Casa Bonita raises the white flag

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Tonight was the last night of sopapillas at 21st and Sheridan, after nearly 25 35 years. (NOTE: I can do math, but I guess I just couldn't believe that I'm old enough for it to have been nearly 35 years since I went to Casa Bonita for the first time.) Tom Baddley of Lost Tulsa has exterior photos of Casa Bonita's next to last night -- the line was too long to allow him in to take interior photos. He's also got photos of soon-to-be-lost Starship Records and on-the-way-to-being-lost Eastland Mall.

According to this article, Tulsa's Casa Bonita cost nearly $4,000,000 -- that's in 1971 dollars. Although I'm sure the owners long since recouped their investment, it still amazes me that something that cost that much to build could just shut down in a week's time because the restaurant and the shopping center couldn't come to terms on a new lease.

I remember a 2nd grade classmate bragging about being the first one in class to eat there. Our family went the night before I started 3rd grade -- September 1971 -- which also happened to be the night before my first day of school at Holland Hall. I remember that they had a map, just like an amusement park. We were there with my dad's dad and some other relatives. We ate in the cantina, which in recent years was a theatre for magic and puppet shows. I remember being quietly appalled at the mushy slimy green stuff the grownups were enjoying and even more nauseated that they could follow guacamole with a dessert of strawberry shortcake back at the house. (I'm sure that nerves about starting at a new school intensified the effect of the strange cuisine.)

Other random Casa Bonita memories: The Acapulco (waterfall) room wasn't there when the restaurant first opened. Tulsa never had the cliff divers that they had in Denver. The game room was a later addition, too. Once upon a time, there was a custom bra shop next door which prominenly displayed the smallest and largest sizes they offered. One of the treats in the treasure room were these little candy-coated malt balls, about eight or nine in a cellophane tube.

In recent years, our family went about once a year. The kids enjoyed the game room as much or more than the food and atmosphere.

There's still a Casa Bonita in Denver, and you might get to go, assuming Eric Cartman doesn't trick you into believing that a meteor is heading toward Earth so he can take your place.

MORE: Joel Blain has a last-day picture of Casa Bonita.

(Update your bookmarks -- Lost Tulsa is now at http://www.losttulsa.com.)

UPDATE 10/1: Weep not for Casa Bonita. According to a story in today's Whirled, the founder of Casa Bonita will open his second Casa Viva restaurant in the same space later this year. The first is in an old Casa Bonita in Little Rock. The atmosphere and the little flags will be the same, but they promise the food will be better. Waugh Enterprises also owns the Burger Street chain and a fast-food Mexican chain called Taco Viva.

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Michael Bates reports that the last Casa Bonita in Oklahoma, at 21st and Sheridan in Tulsa, closed last night when their lease was not renewed. Casa Bonita used to have... Read More

9 Comments

susan said:

I had a friend that was hired to work there as a waitress when it Casa Bonita first opened. They hired lots of high school kids because they had the enthusiasm and energy to serve the tons of customers CASA BONITA "used" to have. The food quality has gone down dramatically through the years since it first opened and so have the customers. When it first opened, it was not unusual for the entire place to be packed out on weekends. It was special to have the guitar players come by and sing at your table. Where else in Tulsa back in the 70's could we "lift the flag" and waiters and waitresses would rush
to the table to see what anyone needed and did get it in a hurry! There also used to be a pizza restaurant that was a really fun place to go with kids where they had the movie room where you could watch old clips of stuff while you ate.
If you ordered ice cream at the pizza restaurant that was owned by the same people as Casa Bonita back in the 70's (at least I was told that) you could take your soft serve and take it to the desert area and put the toppings on how you wanted it. Another good idea. This was also an extremely popular pizza place, but with went out of business because they were always more expensive than other pizza places around town. If they were price competitive with their pizzas, I am sure it would have stayed just as successful as the old Casa Bonita that so many in Tulsa County or out of Tulsa County would love to bring not just families but bus loads of people just to eat there. Another business opportunity for someone. When Mark and I moved to Tulsa from Austin, Texas, we craved all those wonderful mexican restaurants that were all over Austin. The taste of how many popular Austin, Texas(not chain) restaurants, we also missed that fantastic service in Austin.

Dave said:

As one of those guilty of benign neglect - I used to love to go to Casa Bonita for the atmosphere but have rarely been in recent years because of better cuisine elsewhere - I am sorry to see the end of the pink house beautiful. With 60 or 70 of my best high school band buddies back in 1971, we descended en masse to our first real taste of Mexico. The sopapillas and the "raising of the flag" were so cool!

By the way, 2005 minus 1971 comes out to closer to 35 years, not 25. For some reason every media outlet in Tulsa is using the 25 number.


mad okie Author Profile Page said:

actually, Crystals went out of business becasue of various resons, mostly becasue the area was declining and a fire the did a large amount of damage. I definitally miss Crystals more than I will miss Casa Bonita

susan said:

The newest pizza place that groups seem to really enjoy is on 7lst street (behind the former Burger King) and they turned a K-Mart into a pizza place. (Incredible Pizza) although I have heard the pizza is "okay" not "incredible" Groups like it for what other things are offered there. The shopping center where Casa Bonita is could use a make-over. There also used to be a donut place in that shopping center facing Sheridan but it did not last long. The last time we went to Casa Bonita their meat had a freezer burn taste. All the food we ordered was horrible. The investors must not eat there or know what good mexican food can taste like.

CasaBonitaAddict said:

Just my 2 cents but...
Casa Bonita was the first and the best! While the recipes had their ups and downs thru the years (for a short while about 10 years ago, the seasonings they used made all of the dishes with beef in them taste spoiled)...even on their worst day, the food was much better than any other mexican place in town (other than Taco Bueno). No one else even comes close with the Chicken Enchiladas, they are sinfully rich and creamy (everyone else's are dry and tasteless). We drove up from Oklahoma City to Tulsa every 4 to 6 weeks just to get our Chicken Enchilada fix. I have tried most of the other mexican places in town and the only thing that makes them different is the type of queso or cheese sauce they serve (most taste and look like they came from a 5 gallon barrel that you would buy at Sam’s Club for $9.99). They all have the same rice, beans and chips.
At one point, Casa Bonita was the highest grossing mexican place in the country. Of course that was before there were fast food joints and mexican places on nearly every corner. But even with all of that, the Tulsa location still averaged 10,000 people a week. At over $10 a person that still adds up quickly!
The Denver location still stuffs every menu item the way it should. Something the Tulsa location started to scrimp on (hey, its all-u-can-eat so only fill the tacos half way, they can always order more). To cut costs, in the past couple of years the Tulsa store stopped making their own chips and discontinued the cloth napkins. Some may say these are little things, but the details do matter. Hopefully the new Casa Viva (owned by Bill Waugh, the founder of Casa Bonita) will return the food quality to the highest levels.
The Casa Bonita restaurant group included Casa Bonita, Black-Eyed Peas, Crystal's Pizza and Taco Bueno (I think there was a fifth one but can’t think of the name). Thru the years it has been sold and fractured off several times. At one point Carl's Jr. owned the Bueno and Casa parts and seemed hell bent on destroying them. Changing the recipes to the "Green Burrito" chain they own in California. The food at Green is truly wretched. Wisely, the abandoned the idea when sales plummeted and returned to the original Bueno recipes. Unfortunately, they continued with their plan to remodel all the Taco Buenos. The ones they did here in Oklahoma City looked like modern art museums on the outside and hospital cafeterias on the inside -- completely generic. There was nothing to tell you it was a mexican place. Most Oklahomans prefer our ethnic eating places to be “themed” -- the decor needs to match the food. Am still convinced the person responsible was secretly working for Taco Bell! A spokesman for Carl’s Jr., responding to the food quality issue at Casa, said something to the effect “people don’t go there for the food”...not a good thing for the parent company to say! The current owner of Casa is Star Buffet (a company headed by a Carl’s Jr. board member) which also owns HomeTown Buffets. Casa sort of fit into their corporate profile since they had the all-u-can-eat portion.
I have to differ with the comment made about Crystal’s Pizza...at least in Oklahoma City, they were price competitive with the other pizza places. The reason they eventually went out is the same reason most of the Casa Bonita restaurant group has gone under...the frequent turnover in ownership by corporations that don’t seem to give a flip about any of it. If it works, great...but if it fails then it is a huge tax write-off.
I was saddened to hear that the Tulsa Casa was closing this last Friday and made the trip up from Oklahoma City one last time. It was a good time though as everyone that was waiting in at least an hour-and-a-half line was sharing their memories of the Casa. The food tasted great and reminded me of the best times. I am very glad to here that it is going to become Casa Viva very soon. Looks like there may be a reason to go to Tulsa again!
Okay, maybe it was more than 2 cents worth...

Thanks for all the interesting comments.

I didn't realize Black-Eyed Pea had been connected with Casa Bonita.

Casa Bonita seemed to be popular with bus tours, and I have a feeling Casa Viva will be a bigger draw for out-of-towners than Casa Pelli downtown.

I don't much like the new Taco Bueno look either.

The Crystal's Tulsa location was originally a Borden's Cafeteria. Each Borden's had a different look, and this one was given a New Orleans facade.

Crystal's was a favorite Sunday-night-after-church place, and it was fun to watch the old "Our Gang" shorts in the theater. I seem to recall they made a big deal about using provolone rather than mozzarella cheese. In later years, they had a reasonably priced lunchtime pizza and salad bar. It was open until at least '93, because I remember watching an early Clinton press conference there.

David S. Author Profile Page said:

One thing about Casa was you had your food when you went to your table and the only worry was that your favorite area wasn't already full.

Godfathers in the Mayo Meadow was our Sunday night place

Julie said:

I visited the Casa Bonita in Denver as a kid and had alarmingly wonderful feelings towards it. Waterfalls! Magic shows! Tunnels! I went back a couple of years ago, got a dirty plate, my food wasn't cooked, and had a little kid spit on me in the scary tunnel.

Sometimes it's just better to let your kid dreams stay in your childhood. I totally ruined it by going back as an adult.

I hadn't realized there were Casa Bonita's in other places.

CasaBonitaAddict said:

RE: UPDATE 10/1

Casa Bonita is dead...Long live Casa Viva!

Let's all keep our fingers crossed that Casa Bonita founder, Bill Waugh, will deliver on his promise and return the Casa to its former glory.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 30, 2005 11:48 PM.

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