Colorado’s Fabled Casa Bonita: South Park Creators Pour $40M Into Rebuild

Colorado’s defining options embrace wonderful mountain peaks, vivid seasonal colours, snowboarding and a widespread compulsion to train and eat effectively. However for generations of Colorado kids, arguably essentially the most generally shared expertise concerned Casa Bonita, an enormous, filthy, poorly-lit, underground restaurant with meals that many diners deemed barely edible.

Casa Bonita — then sprawling over 52,000 sq. toes in Lakewood, a Denver suburb — served steamed refried beans, tacos and enchiladas to 1000’s of individuals a day, buffet-style. The dinner leisure was a baby’s fever dream: waterfalls, cliff divers, Black Bart’s Cave, fake gold and silver mines, puppet reveals and an individual in a gorilla costume chased by a sheriff, who typically joined within the cliff diving. Casa Bonita’s curious childhood grip was chronicled in an episode of “South Park.”

After that episode ran, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the present’s creators, had been recurrently requested whether or not such a spot really existed. “Oh, that’s a spot,” Mr. Parker would reply, he mentioned lately. “It’s loopy. It’s bizarre.” Like so many Colorado kids, Mr. Parker had held his birthday events there.

Then, in 2020, Casa Bonita went bankrupt, hit by the pandemic stoop. The place was already in disrepair, crumbling from deferred upkeep, rife with electrical hazards, the air flow methods coated with grease and the carpet encrusted into one thing like concrete. The jokes concerning the meals had earned it the nickname Casa NoEata. Nonetheless, its passing was mourned.

However within the coming weeks, the large casita will reopen with new house owners: Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone, each native Coloradans, who’ve spent upward of $40 million to tear it down, rebuild it and, they joke, to maintain every little thing the identical, besides now sanitary.

“It doesn’t stink like chlorine anymore,” Mr. Stone mentioned in an interview in late Could, in the course of the remaining, frantic stretch to reopen. “We may have rebuilt this twice as massive, for half as a lot cash, however we spent a lot restoring it, like a bit of artwork.”

Mr. Parker added: “And the meals is great.”

Certainly, Casa Bonita returns as one of many largest Mexican eating places on this planet, and the brand new govt chef, Dana Rodriguez, is a six-time James Beard Award nominee. Native followers of Casa Bonita converse of the reopening as if the beloved “Orange Crush” Denver Broncos of 1977 had been revived from a cryogenic state. Greater than 100,000 potential prospects have signed up on the restaurant’s web site to make a reservation, Mr. Stone mentioned.

“It’s its personal Colorado factor,” mentioned Rick Johnson final Friday night time, when some 400 visitors had been invited for a check run, within the firm of Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker. Mr. Johnson, 44, had come to the restaurant as a baby and had now introduced his personal sons. “There are these sure locations that carry you again — that carry the nostalgia,” he mentioned.

His son Isaac, 10, was struck by his father’s enthusiasm. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him extra excited,” he mentioned.

Isaac had simply joined a dozen different kids watching a puppet present, throughout which a pleasant taco puppet launched a somber burrito puppet that sang an Italian aria. The puppet stage was tucked subsequent to Black Bart’s Cave, a windy maze minded by two skeletons. Steps away, the mercado bought Casa Bonita T-shirts, mugs and different trinkets. Each 20 minutes, divers splashed from fake cliffs right into a blue pool.

“That is heaven on Earth,” Isaac mentioned.

Mr. Stone, smiling, took in a mariachi band close to the bar. The unique price of renovations was projected at $10 million. When the determine reached $20 million, enterprise advisers inspired Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker to pack it in. Today, Mr. Stone mentioned, the funding was nearer to “infinity {dollars}.”

As Mr. Parker put it, “It will be method cheaper if we simply went grasp gliding over volcanoes.”

Casa Bonita occupies a constructing coloured a signature pink that looms like a flamingo’s neck over an out of doors procuring advanced; different tenants embrace a Greenback Retailer, a Ross Costume for Much less, an H&R Block and a coin-operated laundry. The restaurant first opened to the general public on the similar spot in 1974, patterned after one other with the identical title, and the identical proprietor, that had opened in Oklahoma Metropolis just a few years earlier.

Discovering the precise shade of pink was one of many extra benign refurbishing challenges, however nonetheless demanding. “Twenty seven completely different tries,” mentioned Scott Shoemaker, who has overseen the renovations. Discovering the precise shade of gold for the lettering took 9. Some options, just like the 4 faux deciduous timber and the 62 faux palm timber contained in the restaurant, may merely be touched up: faux leaves eliminated, cleaned, timber repainted, leaves reattached.

“There aren’t many building tasks the place it’s a must to re-frond the palms,” Mr. Shoemaker mentioned. “Which is the title of my new band.”

Different options, just like the outdated cliff-diving pool, had been precise bodily hazards. It turned out that divers, as soon as they leaped into the pool, may solely exit by way of a 30-inch-wide underwater tunnel brimming with pipes, Mr. Shoemaker mentioned. Then they emerged from the water into {an electrical} room.

“There have been 200 amps of energy on to the left,” Mr. Shoemaker mentioned. “After I noticed it, I known as Matt and instructed him, ‘That is essentially the most harmful room I’ve ever seen.’”

(They’ve heard no experiences of accidents.) The renovated pool, 14 toes deep, resembles the outdated one however supplies the divers with a wider, relocated exit, amongst different adjustments.

Different adjustments will likely be extra evident to prospects. There are 4 new bars. A brand new indoor ticketing plaza, meant to recall a avenue in Oaxaca, provides 4,000 sq. toes and is meant to scale back ready instances earlier than sitting down and consuming. Some sights, like Black Bart’s Cave, have obtained some narrative polish to assist them make precise sense.

The unique Black Bart character “was a cross between a bizarre pirate and a financial institution robber,” mentioned Chris Brion, the artistic director of each “South Park” and Casa Bonita, and who goes by the nickname Crispy. “He was an amalgam of 16 completely different comical unhealthy guys.” The brand new Black Bart, he mentioned, was primarily based on “the precise character who robbed stage coaches.”

However a part of Casa Bonita’s attraction was the thematic smorgasbord, and far of the unique weirdness has been left untouched. “We sat down and talked loads about it: We all know how you can clear this up, narratively,” Mr. Parker mentioned. However they opted towards, he mentioned, and as an alternative embraced a unifying theme of exploration.

“It’s about discovery,” he mentioned. “Little children wish to say, ‘What’s in that gap?’ There’s plenty of that.”

The whimsy of the unique Casa Bonita was matched by culinary thriller: Why was the meals so-so at finest? “There’s bought to be a spot in hell for individuals who serve meals like that,” mentioned Victoria Gagnon, 57; she mentioned she and her household bought meals poisoning after a go to to Casa Bonita in 2013.

Nonetheless, she mentioned, she was keen to return to her favourite childhood vacation spot. Years in the past, when her father, a building employee, obtained his pay, the household voted on the place to dine. “Fingers down, Casa Bonita,” Ms. Gagnon mentioned. “I do know it sounds corny.”

Throughout the demolition section, one explanation for Casa Bonita’s subpar delicacies turned clear. “There have been no ovens, no vary tops,” Mr. Stone mentioned. “It was all steamers. They steamed every little thing.”

There have been different surprises. The outdated gasoline strains leaked, and the gasoline service to the constructing needed to be redone. All of the drains had been plumbed improperly, permitting cooking grease to “get into the town wastewater,” Mr. Shoemaker mentioned. The listing went on.

The standard of the meals, no less than, is being addressed by Ms. Rodriguez, who is thought by the nickname Loca, owing to her relentless enthusiasm and her sailor’s vocabulary.

Ms. Rodriguez immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1998, and utilized for her first job at Casa Bonita; she was turned down as being underqualified. She went on to ascertain and personal a number of celebrated eating places, together with Work & Class, in Denver, and has her personal Tequila model Doña Loca. In 2021, when she heard that Casa Bonita would possibly reopen beneath new possession, she utilized for the highest job. “Now am I certified?” she mentioned she had requested.

Her kitchen workers, numbering 110, will cook dinner every little thing from scratch, in a contemporary, stainless-steel kitchen constructed to provide large portions. 100 and ninety-eight gallons of mole sauce will likely be made for the hen, each night time. Additionally: enchiladas with purple and inexperienced sauce; inexperienced chile-braised brisket; chile relleno, with vegan and vegetarian choices, served with refried beans (not from a can, thanks very a lot) and rice; and naturally, sopaipillas with honey.

The Casa Bonita group mentioned they had been nonetheless understanding the pricing, an space of uncertainty that mirrored their inexperience in operating a restaurant. “What we’ve come to appreciate over the past couple of months is, now now we have plenty of work to do to make it a sustainable enterprise,” Mr. Parker mentioned.

To not point out balancing the burden of custom and nostalgia, and their very own excessive expectations.

“It’s such a visceral place,” Mr. Parker mentioned. “That’s what I hope makes it so cool.”

Mr. Stone mentioned: “That’s value infinity {dollars}.”

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.

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