An Interview With Root Down’s Chef Justin Cucci, Colorado

Culture Trip

A culinary and cultural gem in Denver’s LoHI neighborhood, Root Down is also a true meeting place for the community where impeccable dining meets a local ethos. At the helm of it all is chef and restaurateur Justin Cucci, who brings innovation and commitment to the table. We speak to Chef Cucci about Root Down and Denver’s thriving dining scene.

Chef Justin Cucci / Courtesy of Root Down

Why did you pick Denver as the location for Root Down?
I moved to Denver in 2008, with the idea that I wanted to show the importance of connecting a neighborhood to a dining experience in the same way ingredients are connected to the food. We found the space—a great rehabbed 1950s gas station in a sleepy corner of LoHI—with lofty goals for what Root Down would be. When we opened, we seemed to connect to people in Denver—it felt like we were in the right place at the right time. That connection within the neighborhood eventually spread throughout the entire Denver community and I feel so honored to be part of Denver’s culinary scene, and a part of the rich fabric of restaurants and chefs.

What dish did you create that you were most proud of?
Devils on Horseback is one of our iconic Root Down dishes, and a dish that still represents the ethos that we grew from. With locally cured bacon, smoked almonds, Gournay cheese fondue, peppadew peppers and a sherry gastrique, it represents the qualities we still strive for in all of our dishes: thoughtfully sourced, inventive, and exciting. It also hits all the notes- salty, sweet, spicy, smoky—it’s just a one-bite punch in the tongue and testicles—but in the best possible way.

What can we expect Root Down in the near future?
I hope we continue to evolve as food and guests’ palates evolve. I know I’m constantly trying to evolve our menu items that have become standbys—and make sure that they change, however so slightly, so they remain vibrant, delicious, and exciting. There are some things on our menu that have been tweaked a dozen times in five years—a lot of the time it’s slight—but I believe in the end the result is better food. We always hope to stay true to our roots while keeping an open mind to new ideas.

What’s one of the most memorable dishes you’ve ever had, and where did you have it?
In 1994, at a small Japanese restaurant in Greenwich Village, NYC—I was obsessed with this dish they had called Niko Niko. It was so damn craveable—and 30 years later I still have a palate memory of the dish. I ate it more than a hundred times. Razor-thin shaved beef, sesame, ginger, soy—it was so texturally delicious, and so well balanced, it still floors me.

When you have time to eat out, where is your favourite place to dine in Denver?
I’m a big fan of ChoLon and Chef Lon’s food. He hits the mark time and time again, and he’s a badass culinarian. I also love New Saigon—really well executed—and like a trip to Vietnam on lower Federal.

For the best drinks in Denver, head to…
I’m not really a drinker, but I think Acorn has a great cocktail program and does it right.
What’s your go-to place for local cuisine, and what would you order?
Local cuisine in Denver is a tough one. I think there’s a lot of interpretation on what local cuisine is in Denver. I think to throw a curve at that question, local has to start in the street—so I’d say go to Biker Jim’s—and get a reindeer dog with coca-cola onions, and cream cheese. That’s local to me.

An exciting new arrival to the local food scene?
Cart Driver. It’s super intimate, inexpensive and delicious.
In Denver, culture lovers need to…
Take a bite out of Colfax, get jiggy in Rhino, break it down on Federal—and smooth it all out in LoHi. Essentially eat, drink and burn one down with the mayor.
Root Down, 1600 W 33rd Ave, Denver, CO, USA, +1 303-993-4200

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