CASPER, Wyo. – The term “gringo” is used commonly throughout Latin America to broadly describe anyone who is from a different country. Over the past few decades, gringo has become shorthand for “white guy.”
For Kelly Phanuekthong, being called a gringo is a source of both amusement and pride.
“Everyone mistakes me for being Latino, but my mom is Norwegian, Scottish and Irish, and my dad was Thai,” he said.
In his boyhood neighborhoods in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles, however, he was the “white guy.”
“All of my friends were Latino,” he said. “From Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, they all called me ‘white boy.’ So I was like, this is a perfect name.”
Gringo is the name of a food truck that Kelly and business partner Tony Hager have launched in Casper. For Kelly, the name reflects all of the cultural and culinary traditions that inspire his passion for cooking.
Kelly works in the music business, but he’s been cooking for years, taking classes and earning certificates. Eventually, with help from friends and other chefs, he became involved in the pop-up restaurant trend around Los Angeles.
“Before we started doing pop-ups, we did a supper club kind of thing, where we’d have a Willie Wonka golden ticket situation [and] draw invites on Facebook,” he said. “We’d do full service, high end dining, where you didn’t know what you were going to eat.”
“The elevated stuff taught me a lot of techniques and how to play with all kinds of different processes and ingredients,” he said. But as time passed, he became less enamored with the conceptual fine dining aspect of food, which he describes as “more like theater.”
“Where I am now, is I found that I enjoyed the simpler food, the slow-cook stews and the like, that feels like home. Fine dining is fun, but it’s doesn’t feed my soul.”
That feeling was strengthened during one of his many trips to Mexico. “We were just eating on the side of the road,” he recalls. “We sat down and someone comes running out of their house to start cooking for us. They just set up there and started selling tacos, and they were all amazing.”
The need to slow down and simplify influenced his decision to leave the Los Angeles life he’s always known and loved for Casper, where he has relatives and has visited sporadically. Life under COVID lockdown also made an impact.
“LA was changing, it was no longer what I was holding on to,” he said. “It just seemed like a much brighter future here.”
After spending a couple of months with relatives, he decided to buy a house. Soon after that, he met Wyoming native Tony Hager.
“I had a business partner who introduced me to Kelly,” said Tony, “and we really have a shared love of cuisine and food.”
“The original idea was maybe to start a restaurant, because, man, [Kelly’s] dishes I tried made me a believer real quick.”
Tony and Kelly saw more potential with going the food truck route as a start, and hope to eventually move into a brick and mortar operation.
“I think we can be more versatile and see how successful we can make it before going to that next step,” Tony said.
The menu Kelly has developed for Gringo combines his love of the Mexican and Thai flavors that defined his childhood.
“When my friends and I would go to a Thai restaurant, I noticed they gravitated towards the things that had spice and citrus, the same elements in Mexican cuisine, like that brightness and sharpness,” he said. “So in a way they go together, I bring them together.”
Those strong influences have been joined with his newfound passion for authentic Texas barbecue. During one trip to Texas, he was reminded of his experience eating roadside tacos in Mexico.
“It’s the same concept, somebody was in front of their house or in front of their church on the side of the road,” he said. “You’ll be driving down a hot and lonely highway, and suddenly there’s a dude right there sitting next to a smoker with barbecue for sale.”
Since then he’s made regular trips to various cities and towns in Texas, talking to pitmasters and doing research, hoping to eventually pursue a pure Texas barbecue concept.
In the meantime, he’s sneaked some barbecue influence into the breakfast tacos he serves in the Gringo truck. He’s mixed traditional fries with carne asada and queso, serves up a smoked pork chili verde, and a spicy bacon guac burger. He also dishes up steak asada tacos and fish tacos.
Now that the food truck is in its early stages, Kelly says he’s still driven to search out new flavors waiting to be discovered.
“Mexican food is super-regional, just like Thai food is regional,” he said. “Barbecue is too, and there’s so much I haven’t tasted yet.”
Gringo’s upcoming schedule for early 2023 follows:
FRI 1/20 7AM-2PM – Wash and Glow Car Wash: Breakfast/Lunch
SAT 1/21 7AM-2PM – Wash and Glow Car Wash: Breakfast/Lunch
SAT 1/21 3-9PM – Frontier Brewing
FRI 1/27 7AM-2PM – Wash and Glow Car Wash: Breakfast/Lunch
SAT 1/28 7AM-2PM – Wash and Glow Car Wash: Breakfast/Lunch
SAT 1/28 3-10PM – Frontier Brewing – Robert Burns Festival
FRI 2/3 7AM-2PM – Wash and Glow Car Wash : Breakfast/Lunch
SAT 2/4 7AM-2PM – Wash and Glow Car Wash : Breakfast/Lunch
FRI 2/10 7AM-2PM – Wash and Glow Car Wash : Breakfast/Lunch
SAT 2/11 7AM-2PM – Wash and Glow Car Wash : Breakfast/Lunch
SAT 2/11 3PM-9PM – Oil City Beer Company – Cornhole Bowl
Gringo’s website is www.gringowyo.com and is under construction at publication time. Their Facebook address will be @gringowyo.