After touching down in Denver to begin our Colorado vacation, we decided to eat Mexican food at a place where flame jugglers jump off 30 foot indoor cliffs, gorillas and mariachi bands live together in relative harmony, and after dinner fare includes exploring prisons and waterfalls. In short, we committed to satiating our hunger pangs at what is, by far, the strangest restaurant I have ever been to: Casa Bonita.
Casa Bonita poster making promises of dancing monkeys. I only saw a gorilla, which as we all know, is not a monkey.
Casa Bonita is the brainchild of Bill Waugh who created the Mexican restaurant with eclectic entertainment back in the early 70's, and it shows. Mr. Waugh must have been on one epic LSD trip when he dreamed up Casa Bonita. “You know what man, I'm tired of sitting in this van and trippin' all day. I need to make something of my life. Something that's gonna make me rich, man! Hmmm, I got it! I can open Mexican restaurant set in the Wild West. No wait, I got a better one! I can make a theme park with caves, waterfalls, jugglers, villages, arcades, and a giant pink area for no apparent reason. Eureka! I'll make them both and combine them into some bizarre amalgamation of overplayed ideas! HaAhaHAhahahaAa!! Hello Mr. Fuzzy Gorilla. I like the gorillas! Ooooh, it's gonna have a gorilla, too!”
Casa Bonita can be found just outside of the ghetto in Denver, Colorado. The building is located in a strip mall and is wedged between a Hollywood Video and a Check Cashing business. I was nonplussed after seeing the location of this restaurant and resigned myself to expect the worst; not to mention that all I had eaten in the previous six hours was the fun-sized bag of pretzels my cheap ass airline handed out midflight. So I was hungry, tired, and grumpy. My only goal at that point in my life was to get fed and get fed quickly; everything else was just obstacles preventing me from getting fed. My stomach cried out in utter horror when I saw the line to get into this place. This queue could easily be mistaken for the line of Pirates of the Caribbean—and there were just as many people waiting in it. The line snaked through a faux Mexican village/cave thing complete with televisions introducing the characters we would meet and places we would visit during our Casa Bonita adventure.
Casa Bonita is located in a strip mall right next to Hollywood Video.
The beginning of the line to get into Casa Bonita. Notice the lack of a line? This was taken on our way out.
Overall, we spent about 45 minutes standing in line before we were sat at our table. In the middle of this line you place your order at a cash register under a little hut. Every item on the menu is drenched in cheese, so I had to make a “special” order of fajitas with no cheese since I absolutely hate the vile substance. Further down the line you pick up your tray of food and a glass of soda that holds maybe four sips if you use ice—four very small sips. I was told by the host that my tray of fajitas would be delivered to my table since it was a “special” order. I will never understand how ordering something with no cheese is deemed “special.” It's less freakin' work you automatons. I should get my food before everyone else, not 30 minutes after as was the case at Casa Bonita. You just take the fajita plate you are preparing and DON'T put any cheese on it. Less work, you see.
$17 fajitas that come to you in a Zip-Loc bag.
To exacerbate the hunger crisis I was facing, the chips and salsa came just after my fajitas finally arrived at the table. Yes folks, the chips and salsa come during the middle of your dinner. Fearing the mysterious Hawaiian Punch red liquid they claim to be salsa, I immediately opened the Zip-Loc bag containing my wraps and devoured the $17 plate of fajitas. Middle School cafeteria tacos have more flavor than any of the meals we ordered. The after-dinner soapapillas tasted like little fried balls of nothing until you drenched them in honey, which we also had to ask for. Still the dinner was edible and filling. Besides, as we would later learn, Casa Bonita is not about the food; it's about the quality entertainment.
If I was 8 years old Casa Bonita would be, hands-down, my favorite place on Earth. Hell, at 28 years old this place still has the potential to hold a special place in my heart. Only my hunger and thus, grumpiness prevented my love for Casa Bonita from coming to fruition. It wasn't until after the fajitas and soapapillas settled in my stomach an hour and a half after our arrival that I truly began to appreciate what a little slice of heaven Casa Bonita is.
During our meal we were treated to a few shows located in the middle of the restaurant on a rocky stage with a waterfall next to it. One skit involved a bandit, some chick, and the infamous gorilla. I don't want to spoil the intricate plot, but the show involved the gorilla chasing the bandit off the stage and throughout the restaurant.
A mariachi band roamed the restaurant playing “Happy Birthday” at almost every other table. This impressed me since they performed the actual copyrighted “Happy Birthday” song. Most restaurants replace that song with some suck-ass knockoff like “Happy, Happy, Happy Birthday Ole” to avoid paying royalties to Warner Music Group.
Another performance featured a flaming torch juggler who seemed ill at ease with his choice of profession. He nervously juggled the torches, dropping them only a few times, and finally ended his misery by diving off the 30 foot cliff and into the pool below. I have seen jugglers feign nervousness in their acts and it's always good for a laugh. However, if you want a truly captivating spectacle, I highly recommend watching someone juggle flaming torches while sincerely fearing for their life. The juggler emerged from the pool with a quizzical look on his face like he was pondering whether he had died, if this was Hell, and why Hell was Casa Bonita. I cheered as if the Gators had just won another national championship.
Flaming torch juggler making his peace with his maker. I had pictures of the other performances, including the gorilla, but they were just too dark. D'oh!
After our dinner was complete, we roamed the premises and took in all the sights. There was a little village next to the eating area that contained a few shops including an old time photo booth, which was mercifully closed. There was an arcade featuring skee-ball and a souvenir shop that sold a little bit of everything. We explored the caves and waterfall, but unfortunately we could not find the much hyped “Black Bart's Cave” that was mentioned a hundred times or so while we waited in line to get in.
Souvenir shop in the village
The source of the flashers that kids were toting throughout the restaurant.
After we spent some time exploring and taking pictures, we decided to head back to the hotel room and crash since we had some serious hiking to do the following day. I regretted the fact that I was so tired since I really wanted to dive in and play. If by some unfortunate series of events I ever find myself in Denver again, Casa Bonita will be my first stop. And this time I will find “Black Bart's Cave.”