You can’t tell the story of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s ownership of Casa Bonita without talking about South Park.

Yes, there is the famous episode from 2003 that introduced so many people outside of Colorado to Lakewood’s iconic Mexican restaurant—you know, the one in which Cartman convinces his friend Butters that a meteor is going to hit Earth, so Butters needs to stay in a bomb shelter. And while he’s hunkered down, Butters will conveniently miss Kyle’s birthday party, which just so happens to be at Casa Bonita, Cartman’s favorite place in the world. So Cartman gets to go to Casa Bonita in Butters’ place. Well, sort of. The police find Butters and figure out Cartman’s plan, which means he has to rush through the eatery’s various attractions, ultimately eluding authorities by diving off the restaurant’s famous waterfall. When, at the end of the episode, the cops ask Cartman if it was all worth it, he says, floating on his back in Casa Bonita’s pool, “Totally.”

But there’s a more recent episode of South Park that, if you were watching closely, alluded to Parker and Stone’s challenges as new restaurant owners. The episode, called “DikinBaus Hot Dogs,” aired in March of this year, a bit more than a month before Parker and Stone were originally scheduled to reopen Casa Bonita. The plot loosely follows Cartman and Kenny’s attempt to turn the Coney Island Boardwalk hot dog stand (yes, of Bailey, Colorado, fame) into a destination restaurant complete with a massive slide and a zip line and a mermaid grotto. Hilarity ensues. Eager local television reporters say “DikinBaus” on air during the media frenzy; Cartman and Kenny go way over budget; and myriad, ridiculous logistical hurdles come up as they renovate the place. (“I think you gotta re-asphalt the entire parking area or just lose the zip line,” one of the contractors tells Cartman. “Well, obviously, we’re not going to lose the zip line,” Cartman says, “so let’s see what we can do.”)

Stone (left) and Parker bought Casa Bonita in 2021 for $3.1 million. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The episode stands on its own as a send-up of post-pandemic workplace culture and as yet another example of Cartman’s narcissism (once again, he screws over Butters), but it was difficult to watch “DikinBaus Hot Dogs” and not think that Parker and Stone were telling South Park viewers something about how things were going at Casa Bonita. “The cool thing about South Park is it’s always where we are in our lives,” Parker said in an interview this past May. “It’s like a band making an album. We’re always going, OK, well, what’s going on? We were like, We’ll do another big Casa Bonita episode. And then it was like, No, no, that’s too on the nose. But we could do another one that has to do with it, but that’s not exactly it.”

Parker and Stone, who met at the University of Colorado Boulder and complete each other’s sentences like a longtime married couple, were in Casa Bonita while we were talking about what they’d bitten off since they purchased the famous West Colfax restaurant for $3.1 million in 2021. Parker, 53, was wearing a black CU T-shirt, and Stone, 52, wore a white tee and white baseball cap, the latter of which he kept taking on and off throughout our conversation. Both looked tired, but neither sounded tired. They exuded the energy necessary for making a celebrated animated TV show and renovating a massive restaurant and parenting children and traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and Denver almost weekly. “We probably could have made a two- or three-hour show out of that,” Parker continued. “So much of the episode was about Cartman going $40 million over the budget.” He paused for a moment. “Kind of like we did.”

While that may be true, the duo have been recognized for their business savvy, and in 2021, they inked a $900 million deal with ViacomCBS (now Paramount+). Fourteen years before that, Parker and Stone negotiated a deal with Viacom that included the creation of South Park Digital Studios, a website where fans could watch episodes for free online. Part of that deal gave Parker and Stone “a 50 percent stake in all future online deals for the show,” according to Bloomberg. That stake became an umbrella entertainment company called Park County, which today has a valuation of more than $1 billion. So, I felt compelled to ask Parker and Stone if buying Casa Bonita was a good business decision.

“Only people as rich and silly as Trey and I would do this,” Stone said. “This is definitely an indulgence. We want to do it for the state of Colorado. The businesspeople would say ‘no’ to something like this—and they did.”

“On paper, it’s a very, very bad idea,” Parker said, laughing.

“Listen, this restaurant went bankrupt twice,” Stone said. “So we would like to be successful. Obviously, to do all this work and go bankrupt—that would be stupid. But we’ll see. I don’t know. It’s not a slam dunk. Let me just say that: It’s not a slam dunk. It’s not a no-brainer.”

Photo by David Williams

Tucked into the corner of an otherwise nondescript shopping plaza in Lakewood, Casa Bonita’s bright pink facade and Disneyland-esque atmosphere hold an outsize place in the minds of many Coloradans—and probably in the minds of children and adults from around the world. For Parker, apparently, Casa Bonita has the ability to warp the space-time continuum.

Not long ago, Parker told me, he was talking to his mom and told her the team at Casa Bonita was a little worried about people staying too long at the restaurant because they would be having so much fun. Parker and Stone knew they would have to turn tables if they were going to have any sort of viable business.

“I was like, ‘I remember when I was a kid, we’d stay all day long,’ ” Parker said to his mom.

“You didn’t stay all day,” his mother said. “We’d go for two hours.” Parker laughed as he was recounting the story.

“No, we went all day!” he said.

“Trey, we went for two hours,” she said.

Of course, that’s likely how Bill Waugh wanted kids to feel when he opened the first Casa Bonita in Oklahoma City in 1968. Over the following six years, he opened outposts of the restaurant, which was billed as “eatertainment,” in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Little Rock, Arkansas; Fort Worth, Texas; and, in 1974, Lakewood, Colorado. “It’s obviously fake, and it’s kitsch,” Stone said. “But coming in now, you get this cool sensation because nothing like this is built anymore.”

Nothing, really, was built like Casa Bonita back then, either. The space Waugh created was designed to evoke dining outside, under the stars, in different parts of Mexico, but along with these seating areas came a host of attractions, including an arcade, “mines,” Black Bart’s Cave, a theater, and, famously, a 30-foot waterfall from which cliff divers would plunge into a pool to the delight of diners. The idea was to create an immersive experience for kids and adults while they ate their enchiladas and sopaipillas.

Beau Gentry practicing in May. Photo courtesy of Casa Bonita

Parker and Stone wanted to keep all of that—they wanted the adults who’d come as kids to remember the place as it was—but to make it better. (“We’re hoping we’ve taken it from gross and charming to just charming,” Parker told me.) And they wanted to introduce Casa Bonita to a new generation, who they hope will get as excited about the restaurant as Kyle, Stan, Kenny, and, yes, Cartman were. “We’re trying to make a place that the kids like, and obviously the place is really made originally for kids and for families, and a lot of the creative work and a lot of what’s going on is for kids,” Stone said. “The number one customer is probably a six-year-old who’s hopefully going to think this place is great. But we want the parents to come and have a nice drink and like the fact that the place doesn’t smell like chlorine anymore.”

It has taken more than $40 million to take Casa Bonita from “gross and charming” to “charming.” Stone said there were a few times that they thought it would be smarter and cheaper to level the place and rebuild it. But that was a nonstarter—Parker and Stone knew they couldn’t demolish what Stone called “hallowed ground.” Instead, they spent lots and lots of money trying to make new things seem like they’d been there for decades.

The team ripped out the kitchen and built a more modern one capable of serving the masses. They made the pool safer by removing ledges inside that the divers had to avoid, and they fixed the leaks. They installed lighting and a sound system worthy of a Broadway production. They increased the number of bathrooms. They made the restaurant ADA-compliant and raised railings that were nonfunctional from a safety perspective. And they replaced the tile tabletops, where years of crumbs and honey from the sopaipillas had collected, cementlike, in the grout. “You can walk around today and say, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ ” said Alex Perez, who’s 69 and has worked at Casa Bonita for 28 years. “Everything smells new. The ceiling’s new. There are new bars, new tables, everything’s new. But it also feels the same.”

Perez, who has done just about every job at Casa Bonita—from janitor to bartender to floor supervisor—was one of dozens of employees Parker and Stone kept paying while the restaurant was first closed for COVID-19 and then for renovations. The employees couldn’t do anything at the site while it was under construction, so the leadership team decided to pay the staff to volunteer at a variety of local nonprofits. Perez worked in the kitchen at Project Angel Heart. Beau Gentry, a 29-year-old cliff diver, spent time with Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Meanwhile, native Spanish speakers were offered English classes, while native English speakers were offered Spanish. “They could have just let us all go,” Gentry said. “But they realized they wanted to keep us together, and then we all got to come back to Casa Bonita and keep that tight-knit family that we had created over time.”

Alex Perez has worked at Casa Bonita for 28 years. Photo courtesy of Casa Bonita

Keeping the staff on payroll wasn’t simply about generosity, though. Parker and Stone have learned a few lessons over the years, and one of them is placing their trust in the people who work for them. When they first began producing Book of Mormon, it quickly became clear that their creation was out of their hands; they weren’t the ones up onstage. Having always been so hands-on with South Park, it was difficult to relinquish control. Book of Mormon finally taught them how to let go.

“We don’t live here,” Stone said of Denver. “We’re not going to be here all the time. We’re going to continue to be involved with creating new content experiences, but other people are going to be doing the heavy lifting here. Our hope is to select those people and give them the tools they need.”

Dana Rodriguez is one of the people Stone and Parker chose early on, when they brought her on as executive chef. Ironically, it wasn’t the first time the Mexico native had considered a job at Casa Bonita. When she arrived in the United States from Chihuahua in 1998, then 23-year-old Rodriguez applied for a position in Casa Bonita’s kitchen. She didn’t have any professional experience at the time—she’d just cooked with her father—but, she figured, it was Casa Bonita. How hard could it be to open cans of enchilada sauce? When the restaurant finally got back to her, she was told she wasn’t qualified.

More than two decades later, Rodriguez’s resumé had improved considerably. She had opened two groundbreaking and successful restaurants in Denver, first Work & Class and then Super Mega Bien. She had founded a tequila and mezcal brand, Doña Loca, and opened a bar and restaurant called Cantina Loca. She had also received nominations for multiple James Beard Foundation awards. With that CV and the knowledge that Parker and Stone had purchased the restaurant, Rodriguez told her friend, chef Jen Jasinski, that she was going to drop off her resumé. “I bet I’m fucking qualified now,” she told Jasinski.

As it turned out, she didn’t need to apply. In October 2021, Rodriguez received a voicemail from an industry contact. The gist of the message was: Hear me out…do you want to be the executive chef at Casa Bonita? Rodriguez, who also goes by the nickname Loca (Spanish for “crazy”) and is arguably as fond of the F-word as Parker and Stone are, was interested in the proposition—with conditions. So in November 2021, Rodriguez met with Parker and Stone’s representatives at the Four Seasons on 14th Street in downtown Denver. She rolled up on her motorcycle and walked into the meeting with her helmet tucked under one arm and proceeded to tell everyone her plans. And they were very big plans—including preparing everything on Casa Bonita’s menu from scratch. “I’m going to make homemade sauces,” she said. “I’m going to make homemade tortillas. It’s going to be amazing.” Parker and Stone’s people were excited about Rodriguez after the interview.

Although Stone and Parker had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep things the same at Casa Bonita, they knew the food had to be improved. The running joke in Denver had long been that you should eat dinner before going to Casa Bonita and then have the sopaipillas for dessert. Parker and Stone were adamant that whoever the chef was, that person needed to agree that the new Casa Bonita would be a place where adults wouldn’t “bitch about the food,” as Stone put it.

“I met her and was like, That’s the person,” Parker said. “She totally has the right energy, has the right confidence, but she’s also like us. She just wants people to love it.”

Rodriguez plans to serve items like asadero cheese enchiladas, roasted adobo chicken marinated in chipotle sauce, and slow-braised carnitas with green chile, which will be dished out from a Chipotle-like counter so diners can actually see what they’re ordering—an improvement from the food slots Casa Bonita veterans likely remember. Rodriguez is shaking up Casa Bonita’s bar program, too. There will be margaritas, of course, but they’ll be made with fresh ingredients. Adults will also be able to order a paloma that’s made with tequila, grapefruit liqueur, and Aperol. And there’s a rum old fashioned, if agave spirits aren’t your thing.

There will also be an element of theater to the drinks program. At the main bar, you’ll be able to order a beverage that’s a play on a margarita and serves four to six people. The twist? The bartenders include activated charcoal in the cocktail, so it’s black. Then they serve it in a bowl that mimics a volcano, flowing lava included. “Back in the day at Casa, there was one tiny bar, and you had to wait, like, 45 minutes to get a margarita, and there was no fun involved,” bar manager Jason Green said. “The biggest difference in the bar program specifically is that it’s definitely the most fun program I’ve been a part of.”

Dana Rodriguez has remade Casa Bonita’s menu—but kept the sopaipillas. Photo by Joni Schrantz

Rodriguez said that when Casa Bonita reopens, she will be there just about every day, if not every day. “I supervise all the food and drinks,” she said. “They’re my recipes, so I want to make sure there’s consistency. [We’re using] real cheese. And we have house-made tortillas, and we make our enchilada sauce in-house. We cook the rice in-house—the beans, the green chile, the roasted chicken. We’re still going to have chips and salsa and margaritas, but in our own way, in a better way.”

There was still one food item we hadn’t talked about. “It’s funny,” Rodriguez said. “When I started, I was nervous about the sopaipillas, because that’s what people ask for.” The Casa Bonita recipe Rodriguez got for the sopaipillas was not especially helpful. It read: one hundred pounds flour, water, and lard. That’s it. “I was like, OK, I’m going to start with those three ingredients,” she said, laughing. “But I need ratios. I need to know what temperature the water should be. So, I made the first batch, and we were lucky to have all of the employees who’d worked here and some of the actors, and I said, ‘I want you to be fucking honest. Are these what Casa used to serve?’ Because my fear was people would try them and say, ‘Oh, they’re different. They’re not the same.’ And they’re exactly the same.”

On a clear, warm day this past May, more than 100 reporters, videographers, and photographers lined up outside the pink facade of Casa Bonita for a media preview of the space. In the days and weeks leading up to the showing, there had been fevered speculation about the restaurant’s opening date, which had not yet been released. Fans of both Casa Bonita and South Park had hypothesized that, because there had been an official announcement that the restaurant would open sometime in May, the 26th might be the day. Their reasoning? May 26 is Kyle Broflovski’s birthday. (It also happens to be Stone’s birthday.)

The internet sleuths were wrong, and the restaurant didn’t open on the 26th—and, in fact, at press time in mid-June, Casa Bonita was still in a “soft opening” phase. The restaurant announced that it would be open for dinner for a limited number of patrons on June 23 and 24 and again from June 29 through July 1. (There will be no walk-ups; tickets must be purchased online for timed entry and will cost $39.99 for adults and $24.99 for children between the ages of three and 12. Those lucky enough to get an email invite will be able to invite up to seven additional people to dinner.)

Back on May 26, though, members of the media were given a short, partial tour that was tightly controlled by handlers—and a not insignificant amount of security. Any news that journalists wanted to push out to the world was embargoed until 1 p.m., and predictably, just about every local media outlet, including this one, pressed “publish” on stories early that afternoon.

I’d been fortunate enough to tour the space with Rodriguez and Chris Brion, the creative director of South Park Digital Studios, who was overseeing the Casa Bonita project, three weeks earlier. I saw the completely revamped theater; the new arcade, which has root beer on tap for the kids; and each of the new bars (there are four now instead of one)—none of which had been part of the media tour. That was very intentional. The new owners of Casa Bonita wanted to save some surprises for their in-real-life customers.

A few days after my tour, I chatted with Parker and Stone, who asked me what I thought of the renovation. When I told them I thought they’d done a good job of making it feel the same while removing what I called a “charming layer of grunge,” Parker and Stone said that a lot of what had gone into the renovation wasn’t sexy. “When we’re making movies, we have this saying: ‘We want to see it on the screen,’ ” Stone said. “This is stuff you’re not seeing on the screen. There was a lot of that, and honestly, that was a bummer.”

At one point, Parker said, “I was like, Oh, man, we’re going to open this thing and no one is going to even notice the differences.”

That’s clearly not the case. Having been through the space already, I was able to gauge reporters’ reactions when they saw the renovated restaurant. Many, of course, had been there before and yet were still wide-eyed, like children, upon seeing the new ticketing plaza, the gleaming kitchen, and the cliff divers set aglow by the new lighting system. One reporter, from the Weekly World News, said he might cry. A piece published by the Colorado Sun on the afternoon of May 26, a few hours after the media tour had ended, started: “You guys, you guys! We have awesome news: Casa Bonita is going to reopen soon.” That same afternoon, Casa Bonita was trending nationwide on Twitter.

“Obviously, we’ve never done a restaurant before,” Stone said. “People used to ask us, ‘What do you want out of Book of Mormon?’ And we came up with this line, ‘We want people to have a great night out.’ It was that humble, but it’s also not the easiest thing. And I think about that when I think about Casa Bonita. We want people to have a great night out. That’s all—and that’s a lot.”

I was struck by Stone’s response. There’s an obvious—and maybe unexpected—earnestness in Stone and Parker’s effort to remake Casa Bonita. Their brand of humor has been built on offending everyone, all the time, whether it’s in TV form (South Park), on the big screen (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police), or on the stage (Book of Mormon). What they’ve done with Casa Bonita is the opposite. It’s ardent and sincere. They resolved not to make Casa Bonita something that people who’d been there as kids—as they had—wouldn’t recognize. But they added to it in clever and unobtrusive ways. They’ve created details and storylines you might not notice after visiting a dozen times. That was their goal: to give visitors what they wanted but to also deliver something novel that would reveal itself slowly, over multiple visits.

No matter what you think of Parker and Stone and their irreverent body of work, it’s impossible not to see this project as a love letter to the state of Colorado. Has Casa Bonita lost some of its authenticity now that it’s owned by a couple of multimillionaire Hollywood guys? Visitors will be the judge of that. Has the food, which had been an afterthought, gotten better? Certainly. Will the gorilla suit—which Parker said he’ll don from time to time—still be funny-scary to today’s disaffected youth? It’s difficult to say. Will any of the subtle adjustments the team has made piss people off? Probably.

One change that is unlikely to make anyone have a Cartman-style meltdown is the one and only nod to South Park in the entire 56,000-square-foot space. If you’ve seen 2003’s “Casa Bonita,” you’re aware that Cartman’s experience at the restaurant was, shall we say, truncated. That’s OK, because Cartman now has a permanent table at his favorite place in the world. That’s right: There’s a full-size, 3D replica of the foul-mouthed fourth grader at Cartman’s Table, where you will be able to take a picture with Casa Bonita’s number one fan. As Cartman himself might say, “Sweeeeeeet.”

This article was originally published in 5280 July 2023.
Geoff Van Dyke
Geoff Van Dyke
Geoff Van Dyke is the editorial director of 5280 Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffVanDyke