Ten years of operating a food truck in Denver ought to land operators a gold Rolex or a lifetime-achievement award in some sort of street-food Hall of Fame. As it stands, those few operators who have hit the decade mark at least enjoy a steady fan base, income from private gigs and big-name festivals, and the respect of their peers.
Crock Spot got rolling in 2010, the year that saw the emergence of the Justice League of Street Food — a legendary series of rallies that ushered in a modern era of food-truck diversity and brought flocks of hungry hipsters to the barely discovered RiNo Art District. "I was one of the founding trucks at the Justice League," recalls Crock Spot owner Steven Smith, "and I started another one called the Food Truck Renegades."
Like many successful food-truck owners, Smith and his business partner — his wife, Mandy — now have a restaurant to call their own, even if it took them a little longer than most to get there: Crock Spot just opened at 4045 Pecos Street in the Sunnyside neighborhood. "I always had it on the back burner that I wanted a brick-and-mortar," Smith says, but the economic entrance barrier was so much lower for a food truck.
As it turns out, success got in the way of moving to a permanent location. After the initial launch of the food truck, catered events soon followed, and then a second truck. Smith says the company owes its success to the core mission of Crock Spot: "We focus on a style of cooking, not a style of food."
Yes, Smith started cooking everything on his menu in crockpots, but he says the business outgrew its countertop slow cookers after the first year, and everything moved to traditional methods of braising and slow-cooking in ovens or on stovetops after that. "Our style of food lets us be creative," he explains. "We've catered so many weddings and other events using specific themes: Greek, Mexican, Italian — you name it."
In fact, one of the new restaurant's "Crock Stars" (its signature bowls) combines a couple of global cuisines. The Proper Half Half starts with Thai jasmine fried rice that's topped with both sriracha sour cream and chimichurri, which you'd normally find accompanying an Argentinean steak — or on Crock Spot's beef and barley bowl. There's also a Salt-N-Pepa bowl, with salt-and-pepper chicken and rice, and a vegan Sunshine bowl, made with quinoa, avocado velvet sauce (a house creation) and veggies.
If you'd rather build your own bowl, you can choose between pork, beef, two kinds of chicken, curried root vegetables or Celtic white bean stew, all cooked low and slow to provide complex, intermingled flavors and fork-tender texture. There are also three bases — fried rice, barley or quinoa — and several sauces, including Estaban's Yucatecan Fire. A few sides, desserts and drinks round out the compact menu, and Smith has also added family-sized packages that run about $40 each, for customers looking to take home dinner for the whole gang. "Over the years, I've been able to hone the menu to a list of fan favorites," Smith notes, but he says he'll start working on regular specials once the restaurant has had time to settle into the neighborhood and COVID-related restrictions ease.
According to Smith, sticking with a mobile business for so long and slowly growing the catering business allowed him and his team to develop business acumen and leadership skills, so once they were ready to make the move to a physical location, most of the foundation was there, even if the actual opening took two years from the time he signed a lease. "The brick-and-mortar kind of fell in my lap," he says. "The developers called me and asked me to sign on."
But then construction and pandemic-related delays pushed back the opening for Crock Spot's home in the sleek new building that also houses Forty45 Coworking. Most of the eatery's neighbors, he notes, are single-family homes, as well as small apartment and condo buildings scattered throughout Sunnyside. The homey and comforting food on the menu seems designed for neighbors, friends and families currently spending a lot of time together and anticipating the cold days of winter ahead.
Crock Spot opened the weekend of Denver's second snowstorm of the season; Smith says that his customers haven't even had a chance to try out the small but inviting patio. He has no plans to winterize the outdoor seating for now, choosing instead to rely on takeout business and Crock Spot's still-active trucks to get the business through until more people can dine at the restaurant.
"We've found ourselves very fortunate this year," Smith explains, noting that right after the pandemic hit Denver last spring, Crock Spot landed a contract through Sam's Club to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to Army National Guard members providing medical assistance in metro Denver. Crock Spot will also provide food service at Denver's two Industry locations, at 3001 Brighton Boulevard and 3858 Walnut Street. And if that's not enough, there's a second restaurant in the works at East 28th Avenue and Fairfax Street in Park Hill.
Crock Spot has now joined other food truck all-stars such as Quiero Arepas, Tacos Tequila Whiskey (formerly Pinche Tacos) and the Ginger Pig in the brick-and-mortar restaurant business, settling down after a decade on the streets. The long, slow simmer has yielded tasty results.
Crock Spot is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., with online ordering available at thecrockspot.com. Call 720-675-7720 for details.
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