By Alan Gionet

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (CBS4) – First it was a surprise when Casa Bonita-loving South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone put their money where their animated mouths ate as kids and bought the place. Now they have another surprise; they’ve partnered with James Beard Award nominated-chef Dana Rodriguez to be executive chef.

First there was a surprise phone call. Rodriguez says she typically does not answer numbers she recognizes, but did.

“It’s like, what? Matt and Trey from South Park are doing this and I can cook?” said Rodriguez.

Then there was a tasting, which they apparently liked.

(credit: CBS)

“And they say, ‘Dana I think you can be our partner on the culinary side,’ and I say, ‘Let me think about it, yes,’” said Rodriguez. She said it took two seconds to answer.

Rodriguez runs both Work & Class and Super Mega Bien and will soon open a new place called Cantina Loca.

Casa Bonita has been closed for a year and a half now. Rodriguez says some staff is still being paid and so does not view staffing up as difficult.

It’s really full circle for Rodriguez who arrived from Chihuahua, Mexico in 1998. She was staying with her cousin and needed a job.

“I say, ‘Let’s go and apply to a Mexican restaurant,’ and she say, ‘Casa Bonita is a big Mexican restaurant.’ I came in and, (they said) ‘You’re not qualified to work here’ lady.'”

After Stone and Parker’s call she thought about another kind of reply.

“My reaction was like, ‘Ooh maybe it’s funny because I apply, they don’t hire me. Now I can say no.’”

Rodriquez got a job as a dishwasher on Larimer Street and moved up to later have a big role in well-known downtown restaurants before opening her own.

(credit: CBS)

While Casa Bonita has been iconic in Colorado, it was largely for the atmosphere and a little for the sopapillas. Not so much for the other food.

“Like a TV dinner” described diner Debra Stith outside the restaurant Monday. Some things will certainly change.

“So we’re going to build the kitchen in a better way that we can just keep moving faster and put in lot of food at a time, but it’s fresh food.”

The canned orange-yellow cheese is out.

“You’re going to have the best enchiladas. The best things for kids and adults. I mean fresh rice, fresh beans.”

The sopapillas will still be a staple though.

The restaurant is being redesigned and re-worked.

“I look at the kitchen, first of all, it’s an enormous kitchen that I never work with big kitchens like that before… It’s good because when you build something from scratch you can build it your way.”

The idea is to keep many things.

“All the entertainment is going to still be there. This is not a South Park new playground. This is Casa Bonita. They own it, but they wanted to make it better.”

The phrase they came up with is, ”Improve everything but change nothing.”

They hope to re-open late summer or early fall of 2022.

Alan Gionet