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Sometimes nostalgia is the greatest seasoning of all. Other times…not so much.

Fifty-year-old Casa Bonita falls into the latter camp, where no one pretends the food they grew up eating inside the massive pink eatertainment venue was any good. You went for the experience of stepping into another world, one where cliff divers catapulted themselves off 30-foot waterfalls and a man in a gorilla suit inexplicably wandered around a faux Mexican courtyard. You did not go for the enchiladas.

In what has to be the world’s longest soft opening, Casa Bonita is still not really open to the public, in the sense that you can’t make a last-minute reservation or stop in when you get a hankering for a puppet show. The only way to breach the heavy wooden doors is to either get a table via an email reservation system or shell out extra cash to book a private party, which is what I did a few months after the pink palace had (sorta) reopened.

Dana Rodriguez
Casa Bonita’s executive chef, Dana Rodriguez. Photo by Sarah Banks

By the time I got to eat at Casa Bonita, though, I was sick of hearing about Casa Bonita. You know the story: South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker bought the restaurant in fall 2021, promising to change nothing yet improve everything. They spent more than $40 million spiffing up the plunge pool, installing a new HVAC system, and upgrading the sound and lighting setups. They signed on local chef Dana Rodriguez (of Work & Class, Super Mega Bien, and Cantina Loca) to rehabilitate the food. And when folks finally queued up for the cafeteria-style service during what the restaurant called “beta testing” this past summer, the media attention was, well, absurd. Still, like so many of us who’ve held our noses through Black Bart’s Cave and beckoned sopaipillas by raising a flag, I wanted to experience this new version of Casa Bonita for myself.

I started, like so many do, with a margarita. On a typical Saturday night, which is when I visited, the restaurant sells 850 margaritas. Because of the volume, the drinks are batched and kegged, and the carbon dioxide gives them a slight (and slightly weird) fizziness. I found their rendition to be only OK, falling somewhere between the cloyingly sweet mix margs I’ve forced down and the freshly squeezed, balanced ideal. The better—and stronger—drink choice is El Diablo, a smoky, fruity blend of mezcal, lime, agave, black currant, and ginger beer.

For dinner I ordered the beef suadero (all adult dinner entrées are $40; $25 for kids), a large chunk of brisket, barely fork tender and a little fatty, braised in mild green chile. I would have liked more kick and depth of flavor from the chile, not to mention a leaner cut of beef. But my desired version of the dish may not have appealed to, say, a 10-year-old, or maybe even my husband, so I understand why Rodriguez might have toned down her usual bold spices and flavors. Satisfying the masses—Casa Bonita can serve 1,000 people per night—is what a restaurant such as this does.

The carnitas tacos are what you should order, but don’t expect the warm spices and bright citrus found in the finest iterations of the dish. The pork is good, but it could stand to sit in its braising liquid longer to soak up more of those garlicky, orangey juices. Still, it’s a solid dish, served with fresh tortillas, a green chile sauce, and the same adequate beans and rice that accompany most meals. My bites of the veggie-stuffed chile relleno and taco salad both tasted fresh but, again, fairly bland.

When I raised the flag for sopaipillas, the waitperson arrived empty-handed and instead tried to upsell us on other desserts. Not knowing when I’d return, I ordered one of each. Table favorites were the creamy vanilla flan and the mini carlota de limón, which was like a thick, tangy key lime pudding. Both were worth their $8 price tag and were better than the famous sopaipillas, which I eventually got but that didn’t taste as good as I remembered. Maybe they seemed great in the old days because the food they followed had been so bad, but now the honey-drizzled pockets of fried dough tasted like the rest of the menu: underwhelming.

Diners with diver
A prime table for viewing the divers. Photo by Sarah Banks

Do I wish the food were better? Yes. Is it awful? Not at all. Might it get better? Maybe—Rodriguez is introducing a new menu this month. Would I go back? Definitely. Casa Bonita is still a magical place. A young woman snapped pictures of guests at the Cartman table, prompting smiles by saying, “Sopaipilla!” The cliff divers put on a pretty darn good show every 20 minutes. A truly amazing magician goes from table to table performing card tricks. The gorilla still wanders, but now he’s more ManBearPig (of South Park fame) than ape.

The pink palace remains the campy, nostalgic experience Coloradans have joked about for nearly five decades. The new Casa Bonita lives up to what Parker and Stone promised—they changed nothing and improved everything. But you still don’t go for the food. 6715 W. Colfax Ave., Lakewood

In Summary

  • The Draw: A quirky—and iconic—Denver dining experience with a 50-year history
  • The Drawback: The food still isn’t great, but it’s better than it was
  • Noise Level: High, but the roaming mariachi bands and thundering waterfall are the entire point
  • Don’t Miss: Carnitas tacos, El Diablo cocktail, vanilla flan, mini carlota de limón

3 More Lakewood Restaurants

There’s more to West Colfax than Cartman’s favorite restaurant. From legit Chicago eats to a seriously good pizza, here’s where to dine in that part of Lakewood if you can’t score a pink palace reservation.

Chicago Style Beef and Dogs

Until Portillo’s opens its rumored Denver location, the place to get your Italian beef sandwich fix is at Chicago Style Beef and Dogs. Boasting house-made giardiniera and Turano French rolls, this spot across the street from Casa Bonita is anything but a consolation prize. 6680 W. Colfax Ave., Lakewood

Lechuga’s Italian Restaurant

Compared with the original Highland restaurant’s 60-plus-year history, the West Colfax outpost of Lechuga’s is but a bambino at just seven years old. But both serve the same old-school, red sauce Italian fare, including a menu of savory cannoli plus spaghetti served out of buckets. (Yes, buckets.) 7475 W. Colfax Ave., Lakewood

Pizza from Pizzeria Leopold
Photo courtesy of Pizzeria Leopold

Pizzeria Leopold

Formerly known as Deli Italia, Pizzeria Leopold is quickly becoming the area’s go-to pizza joint. The eatery tops its blistered, crispy-crusted pies with primo toppings such as Haystack Mountain Creamery cheeses, in-season Palisade peaches, and River Bear candied bacon. 1990 Wadsworth Blvd., Lakewood

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This article was originally published in 5280 January 2024.
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy is a freelance writer and ice cream fanatic living in Broomfield.