The 'Disneyland of Mexican restaurants' returns

May 14, 2024, 11:08 PM · What's the toughest ticket in themed entertainment today?

You can find it standing between a Ross Dress for Less and a CiCi's Pizza in a strip mall in Lakewood, Colorado. Sure, that might seem an unlikely location for the self-proclaimed "greatest restaurant in the world," but this is - as no less an authority than Kyle Broflovski once said - "the Disneyland of Mexican restaurants."

Welcome... to Casa Bonita.

Casa Bonita
Casa Bonita

For two generations of kids in Colorado, Casa Bonita really was the closest thing they had to Disneyland. With apologies to Elitch Gardens (past and present), Casa Bonita was the magical destination where everyone wanted to go for their birthdays. More than a restaurant, Casa Bonita offered enough sensory overload to blow a young Gen X mind, with puppet and magic shows, mariachis, caves to explore, arcades to play, and even cliff divers jumping into a pool in the middle of the restaurant.

Casa Bonita needed all that entertainment, because exactly no one was going there for the food. In the late 1990s, I ran the editorial side of the late, great Rocky Mountain News' website. After we fired a contractor called Zip2 (run by some guy named Elon Musk), I coded a new interactive city guide for the website, which allowed readers to rate and review area restaurants. From the moment the guide launched in 1998 to when I left the Rocky in January 2000, the dead-last, worst-rated restaurant by readers was - you guessed it - Casa Bonita.

Flash forward to this month, when it is impossible to walk up and get a table at Casa Bonita. You can't go online and make a reservation to get in, either. No, the only way to dine at Casa Bonita is to sign up for the restaurant's email list, then wait for an invitation to make a reservation.

How long did I wait? Nearly a year.

What happened to make the worst-rated restaurant in Colorado the hottest ticket in themed entertainment? "South Park." And, more to the point, a reported $40 million of "South Park" creators' money.

On November 12, 2003, the Comedy Central animated series aired the episode Casa Bonita, set in part at the restaurant. Cartman's speed-run through the animated eatery made Casa Bonita an early Internet meme.

But then millions of "South Park" fans from outside Colorado eventually learned that this outrageous Mexican restaurant was not the fever dream of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone but an actual place that they could visit. So many did. The "South Park" connection inspired a new generation of fans to eat at Casa Bonita, even if the food dissuaded many from returning, at least not without substantial pre-gaming to sterilize their digestive systems while also numbing their tastebuds.

The pandemic ultimately doomed Casa Bonita, however. Sure, other restaurants made a go of it by retooling for take-out orders, but that was not an option for Casa Bonita because... why would anyone get takeout from Casa Bonita? The restaurant closed, and its owners pleaded for a buyer.

So Trey and Matt bought it. Now, some $40 million later, Casa Bonita has been reimagined with "everything the same, except now sanitary." They hired a James Beard Award nominee, Dana Rodriguez, to create a new menu, which required installing ovens and range tops - something the restaurant had not had before. (All the old food had been cooked on steam tables.)

Once you get that coveted invitation to book your table, tickets will cost $39.99 for adults at dinner and $29.99 at lunch. Kids ages 3-12 are $24.99 for dinner and $19.99 at lunch. Tax and a 15% service charge will added to your total, and you must pay in advance.

That covers the cost of chips and salsa for the table, one entree, soft drinks, and all the sopaipillas you want for dessert. The honey-drenched airy frybread long was considered the signature dish of Casa Bonita, mostly because it was the only thing everyone agreed was actually good enough to eat.

For an extra $5 per person at dinner, you can upgrade to Cliffside Dining, which gets you a reserved table next to the cliff diving show as well as table service for your meal. (You must have four people in your party.) All other diners go through a cafeteria-style queue to pick up their meals, before being escorted to a table by restaurant staff. Alcohol and additional food are available for extra charges, but there's no tipping at the restaurant.

We opted for the upgrade, and I would recommend that anyone should, too. The view and table service make the extra $5 per person a great investment, especially if you are want drinks from the restaurant's bars. Cocktails and wine by the glass are $15 each, with a variety of beers available for $6 to $9. Mocktails run $9 each.

Cocktails, plus chips and salsa
An iced tea, Casa Beer, El Diablo, and a Margarita. Drinks were reported to be stiff.

I opted for the build-your-own Carnitas tacos,

Carnitas plate

while Laurie chose the Chicken Mole.

Chicken Mole

Other entree options include Enchiladas (with red, green, or "Christmas" sauce - one of each),

Christmas Enchiladas

as well as Beef Suadero, Chile Relleno, Ceviche (citrus marinaded shrimp), or a Taco Salad. All entrees come with a cabbage salad and all except the Ceviche come with rice and beans.

If you want an additional entree, those go for $9 each, with an extra helping of beans and rice costing $5. Desserts cost $8 and include Vanilla Flan, a Cleo's Cookies ice cream sandwich, Mini Carlota de Limón, Fresas con Crema, and a spicy Mexican Chocolate Budino.

The carnitas and mole were delicious, with the mole offering a kick of heat that the carnitas lacked. Throw the cabbage salad in with the carnitas on the provided corn tortillas, and you've got an excellent taco. The other sides were a miss, however. I found the rice dry and the beans dense, though a smear of beans did help keep everything together on the tacos.

The serving size was more than enough to stuff me to the point where I could barely finish one sopaipilla - which pretty much tasted like honey on air, anyway. Credit to the team for delivering such delightfully light pastry, however.


While the food was lovely, it's not enough to make Casa Bonita a destination restaurant. That's the job of everything else there is to do here. Let's start with the cliff divers, who perform every 20 minutes, starting on the hour.

Cliff divers

All the entertainment at Casa Bonita is presented with humor, as one might expect from the crew that created "South Park." Especially the hilarious puppet show, which we could not photograph nor record. The show, which plays next to Black Bart's Mysterious Cave, stars a talking taco, singing burrito and all the other food that got fired when the South Park guys bought the restaurant and revamped the menu. Perfect. And be sure to turn around and watch the cave's outer walls during the show, too.

Puppet show theater
Puppet show theater

Black Bart's Mysterious Cave is a cheesy version of what you might find on Disney's Tom Sawyer Island, complete with Black Bart's treasure not-so-hidden within. The inclusion of a "Six Million Dollar Man" lunchbox on the pile of gold was a nice touch. That lunchbox really was treasure to a 1970s kid. [Here is the full walk-through video.]

Black Bart's Mysterious Cave
The entrance to Black Bart's cave

Next to the cave stands Casa Bonita's arcade, which includes Skee-ball, a shooting gallery, and several classic video games, including Ms. Pac-Man. That's also where you will find the restaurant's Root Beer bar, though I don't know that I need one for $10, even if it does include the mug.


Upcharge opportunities abound in Casa Bonita, including caricature sketches, dress-up photos in the jail, those arcade games, and four bars - if you didn't get enough while sitting in Cliffside Dining. But there's no charge for the most popular photo op in the establishment - one with the character that brought Casa Bonita back to life.

Cartman photo op at Casa Bonita
Photo op with Cartman

Enjoy your sopaipillas, Cartman. It really was worth it. Totally.

And that's the lesson, isn't it? It's not the "Mexican restaurant" that made Casa Bonita a favorite, both before and now after its renovation - even if the food is much, much better now. It's the "Disneyland" that made Casa Bonita.

You can find great tacos at any number of restaurants or food trucks in communities across Colorado or many other U.S. states. You can watch South Park reruns on streaming or online whenever you want. But if you want to experience a moment from South Park in real life, or want to rediscover the joy of a long-ago birthday, or just want to create fresh memories to cherish in the future, a live experience delivers. That's the magic of themed entertainment.

The new Casa Bonita is a love letter to such experiences. No financial analyst would have approved the investment that Parker and Stone made to recreate a better version of their childhood memory. But they believed in it, invested in it, and now have uncovered a market that wanted it as much as they did. The food's good, the experience is fun, and the atmosphere is excellent - all the way down to the cleanest bathrooms we've ever seen outside a Texas Buc-ees.

Casa Bonita bathroom

Is it the world's greatest restaurant? No. But it's the "South Park" version of that, and that's on brand for the IP. Live experience plus IP plus investment plus the creative vision of entertainment professionals? That's the formula that makes magic happen in real life.

And that, ultimately, is what's now on the menu at Casa Bonita.

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Replies (8)

May 15, 2024 at 7:08 AM

That is AWESOME! I've wanted to visit Casa Bonita since I learned it was a "real place" after watching South Park. It's always been evident that Trey and Matt loved Disney too (the "dreamfinder" Imaginationland episode) and the political rhetoric they've displayed against Disney in later episodes shows the dissatisfaction they have with "current Disney".

They were the absolute best duo to save this restaurant!

May 15, 2024 at 8:25 AM

Like Fatburger on Sanford and Son, I had no idea this place actually exists.

May 15, 2024 at 10:48 AM

The South Park episode was actually amazingly accurate in its depiction. I’ve only been there once, and it was pre-Covid. I have to concur with Robert when I say that the food was borderline edible. But the rest was a fever dream of overstimulating activities. Its as if the original builders of the place asked a focus group of six-years old what ideas sounded cool and they just said Yes to everything.

May 15, 2024 at 11:26 AM

Looks amazing and I love that the Cartman photo op is the same spot and looks the same as in the show! Franchise in Orlando coming soon?? haha :)

May 15, 2024 at 1:11 PM

So glad you got to go — thanks for the write up.

May 15, 2024 at 1:38 PM

Looks amazing, great review.

May 15, 2024 at 9:55 PM

Robert, thanks so much for this great review. i grew up with Casa Bonita as the first one opened in OKC in the early 70's and then a much better themed version opened soon after in Tulsa. my favorite aunt and uncle lived smack between Bell's Amusement Park and Casa Bonita so you can imagine how pumped I was every time we went to visit. Summer of 1977, our family vacation took us through northern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado and ended in Denver. final day of the trip was spent at the original Elitch Gardens and then dinner at Casa Bonita. It was a great day that i have never forgotten and the Denver CB blew Tulsa away with the cliff divers and just the sheer scope of the place. i couldn't get over the enormity of it. i only went the one time but the memory is rich. so happy the South Park team brought this place back to life and improved it. now maybe they can save Lakeside???

May 16, 2024 at 2:13 PM

Incredible. I fell in love with the Mexico pavilion at EPCOT as a kid and this is giving those vibes plus a whole bunch more crazy (in a good way!). Thanks for posting this video!

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