There’s a certain gaudiness that you don’t see too far outside the Vegas strip and in the souls of 60’s Batman and dads around the globe, a self-aware larger-than-life feeling, a confident comfort with kitsch: campy, corny, and loving it. Normally, you’ve got to go farther West than the older parts of the Denver suburbs (at least as far West as Adam) to find a place that positively wallows in its own gimmicky juices. But should you find yourself in the phò- and taco- strewn streets of Lakewood, Colorado, inside the 52,000 square foot space in the corner of a run-down strip mall on W. Colfax Ave., under the Pepto-pink and 22-carat gold domed beacon in the wasteland of urban-sprawl construction between the Dollar Tree and the ARC Thrift Store, towering in all the grandiose phoniness of the Luxor’s pyramid or The Eiffel’s titular replica, you will discover the zaniest eatery in the world. There, you will find Casa Bonita, a watered-down piece of Sin City right in central Colorado.
Casa Bonita – self-billed “the most exciting restaurant in the world!” and called by others a relic of road-side attractions, recently protected as an historic landmark – has survived forty-plus years as a menagerie of stunt, spectacle, and sub-par Mexican food. One of a chain of five such “eatertainment” (groan) establishments opened in the late 60s and early 70s – with others having blossomed and withered decades ago in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Fort Worth, and Little Rock – the Lakewood Casa Bonita remains as the last standing, the odd man out of the oddest group of restaurants.
Though the amusements, and entire reason for existing given the (lack of) quality of the consumables on offer, are catered to children – watching performers cliff dive and engage in pageantry, puppet shows, and magic – a 2003 episode of South Park (“Casa Bonita”) features the eatery as a fantastic “Mexican Disneyland,” and the restaurant has since seen an increase in popularity with older crowds as a result.
La Casa de Ratón.
So I decided to play the odds, to take a gamble on “the most exciting restaurant in the world” and join the ranks of thousands of one- to thirteen-year-olds each year who celebrate their birthdays at Casa Bonita, and the much, much fewer number of people who celebrate their 29th birthday there.
“There are dozens of us! Dozens!”
Traversing the threshold, I left behind the forlorn shopping strip and stepped into a different world. The interior lobby is modeled to reflect what Americans think of Mexico – complete with picturesque whitewashed walls with patches of exposed brick beneath, tiled roofs, a humble cart packed with farmer’s produce, random pieces of clay pottery, chilies, and multi-colored ponchos strewn about – all on view while customers snake around the line they immediately find themselves in upon entry. But the lights inside are dim, like a Vegas casino, creating an illusion of permanent dinner time; so whether you spend five minutes in these preliminary queues or an hour, you’ll quickly lose track of the difference and find yourself ordering a mandatory meal in no time.
Most restaurants are content to resort to the tried-and-true, unthrilling method of patrons ordering through servers. Bo-ring! Casa Bonita has devised a much more “exciting” process, as needlessly complicated as the schemes hatched by the most unhinged comics villain teamed up with Rube Goldberg and Wile E. Coyote.
It works something like this: Following the sound of distant mariachi, you wind round and round a labyrinth of amusement park-like railings used for herding people in a line, until you reach a host stand blocking your progress. The host functions like the gatekeeper of wonder, barring entrance to the magical cantina until everyone over two years old has ordered a meal (anyone younger is not required to eat, presumably because babies need to stop being so fat), the price of admission, as explained by numerous placards en route to this guardian of fun:
“No cover charge (wink, wink, wink).”
You don’t pay the host a dime, however, so I’m not certain what his role is beyond taking your order, which, again, a server could normally do just fine. From there, he sends the kitchen your requested variation of meat, cheese, rice, and beans in a corn-based casing (aka standard Mexican fare), and you continue on along the railings, collecting your plate of food-ish melt as it pops through a slot carved out of the kitchen wall, not unlike food delivery in a solitary confinement prison wing; and I half-expected to find a metal file hidden in an enchilada.
It’s also about as appetizing as Nutraloaf.
Guiding your lamp-warmed Meximush down a tray track for a while, you finally reach the main dining area, where you wait for a different host to seat you. Once seated, you still are assigned a server, who takes care of everything else, including the bill – although I would not be surprised if the total is actually calculated by a similar army of unnecessary accountants and middlemen.
The main dining room, through which every guest eventually spills into the madness of Casa Bonita proper, toting their tray of rice and beans and government cheese, overlooks a 30-foot waterfall that dumps into a 14-foot deep pool below, water likely recycled constantly since the place opened in ’74 – or so the pervasive musty smell of the interior suggests, at least.
Old school agua.
From a stage atop the cascade, surrounded by plastic palm trees and fauxliage bedecked in green Christmas lights, cliff divers (local high school gymnasts and swim team stars) plunge periodically into the stagnant depths to scattered applause.
Fortunately for me and unfortunately for children who arrived later and had to sit farther from the action that was designed entirely for them, my table was right on the edge of the terrace overlooking the pool. This meant that every fifteen minutes, I was privy to some form of entertainment involving teenagers and a lunge into a puddle of forty-year-old water: slapstick fistfights between that classic antagonist duality of cowboy vs. pirate over stolen sopaipillas; slapstick gunfights between the two over . . . more stolen sopaipillas; a teen making minimum wage to run amuck dressed as a gorilla; dives, dive shows, and announced dives, all of which looked remarkably indistinguishable.
There was a dive-load of diving, is what I’m diving at.
There was some semblance of a diving –er– running narrative among the vignettes, showcasing the mischievousness (if not evilness, which I suppose depends upon how seriously you take Mexican dessert theft) of Casa Bonita mascots Black Bart the Pirate and/or Chiquita the Gorilla, the incompetence of the sheriff, and the damselness of the princess. And, whatever tenuous “plot” unfolded in the brief, almost certainly ad-libbed performances, the audience was guaranteed that the kid hired as the main cliff diver (who doubled as Black Bart or Chiquita, whichever the “story” demanded) would inevitably be taking the thirty-foot plunge; it was apparently his thing, like that 911 truther you know who invariably turns every conversation into a conspiracy rant about Building 7.
While I stomached as much powdered cheese-drenched Meximess as my eyes, tongue, and belly would allow, the adolescent ensemble scurried about, recklessly tossing out puns and one-liners that made even me cringe. A roving mariachi band congregated around those who tipped well, piercing the artificial evening sky with jaunty tunes that were fun at first but, like the store-bought chips that accompanied the free salsa, grew quickly stale. Thankfully, the endless stream of complimentary sopaipillas, procured by simply raising a small flag on the table to signify the lack of greasy dough in my gullet and the need for more, left a much better taste in my mouth. I lost count after the first half-dozen, but once I was satiated, I waddled around to take in the expansive grounds of Fauxico.
My table, the terrace, and the main stage all are situated on the second floor, whose central cliffs and jungle (where most of the patrons dined on this night) radiate outward into a palatial suite and a rooftop area, which boasts the pillared covering of “the Cartman table,” where South Park’s resident big-boned meanie sat on his brief visit.
A separate room (completely devoid of people on the night of my visit) contains a royal, red-curtained theater with a rather substantial and ornate, creepily empty stage bordered by gilded plastic busts. Various fake-rocky stairways peppered throughout the upper floor descend to the bottom level, but before venturing down, I bought a baggie of twenty tokens – suspiciously resembling a rectal cocaine balloon in what I hope to be a subtle nod to a more adult border-crossing stereotype – and went further up and into the arcade.
Like the floor of any casino, the food, theatrics, and musical performances are mere sideshow distractions, and the main event for kids at Casa Bonita are the games of chance. The arcade consists of a healthy collection of amazing games from the 80s and 90s – Area 51, Big Bertha, Cruise USA, Ms. Pac-man, Cyclone – which had not been updated since then; unfortunately, only about a fifth of them were still functional, while the rest were tagged for death with “temporarily out of order” signs that had probably hung on some of them for a decade or more. And so, simply putting a coin in a slot and hoping the game would start was on par with the gambling of any Sin City high-roller, the rate of return about as dependable. The most prominent feature of the arcade, the skee-ball machines, boasted a similar one-in-five functional ratio. Though the disrepair and the consequent loss of tokens into dead machines was disappointing, I still spent far too long shooting aliens and getting Cyclone “jackpots” (which I got two out of the three spins I took, but which, alas, consisted each time of only five tickets) and quickly forgot about the games that didn’t work.
Heading downstairs to tour the ground floor, I swung by the gift shop to exchange my meager pile of tickets for a flip-flop keychain and plastic frog, eyeing the plethora of more piñatas than you can swing a stick at hanging from the ceiling. Besides the quiet store and kitchen, the bottom level included several more themed areas, more vacant than a liquor store on a Sunday – a cavern room of tables situated around stalactites and stalagmites; a mine shaft dining area with dripping water and a prone figure tucked in a dark corner that was either a dummy or a sleeping employee; the bottom of the diving pool – and a damp smell that hung in the air throughout. There was a prison and an old-timey dress-up picture booth in one corner, a treasure room of free Tootsie Rolls in another, a puppet theater in a cranny, a second arcade with mostly non-working games in yet another nook of the sprawling maze of props and fake scenery that is Mexican Disneyland. At one point, I stumbled into the “haunted” Black Bart’s Cave, a cramped alley of animatronic ghouls and skeletons, uncertain if I’d find the exit. I’d take a turn and find myself back upstairs, take another and wind up on the ground floor again. Like my experience in the expansive Caesar’s Palace on the Vegas strip, I soon lost my way and gave up, ending up back at the game machines.
Aka the Mobius loop.
But unlike Vegas, robbed of dineros and sense of direction as I was in both situations, I wasn’t eager to escape Casa Bonita. I was happy, nay excited, to spend a few hours within its Elle Woods-pink walls, taking in the sights of make-believe Mexico, experiencing just what I’d imagined from a trip south of the border – inauthentic Mexican food, gorillas, pirates, and blonde princesses. Perhaps the management should consider updating a bit, technologically (including theatrical techniques and arcade games unveiled in the last twenty years) and culturally (maybe an interactive cartel kidnapping simulation or a new TrumpTM wall decoration); but the old school entertainment still seems to work, thrilling the young-at-heart of all ages four decades after a teen first took the plunge off the phony cliffs.
Self-consciously quirky seldom does it for me, but Casa Bonita’s sticking to the same wacky script for forty years doesn’t come off as too gimmicky somehow. This place isn’t for everyone, but if you have a sense of wonder and can overlook the bad food (sopaipillas notwithstanding) and general oddness, come experience for yourself the zaniest place this side of Vegas and the most exciting restaurant in the world! Next time you’re anywhere in Colorado, head over to Denver’s suburb of Lakewood, past the scores of Vietnamese and actually-authentic Mexican restaurants, and into the 85-foot, garishly pink and looming façade tucked in the corner of a strip mall; pay for an unremarkable meal; and stay for the unforgettable pomp and sopaipillas. It’s totally worth it.