Monday, May 10, 2010

Do Casa Bonita, TDT-Style

Casa Bonita Restaurant in Tulsa, Oklahoma

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.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

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.

Just no.

Step 2: File in line.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

Casa Bonita

Get a load of that face.

"Mom, to where in heck have you brought me? My little mind, it reels!"

Casa Bonita

Casa Bonita

Casa Bonita

Casa Bonita

Casa Bonita

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!

Casa Bonita

Well, almost. Our stuff was still on the way.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

The color.

Casa Bonita

The fantastic.

Casa Bonita

The imitation.

Casa Bonita

The incongruity!

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

And yes, you can eat in The Cave, The Cave, The Cave.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

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.

And cheesy.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

The flag!

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.

Casa Bonita

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.

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.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita


Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

Yeah, blondie. I'm talking about you.

So, we headed instead to Step No. 9: Visit the treasure room.

Casa Bonita

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.

Casa Bonita

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.


Dave said...

BRAVO! Another Stupendous Post!

Ryan said...

This is like an amped-up version of Panchos, which makes me want desperately to go to there. I suppose me and the Mrs. could go in Nov. for our 1-year anniversary...

Cindy said...

I can not tell you how many times in my life I've eaten in The Cave, The Cave, The Cave! I think it's the best place! I haven't been to CB since they re-opened but your post has inspired me to return. I can taste the sopapillas now.

Anonymous said...

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this and how many memories it brought back. We will totally be making a trip to Casa Bonita soon so I can share with my kids.

Anonymous said...

I have been to Casa many times and even w/in the last few mos. You made it sound so better and did not miss a single tantalizing detail. You certainly have a flair for journalism. The Cave!!!!!

Anonymous said...

It was great revisiting C-B thru your post. Nearly every previous visit etched into memory mirrored your experience to a "T". Now if only Crystals was still open at the other end of the shopping center.......

Anonymous said...

Awesome article and lovely photos. Thanks!

Joe @ Joe's Burger Search said...

Loved this place when I was growing up. My daughter requested that her 6th birthday dinner be there. Gotta go back now. Wonderful pics!

Tasha, just wondering, don't most take a bite off the corner of their sopapilla then squirt the honey in?

Chris said...

I've noticed you're shooting with a Nikon D5000...does that mean we might be seeing videos in the future?

Brodricks said...

OH MY GOSH!!!!! I thought they were still closed and was at my husband's grandfather's funeral on May 5th so I didn't get your tweet. I called my step MIL and we are planning a road trip!!! Hello!!! I am so excited! YOu just made my day so much better!

Anonymous said...

Ooooohhhh Crystals! Yes, that MUST be the next redo!!

Tash, thank you SO much for this post! I am so excited to take my daughters there now that I know I will not walk away with major stomach problems!

Lauri Rottmayer said...

Casa Bonita was the very first restaurant my husband took me to as a new Oklahoman bride. I love sitting in the cave! :-)

Anonymous said...

Funny, we almost went there yesterday. Now I really can't wait to go. I love this place, it holds alot of very fond memories for me. Now we can make memories there with our grandson.

marshall baker said...

Unfortunately people probably think they are out of business still because they don't advertise. Might have to take the missus here soon. Except for a visit a couple years ago, its been about 20 years since I've been.

Becky said...

I'm sooo glad you did a Casa Bonita feature. Whenever we have out of town friends, they INSIST we go there. We LOVE the magic shows in the awesome little theater- the guy who does them is so funny. And they have dang good guacamole, and lots of it. Glad you finally went back!

Brian said...

Want Crystals? Come to Irving, TX near DFW airport. Building looks the same (w/"cartoon room", etc) and pizza is so-so.

Maria said...

I had the fajitas after it reopened, and I will never go back. It was so horrible!

Anonymous said...

Aw! So glad to see this blog. This used to be the only, and I mean ONLY place I would eat Mexican food from. And it was only the cheese enchiladas, with a strawberry senorita!

I went once when it was Casa Viva... it was meh. I've heard mixed reviews since it re-opened....

I think my husband and I need to have a date there soon... you have me craving it now!

Mom Mayhem says: said...

I was in Love with Casa Bonita the 1st time I went when I was a kid -And now I love going with my kids! I don't know why it got a bad rep-The food is pretty good to me-I ain't skeered either ;) It is kind of sad that even on Cinco De Mayo it wasn't that busy-It was nice to see you there ;) I guess great minds think alike!:

mysonsmother said...

The atmosphere is the best part of CB. And honestly, it's the only good part. The food tastes like those really cheap frozen mexican meals that have been microwaved, and the arcade was falling apart last time we went. But the kids sure thought the cave was awesome, and the sopapillas are yummy!

suburban hippie mama said...

so many fond memories of going there as a child!! but as an adult, not so crazy about their food! but still wanna take my kids, lol!

Paul said...

What!? Am I the ONLY person that remembers that huge pink monster that used to walk around the place? The Casa Bonita mascot!!

And, I gotta say. Just a smidge disappointed there isn't a pic of the unicycling monkey on the line.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

I went yesterday and I enjoyed it. Nothing is as good as in your memories, but I would go back again next time I go to Tulsa.

Anonymous said...

Casa Bonita: = House Beautiful
And Beautiful it still is !
I dined at Casa Bonita hundreds of times back in the 70's and 80's. They used to be located in OKC, Tulsa, Denver and Dallas. (been to all of them)
Only the Tulsa and Denver locations remain.
I always thought Casa Bonita was like the dark rides at Six Flags over Texas ! It still is and looks just like it did along time ago.
I must say that several years ago the food got lousy back before the restaurant closed. ( The ownership group, Star Buffet, goofed around with the recipes,ruined a great concept and really turned it into a " Panchos") The longtime manager tried to make a go of it as Casa Viva but was not really too good in my opinion.
I dined there again a few years back when I heard it had reopened under the Casa Viva name. Slight improvement but not like the good old days.
I have now dined there several more times since Bill Waugh ( The original creator of the concept in 1968) has gotten things going again.
(Wish he could get Crystals Pizza going again too ! )
I traveled 150 miles to Casa Bonita in Tulsa again yesterday and here is MY updated review....
SERVICE: The service at the entrance as you stand in the line was something to be desired. Too much goofing around by the staff.
The service after being seated was PERFECT. Still using the flag system although it was not needed. The server was quick, accurate and very attentive. Very friendly too.
FOOD TEMPERATURE: PERFECT so hot you had to wait on it to cool !
This is a good thing !
FOOD QUALITY AND TASTE: Also excellent if you are expecting it to taste like it did 25 or 30 years ago.
The tacos are EXACTLY the same as are the cheese enchiladas, beans, rice, sopapillas , cheese sauce at the table and salsa. The beef enchiladas were similar to the way they used to be.
MY FAVORITES : Tacos, queso and sopapillas. (best anywhere and EXACTLY LIKE THE OLD DAYS ! )
Taco shells were crispy thin and loaded ! ( I am not a big fan of the chicken tacos here but they were fresh and pretty good) The Chicken enchiladas were better.
Everything was fresh and I have NO complaints whatsoever as to the quality of the food.
It all depends on what you are expecting.
If you are going for nostalgia and YOU used to love Casa Bonitas back in the groovy 70's, you will not be disappointed ! (be sure and take your kids )
If you are looking for mexican food like at On the Border or a family owned little mexican joint, you probably won't like it that much.
It is really comparing apples and oranges.
CLEANLINESS: Excellent. No critters that I saw. Tables and floors all nice and fresh. Bathroom was spotless. The restaurant itself is really an experience as it always was.
Decorated like NO mexican restaurant you have ever been to. It would cost a fortune to start from scratch to build and decorate a place as extravagant and over the top as Casa Bonita's is.
PRICES: 10.99 FOR THE ALL YOU CAN EAT. either Beef or Chicken Deluxe dinner but they are glad to mix it all up if you want.
My advise is go hungry and leave stuffed !
I really do not understand some of the bad internet reviews I have seen about Casa.(This is TEX MEX) Some of the old complaints from several years ago might have been valid but the last several times I made the 150 mile journey, I have not been disappointed.
BOTTOM LINE. If you you used love to go there a long time ago.. you still will !! it will bring back lots of memories and will find yourself anxious to go back

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