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
"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
Parker, who penned the seventh season episode, in fact lists it among his top 10 favorites. The duo even named the building that houses
"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
For many children who grew up in the
"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."
"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
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
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
"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."
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