Mexico… in Denver

In Denver, Colorado, there are surely many things to see. Its tourism website boasts mounds of shopping, world class museums and jeeping.

(What is jeeping? Is it driving a jeep? But intensely? Can one go “camry-ing?”)

“When you wake up in Denver, adventure awaits.” Catchy tagline.

The website doesn’t take into account some activities that might prevent you from ever waking up again. No, I’m not talking about skiing or snowboarding or extreme hiking with bikes or something.

I’m talking about surviving the dining experience that is called Casa Bonita.

When driving up to Casa Bonita, some things became immediately apparent. First of all, this place is going to be offensive. There’s no way around it. I imagine the creation of Casa Bonita went something like this:

“Hey Bill?”

“Yup, Gary?”

“I hate Mexico.”

“Me too.”

Pause.

“Hey Bill?”

“Yup, Gary.”

“Let’s distill everything we hate about Mexico into one place.”

“But Gary. We only have a very primitive and racist understanding of Mexico. In fact, most of our assumptions about the country are based on Disney’s ‘The Three Caballeros’.”

“Well that movie was over an hour.”

Pause.

“Alright.”

Thus, Casa Bonita was born. What does the elusive and mysterious phrase “Casa Bonita” mean? Well, it certainly can’t be its literal translation, which is “Beautiful House,” because neither the adjective nor the noun come to mind when trapped inside its walls. I think a more exact translation is whatever the song “La Cucaracha” means.

The restaurant (this is the closest term I can think of) sits in the corner of a crumbling strip mall, like an abandoned, disfigured child stuck in a dumpster. Its faded pink tower rises like a middle finger to God, proclaiming “Bet you didn’t see this coming.” A broken fountain sits out front, surrounded by see-through shrubbery. Heavy wooden doors guard the entrance into this forbidden restaurant.

As you open the door, like some bastard Indiana Jones into a Temple of Peligro, smells pummel your nose. Amidst the wet, folding lettuce and melted instant cheese fumes come another smell: is that … could it be … chlorinated water? Does this restaurant smell like chlorinated water? How is this possible?

Of course, the interior of the restaurant is blocked by an enormous and crusty gray wall plastered with a glowing plastic menu, with items such as “DELUXE TACOS!” and “DELUXE ENCHILADAS!” Because in order to even enter this place, you must order food. You pick one of two lines that lead through a dungeon-like corridor to a cash register where you select your stomach-ache to be admitted for entry. Is this a theme park? After a few more twists, turns, and trays filled with expired Easy Cheese, you walk down a final corridor which opens up to reveal, in all of its Mexican glory … the land of Casa Bonita.

Oh, where to start. With the wandering mariachis? Or the man in safari gear leading around a man in a gorilla suit on a leash? Or the two story waterfall located in the center of the indoor restaurant? Feel free to catch the diving shows off of the waterfall, every half hour on the hour. Little casitas pepper the whole indoor “park” like ticks on a deer. The curiously named “Bart’s Cave” in the back of the complex is a treasure trove of spooks, zooks, and kid urine (at one point I was genuinely scared by a poorly lit skull bathed in a dying orange light, but then became more scared that I could ever be scared in an attraction called “Bart’s Cave”).

The whole restaurant is like some devilish Disney World, like Epcot’s Mexico did crack cocaine in a night club and got roofied by Six Flags. The mind reels.

I feel like my reaction should have been along the lines of “WHAT HAS AMERICA COME TO, THERE IS NO FUTURE, THE YOUTH, THE YOUTH!” But I loved it. It felt like home. And no, this isn’t because I am from Texas and there are many, many racist people there.

There was something just so completely American about it. This is how the great American thinkers and sellers have packaged Mexico: plastic coated and constantly hand-sanitized, easy to celebrate a sixth birthday or a diseased wedding anniversary, a place to get drunk with friends and try to sneak onto the diving platform (here’s looking at you, Mike), a world where you can sit with kindergarteners during a puppet show and when it’s done, join them in booing.

It’s a communal experience. An offensive, terrible, wonderful American experience.

Viva la Mexico. And gorillas.

Comments

  • Jake McGuire ’10

    Yes, yes… laugh all you want. But as a Coloradan I can tell you that Casa Bonita is not Mexico distilled–it’s our childhood distilled. The South Park episode perfectly captures the giddy delight of children at the mere /possibility/ of a visit to Casa Bonita. I lived in Montana as a little kid–an eight hour drive away–and even from that distance Casa Bonita was an El Dorado of childhood dining fun. There was skeeball! There was a mariachi band! A sword fight on a plank 30′ above an indoor pool! That orange skull that screams when you touch it! (It’s one of only three gold domes in the entire state, the other two being the State Capitol and the University of Denver!) It is only after you go for irony value that you can truly appreciate the sacrifices your parents made to take you there. And they did it because they loved us, because it was Chuck E. Cheese turned up to eleven–our own Carlos E. Queso of magical fun.

    Also, I can’t believe you missed the most child-thrilling AND American part of the restaurant: raising the red flag at your table to get unlimited sopaipillas. As a child it was a privilege for which you would gladly stab your siblings–and like most childhood pleasures, it is something I can no longer understand in adulthood.

    I look forward to taking my own children there someday, completing “The Circle of (Colorado) Life”–even though it means horking down that terrible, overpriced Mexican food just like my parents did.

  • Mo ’13

    Backing up the last comment. Casa Bonita’s great, and maybe you only get that if you’re from Colorado. But it is a childhood experience; it’s ridiculous and sugary and wonderful. I remember when I’d be driving from Nebraska to Wyoming, and we’d make a two hour detour to hit Casa Bonita. It’s wonderful because it’s so ridiculous.

    So back off, reporter man. Casa Bonita will bite back.