It takes a special sort of restaurant worth packing an extra pair of pants in case you shit yourself after eating there. “That sounds horrible!” you say. “Why would you even go there? What’s wrong with you?!” I’ll tell you. Because it’s the most exciting restaurant in the world. The Disneyland of Mexican restaurants. I’m talking about Casa Bonita.
I first heard about Casa Bonita on South Park, and I assumed it was a joke, some fantasy Matt and Trey made up. Friends, it’s real.
I haven’t spent much time in the greater Denver area, so I can’t tell you for a fact that Casa Bonita is located in the worst part of town, but it has to be one of the worst. As you get closer, the streets are lined with nothing but cheap motels, pawn shops, liquor stores, and check-cashing joints. Casa Bonita itself is located in a strip mall, nestled between the empty shells of former businesses, multiple dollar stores, and a furniture rental store, rising above them like some sort of elaborate magical behemoth. It couldn’t possibly look more out of place if it was a giant dancing dildo at a child’s birthday party. It’s a wonderland, nestled in the sort of neighborhood where you want to be certain to lock your car doors, and you may find yourself relieved that you purchased the additional rental insurance, just in case it happened to disappear while you were busy having the time of your life.
You are not allowed to enter Casa Bonita without buying food; after entering, you join a cafeteria style queue where your food is slapped onto your tray by people who clearly hate you. A friend of mine told me to think of this part of the process as buying an admission ticket that is inexplicably shaped like an inedible plate of tacos, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay $20 for “Fajitas! Fajitas! Fajitas!” and not at least try them after going to the trouble of packing extra pants. They also serve all-you-can-eat deluxe dinners, but I didn’t want to press my colon luck.
After you receive your food, a server selects a table for you. We visited on a Monday in the hopes of getting a more primo seat near the cliff divers, and this tactic proved successful, especially after I pressed upon them that it was Jason’s birthday. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, I took my husband to a restaurant with notoriously terrible food on his birthday in the hopes of leveraging a better seat. I don’t know why he puts up with me, either.
It’s warm and humid inside the restaurant, which was actually a nice change from the cold dry air outside; Denver had given me my very first nosebleed the day before, so I was glad for the moisture. In the summer or on a crowded day, the inside conditions could easily go from warm to unbearable. The tang of the chlorine in the air was present but not overwhelming, more of a nasal tickle than an ether-soaked rag.
I’m not going to lie to you and say that the food was great, but it also wasn’t pants-shittingly bad, either. In the pantheon of nonauthentic Mexican food, I’d actually rank it above Taco Bell (which isn’t necessarily a compliment). The best part of the meal was the (free!) sopaipillas, which are warm, pillowy breads that you drizzle with honey. If you wanted more (or needed anything from your server at all), you raised a little flag on your table, which we didn’t really need as he checked on us three times before we even started eating.
They have shows scheduled at 15 minute increments at Casa Bonita, which all end in a cliff diving of some sort: gunfights, gorillas, pirates and plain diving shows. Each one was announced by loudspeaker, welcoming diners to “the most exciting restaurant in the world,” but people did not seem all that excited. In fact, nearly everyone seemed nonplussed, which is an attitude that I don’t really understand: this isn’t a restaurant that you eat at because you just happen to be in the area. Precisely no one is saying “Let’s go rent a TV because we can’t buy it outright and then pay $20 apiece for dinner!” You have to make a conscious decision to come here. So why come if you can’t even clap politely for the underpaid kids flinging themselves off of a cliff for you? When we shouted and cheered for the performers, they acknowledged our table specifically because we were the only ones in the entire restaurant doing so. Would these same joyless people make a sour face at Disneyland? Probably.
After the final cliff diving performance of the evening, we explored the rest of the restaurant, which is enormous. I would hate for you to think I’m exaggerating so bear this in mind: they can seat over 1,000 people at a time. The building is over 52,000 square feet. They’ve got a haunted cave, two arcades, a gift shop, a caricature artist, an old timey jail, a puppet show area, a magician area, and a banquet area set apart from the shows in case you’re a serious foodie and don’t want to risk the ambiance distracting you from eating as many beef deluxe dinners as your stomach could possibly hold.
We again lucked out by visiting on a Monday evening, as we had Black Bart’s cave to ourselves, when reportedly it’s usually filled with herds of screaming children and the occasional vomit pile.
The arcades were somewhat of a letdown. We bought our tokens in advance and ended up with far more than we needed, because literally over half the games were out of service or broken enough that they should have been put out of service. Big Bertha, the terribly insensitive game where you play the role of a feeder, had apparently gone on a hunger strike as her mouth wouldn’t open. Games would accept tokens but not play. Games would allow play but not spit out tickets. We tried buying our fortune from two different machines and they both stole our money. There was a skee-ball lane with only two balls! It was also insanely hot in the arcade area, and it wasn’t just the Fajitas! Fajitas! Fajitas! roiling around in my guts. At this point, I didn’t know if it was the heat in the room or the shittiness of the arcade that was taking my breath away, so we traded in our tickets for a tiny stegosaurus and fled the stifling air.
Aside from the arcades, however, there wasn’t much for us to do. Even though the restaurant was still open (though they had stopped serving food for the night) and there were plenty of people inside, everything had shut down: the caricature artist, the old timey jail, the cotton candy machine, the gift shop…everything. I wanted to give them more money, but they did everything short of making a “spend your tokens and get the fuck out” announcement over the loudspeaker. It’s really a shame, it would have taken so little to make our trip there truly excellent–keep everything open a little longer or at least make it clear that only limited parts of the restaurant will be open past 9pm, and have the arcade games in good working order. It’s a little dishonest to push people to buy tokens as they’re purchasing their meal when you well know that everything that takes tokens is essentially broken.
On our way out, we ran into one of the cliff divers, and I asked him what sort of qualifications it takes to do his job. “Uh…look good in a swimsuit? That’s pretty much it. They wanted me to be able to do some specific dives but I do my own dives.”
The no profanity part I understand. No dancing, though? One of our party members may have been suddenly overcome by the urge to dance a jig while chanting “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you”. There may be a video.
At the end of the South Park episode about Casa Bonita, Cartman is hauled away by the police. It seems only right and natural that when we left, there were no fewer than four (and I actually think there were five or six) police cars across the street at the pawn shop and a stranger approached us and asked us for cigarettes. Happy birthday, Jason!