On The Menu
By Guy D’Astolfo
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – An elaborate painting of a grinning Mexican sugar skull greets visitors to Gringos restaurant and bar.
The latest addition to downtown’s restaurant and nightlife scene, it will also be the first new entity on the Phelps Street pedestrian mall, which will open next month.
Gringos will open its doors as early as Wednesday. Because Phelps Street is still under construction, entry will be only through the rear in the parking lot off Commerce Street.
Gringos, owned by Ken Vigorito, Jorge Carreno and Rodney Freel, has an aura of mystery. The main room is a long narrow space, with an 18-seat bar at the rear, high-top tables in front, and a garage door atop a half-wall that will open onto the mall. Its seating capacity is close to 100.
The walls and ceiling in the main room are painted black, with artwork of sugar skulls and dancing skeletons on the walls, taken from the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration.
The Gringos building is actually two connected buildings linked by one interior opening. A second, smaller dining room – which can also be rented out as a party room– is in the adjacent section, as is the kitchen.
Carreno is a veteran chef and restaurateur who owns and operates Margherita’s Grille in Girard.
He turned to his culinary roots in shaping the menu at Gringos.
“The menu is a little piece of Oaxaca [pronounced wa-HA-ka], which is a state in Mexico where the Spanish and native cultures meet,” Carreno says. “I added a twist of America and Mexico City to it, but the foundation comes from Oaxaca.”
Carrena grew up in Mexico City, he explained, but his mother is from Oaxaca, and he helped her prepare meals every day when he was a child.
“The Mexican food I know is completely different from what I was presented with when I first came to America in 2003,” he says. “The first time I went to a restaurant they offered me chimichangas, and I had no idea what it was. They offered burritos, and I had no idea. They offered fajitas, and I had no idea. The concept of Mexican restaurants here comes from the north of Mexico, the Tex-Mex style.”
Though the Gringos’ menu will be a small one, it will incorporate the techniques and flavors of Carreno’s youth.
“You will find ingredients and spices in Oaxaca that you won’t find anywhere else,” he says.
The restaurant, which will open at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday for lunch, will feature a build-your-own taco option with diners picking from a list of toppings.
Gringos will open at 8 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays for a Oaxacan brunch, featuring café de olla, a cinnamon coffee specialty from the region.
Eventually, the bar will host live music and will sell burritos to go at closing time on weekends.
The restaurant will not be able to finish its front exterior, or install its eye-catching sign, until after the renovation of Phelps Street into a pedestrian thoroughfare is complete. Still, the owners are excited to be at the center of the block, which should deliver a jolt to downtown nightlife.
The idea for Gringos predates the Phelps Street mall project.
“It was 2½ or three years ago when we first started talking about it,” Vigorito says. The owner of KV Electric, a contracting company, says he always wanted to get into the restaurant business and this is his first foray.
Not surprisingly, he did the electrical work himself, as well as a lot of the demolition and construction. The property, Vigorito says, was most recently a real estate title company office, and before that, a jewelry store.
A massive iron jewelry safe remains ensconced in a wall of Gringos, only now it has the restaurant’s skull logo painted on it.
“We completely renovated the building,” Vigorito says, “tearing out interior walls, adding new plumbing, heating, air conditioning, electrical. We built a kitchen and added the garage doors to the front walls.”
Opening amidst the coronavirus means the bar has to be closed by 11 p.m. and capacity will be reduced, but the owners remain undaunted. “We can only go up from here,” Vigorito says. He declined to reveal the cost of the project.
A staff of 18 has already been hired, but Carreno says he expects to hire 28 more after the pandemic, when things return to normal.
Pictured: Gringos co-owners Ken Vigorito and Jorge Carreno.
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