Yuan Wonton, Denvers hottest food truck, at center of AAPI community

Penelope Wong was prepared for an angry mob. It was Yuan Wonton’s first day of service, and her food truck was parked outside Seedstock Brewery on a hot September afternoon in 2019. Wong was hurrying to prep the kitchen, while her husband, Rob Jenks, worked on a vacuum leak on the truck’s carburetor, and when she looked out the window, a line of 50 people was already waiting.

“Rob had to go and tell everyone before we even opened our doors that we might not have enough food to feed everybody, but to please be patient with us,” Wong said.

Within 20 minutes, she did run out — even as dozens more people were lining up. Wong hid behind the truck, a 40-year-old Frito Lay delivery vehicle that her cousin helped her convert for close to nothing, while Jenks told the crowd that they were done for the day.

“I was so scared they were all going to yell at us, but instead it was amazing because they all applauded and were so happy for us, which was such a different dynamic than what I was used to,” Wong said, talking about her previous experience in a kitchen.

“And from that point on, people started posting and re-sharing our food … and we just blew up, which really shows the power of social media right there,” she added.

Wong, a Denver native, launched Yuan Wonton with Jenks and her sous chef Ngoc Nguyen in 2019 after spending 20 years at Glenmoor Country Club. And it’s received quite a ravenous response. Pre-orders can sell out within five minutes and lines for walk-up orders, when the truck pulls up to breweries and pop-up events around town, have been as long as two hours.

But beyond that, Wong, who earned a James Beard semi-finalist nomination in January, has become a keystone in a growing Asian American Pacific Islander food scene around Denver, where chefs, women in particular, are using their voices to educate people about their cultures and to grow their visibility. That’s especially important right now, Wong said, as violence and discrimination against Asian Americans in the U.S. has gained attention.

It’s something that is being highlighted this week during Denver’s first ever Mile High Asian Food Week, which runs Feb. 22-26. Wong was one of the first to sign up.

“The amount of overwhelming support that the AAPI community has seen from Denver came as a shock to me and was something I never realized existed here,” Wong said, adding that she has seen a huge interest from her customers to learn about where the food comes from and why it’s important to her culture. “I personally never thought that mattered to anyone because even as a kid I would get made fun of for some of the stuff I would bring for lunch, so it’s refreshing to see.”

A long road

Wong once dreamed of becoming a criminal psychologist. She graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a psychology degree, but when she became a single mom at 21 years old, she instead turned to what she’s always known: restaurants.

Her parents, both natives of Thailand, owned Chinatown Restaurant in north suburban Denver for more than 25 years, where she grew up shadowing them and her Chinese grandparents in the kitchen, learning how to make dumplings and wontons.

“The first knife I ever used was a Chinese cleaver when I was 12,” she said.

Without formal training, though, her first job outside of the family business was as a banquet server, at age 22, at Glenmoor Country Club in Cherry Hills Village in 1998.

“I had no idea what a club sandwich was when I first started there,” she said. But over the next 20 years, she managed to work her way into the kitchen and then up the ladder, becoming Glenmoor’s first female and youngest executive chef.

She wasn’t afraid to be bold. On her very first day as executive chef, she fired the first cook who ever harassed her, and then she introduced wontons and dumplings as specials on Glenmoor’s dinner menu, hoping to teach club members about her family’s cuisine. “I got odd looks from some of the country club members, but we were lucky because we had a much younger membership than others clubs, so most were open to trying the specials,” Wong said.

She was also raising a family. Wong met Jenks, a sales rep for Southern Wine & Spirits, while she was at the club; they had worked together on wine pairing dinners. After getting married in 2011, they had a daughter Stella — and Wong began to think about making a change.

She didn’t want her daughter, now 11, to miss out on the things her son, now 25, had to while she was making ends meet, so she left Glenmoor in 2018, and Jenks left his job. They both wanted to stay in the food and beverage industry but knew starting a restaurant wouldn’t provide that quality of life or the work-life balance they were looking for. Wong and Jenks needed something else.

Pedal to the metal

Jenks gave Wong the idea for Yuan Wonton based on his travels to the West Coast, where the food truck scene was booming, and they decided her chili wontons, a huge hit at the country club, would be the focal point.

“We wanted to do a food truck because we wanted to do serious food, but not take ourselves too seriously,” said Jenks, who calls himself the roadie of Yuan Wonton since he does everything but cook. “I feel like it’s gotten to a point where food has to be intimidating for it to be recognized, and we wanted to do the exact opposite and make something that makes you happy with every bite, but is also approachable from a price and practicality standpoint.”

After some pop-up practice runs and that first official day of service at Seedstock, Wong and Jenks began hitting the brewery circuit, and Yuan Wonton was an immediate hit.

In addition to the chili-garlic wontons — which are made with shrimp and pork, wrapped in light egg dough, and doused in Szechuan hot chili oil and Chinese black vinegar — Wong is known for her extra large xiao long bao soup dumplings, bao buns, chicken and ginger wontons, and homemade noodles, like peanut sauce noodles or Liang Mian Szechuan noodles.

“After traveling a lot, you see what’s missing in the Denver food scene. I wanted to share the food that’s important to me with the general public because I had been in the private sector for 20 years, feeding the same people day in and day out,” she said.

To help customers find the truck, Wong began posting her schedule and the menu for each appearance on Instagram and Facebook. Today, Yuan Wonton has 34,000 followers on Instagram and 7,500 on Facebook, and the only way to pre-order is by paying attention to her posts. Once her sale site goes live, orders sell out within minutes. Wong also reserves dumplings and other dishes for walk-up customers at breweries and other destinations.

But Wong also adds her thoughts about her dishes on social media, where they came from and what they mean to her personally. “I got so much surprising engagement from people who actually cared and were interested to learn about me,” she said.

Every aspect of Wong’s food is homemade. Monday through Wednesday, she works 10-hour days with Nguyen and Jenks in a commissary kitchen, grinding all the meat for the dumpling fillings, chopping aromatics and making dumpling and wonton dough. She said the goal is to make around 4,000 dumplings before service begins on the weekends.

“It seems like a lot, but it’s helped our work-life balance in the fact that we make our own schedule,” Wong said. “If I need to have a lighter week because of my kids, I can.”

You can find the truck usually at Novel Strand Brewing Company at 305 W. 1st Ave. or Long Table Brewhouse at 2895 Fairfax St. twice a month if not at a pop-up event.

Novel Strand co-owner Tamir Danon sought out Wong on Instagram because he wanted something more than a burger or grilled cheese truck. And he said the relationship has been more than mutually beneficial. Novel Strand regulars have become Yuan Wonton regulars, and the long lines at the food truck lead to big crowds drinking beer inside the brewery.

“Two of the three owners here come from immigrant families, so it’s important to us to showcase food from other cultures and parts of the world,” Danon said. “We want to build an experience here, but also help share the story of other cultures and languages.”

Cuisine and culture

Over the last two years, she’s also become close friends with other women in the food truck business, like Julia Rivera, owner of Mukja, a Korean-Mexican food truck, who Wong has collaborated with at pop-up events; and Shauna Seaman, co-owner of Pho King Rapidos, a Vietnamese-Mexican truck, who she plans to open a brick-and-mortar business with this year.

“She took me under her wing a little bit, especially since she was a well-known chef and I was a home cook,” said Rivera. “She’s definitely paving the way for women and AAPI community members to be confident in the food truck scene by doing what she loves and sharing the passion for her heritage, as well as my Korean heritage when she features us at her pop-up events.”

During AAPI heritage month in May 2021, Wong and 50 other local chefs and restaurateurs held a fundraiser to address the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes and raised a total of $25,638 in 24 days.

And this week, Yuan Wonton is one of more than 50 Asian businesses participating in Mile High Asian Food Week, which gives diners access to special discounts, secret menu items and specialty menus at participating restaurants across metro Denver.

This summer, Wong is teaming up with Seaman from Pho King Rapidos and the owners of Sweets & Sourdough, a delivery-only bakery, to open a joint restaurant concept at 2878 N. Fairfax St. in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood. The businesses will take turns operating the shop in hopes of creating a model that others can follow, and one that allows the owners to maintain family time.

But her recent James Beard nomination means she’ll stay pretty busy.

“When I found out [it], I thought it was a mistake,” Wong said. “I just started crying immediately.

“I’ve always had this certain ideology of who those James Beard nominated chefs are. I put them on a pedestal, and I never would have imagined that we as a food truck would be in the same category, but it just shows the changing landscape of dining in America and what people are looking for,” she added.

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