I've been getting to know all things Tulsa for some time now. I end each of my columns by writing, "Please send comments and column suggestions" to my email, and I've received a handful of suggestions.
Frankly, the response has been underwhelming at times, so when I get four people telling me the same thing in a 10-day period I take notice.
"Isaac, you should try Casa Bonita," a friend said.
A few others told me it would be worth writing about.
While all four people reminisced about their childhood memories of the famous Tulsa-based restaurant all offered one consistent warning, "Well, you don't go there for the food."
How can you mess up Mexican food? I thought.
I've eaten bad Mexican food before, but I was curious how Casa Bonita, 21st and Sheridan, would go about ruining an enchilada. Surely they'd at least attempt to satisfy me with decent rice and beans. I could find something; but I was wrong until the sopapillas arrived.
The answer to the food riddle is either apathy or ineptitude, probably both. The former is more plausible, though, as the difficulty of preparing rice and beans falls not too far behind eggs and toast. The syrup dispenser turned salsa pourer hinted toward the peculiar nature of the fare. Furthermore, rice, beans, salsa and most of the other ingredients are inexpensive to prepare (it's not lobster bisque, people); so upping the quality of food seems like a rather simple no-brainer. Based on conversations with those who suggested I go, everyone seems to be in agreement: better food would undoubtedly enhance the experience.
Admittedly, I am no food critic; and buffets aren't always the easiest for me, based on my dietary restrictions, but that isn't going to stop me. At $10.99, I began what could have been an endless parade of food with five cheese enchiladas, rice and beans. I made it through three and a half and consumed the rice and beans before I threw in the towel.
For those who have grown up in Tulsa, it seems Casa Bonita is held in high regard among similar establishments from years' past. While some Tulsans fondly reminisce, I don't have the opportunity to enjoy them now. Fortunately, outside of my Cheez Whiz-like substance and corn tortillas, I can take advantage of Casa Bonita's resurrection as a family-friendly adventure.
Yes, the Casa is Bonita
Tulsa's Casa Bonita, open Sunday-Thursday 11am-8:30pm and Friday-Saturday 11am-9pm, has not received as much publicity as its Denver cousin (only two locations), which was featured on a November 2003 episode of South Park. Even so, the two restaurants are similar. Both offer all-you-can-eat Mexican food, sopapillas (the highlight of my meal) and a quirky Mexican-themed interior.
They both are large, once home to retail stores, and originally opened in the 1970's. Tulsa's pretty little location seats between 400 and 500, according to the staff.
Star Buffet, the same company that ran the establishment from 1971 until 2005, currently operates Casa Bonita. From late 2005-2007 the restaurant was known as Casa Viva, but it went out of business that December. It reopened in July of '08 with its original name.
I was welcomed to Casa Bonita with shimmering, glimmering, almost magical signage. But upon entering the building, I found myself wandering aimlessly through a maze that serves as a cue on busier nights. This evening it only confused the hell out of me. I could hear guests talking but could see no one.
This is an experience, I thought. Maybe an employee dressed as a pirate will attempt to startle me around that next corner.
There was no pirate; only a faux fish tank and an empty corridor.
I placed my order and the host disappeared behind a tapestry.
"What do we do now?" I asked Cristi, my girlfriend. I knew she wouldn't know the answer, but I wanted the comfort from not feeling like the only lost individual in the casa.
A manager greeted us shortly thereafter and explained the process, thus alleviating much of my confusion.
As we were seated in what Cristi described as the "kind of an outdoor Mexican café if you squint real hard" section, I got my first real feel of what made the restaurant special. And, it wasn't on my plate in the form of neon cheese.
This, the outdoor café, El Mercado and the cave were what my life-long Tulsans held in such high esteem. I tried to view the facility as a child would, which is much easier than it might sound.
A treasure chest with prizes for children, huh? I would have adored that, I thought. I nearly claimed a prize for the child inside of me who had missed the opportunity. Damn childhood landmark! I never got any treasure prizes in Tennessee. Life isn't fair.
I took in Curious George's high wire act; I toured the arcade and, had I enough coins, I would have doubled the amount of time I spent at Casa Bonita. They had Skee-ball. I made my way to the waterfall. More experienced diners had seats in the waterfall section and in the caves. I didn't think to ask to sit in that section when I entered, due to my initial confusion.
The place is evidently charming. Especially for a child engaged in the goings-on. Casa Bonita employs what they call a "master magician," who has shows on Wednesday through Friday, 6pm-8pm, and Saturday and Sunday at noon until about 8:30pm, according to my server. It is performed in a theater designed for the primary audience: children. Again, I found my inner-child dying to see some magic.
Casa Bonita has called Tulsa home for almost 40 years, which speaks volumes of the experience it offers. As one of my friends said, "You're paying for fun as much as you are food."
Maybe I would have been more okay with those enchiladas had I come on a Saturday afternoon and seen the magic show. Had I been 20 years younger I'd be much more fixated on my treasure chest prize and the wonders of the cave than a sub-par dinner. But alas...
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