If you have lived in Colorado since the 1970s, especially in the Denver area, then you know about Casa Bonita. Once part of a multi-state chain of Mexican restaurants that played on the average person’s idea of what a hacienda might look like (especially if it’s Pepto Bismol pink), it’s now just a one-venue eatery here in the suburbs. But it not only offered food. Guests could also watch old western gunfights and cliff divers, play arcade games and explore caves.

While Mexican dishes are on the menu, it’s not why people came to Casa Bonita. Maybe that was the case when they first opened, but over time, the food quality degenerated to the point where it became a long-standing local joke. One was the wet dog food, which tasted better than anything from the restaurant. The drinks like margaritas weren’t much better, likening them to watered-down lemonade with maybe a splash of Cuervo Gold.  The only thing worth consuming was the sopapillas, fried puffy bread dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with honey. You really can’t mess those up.

Probably because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Casa Bonita suffered the fate common to many other restaurants and closed. Enter the Colorado native creators of “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have fond memories of the eatery and have featured it in their 27-year-long animated program. 

After purchasing it and investing tens of millions of their own money, they re-opened the restaurant in June 2023. They hired Dana Rodriguez, a local chef with several Latin restaurants in the Denver metro area (including Super Mega Bien, which I've visited), to take the menu and “improve everything and change nothing.” Guests needed to register their emails to get an invitation, which is what I did to get in a little over a year after its reopening.

How is the new and improved Casa Bonita? Read on to find out.

Getting an invitation and access

As I mentioned, you must register at the restaurant’s website and wait for an invitation. Mine came about six months after I signed up. I had only about a month to accept it and book my date and time. You will have to pay an extra fee of $20 to get a “flex” if you need to change your reservation, as I unfortunately found out when I needed to do so. If you reserve your spot, expect to pay $39.99 for adults (anyone over 12), $24.00 for kids (ages 3-12), and free for children under age three. You must pre-pay this at the time of your reservation.

This was a new thing. Before, you could go to the restaurant and get a table. Of course, this was after you walked through its extensive entrance, down a few corridors, ordered at a window and waited in an amusement park-style snaking line to get your food, cafeteria-style. There are eight options for dinner, with no substitutions or variations.  A staffer seats you in the massive main dining area, a multi-level tropical pool setting where cliff divers perform.

A hacienda on steroids

Most elaborate Mexican restaurants will look like a village or hacienda, with lots of adobe, real or fake plants and culturally appropriate items like ceramics and serapes.  Casa Bonita has all these elements, but it takes that whole atmosphere up to eleven on a 1-10 scale.  You have that main area with the deep-water pool for diving shows, as you would once see in Acapulco, in a jungle-like setting. Within this are waterfalls, caves, and bridges with pockets of tables and electric light stars above.

In different areas, guests encounter random amusements like puppet and magic shows, mariachi bands, face-painting, gift shopping and arcade games. This is all best experienced after dinner, and the restaurant gives ample time to explore, even within the strict timeline of the reservations. The one thing that I didn’t see was the gunfights, and I didn’t ask if they were happening. Because they have been noisy in the past, I’m glad they aren’t.

You would probably expect to see references to "South Park" here. Only one of the main characters, Cartman, is sitting at a table with plentiful food and a huge smile.

But what about the food?

So, here is probably the most critical issue. The food resembles Casa Bonita's if you like your neighborhood Mexican restaurant’s offerings. It’s not a culinary wonder, nor is it dog-food-awful. I would place it several notches above Taco Bell. I ordered their chicken mole with refried beans, rice and a slaw-like salad on the side.  While most of it was bland, the mold had some savoriness and spice. I would rate my dish a six on a scale of one to ten. We also ordered enchiladas and taco platters.

Not surprisingly, the sopapillas are still the best food here. While your first basket of fried bread with honey is complimentary, you must pay a dollar more per basket if you want more. Just remember to raise your table flag to let your server know. Another extra thing is beverages. RAS, our friends and I all ordered beer or margaritas, which were surprisingly good and plentiful with the booze.  If Casa Bonita can make its meals as good as these, they just might be as good a draw as the crazy atmosphere they’ve been known for.