Happy 40th birthday, Casa Bonita: We love you so much we could puke
South Park exposed our secret. After an episode aptly titled "Casa Bonita" aired in 2003, the existence of Casa Bonita became known to the world outside of Colorado.
Kate Levy for Westword.
Up until that point, Casa Bonita was mostly a regional gem. If you grew up in Colorado, chances are you celebrated at least one birthday at the 50,000 square-foot Mexican Village/restaurant inside of a Lakewood strip mall. I'm not just talking elementary school birthdays where you dressed up like a Tex-Mex "criminal" and got to pose inside of a jail cell with your bogus loot and fake booze for a sepia-toned "Wanted" poster; I also mean adult birthdays like my own 21st, when I threw up into a planter after one too many Casa Bonita margaritas.
But now it's time to celebrate Casa Bonita's own big birthday, as the glorious pink palace on West Colfax turns forty years old on Thursday, March 27. If a monumental event like four decades of being Colorado's most fascinating eating establishment isn't enough to persuade you to take a trip there, I hope I can convince you with some of my own feelings on one of the best places in Colorado to eat sopapillas while watching a gun fight between a kid in cowboy hat and a guy in a gorilla costume.
I guess I should start by getting the topic of vomit in relation to Casa Bonita out of the way, since hurling is a common experience shared by many of us who have been to CB. There's a lot of whining about the food being "disgusting" (a bemoaning I find to be over-exaggerated and sourced from super-dramatic folks who don't like to have fun, anyway.)
I personally think the high volume of puking stories is actually related to the fact that the restaurant is so unique that you remember the experiences where it made you sick -- unlike, say, Taco Bell, which has probably made you throw up many more times. But the process of going to a Taco Bell is often too rapid and trivial to be remotely memorable. If you throw up from Casa Bonita's West-Mex fair, it's most likely because you got drunk or ate too much -- and that's your own fault.
If you've never been to Casa Bonita, something you should understand is that though CB is a restaurant, food is just your ticket in -- literally. Upon entering the building, you join a train of folks and crawl through a strange maze of faux mission-style barricades covered in pretend-vintage bull-fighting posters, all just to get to a gate where a cashier takes your order.
Then, you continue on through a network of twists and turns with your ticket in hand, a small piece of paper that you will eventually exchange for a scalding hot plate of cheese that comes out of a hole in a wall. You will then take this meal with you on a wobbly tray, stopping only at a beverage corral where a teenager hands you an already spilling plastic glass of Coca-Cola, one that you then must balance and carry up a steep hill and use as proof of purchase to enter the village where you will finally be seated.
Because the meal is the ticket, you cannot go through this tangle of tiled halls and into the wide Casa Bonita world without a tray of food and very spilly drink (but keep reading, because even if you don't like "Spanish" rice with frozen peas in it, there may still be a way to enter this guarded city without buying a hot plate).
I have some friends who used to host a group birthday party of sorts at Casa Bonita that also doubled as an eating contest -- which was won once someone finally ate enough to puke onsite. I never accepted an invitation to these gatherings because I didn't want to taint my love of the Casa. Besides, there are only so many plates of all-you-can-eat enchiladas that you can attempt to stomach before before heaving becomes the only option, and I happen to not mind those enchiladas and know that as long as CB is open, I'm gonna be consuming them.