On Friday, May 26, we found ourselves at the precipice of a culinary landmark. News choppers circled above, creating a buzz that echoed through the community, and armed guards, seemingly straight from a Hollywood set, were on hand to protect the star of the show: Casa Bonita. Nestled into a forgotten plaza on West Colfax, next to my go-to Arc thrift store, the legendary Mexican-themed restaurant flung open its pink doors for a select press group, inviting us into the heart of Denver’s revived landmark.
It was not just any day—it was Kyle Broflovski’s birthday, an esoteric trivial nugget revealed during the 2003 South Park episode bearing the Casa Bonita name. May 26 also happens to be the birthday of South Park co-creator Matt Stone, who, along with Trey Parker, now owns the iconic eatery. It seemed that the stars had conspired to stage our exclusive backstage tour.
What is Casa Bonita? In Spanish, it means “pretty house.” In Colorado, it’s like the Disneyland of Mexican restaurants. (So says Cartman.) A cultural institution since its opening in 1974, Casa Bonita has, like, cliff divers and Black Bart’s cave and all kinds of stuff. There’s this part where you can dress up in Old Western clothes and take your photo in a fake jail. It’s fun and food in a festive atmosphere.
The place began its life as a home for Joslins department store, evolving through an audacious transformation, shunning permits and embracing dreams, into a themed eatery boasting cliff divers in a whirlwind two-year period. It opened its doors on March 27, 1974. Adorned with an 85-foot-tall pink tower capped by a golden dome and the last Aztec Emperor statue, Casa Bonita earned official landmark status from the Lakewood Historical Society in 2015.
The Price of Nostalgia
With the onset of the pandemic and a brush with bankruptcy, Casa Bonita seemed destined to fade into mere memory. Yet Parker and Stone emerged as saviors, purchasing the property for $3.1 million in 2021, an act Parker heralded as the crowning achievement of his life.
Initially, they thought of their purchase as a low-key investment to safeguard a local legend, but the co-creators soon found their plans spiraling into an epic adventure, ballooning from a modest restoration project into a $12 million labor of love. “We thought it would be a small project,” Parker admitted to the Denver Post in August 2022. Yet, grand adventure as the restoration project grew from an amusing aside to an adventure of epic proportions, complete with a reported $12 million price tag.
While some may scoff at the idea of spending $12 million to revamp what could be dismissed as a glorified theme restaurant, a quick tour inside that famous pink facade is enough to put those doubts to rest. Under the guiding principle to “change nothing, improve everything,” the refurbishment of Casa Bonita has deftly preserved its ’70s charm while infusing a new vibrancy and vitality.
Change Nothing, Improve Everything
Our first look inside the renovated restaurant was akin to stepping into a time machine. Despite its facelift, Casa Bonita maintains its unique ’70s allure. The landmark pink tower? It’s brighter than ever, thanks to 300 gallons of custom-blended fresh paint. Black Bart’s Cave? More menacing, yet still playful. Cliff divers? Higher energy, skilled, and eager to perform. The waterfall? Mesmerizing, with lights and sound effects seamlessly woven into the experience. The restoration extended to everything from the bathrooms to the audio and video systems, even requiring a complete rebuild of the outdoor fountain.
The revamped layout now optimizes customer flow and shrinks the notoriously lengthy waiting times of yesteryears. Upon entering, you’ll find yourself in a recreated Oaxacan plaza, with eight new ticketing windows to hasten your journey to the dining hall.
From Kitchen Outcast to Culinary Crown Jewel
Now, for the biggest revolution of them all—the food. And how’s this for a delicious twist of fate: the very woman who was once told she wasn’t qualified to work in its kitchen now is at its helm.
The culinary reins have been handed over to the talented Chef Dana Rodriguez, otherwise known as Chef Loca. A James Beard-nominated local treasure with multiple restaurants and an artisan tequila and mezcal brand of her own, Rodriguez had quite the journey ahead of her when she agreed to come in and transform Casa Bonita into a true restaurant. Her ambitious goal: turn Casa Bonita from a place where you’d willingly tolerate the food for the spectacle, into a destination where the cuisine matches the marvel of its surroundings.
Rodriguez is no stranger to obstacles. In the face of her initial rejection from Casa Bonita, she found her culinary home at Panzano, a Denver Italian restaurant. Her journey from dishwasher to sous chef honed her skills and paved the way for her successful stints at Rioja and Bistro Vendome. In 2012, Tony Maciag acknowledged her potential and offered her the executive chef role at Work & Class—a move that led to James Beard nominations in 2015 and 2016.
Her culinary exploration didn’t stop there. Rodriguez delved into Latin American cuisine with Super Mega Bien and brought Mexico City street food to Denver with Cantina Loca, making a significant imprint on the city’s gastronomic scene. However, the most unexpected turn in her journey came with an offer from Parker and Stone. Initially hesitant, she accepted their invitation to a tasting and soon after agreed to revitalize the menu at Casa Bonita.
In line with Parker and Stone’s philosophy for Casa Bonita—”Improve everything but change nothing”—Rodriguez created a menu that maintains beloved staples while injecting her creative flair into new offerings, all of which are now made fresh daily and still served caferieria style. The new menu revealed on Friday features dishes like enchiladas, carnitas, and Casa Bonita mole. There’s Camarones—sautéed shrimp in adobo sauce—and Calabacitas, a dish of roasted corn, squash, cauliflower, roasted poblanos, queso fresco that can be made vegan without the cheese. Taco salad, picadillo, and adobo chicken, too. For the kids, there’s a bean burrito smothered in green chile, mac n’ cheese with chicken tenders, or a Mexican burger or hot dog with fries. And, for everyone, of course, there’s the famous Casa Bonita sopapillas—unlimited and included with all meals.
Our tour on Friday ended at a counter where Casa Bonita’s staple sopapillas were ours for the tasting. What is a sopapilla? I had the same question. It’s a fried pastry, similar to fried dough but better. Light and fluffy, warm, drizzled in honey and sprinkled with sugar, Casa Bonita’s made from a recipe was specifically designed for the altitude of Colorado.
And we can confirm: Chef Loca’s take on the classic Mexican dessert sure do taste good. We’re already eager to continue the Casa Bonita tradition and raise the flag to replenish our supply.
When we’ll have the chance to do so is anyone’s guess. No official opening date has been announced, but all signs point to very soon indeed. Earlier last week, billboards were spotted on West Colfax advertising Casa Bonita as Cartman declared it to be: The Greatest Restaurant in the World.”
If you want to be among the first to get a taste for the new-and-improved Casa Bonita, head to the website and sign up to be one of the beta testers. While the restaurant is in its soft opening phase, it will be open only for limited dinner hours, and the first guests will be pulled exclusively from their email lists—no walk-ins. Full ticketing and pricing information coming soon.
While you wait for the full revival to be revealed, why not see Casa Bonita as Stone and Parker imagined it in animated form in the season 7, episode 11 of South Park.
6715 W. Colfax Ave., Lakewood