Updated: May 18, 2014 at 9:00 am
LAKEWOOD - The pink stucco tower of "The World's Most Exciting Restaurant" juts like a thumb from the vacant storefronts and oceanic parking lot of a strip mall just west of Denver. Past the patio with the giant fountain and the mariachis on break, through the front door and an entryway built to handle event-volume crowds, is 52,000 square feet of all-you-can-absorb Mexican-themed spectacle and unlimited, if mostly incidental, food. There's an arcade, a 30-foot waterfall, haunted caves, skits featuring Wild West shootouts, cliff diving, flame-juggling and a "gorilla" named Chiquita - even before noon on a Wednesday.
It's safe to say that Casa Bonita wears its cheese on its sleeves, which fans say is one reason the 40-year-old restaurant has endured as a quirky destination, managing - it seems - to charm even the uncharmable. "South Park" creators and Colorado natives Trey Parker and Matt Stone are known for gleefully eviscerating sacred cows, yet in the 2003 episode featuring Casa Bonita, the restaurant is treated with something akin to - could it be? - reverence.
"It is one of the only 'South Park' episodes where they were positive about a topic. Usually, they pick a topic and tear it apart. In our case, they were kind," said Casa Bonita manager Mike Mason, who started working for the restaurant when he was in high school in 1975, a year after it opened.
Parker, who penned the seventh season episode, in fact lists it among his top 10 favorites. The duo even named the building that houses South Park Studios in honor of the restaurant; and, said Mason, when they've returned to the Denver area for theatrical openings of "Book of Mormon," the satirical hit musical they co-wrote with songwriter Robert Lopez, they've held cast parties at the Casa.
"Obviously they remember it in a very positive light," said Mason, whose wife also works at the restaurant.
Patrons aren't the only ones with deep and sentimental ties.
"We've probably had 50 couples that worked here, met here and married," said assistant manager Eileen Mullen, who started working at the restaurant five months after it opened. "Now we have kids come and work for us, go to college, and return in summer."
For many children who grew up in the Denver area like Parker and Stone, Casa Bonita is a goofy and sacrosanct fixture of childhood, a "Disneyland of Mexican restaurants," as the saying goes. It began as one of a handful of similar "eatertainment" spots opened regionally in the late mid-century by a Texas entrepreneur who wanted to bring a Disney-esque theme park experience, and all-you-can-eat-dining, to middle America. All of those locations have since closed except Denver, now owned by the Arizona-based Star Buffet Inc.
"This was the biggest and most ornate one of them and it's still very successful. It still runs lines out the door," said Mason. "It hasn't changed all that much. I think a lot of the appeal is that it's kind of remained remarkably unchanged. This one was very fortunate. It remained what it was intended to be by the original creator."
Hannah Herron, 24, grew up in Littleton and recalls her childhood birthday parties at Casa as "magical."
"My best friend and I kept going probably up through high school, but then it started to change. We weren't as fascinated with the caves and the kid stuff; it was more the old-timey pictures and the avant-garde aspects of it," said Herron, who scored a childhood "dream job" when the restaurant hired her in April. "The best part of Casa Bonita is each age group, it captivates them."
So what is it about Casa Bonita, the campy-cool roadside attraction that seems to count fans both earnest and ironic, in equal measure?
Let's see: It's the sopapillas.
"The sopapillas, they're world-famous. If you want more, you raise that flag and they'll be there in a dash," said Herron, who recommends a garnish of honey. The fried treat and the entertainment are ostensibly "free," but visitors are required to order a meal to enjoy either.
It's definitely the cliff diving, the result of an inspired, eleventh-hour design tweak to what was supposed to be a decorative waterfall.
"People love the cliff divers, but I think it's the diversity of everything here, for visitors and employees. One day I'll be making tacos and the next day I'm diving in the pool," said Aaron Nelsen, who visited the restaurant 10 years ago in search of a server job and, thanks to an "athletic" background, ended up as one of the "stunt" cliff divers. "I absolutely love it."
For a time, Nelsen headed up entertainment - scheduling, hiring and costume budgets. He's now a manager, pounding the floor to make sure all runs smoothly, talking to the teams via a wireless earpiece.
"Our largest seating area - or theater - is just under 150, which is crazy because that's the size of some restaurants," he said. "We're a Top 10 Colorado destination, which is a pretty cool list to be on."
A busy Saturday night might see 4,500 people through the doors; staff soars to more than 300 in summer months. When the place is packed, the wait from door to table is about 45 minutes.
"It's probably the most challenging serving job people will ever have. And you have to be on your guard with the kids around the pinata. It's like rabid pigeons, except they can hurt you," said Herron, who works in multiple roles, including as a "stunt" in the various skits that play every 15 minutes.
She even once donned the gorilla suit for part of a shift, happily. And how often does a person get to say something like that?
"Casa is the perfect name. It's home away from home," Herron said. "It really plays into the regionalism of it. It is Colorado in a weird way."
Casa Bonita, it seems, is many things to many people: an over-the-top, suburban Mexi-stravaganza; an enigma wrapped in a tortilla, wrapped in a Colorado flag; a regional and then national touchstone, thanks to a couple of pop culture fairy godfathers.
"The 'South Park' episode blew it up and made it really popular. That's what put it into the mainstream, which was when the hipsters got ahold of it and started liking it," Herron said.
"That's our big clientele now, the hipsters and the children."