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Dana Rodriguez of Casa Bonita. Photo courtesy of Casa Bonita
Dana Rodriguez of Casa Bonita. Photo courtesy of Casa Bonita. Photo courtesy of Casa Bonita
Eat and Drink

Casa Bonita Names Dana Rodriguez as New Executive Chef

The culinary mind behind Work & Class and Super Mega Bien will revitalize the menu with scratch-made Mexican fare. Here, she dishes on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s plans for the Denver icon.

By now you’ve surely heard that Colorado-grown South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have bought Casa Bonita, Lakewood’s iconic, kitschy, so-bad-it’s-good Mexican eatery. You also probably know that the Denver gem was immortalized in a seventh-season episode of the show, with Cartman crashing Kyle’s birthday party at the “Disneyland of Mexican restaurants,” going on a whirlwind, sopapilla-filled bender before plunging off the waterfall.

What we didn’t know, though, was what Parker and Stone had planned for our beautiful pink lady. Would they keep the mariachis? Would cliff divers continue to leap from the 30-foot cascade? Would the guys change up the food? And perhaps above all else, what would happen to Black Bart’s Cave?

Finally, we have some answers. Parker and Stone tapped three-time James Beard award nominee Dana Rodriguez (Work & Class, Super Mega Bien) to be Casa Bonita’s next executive chef, and we got the chance to talk with the new sopapilla-keeper-in-chief about her vision for our beloved restaurant. Here’s what we know.

The food will be better.

Parker, Stone, and Rodriguez’s motto for Casa Bonita 2.0 is to “change nothing and improve everything,” Rodriguez says. Thankfully, that includes the food and drinks. “I want people to get excited about the food,” she says. “Obviously the food wasn’t great, and that’s something we all remember. … We’re going to make everything one thousand times better, keeping the same essence. How to bring all my flavors from Mexico, that is the most exciting part to me.”

That means enchiladas will still be on the menu—they’ll just feature scratch-made sauce and tortillas. “That’ll be amazing when you have real food on your plate with the old name of what [Casa Bonita] used to serve,” Rodriguez says. “Give them what they think they’re getting in their head, and then blow their mind when they taste it. You’ll close your eyes and go, ‘This is so fucking delicious.’ ”

As for the cafeteria-style service, that’s still up in the air. With such a large restaurant, Rodriguez is working on balancing efficiency with quality. But she says she wants to keep some interactive elements for guests, like watching the tortillas being made while going through the queue.

The drinks will get an upgrade, too. The restaurant’s pre-made margarita mix will be nixed in favor of a fresher concoction. Everything, Rodriguez promises, will be affordable and tasty. Oh, and as for those sopapillas? “I wouldn’t take this job if they didn’t have me do the sopapillas,” she says, noting that she even ripped off Casa Bonita’s flag system for Super Mega Bien.

The crazy attractions will still be crazy.

Collective exhale here. The cliff divers, mariachis, arcade, Black Bart’s Cave—all the quintessentially quirky things we know and love—will remain. They’ll just be, ahem, cleaner. “You don’t want to change the history of a place like that,” Rodriguez says. “It’s an iconic place people go to for entertainment and to spend a day with your kids. [Parker and Stone] don’t want to change what Casa Bonita is. Just think clean and perfect and elevated—you’re still gonna see the gorillas walking around there. They just might smell better.”

Casa Bonita was the first job Dana Rodriguez applied for in Colorado. (And yes, she celebrates birthdays there too.)

When Rodriguez first moved to Colorado in 1998, Casa Bonita was the first restaurant she applied to. “I submitted my application 25 years ago as a dishwasher,” she says. “They never reached back. When they didn’t hire me, I remember saying, ‘I can make better fucking enchiladas than this!’ ”

Now the acclaimed chef has a chance to do much more than wash dishes. “When I got the call to talk about this, I was like, ‘Casa Bonita got my file! They got my application, and they want me to be a dishwasher, a line cook!’ ” she jokes. “[Casa Bonita] is something very special for Colorado people. I wanted to be a part of that at the beginning because yes, I’m Mexican, and also I wanted to be a part of the community. I’ve been there many times—I take my kids there for birthdays. When you go with your kids, those memories are always great.”

Rodriguez has carte blanche to make things superb.

“[Parker and Stone] know I’m this crazy Mexican lady, I’m very needy,” she says. “‘Whatever you want,’ they said. The reason I’m so excited to work with them, they’re the same as I am with my employees. They have their employees for 20 years. It made me feel very comfortable going into partnership with them, because they want it exactly as I want it.”

What Rodriguez wants is a kitchen redesign with new equipment to boost quality and efficiency, and she’s been given the freedom to do just that. She plans to run Casa Bonita with the same exacting standards as she has for Work & Class and Super Mega Bien—from extensive employee training to using fresh, high-quality ingredients.

The original employees will still be involved.

Coming to the restaurant as an outsider, Rodriguez is thankful that 60 or so Casa Bonita employees, some of whom have been working there since the 1970s, are returning. Her mission is to retrain those workers and help them fall in love with the new vision for Casa Bonita. “They are so happy to be a part of it. They are just so excited,” she says. “It’s great to be working with people who opened that place.”

Casa Bonita could open as soon as next summer.

It takes time to build out a new kitchen, perfect recipes, train employees, and clean out Black Bart’s Cave, but the restaurant is expected to open sometime in the second half of 2022.

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