Monday, May 10, 2010
If you still think Tulsa's Casa Bonita closed forever in 2005, you're not the only one.
Native Tulsans remember Casa Bonita as the go-to family-friendly dining spot of the '70s, '80s and '90s. Maybe you took your kids and spent an entire afternoon eating sopapillas and playing games in the arcade. Maybe you went there on a school bus for a field trip in the fifth grade.
Either way, most of us T-Town originals have fond memories of Casa Bonita, the half-theme park, half-Tex-Mex restaurant at 21st and Sheridan.
But several years ago, much to the chagrin of us locals, Casa Bonita closed seemingly forever. The space reopened shortly after as Casa Viva, another family-oriented Mexican place, but things just weren't the same.
But then, in 2008, Casa Bonita re-opened. The dining room had been restored to its former kitschy glory, the Disney World-like play place we had all loved knowing was right in our back yard.
When I mentioned on Twitter that I'd be celebrating Cinco de Mayo at Casa Bonita with my family and friends, I saw a variety of reactions. First and foremost was the response from the know-it-alls "informing" me that Casa Bonita has been closed for years.
Duh, Tasha. What kind of Tulsa blogger are you, anyway?
Besides that came warnings about the Casa Bonita urban legend that has seemed to stand the test of time - that dinner there guarantees a night of praying to the porcelain god.
Which, of course, only made me want to go to Casa Bonita more. I ain't skeered.
And as my husband will tell you, what Tasha wants, Tasha gets. Except when it comes to gold-plated toilet seats and a lifetime supply of my favorite Aveda shampoo. Those things are simply not in the cards, it seems.
At least, not until I win the lottery.
Speaking of my husband, he'd never been to Casa Bonita before - at least, not recently enough to remember how things are done around there.
For his sake and for anyone out there who has yet to venture to this Tulsa tradition in the form of an Alamo-esque amusement park that just happens to also serve food, here's a guide on how to do Casa Bonita, TDT-style.
Step 1: Enter the mouth of the beast.
Which seems easy enough to do, right? Except, no one can seem to do it without pointing out to the rest of his/her party that "casa bonita" means "beautiful house" in Spanish, followed by a conversation about how funny it is that Spanish switches the places of nouns and adjectives.
You'd think kids in Spanish 101 would be the only ones with a proclivity toward this type of behavior, but no.
Step 2: File in line.
I remember Sunday afternoons when the line to order at Casa Bonita would wrap around that corner and extend all the way to the front door.
Which wasn't the case when we visited. We thought the place would be packed given the spirit of the holiday.
Sadly for C-to-the-B, we were wrong. Maybe it's busier at lunchtime.
Step 3: Order.
The menu is one of the simplest in town - it's quick-and-dirty style, with no surprises or opportunities for confusion. Simply order a combo meal and a drink (or, in the case of kids' meals, just the combo - drinks are part of the package) and, boom, you're done. You don't even have to pay yet.
For two adults and a toddler, we spent about $25 including tip. Which isn't bad at all, considering our family of three usually averages $10 per plate here in Tulsa.
By the way, the service we got at the order counter was superb. There we found patience (don't let it ever be said that food writers are the indecisive ones when it comes time to order - my husband almost always takes that prize when we go out to eat), speed and a friendly smile.
And that's the best way to start a meal, right there.
4. Proceed to the trays and silverware.
Get a load of that face.
"Mom, to where in heck have you brought me? My little mind, it reels!"
Every native Tulsan remembers these multi-colored napkins, right? I mean, right? They're a virtual mainstay of my childhood, I swear.
5: Pick up your order.
Thar she blows!
Well, almost. Our stuff was still on the way.
Here's where the staff helps diners get to their tables.
It's also when diners get their first feel for the full scope of the quirkiness and kitschiness and downright weirdness of all that is Casa Bonita decor.
Yes, that's a cave.
Actually, it's a "cave." Or, as I like to call it, The Cave, The Cave, The Cave! With an exclamation point or five.
And yes, you can eat in The Cave, The Cave, The Cave.
It's romantic, actually. Not that anyone has ever taken me on a date to Casa Bonita or anything. But if someone ever does, they'd better make sure we sit in the cave. If not, that person can bet that they'll be doing dishes after supper the next night. And they'll have vacuuming duty, too.
Maybe even decorative bed pillow arranging duty. That's the worst.
For those of you who assume that a meal at Casa Bonita spells a call in to work the next morning with vague references to descriptors like "burning" and "explosive," I'm happy to report that all who dined with me at CB on Cinco de Mayo are not only still living, but experienced no discomfort after suppertime whatsoever.
In fact, the food was decent. Meaning, really decent. Meaning, I've kinda been craving it ever since. Except for the salsa - it's just sad. But everything else was tasty. And Tex-Mexy.
6: Raise the flag when you need an extra fork, a refill or whatever would require the attention of the waitstaff.
This is my very favorite part about dining at Casa Bonita.
Here's how it works: a flag in the down position means all is well. It's the all-clear in the Casa Bonita world. It means every one at the table is happy, and it's a signal to the waitstaff they can tend to other duties.
A flag in the raised position is a cry for help. We need napkins! We need more chips! We need some time, love and tenderness!
By the way, don't be that guy who raises the flag to "make sure it works." Or the guy who has never been to Casa Bonita and raises and lowers it a few times to, you know, test the waters, and then forgets to lower the flag again.
If a waitress stops by to ask if everything is okay four times in the span of 45 seconds, you know it's because you forgot to lower the dang flag.
7: After supper's gone, order sopapillas.
This is my second-favorite part about dining at Casa Bonita.
In case you've never heard of a sopapilla, here's the story: They're fried pockets of dough. And...that's about it. Oh, and they're extra delicious with cinnamon, sugar and honey.
The folks at Casa Bonita like to keep things simple. The sopapillas there are brought to the table after diners request them after dinner with honey only.
Which, honestly, is perfectly fine by me. No muss, no fuss.
The only thing that could make that photo any more delicious-looking is if the honey were coming out of a bottle shaped like a bear.
I'm Tasha Ball, and I'm just sayin'.
The next step in a proper Casa Bonita dining experience would be to visit the arcade, where there's claw machines, skee ball and prizes galore. But a certain someone had been trying for the better part of a week to get over a cold and could no longer manage the sensory overload of our dinner outing.
Yeah, blondie. I'm talking about you.
So, we headed instead to Step No. 9: Visit the treasure room.
Every kid is given a gold, plastic coin at the table after the tickets are paid. Those coins are redeemable for a toy from the chest in the Treasure Room.
The toys are nothing to write home about, of course. We came away with an inch-long plastic airplane. But I think we all know what happens when you throw together a couple of toddlers and a chest full of super-cheap plastic toys.
That's right. A veritable feeding frenzy.
And it was good.
And that's how it's done, folks - that's how you do Casa Bonita.
What are your favorite memories of CB? Do you wish you could have a Casa Bonita t-shirt?
If you've never been to Casa Bonita, will you be loading up the kids to give it a try? Tell it like it is in the comments.