Like many people, Dana Rodriguez stayed away from the Tex-Mex platters when she used to go to Casa Bonita, filling up on margaritas and sopapillas instead.
“The food was really secondary,” she said about her visits to the famed Lakewood restaurant and entertainment venue. “We either ate before or after.”
But after new owners and “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker hired Rodriguez, a four-time James Beard-nominated Denver chef, to revamp the menu the run the kitchen, she is ready to change Casa Bonita’s notorious reputation for inedible cuisine. To do that, she jettisoned the inventory of canned food, deep-cleaned and overhauled the kitchen, and designed dishes that are actually worth the price of admission. “The Health Department loves us now,” she said.
Ahead of Casa Bonita’s highly anticipated reopening — there is still no official date despite the promise of a day in May — The Denver Post got a sneak peek inside the Lakewood restaurant at 6715 W. Colfax Ave. after its year-long renovation, as well as a taste of Rodriguez’s new and simplified menu. Casa Bonita announced it would opening with limited dinner hours– no walk-ins –and the restaurant will pull its first guests from its email list, available for sign-ups online.
But first things first. The cafeteria-style trays from the old days before Casa Bonita closed in March 2020, are here to stay. Instead of picking up food that’s been sitting on a warming table for God knows how long, however, guests get to see the food plated fresh in a “Chipotle-style” counter layout and are handed their tray at the end before a host brings them to their table.
And don’t worry. The complimentary sopapillas — sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with warm honey — are back, as are the little red flags on each table that guests can raise to summon more. In fact, Rodriguez made sure to test out the recipe on a prep cook, who has worked at Casa Bonita for 29 years, to make sure the sopapillas lived up to the traditional standards.
“Our motto,” she added, “is ‘How can we change nothing and improve everything?’”
When you first walk into the doors of the Pepto Bismol-colored belltower, you’re directed into the ticket office, which is decorated like a classic Oaxacan plaza with papel picado (colorful Mexican banners) hanging from the ceiling and wall murals. There, you place your food order and pay before heading to the cafeteria-style line, just like the old days. You can also watch through a window into the kitchen to see the homemade tortillas being made.
Rodriguez has simplified the menu to eight Mexican entrees. And the kitchen is making all the ingredients in-house, like big batches of green chile and homemade corn tortillas. All the tortillas are gluten-free, and the chile sauces are vegetarian.
The Chihuahua, Mexico, native scrapped the American additions from Casa Bonita’s old menu, like country fried steak and the burger, and focused on what she does best.
“I have a little bit of everything without it being like the Bible it was before,” she said.
The enchiladas are back. Not in the typical Beef Deluxe Dinner fashion, but rather with homemade tortillas, green or red chile sauce, asadero cheese and crema Mexicana. Another vegetarian option is the calabacitas dish with roasted corn, squash and cauliflower topped with queso fresco and roasted poblanos for an extra kick. If you’re in the mood for fish, order the sauteed shrimp in adobo sauce or swap it for the adobo chicken marinated in chipotle sauce.
Those who have been to one of Rodriguez’s restaurants (Super Mega Bien, Work & Class or Cantina Loca) will recognize her love for slow-cooked meat in the tender carnitas topped with green chile sauce and served with a side of steaming hot tortillas. Guests can also fill their plates with a traditional picadillo made with exceptionally seasoned ground beef, green chile and potato stew. The picadillo can also be added to the taco salad, which is served in a crispy tortilla shell.
Each option comes with Mexican rice and beans, cabbage salad and a soda. Prices have not been released yet.
“It’s kind of like the old menu, but it’s a new era of doing things in a better, more sustainable way with good quality and consistency,” Rodriguez said.
In addition to the sopapillas, there will be a dessert cart rolling around with a classic vanilla flan, a Carlota de Limón cake (a Mexican lime icebox cake), chocolate and yellow cake pops, a strawberries and cream cake, and an ice cream sandwich in honor of Cleo, Matt Stone’s daughter, because it’s her favorite. It’s even branded with a Cleo’s Cookies sticker on the wrapping.
As for the drinks, the bartenders are serving up healthy pours of classic margaritas, Palomas, old fashioned, cosmos, and Manhattans (Matt Stone’s favorite). Rodriguez’s own mezcal and tequila brand, Doña Loca, named after an affectionate nickname for the chef within the local industry, will also be featured in the restaurant’s signature cocktails.
“Trey [Parker] just likes them all,” Rodriguez said.
There will also be craft beer from local breweries, including WestFax Brewing, which is located in the same strip mall as Casa Bonita.
Casa Bonita has hired 500 employees, 150 in the kitchen, to run the 52,000-square-foot restaurant, which has a 2,100-person capacity. Rodriguez said 22 of the employees worked at the restaurant before it shut down three years ago.
She said she brought the kitchen staff to her restaurants to see how they work and cook and has been training them extensively. She’s designed the kitchen to be more efficient with three large pots for batch cooking, more walk-in cooler and freezer storage, dedicated areas for each stage of the cooking process and a customized dishwasher to keep up with all the trays.
“It takes time to train them when they’ve been used to opening cans for 29 years,” Rodriguez joked.
The overall space
As for the space, longtime fans won’t be disappointed. Although the interior has been revived with a fresh coat of paint, a thorough cleaning and new technology, like sound systems playing jungle and animal noises throughout, not much has changed. There are a few more traditional Mexican touches, though, like Mexico City street signs hanging above the curving ramp walkways, mosaic art pieces and tiled tables.
“It takes a lot to redo everything again in a place like this,” Rodriguez said.
The two levels of seating, including the underground cave setting and a jungle-themed spot overlooking the cave divers and waterfalls, are still there, as is the bridge behind the waterfall — and the smell of chlorine, although it isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be.
Casa Bonita didn’t give reporters access to the other parts of the venue, like Black Bart’s Cave or the arcade.
Most surprising, though, was the lack of “South Park” nods. Before, there was a random stuffed Cartman or other memorabilia scattered throughout after Casa Bonita was featured on the show.
“This is not about South Park, it’s about Casa,” Rodriguez said. “Before Casa closed, there were a lot of ‘South Park’ things hanging around, but for Matt and Trey, the most important thing is to make Casa charming, make it better, and make it classy.”
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