Much of the speculation on the future of Casa Bonita — and its trademark terrible food — is now over. On Tuesday, three-time James Beard-nominated Denver chef Dana Rodriguez announced that she’s now leading the kitchen at the Lakewood entertainment destination.

The restaurant will reopen under Rodriguez’s culinary leadership — and under new owners, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker — sometime in the second half of 2022, Rodriguez said.

“I’ve been working (in the restaurant) for about two weeks now,” she told The Denver Post on Tuesday. “And I’ve started thinking how to make everything better in my own way.”

Rodriguez is the chef and operator behind beloved Denver restaurants Work & Class and Super Mega Bien. She also has her own mezcal brand, Doña Loca, named after an affectionate nickname for the chef within the local industry.

She’s known for her candor, sense of humor and down-to-earth approach to running restaurants. Rodriguez and her partners are transparent about finances with employees and pay both front- and back-of-house workers better than Denver restaurant standards.

“One of the things that made me say yes to this (partnership) so quickly is how these guys approach their employees,” Rodriguez said of Stone and Parker. “Casa Bonita is not a playground for (them)… They own it because they can afford to, and they can make it better.”

The new partners’ motto for making it “better,” Rodriguez added, is “How can we change nothing and improve everything?” That means keeping Casa Bonita the fun, family destination it’s always been, but also creating a food and drink menu from scratch, including “better (expletive) enchiladas” and even fresh, handmade tortillas.

“It’s also going to be fun for the adults, too, to have good food and fresh drinks,” she said.

And for those who are concerned about the future of Casa Bonita’s sopapillas, often considered one of the restaurant’s few palatable dishes: “I would not do it without the sopapillas,” she added. “That’s one of the things we promised to people.”

Rodriguez is currently working with around 60 former Casa Bonita employees and plans to hire 30 or so more in the short-term. Some of the workers have been around since the ’70s, and “they wanted to still work here,” Rodriguez said.

Summit Family Restaurants, Casa Bonita’s longtime owner and the company that sold the business to Stone and Parker, came under scrutiny at the start of the pandemic over reports of unpaid wages. Rodriguez says she hopes to create a “family” of the large staff that will be working together “every day, every night” once the restaurant reopens.

“Partnering with Matt and Trey is one of the biggest things that’s happened in my life,” she said. “It’s a dream come true, to get to know that there are people out there who try to help communities and do the right thing, and to work with them.”

The partnership is also personal. In 1998, when Rodriguez first came to Denver from her native Chihuahua, looking for work — but without any formal restaurant experience and knowing very little English — she applied at the West Colfax institution.

Rodriguez figured she’d be in good company with fellow Spanish speakers and in a Mexican kitchen. But whoever interviewed her at the time said she wasn’t “qualified” for a position. Twenty-three years later — plus two successful restaurants, a mezcal company and a few national award nominations under her belt — she’s excited to get to work.

“Hopefully I’m qualified now,” Rodriguez said with a laugh.

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