Denverite Zenna Garnett has an eye-catching tattoo on her forearm: an entire full-color replica of Casa Bonita’s facade runs from her wrist to her elbow.
The famous Mexican eatery in Lakewood-which boasts of cliff divers, puppet shows, divisive food options, and an entire cave-has been in business almost 50 years and gained its notoriety after being featured in an episode of Comedy Central’s South Park.
Garnett wasn’t aware of the Reddit post that launched her into mini-stardom: her husband’s friend uploaded a photo of the sleeve to the subreddit r/Denver on Sunday, where it garnered over a thousand likes and some very expressive comments.
“I just threw up in my mouth and it tasted like sopapillas,” one user posted.
If you aren’t familiar, sopapillas are fried tortilla-like pastries served with honey that come with every meal at Casa Bonita.
Garnett remains unbothered by the comments.
“If Casa Bonita is not everyone’s cup of tea, neither is the tattoo,” she said pragmatically. “But I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, either.”
The tattoo, done by artist Chris Yaws, is hard to fault on a technical level. The colors are bright, the lines are clean, and the likeness is unmistakable. It’s exactly what Garnett wanted.
Unlike what the accompanying Reddit caption claims, Garnett did not get the tattoo in honor of the restaurant’s recent reopening. (After a rocky pandemic and a bankruptcy filing, the eatery expects to reopen this September.) She had it inked two years ago, when she was 38, as part of a sleeve that recounts her childhood.
The story begins on the other side of her forearm, where Florida’s Banana River and Cocoa Beach showcase where she was born and spent her babyhood before moving west to Denver. She then lived in Lakewood, just down the street from Casa Bonita.
That’s where she celebrated her birthdays for years while attending Lumberg Elementary and Jefferson High School.
“When your friends found out your party was at Casa Bonita, they wanted to come, whether they were really your good friend or not. They just wanted to go,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so it was something my parents saved for.”
Her first job was at Casa Bonita as a server, where her older brother worked as well. She recalled that complaints about Casa Bonita’s food didn’t really exist back then. Did everything go downhill in the 90s, or did Denverite’s Mexican food opinions get more discerning? Garnett doesn’t know or really even care.
She once took a dip in the diving pool after hours while she and other staff were cleaning and got in trouble. Workers often spent time fishing things like forks and coins out of the water, too.
The tattoo has a few… other details as well. A banner below the building displays the name of Denver’s most famous thoroughfare, Colfax Ave. Garnett said she never lived more than a few blocks away from the street her entire time in the city.
And, although Garnett is not a big smoker herself, the clock on the facade is set to 4:20, something that eagle-eyed Redditors immediately noticed. Tattoo artist Yaws first suggested it, and she agreed after she saw the same timestamp on some family photos she had taken outside the restaurant a few days prior.
Although the internet is ruthless, Garnett said that almost every Denverite who notices the tattoo in the wild is delighted. This is especially true for people her age, people who likely had a birthday party there, or maybe cried in Black Bart’s Cave once or twice.
“Usually someone always has to say how bad the food is or tell their horror stories about it. But I think for most people it’s nostalgic, especially growing up here,” she said. “There’s a lot of memories tied in there.”
On one occasion, Garnett and her husband were on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad when a conductor spotted her arm and said, “Is that what I think it is?”
“It definitely starts conversations,” Garnett said. “If they can identify it from a distance, it’s because it means something to them, or at least it means they’ve seen South Park.”
Now, Garnett gets to share in the joy with her nieces and nephews.
“It’s so big when you’re a kid, you know,” she said. “It used to be for my enjoyment. And now I think I enjoy seeing it through their eyes more.”
Garnett now works in a middle school, helping children learning English as a second language. She’s still only eight minutes away from Casa Bonita, and her students have all seen her tattoo.
We asked what her go-to order was at Casa Bonita.
“I like their chicken enchiladas, I guess,” she said. “But really, it’s all about the sopapillas.”