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Casa Bonita’s food was said to be terrible, but these locals loved it

This story is one in a series featuring trips down memory lane with longtime Casa Bonita fans and former employees who shared their fondest tales with The Denver Post. The restaurant and entertainment venue in Lakewood is expected to reopen in May.

The inescapable narrative about Casa Bonita is that the food was terrible. Well, every menu item except for its famous sopapillas, which appeared tableside warm and drizzled in honey whenever a customer would raise the little red table flag.

This bit of local folklore has been repeated so much over the last 49 years since Casa Bonita opened that it’s practically a statutory truth. That’s why many longtime patrons were excited when the beloved eatertainment venue’s new owners, “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, hired James Beard-nominated chef Dana “Loca” Rodriguez to helm the kitchen.

As the days tick down to the restaurant’s highly anticipated reopening in May, however, several people are blowing the whistle, telling The Denver Post that the negative hype about the food has been superfluous over the last several decades.

“The food was never a problem for me,” said Justin Jones, a 41-year-old Colorado native who had visited Casa Bonita since he was a toddler. “A lot of people complain about the food, but a lot of comments are that the food isn’t worth the price. I explain to them you’re not just paying for food, you’re paying for the atmosphere.”

Becky Nazzaro of Parker took it one step further, calling the food “GOOD” in an email. She began working at Casa Bonita as a high school student in 1975 making $2.25 an hour as a server. Her favorite item to order was the Beef Deluxe Dinner, a combo plate with enchiladas and tacos served with rice and beans. Best of all, the deal was all-you-can-eat.

“Most people that worked there loved the food. The longer we worked there the more of a discount we got on our food when we had our breaks,” Nazzaro said. “Either we always got the sopapillas for free or they were the cheapest thing,  because we ate a lot of sopapillas.”

Thornton resident Alicia Bush agrees. Bush, an educator and mom, estimates she visited the pink palace more than 50 times on field trips and for birthday parties or special events. Her go-to order was the chicken fried chicken paired with a margarita.

“I’ve heard so many people say the food was so gross, but my kids never experienced that. They always said it was really good, and so did I,” said Bush. “Their chips and salsa were always amazing. The salad was super good. So I think you either love it or hate it.”

Denverite David Simmons can attest to the quality of the food, at least in the early years. Simmons worked in both front-of-house and back-of-house positions from 1974 to 1978 and recalls the kitchen would open at 4 a.m. each morning to prep the day’s food from scratch.

That included rolling pans upon pans of enchiladas, boiling and then mashing 200-gallon batches of refried beans, and seasoning and cooking taco meat. Cooks would prep 60 to 80 pounds of beef at a time, using a specific spice blend that was weighed out by management staff, who were the only people with access to the spice stash, Simmons remembers.

“My mother told me to get the guacamole recipe because it was a really good recipe, and I said I can’t because it’s 18 pounds at a time,” he said.

The only items the kitchen received prepackaged were the tamales, he added, calling Casa Bonita a “brilliant operation” given they were serving thousands of people per day.

“This was mass-produced Tex-Mex,” Simmons said unabashedly. “Remember, we’re talking 50 years ago. Fancy cuisine in Denver 50 years ago was Mexican or Italian. And most of the Mexican was Tex-Mex. It was yellow cheese and chopped lettuce and greenhouse tomatoes and refried beans or ground beef. And it wasn’t that different than what they were serving at Casa, just not mass-produced.”

As an employee, Simmons regularly ate the American fish dinner featuring cod and a “fried pineapple ring that was to die for.” In later years, he gravitated toward chicken enchiladas.

But that’s not to say Simmons isn’t looking forward to a menu revamp. In fact, that’s one of the changes he’s most excited to see when he revisits Casa Bonita.

“I wanna see what the new chef has got in mind because we essentially had 1970s recipes that were modified a little bit. I wanna see a reboot. I wanna see what she’s got,” he said of Rodriguez.

Nazzaro, on the other hand, hopes the new menu isn’t too far a departure from the one she grew up loving.

“We’re hoping they don’t mess with the food too much because we loved that Deluxe,” she said. “That’s what us old timers really hope. Just freshen it up a bit.”

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