I recently visited Casa Bonita for the first time, and I'm still trying to recover. No, that's not an indigestion joke about the food, sub-par as it may be. Actually, my mind was blown in a good way. As I'd been told, there's no easy way to describe the Lakewood institution, which bills itself as "The World's Most Exciting Restaurant" - a pronouncement that very well might be true. The multi-story, Mexican-themed behemoth includes a 30-foot-tall waterfall, cliff divers, fire jugglers, strolling mariachi bands, a pirate cave, magicians, puppet shows, skee-ball machines... you get the idea. As one of my colleagues put it, it's like Disney had sex with Tijuana and left the goofy-looking bastard to fend for itself in a random strip mall on Colfax.
I loved every insane second of our trip there - except for the fact that I felt like those kids in the movie SpaceCamp who were accidentally launched into space and had no fucking idea what the hell to do. There was just way too much stuff going on at Casa Bonita and no helpful little robot named Jinx (yes, that's a second SpaceCamp reference) to help me figure it all out.
With that in mind, we here at Westword decided, as a community service, to create a Casa Bonita survivor's guide. Follow these rules and you'll have a hell of a time -- who knows, you may even live to eat again.
1) Do your research. There's no way to fully prepare for the sensory-overload experience that is Casa Bonita, but a good first step would be to watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone's South Park documentary about the place. We're using the term "documentary" because while every other South Park episode features bizarre characters and outlandish scenarios, the actual Casa Bonita is so ridiculous they just slapped it into the show looking exactly how it looks in real life. We're also pretty sure children really have been willing to kill others for a chance to go to the restaurant, so Cartman's attempt to kill Butters so he can take his place at a party there is completely factual. And finally, just like Cartman, chances are you will end up running around Casa Bonita like a crack addict, all the while singing the song, "Casa Bonita! Casa Bonita! Food and fun in a festive atmosphere!"
2) Order the taco salad. As everyone knows, you don't go to Casa Bonita for the food -- and that's even if you ignore all those rumors about piles of empty cat food cans in the kitchen. Unfortunately, they make you order a full meal to get in the door, but it's best to just write that off as the admission fee. A good strategy is to not eat any of your $12 meal and make sure you have at least $12 worth of fun while you're there (or make sure you have $8 worth of fun and eat at least $4 worth of sopapillas). Or, if you really need some sustenance, take it from us and order the taco salad. Unlike every other option on the menu, the "mystery meat" with this entree comes on the side, so you can eat your salad without wondering too much about cat food. Sure, it's the worst taco salad you will ever eat, but finding a way to make a taco salad this bad is sort of an achievement in itself, and we're all about giving credit where credit is due.
3) Don't go for the fried ice cream. This is where they get you. Right after you've ordered your taco salad, the server will undoubtedly ask, "Would you like fried ice cream with that?" And that's just not fair. Any time someone asks you to partake in something that involves ice cream and deep-frying, the innate human response is to heartily acquiesce. We can't help it; the response involves the same part of our reptilian brain that takes over whenever we hear the words "open" and "bar" in the same sentence. But fight this urge you must, because already waiting for you at the end of your lousy meal is the dessert to end all desserts - something even better than fried ice cream: Casa Bonita's sopapillas. You have to wonder how these powdery pillows of goodness could come from the same kitchen that manages to screw up cheese quesadillas. And did we mention they're free? In other words, the fried ice cream is for suckers.
4) Demand a table by the waterfall. Casa Bonita employees are like the Navy SEALS of waitstaff. The place is a well-oiled machine, a perfectly calibrated cadre of maître d's, busboys and margarita servers, so it's only natural not to complain when they sit you in the mine shaft or spooky forest or some other forlorn corner far away from all the action; they seem to know best. But stand strong. You came here for the flame-juggling, the cliff-diving, the inappropriate shenanigans involving make-believe natives and a guy in a gorilla suit, damn it, and you're not going to take anything less than a table by the waterfall, where all the good shit goes down. Yes, they'll make you wait a bit for a table to open up, but since you've already been waiting in line for an hour, a few more minutes won't hurt.
5) Order beer by the bucket. Just like how characters in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy need to eat lots of peanuts to make up for the salt and protein they lose from going through matter transference beams, your best chance of making it out of Casa Bonita without losing too much sanity in the process is to drink beer. Lots of it. Unless, of course, you already dropped acid in the parking lot.
6) Don't tip the strolling mariachis. These guys may seem cute in their adorable wide-brimmed hats, but really they're as single-minded and debilitating as suckerfish. Slip 'em a greenback and they'll never leave your side until you're hemorrhaging dollars to their merciless, unending tunes. Then again, maybe it's worth the dough to have your own Mexican theme music wherever you wander, especially if the musicians take requests. It would be pretty sweet to stroll by some hotties as your personal band plays a mariachi version of the theme from Shaft. Better yet, convince them to perform the Benny Hill Show music while you get chased around by the guy in the Chiquita the angry Gorilla suit.7) Avoid Black Bart's Cave. Of course you want to make the most of your time at Casa Bonita. By all means check out the puppet show, the magician, the arcades and everything else. But whatever you do, avoid Black Bart's Cave. That place is scary - and we're not referring to the stupid cackling, glowing plastic skull on the wall. We're referring to what gets left all over the cave when the ten-year-old who's had one too many tacos loses his shit because of the stupid cackling, glowing plastic skull on the wall. Take it from us: You don't want to go home smelling like the curse of Black Bart.