella?"
More sopaipillas please!
While the food isn't, um, even Taco Bell level -- the unlimited sopaipillas are excellent. These are fried dough squares you eat with honey. Like Tex-Mex beignets. Or what they eat during Rosh Hashanah in Juarez.
However, I think the paper they're served on may've been swiped from a nearby Chili's.
The video game tokens packaging is quite evocative.
You buy arcade tokens in these bags. Makes them convenient to carry around. Also makes it convenient to swallow them and smuggle them into the U.S. from Colombia.
The cliff divers and jugglers are good.
I've been giving a bit of the business to Casa Bonita, but the entertainment in the main dining room nails it.
The cliff divers (who appear to be an average age of around 17 -- as you can see in the photo above of a cliff diver along with my very patient girlfriend) are pulling off impressive dives in a pretty cramped space.
And the fire juggler really did juggle some serious fire (and he even briefly dropped one of the sticks, probably because he screwed up... but arguably to show us Just How Real it could get).
What OTHER font would they use for this sign?
Casa Bonita and Comic Sans just belong together. They're the Ross and Rachel of gimmicky Mexican restaurants and shat-upon fonts.
We're gonna wanna do Black Bart's Cave like eight or nine times.
I get a little claustrophobic, and am a bit embarrassed to admit that I got a little freaked out in the confined spaces of Black Bart's cave. It's kinda tight in there. (It was built in the early '70s... I'm not sure they've adjusted the girth of the passageways for us modern Americans.)
That I can blame on my claustrophobia. As for the girlish shriek I emitted when a surprise burst of compressed air got me... I can only blame that on the ghost of Black Bart. Whoever the hell that is.
(And, for reference, even with "Black Bart's Cave" on the premises, Casa Bonita did NOT sell any "Bart" souvenirs in the gift shop. No Bort either.)
The verdict on Casa Bonita.
I don't remember all that much from my trip to Casa Bonita 20 years ago. But I do know that it made a hell of an impression on me as a little kid -- because even having like five or six memories that still persist from a trip that long ago means something.
As an adult with no kids, the impression wasn't quite so stunning. And I'm torn whether the cache and gimmick is really worth the trip. Like... I don't feel that my friends who had already left Denver on Sunday really missed out. Doesn't quite have the same quality as Disneyland where, as long as you're willing to buy in, you can enjoy it properly both as an adult and as a kid.
There were other people at Casa Bonita on Sunday trying to appreciate it ironically, but it's just not quite secretly enjoyable enough to hit that level. Like, I appreciate a movie like "Taken" or a restaurant like Olive Garden ironically -- but I also really like what I'm getting there. This fell a bit short.
That being said... if you have a wide-eyed elementary schooler, he or she will probably find it to be wonderful and magical. They don't notice the funky smell, or the crumbling strip mall, or the fact that there are unique types of Mexican food in the world and it's not just supposed to be one mushy pile of tortillas, cheese, and something beef-ish on a plate.
So take your age-appropriate kid to Casa Bonita. (But... um... might want to throw a Clif bar in your pocket.)
This post was originally published on Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Travel.