Casa Bonita, Denver, Colorado: “Beautiful House,” Extraordinarily Bad Mexican Food

Have you ever experienced Casa Bonita in Denver, Colorado? It considers itself a landmark of Denver and has, amazingly, been in business for nearly thirty years. You may have heard it mentioned on TV if you’re a fan of South Park. That might give you the “bright idea,” like it did me, that it would be fun to check it out if you were in the area. My advice? Don’t go.

Casa Bonita is the “Disneyland” of restaurants. It comes complete with the cave-like walls and meandering pathways that give one the distinct feeling they’re traveling through an amusement park line to board a fun ride. There’s even that same Log Jam mist pumped into the air! (Or maybe it just originates from the waterfall and the big pool where the “cliff divers” dive.)

There’s a large arcade tucked inside the cavernous building, along with various other things that would inspire kids to tug at their parents’ sleeves to take them to Casa Bonita (similar to Cartman on South Park): a cotton candy stand, an area where an artist draws those dorky little caricatures of people who later don’t know why in the world they paid for that, an occasional puppet show, a gift store full of toys and novelties, etc. The noisy “shows” are mostly aimed at kids, as well, like the “Chiquita the Angry Gorilla” skit or the “gunfighters” arguing and shooting at each other. Then there are the “cliff divers” and strolling Mariachis, neither of which were there during our visit.

While loud at times (show me a cowboy who can shoot quietly), it is actually not an unpleasant atmosphere. (Perhaps this is because we’ve all enjoyed amusement parks at some point in our lives.) About half of the restaurant’s eating areas are open and airy, with a 30-foot ceiling height to allow for those “cliff divers.” The building is large and they did a good job making it interesting, albeit geared mostly toward a child’s tastes. There is something quite unpleasant at Casa Bonita, however. It is the food.

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We’ve all had dining experiences where something wasn’t quite palatable or cooked exactly to our liking, etc. This wasn’t like that. At Casa Bonita both my fiancĂ© and I were actually scared that we would get sick if we ate our meals. The food looked bad, and certainly resembled nothing even remotely close to “great Mexican food,” which is the claim they make–in writing! (They also claim to be the “tastiest place to eat in Denver!” Blech!) It was already evident that, could we be fortunate enough to find our server, returning the inedible dishes would be an exercise in futility. They would only be replaced with another identically inedible dish. Evidence to prove that theory sat before us: my fiancĂ©’s plate. Even though we had ordered different meals, his plate was an exact twin to mine. Double your displeasure, double your fun.

I don’t know what the two separate and toxic looking spills of thin, cheese-colored liquid were that had been ladled out over the whatever-that-was underneath, but it was actually too scary looking to chance eating. This was Bart Simpson, pull-a-three-eyed-fish-out-of-the-pond type of “scary” that I’m talking about here. The rice wasn’t Mexican rice, either, more like something along the lines of rice pilaf. Only not. We figured we would be safe enough eating the small, miserly little scoop that had been rationed out onto our plates. Because the scoop of rice was so tiny, it was thankfully able to stand clear of that freakish liquid stuff and whatever perils lay beneath it.

Even the chips and salsa were BAD! And weird! I’ve hardly ever really found that to be true anywhere! (Kind of like a cookie–hard to find one I don’t like.) Whatever substance the chips had been made from was something I had never tasted before in my life. (Soylent Green??) The salsa was bizarre and I had never experienced anything like it before, either. Its viscosity was indescribably strange and surely resembled nothing in the known world of salsas. A packet of Taco Bell hot sauce retrieved from 1972 would have shot leaps and bounds (literally) beyond whatever curiosity lay slumped in that salsa dish.

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But wait, there’s more!! The beauty part is that their dinners there are “all you can eat!” WOW!! I am a bargain lover, but “inedible” backed by “all you can eat”… hmm. It was an amazing offer, but one which I found myself more than able to refuse.

Yes, it was a night of all new experiences, but completely lacking in any that would fall into the “wondrous” category. The words “exceedingly cheep” (and, again, “bad”) come to mind. (“Bad” might be an adequate descriptive for the surrounding neighborhood, as well, sadly.) If you want to entertain your kids and an arcade serving up cardboard pizzas just won’t fly with them; if you find yourself pressed into going, then perhaps just order some Soylent Green (they call that “chips”) and a soda (get a straw) at the turnstile and skip that standard issue “meal.

“Turnstile” you say? Yes, turnstile. I guess I was so consumed with the fact that we couldn’t consume our meals that I left that bit of information about the turnstile for last. You wait in line and place your order when you reach a turnstile (sticking with that amusement park theme, I guess). Grabbing a tray, you stand in line to collect your food, cafeteria-style, after which you are shown to your table. Then, judging by what we repeatedly heard around us by the completely inconceivable notion of “regulars”, you try to coerce the employee who seated you to please take you out of the back of the cave and situate you at one of the numerous tables with a view of the water so you can watch the “cliff divers.”

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Strangely, in a perusal through the restaurant after our harrowing dining experience we found that the prime, non-cave seating areas seemed to have an equal number of empty tables as they did occupied. Interesting. Did people need to tip the seating staff not to be tucked into a cave? (Do people tip seating staff at Disneyland?) I would have gladly slipped him two free dinners and some 14-day-old-decaf, had I known. Just as well that we were tucked completely into the very back of a cave, I suppose. It saved us from having anyone else witness our sheer mortification–and borderline terror-at what we’d gotten ourselves into. After all, there we were, two adults seated in a cave, scared of our food, and with no children to blame for our predicament. Kind of like Grandpa having that really bad Grandpa-gas but no dog to chastise. Oh, the embarrassment!

I’ve come to the simple conclusion that a good rule of thumb for an enjoyable adult dining experience might be this: If you find yourself entering a restaurant and are faced with a turnstile at which you must place your order, simply turn around and exit the building. Just exit the building, people.