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Bob Staake


Just let us make it until the gorilla.


It’s 8:15 p.m., and my fiancée and I are at Casa Bonita, the weirdest Mexican restaurant in Colorado — nay, the world. In a nondescript strip mall populated otherwise by dollar stores and corporate? pizza joints, a big pink abomination of a building looms over the Denver suburb of Lakewood. Think of a Mexican-clock-tower set yanked from a 1950s movie. Now dip it in Pepto-Bismol.

There are some truly incredible meals to be had in restaurants across America. We’re talking $34 dollops of basil-infused foam. We’re talking deconstructed pear lasagna, presumably presented with an Ikea-style instruction manual for reassembly. We’re talking entrées with such unpronounceable French names that the only way to order them is to point at the item on a menu and nod.

I wouldn’t travel 2,000 miles for any of that. Also, my editor wouldn’t pay for it. But word of Casa Bonita’s bizarre dinnertime spectacle has lured me from Miami with its nacho-cheese-drenched siren song: Cliff divers! Battling mariachis! Children experiencing ecstatic meltdowns! And yes — there is indeed a man in a gorilla suit!

Mexican-inspired though it may be, Casa ?Bonita sounded more like the frenzied heart of America. One thing is certain: I wouldn’t brave the place alone. So I’ve recruited my fiancée, Jenny, to make the pilgrimage with me. We’ve struck a bargain: Because I’ve heard that going to Casa Bonita for the Mexican fare is like attending Woodstock for the bean burgers, we gorge immediately beforehand on artful slivers of fish at Sushi Den, one of Denver’s most delicious Japanese joints.

But Casa Bonita, it turns out, is prepared for such yuppie trickery. The moment we saunter into the pink palace, we are greeted by this sign: “Every person over 2 MUST purchase a meal!”

Zounds!

In order to gain admittance, we pay up front — cash, unmarked bills — for our cheese-deluxe dinner and nacho salad, which come on trays sliding out of a hole in the wall, solitary-confinement style.

The raunchy cartoon South Park once made an episode about Casa Bonita in which Eric ?Cartman abducts another child in order to gain an invitation to a birthday party at the restaurant. That plot doesn’t seem too far-fetched. The place seems to inspire mania in children.

At the table next to the one where we are seated, an elementary-school-age kid wears a full-body camouflage jumpsuit. He makes a headbanger hand gesture. Then he punches his fist into a bowl of salsa. His parents have the same facial expression as all the adults in the place. It’s the sort of look you’d expect to see on Fear Factor.

That’s when we look at the show schedule posted at our table. Unfortunately, we just missed the show titled “Gorilla/**Pirate.” At 9:15, there’s “Final Dive Show/**Gorilla.”
So: Just let us make it until the next gorilla.

“Ladies and gentlemen, meet your fearless cliff diver, Aaron!”

We turn our attention to the cliff at the center of the restaurant. Up climbs Aaron, a teenager in a baggy bathing suit, to the dreaded Black Bart’s Cave. Down he flips into “the icy lagoon.” Then he climbs higher. And dives again. And starts slowly climbing again.

It’s exhausting. I order another margarita.

Some Western-style bandits run around the restaurant shooting caps at each other. Poor Aaron keeps climbing and diving. I try to avoid eye contact with the rival mariachi crews prowling for tips.

People have tried to describe Casa Bonita as the unholy combination of Disneyland and Tijuana. To me, it feels more like if John Wayne was forced to produce an extremely low-budget Mexican variety show.

The gorilla finally emerges. He is wearing swim trunks, basketball shorts and a headband. He escapes from his trainer, who then chases him around the restaurant, Benny Hill–style. Through a series of dramatic events, the trainer ends up taking a fall into the icy lagoon.

The trainer, if you haven’t guessed, is Aaron.

But something incredible happens in the aftermath of the gorilla show: Jenny and I discover the sopaipilla station. Maybe it is our delirious state after an hour of Mexican-themed children’s revue, but they strike us as the greatest air-filled pockets of dough to ever float down from heaven. We then wander to the arcade, where we play a game called Feed Big Bertha, which involves tossing plastic balls into an ever-swelling cloth woman’s maw.

Before we know it, it’s 10 p.m., and we are getting herded out of the restaurant with the rest of the rabble — including the heroic diving teenager Aaron, who has earned his post-shift ice cream cone.

“Interesting dinner,” Jenny remarks to me.

“Yep.”

Then we catch the red-eye back to Miami.