Say ‘hola’ to Casa Bonita, again
Iconic restaurant reopening appears imminent
LAKEWOOD — There are certain iconic people, places and things that make Colorado Colorado — think Pike’s Peak or Ralphie or John Elway or the “C” on the state flag.
For the past three years, the Centennial State has been without one of its icons, but that’s about to change. Casa Bonita is back.
The cavernous, pink mecca of Mexican food and kitsch is expected to open soon — perhaps even this weekend — under the ownership of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who made Casa Bonita more than just a regional attraction 20 years ago when the character Kyle Broflovski celebrated his birthday at the restaurant.
BizWest and other local media outlets were given a sneak peak at portions of Casa Bonita — which closed at the beginning of COVID-19 before being saved by Stone and Parker, who pumped more than $10 million into the space — on Friday in advance of the seemingly imminent reopening.
Operating with the theory that the 56,000-square-foot altar to all things goofy and fun was — and surely will be again when it reopens — the greatest restaurant in the world (it’s unclear whether this mantra is meant to be tongue in cheek), the philosophy for bringing the iconic space back to life is: change nothing, improve everything.
With Parker and Stone’s involvement in Casa Bonita’s rebirth, one would be forgiven for assuming that the space would be full of overt references to South Park episodes. But while there may be some South Park Easter eggs hidden around the restaurant, the lion’s share of the revitalization effort appears have been made in restoring a sense of 1970s-era Oaxacan enchantment, starting with the front doors, which replicate the original 1973 look of the entrance and were sourced in Oaxaca, Mexico, and continuing with a new wishing well in middle of the restaurant floor meant to evoke a Mexican town plaza.
While the South Park creators have breathed new life into Casa Bonita, their goal was not to modernize the vibe; rather, it was to evoke stepping back in time. Maybe back to the 1970s when it first opened, or perhaps the 1990s when Stone and Parker’s show revolutionized the cartoon genre. A simpler time.
However, certain aspects of classic Casa Bonita formula were in desperate need of an update: the line to order and pay for example, which could snake around the lobby, through a hallway and out of the front door into the entryway plaza.
About 4,000 square feet of new space was added, where a bank of cashiers (rather than the mere pair of workers who were tasked with the job in the past) will ring up visitors, hopefully expediting the entrance process, which was legendarily lengthy.
The food — notoriously not the focal point of the restaurant’s appeal — is also getting an upgrade with the reopening. The focus is on freshness and transparency. Customers in line will be able to peer into the kitchen — which was totally gutted and rebuilt from the ground up — as tortillas and other items are whipped up and assembled by the dozens of new cooks hired to staff the restaurant.
James Beard Award-nominated chef Dana Rodriguez was brought on to heighten the level of culinary execution, and the new menu includes classics such as enchiladas and a taco salads, alongside some more ambitious fare such as picadillo (a stew-like dish with ground beef and potatoes) and roasted chicken mole with pasilla peppers, pumpkin and sesame seeds.
One thing on the menu that hasn’t, and likely will never, change: the famous sopapillas.
On the entertainment front, Casa Bonita’s popular cliff-diving exhibitions will also be back unchanged, except for some minor, underwater safety upgrades in the lagoon.
Casa Bonita’s owners have not announced a specific opening date, but some online sleuths have predicted that tonight could be the night.
Billboards touting Casa Bonita’s status as the “greatest restaurant in the world” have popped up overnight around Denver, while Stone and Parker have recently appeared around town at Nuggets games and other public events. The restaurant’s social media accounts have been refreshed this week, and South Park’s infamous Casa Bonita episode takes place on May 26, a date that’s both the character Kyle and Stone’s birthday.
Whenever Casa Bonita opens, it will be on a limited basis with no walk-in customers accepted.