Cultural Experience: American cuisine

Welcome to Colorado. We Have Cliff Divers Entertain Us During Dinner, You Don’t?

When DU students come together to share their culture with one another, one of the first things we do is EAT! Who doesn’t love trying food from different countries? This summer, the Office of International Student Admission has been exploring international foods. We certainly had many different dishes to work with, as DU has over 1,400 international students from more than 90 countries represented on our campus.

Culture is a deep, complex and fluid concept and it’s one that the DU community is always talking about through events like CultureFest, and the Diversity Summit. One of the best ways to start the conversation, is to share a meal.

My name is Grace, and I was born and raised right here in Colorado


No matter where I travel in the world, I always love to come back to our beautiful mountains. As part of our summer #CookWithDU, I wanted to share a meal with our awesome Student Ambassadors to celebrate a wonderful year. I wanted to share a meal that reflected U.S. and Colorado culture. As I was thinking of restaurants to go to, I was having trouble coming up with authentic American cuisine ideas. What is American cuisine? Apple pie? Roast Chicken? Mac and Cheese? Hamburgers?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because American cuisine is a mixture of food handed down from our immigrant ancestors who have come from all over the world. American food could be anything! It could originally be Native American food, or Mexican food, or Italian food. There are also different regions in the States, each with their own vibrant recipes resulting from the mixing of cultures. Even in my own family we have a mixture of cultures with recipes that are a little bit of this and that. Here in Colorado, we have a distinct flavor that reflects our strong Hispanic heritage and the delicious green chilies we grow here. I have heard some people describe Colorado food as “Mountain Mex” which refers to the Rocky Mountains and the Mexican influence in our favorite meals.

In the end, I chose not to take our international students to a delicious “Mountain Mex” restaurant. In order to share Colorado culture with my friends, I selected a uniquely Colorado experience: Casa Bonita.

CB Alex on a horse

Casa Bonita literally translates to “Beautiful House” in Spanish. When you drive up to the strip mall and see the vibrant pink 85-foot tower that says “Casa Bonita” it’s very possible you may not agree with that name. Once you are inside though, Casa Bonita will surprise you. It is decorated as if it were a Mexican village during the Spanish Colonial era, with multiple levels, a haunted cave, a waterfall, a lagoon and an arcade. Every 15 minutes, there is a mini theatrical production, in which high school students act out a dramatic pirate scene or an Old West scene. Inevitably, someone gets pushed off the cliff as part of the skit and falls into the lagoon below. Casa Bonita has a certain kitsch, but within its Disney-esque pageantry there is something inherently so Colorado.

Kitsch – Kitsch (/kɪtʃ/; loanword from German), also called cheesiness or tackiness, is art or other objects that appeal to popular rather than high art tastes. Overly garish or sentimental. Such objects are sometimes appreciated in a knowingly ironic or humorous way

Casa Bonita serves Mexican food. Not the good kind though. The kind of Mexican food one can buy from the freezer section at the grocery store and warm up in a microwave. One can select from a dozen or so options of the most familiar Mexican dishes. You line up cafeteria style and shuffle along a buffet counter with a tray. Hungry yet? I will warn you, as I did the international students, that Casa Bonita isn’t about the culinary delights, but rather the unique experience. I had thought, that once my friends from all over the world stepped inside Casa Bonita, they would feel the same wonder and nostalgia that I feel inside Casa Bonita. But they did not. They thought it was laughable. Maybe it’s because they aren’t Colorado natives. Maybe it’s because they didn’t grow up attending childhood birthdays here. Maybe, it’s because they didn’t quite know what Casa Bonita means to Colorado.

“For us, and for the world, Casa Bonita is a top cultural icon,” said Bill Marino, executive director of the Lakewood-West Colfax Business Improvement District. “We have Casa Bonita, and the rest of the world doesn’t, so it’s a real feather in the cap of West Colfax and the 40 West Arts District.”,243164

It’s possible you may have already heard of Casa Bonita. It made a global debut in the crass and unusual show “South Park.” For those of you who have seen it, Cartman sums up how Coloradoans feel about Casa Bonita by his sheer enthusiasm. You have to go and experience it all. By the time my international friends finished their meal and had seen a few of the interesting features, I think they began to find Casa Bonita loveable.

You see, the detail is what draws you in. Every last inch of the enormous restaurant has been designed to look like something from Mexico. Even the tiny staircases in the back of the restaurant have gorgeous Spanish blue tile laid in between the steps. Although Casa Bonita was designed to look like Mexico, all of these details strongly resonate with the history of Colorado. Our “Old West” roots are reminiscent in the theatrical performances, the rocks and caves remind us of the mountains, the mining theme on the bottom level recalls the Gold Rush days, and the food is resonant of the Hispanic, Mexican, mestizo culture that has always been present in Colorado, notably in the Auraria neighborhood.

And isn’t that what a cultural recipe really is –an experience? A meal, born from the ground you grow up on, echoing the history of your land, bringing to mind the many meals you have shared with friends and family for special occasions, and appearing in pop culture. Can you think of a food that draws up so much history and memory from your own culture?

Casa Bonita is international, yet local. Entering the restaurant is like being transported to a different time and place, and yet it is still so American in its approach. Our student ambassadors will probably always make jokes about being taken to Casa Bonita and I probably can’t describe to you -even now- what it’s like. You’ll just have to come see for yourself.

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