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Casa Bonita: Improve everything but change nothing

Photo of the front of Casa Bonita. Casa Bonita will have their grand reopening in May 2023.

Longtime Colorado residents probably have memories of the iconic Mexican restaurant in Lakewood, but our newer neighbors may not know about the pink “pretty house,” which translates in Spanish to Casa Bonita.

Originally a chain of Mexican “entertainment” restaurants, the Lakewood location is the last one standing. Started in Oklahoma City in 1968 when Mexican food was still a novelty, other locations in Tulsa, Little Rock and Fort Worth followed.

The Lakewood location is on West Colfax Avenue. It opened in 1974. The entertainment aspect of Casa Bonita included a puppet theater, a magic theater, strolling mariachi band, brawling pirates, wild west shootout, cliff divers, a dancing gorilla, an arcade, a gift shop, a haunted tunnel called “Black Bart’s Cave,” and, until 2019, flame jugglers.

The 52,000-square-foot restaurant seated up to 1,100 patrons. Full of nooks, crannies and themed dining rooms, each architectural detail was meant to evoke regional aspects of Mexico. The 30-foot waterfall was a representation of the cliffs in Acapulco. The pool at the bottom of the falls was 14-feet deep and originally dug by hand. Cliff divers were an afterthought to the original entertainment concepts, but proved to be what many Coloradans associate with Casa Bonita.

Casa Bonita, once known for its “all you can eat beef and chicken plates” was infamous for bad food. And no one got in without purchasing a meal. The cafeteria-style meal was mandatory, but the sopapillas were free and bottomless. Patrons just lifted the little flag on their table and more magically appeared. A significant part of the dining experience at Casa Bonita, the sopapillas in Colorado were made specifically for the higher altitude, compared to the recipe used in Oklahoma, Texas or Arkansas. Honey served with the sopapillas was locally sourced from Boulder.

The pink stucco building, with an 85-foot tower and 22-karat gold leaf dome topped by a statue of the Aztec’s last emperor Cuauhtémoc, was designated a historic landmark in the city of Lakewood in 2015.

In April 2021, Casa Bonita filed for bankruptcy. After some controversy, Matt Stone and Trey Parker of television’s South Park fame announced they purchased the building and restaurant. Stone and Parker, both Colorado natives, each have memories of visiting Casa Bonita as children. It is the only nonfiction business featured in their show South Park and makes an appearance in several episodes.

Late in 2021, Parker and Stone announced the hiring of Chef Dana Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a James Beard Award-nominated chef with Work & Class and Super Mega Bien restaurants, both in Denver. Originally from a farm in Mexico, Rodriguez applied for a job at Casa Bonita in the late 1990s when she came to the U.S. She was turned down due to her lack of experience. Her journey came full circle when Parker and Stone offered her the executive position and she couldn’t refuse.

In late 2022, Stone, Parker and Rodriguez announced a reopening date of May 2023. A lot of improvements have been happening behind the scenes at Casa Bonita, but the public is yet to know if Stone and Parker’s motto for the iconic restaurant “Improve everything but change nothing” will come to fruition.

Iconic Casa Bonita as depicted in the animated television show, South Park.

By Celeste McNeil; courtesy photos




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