Abdullah “Max” Tukaemah and her husband, AJ Caudillo, were already on their way from Austin to Laredo when a weather alert popped up on their phones. TORNADO WARNING, it said, in ominous capitals. The bed of their Toyota pickup truck was full of rice, noodles, sauces and herbs when the rain started pouring down so hard they couldn’t see the cars in front of them.
The six hundred mile trip from Laredo to Austin and back had become routine for the owners of Kaitodthai, the only such Thai restaurant in Laredo. It’s not like you can find lemongrass or galangal at HEB – Tukaemah looked. “Not even HEB anymore!” he says.
The duo pulled off the freeway and took refuge in a Target before spending the night in a hotel. Before going to bed, they posted on their Instagram account, letting their loyal customers know that they were safe. “Thank you for supporting us and we’ll see you this weekend,” the caption read.
Hours on the road, skyrocketing gas prices, and a tornado scare to boot — it takes hard work to get a bowl of stellar pad thai in Laredo. Customer response, however, is what keeps Caudillo and Tukaemah on the road and in the kitchen. “All the driving and the fatigue – it pays off,” Tukaemah says.
Caudillo and Tukaemah came to Laredo from San Francisco, where they met six years ago. Tukaemah, originally from Thailand, said opening his business in Laredo was “destiny”. A self-taught cook, Tukaemah wanted to open a restaurant with dishes based on his mother’s recipes. “She inspired me,” he says. Caudillo, a Laredo native, never thought he’d be back home, but he’s happy to be part of something new in his community. “I thought about staying in my one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, but life had other plans,” he says.
A recent business school graduate and Thai restaurant employee, Tukaemah was convinced he knew how to launch a great restaurant. San Francisco, however, proved inhospitable to his dream. The Bay Area was oversaturated with competition. Why even cook here, Tukaemah thought, when customers can go out and enjoy the best Thai food in the country on every block? With Tukaemah’s dreams stalled, the pair decided it was time to move on. They could be closer to Caudillo’s family, and competition was virtually non-existent in the 956.
But the question remains: Laredo, a city built on meat and mariscoscome and eat curry and fish cakes?
For a brief moment, Tukaemah thought not. The duo unveiled Kaitodthai at Mercado Urbano, a pop-up market where other small businesses sold jewelry, handbags, everything covered in chilito, and more. The traffic inside the revamped reception hall was bustling, but customers weren’t drawn to what Tukaemah thought were some of the simplest and most appetizing offerings: spicy Thai chicken salad, sticky rice with mango and Thai iced tea.
“People were scared,” says Tukaemah.
Laredo consistently ranks as one of the most homogeneous and least diverse cities in the United States, populated overwhelmingly by white Latinos. According to census data, only half a percent of Laredo residents identify as Asian, and as a result, Asian cuisine has never been a staple of the local food scene, which is dominated by very good Mexican dishes.
Caudillo knew what the demographics didn’t: Laredo residents love to travel and try new foods, and they love complaining even more about not being able to get the same things they can get in San Antonio and Austin.
Marett Flores knows this all too well. When she was a student at the University of Texas at Austin, she always ate at the Thai restaurant across the street. A post-graduation trip to Thailand cemented her love of cooking. “It was a shame to come home and not have that food,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic, she says, has been the driving force behind the rise of new small businesses in the city, including Kaitodthai. “So many people were coming home, including AJ and Max,” she says. “They were part of a wave of people who came back and said, ‘We’re here; might as well do something. ”
The data suggests Flores might be onto something. A study of migration patterns shows that the outflow of people from across the region has been significantly reduced during the pandemic. Teclo Garcia, the city’s director of economic development, says retail sales taxes, commercial construction, and household income in Laredo have all been on the rise since 2019. Laredo was even named the best big city in the United States. to start a business. “Even if we were ranked No. 1 in Texas, it would be big, but the whole country, it’s absolutely exciting,” Garcia told the Laredo Morning Hours.
“Open-minded people went home and wanted what they had in New York, LA, Austin, or wherever,” says Flores. The people of Laredo were coming back and realizing the time had come for recreation. Then the famous Laredo word of mouth, or chismdid the rest.
Clarissa Valdez, a local teacher’s aide, says she heard Caudillo, her former high school friend, was selling Thai food at Mercado Urbano from a friend who saw it on Instagram. She had missed the pad thai she had tasted on trips to Austin and was pleased to see that it had made its way to Laredo. Tukaemah, meanwhile, had started giving out free samples, enticing curious customers to try his food.
Eventually, Kaitodthai sold out in two hours.
“They have something that doesn’t need to be marketed,” Valdez says. “It sells itself.”
After a few more successful pop-ups, the owners of downtown hot spot Cultura Beer Garden invited Caudillo and Tukaemah to use their vacant food truck. Loyal customers know to order the pad thai and sticky rice if available, as they are the first to sell out. Special items posted on the restaurant’s Instagram, such as dumplings in red curry sauce and quail eggs wrapped in crispy wonton skin, are also quick to take away. Open only three nights a week, the truck typically sells out half its menu or stops taking orders early to catch up with demand.
“I love them,” says Nina Jimenez, an accountant who was also introduced to Kaitodthai via Instagram. “I don’t know them personally, but just looking at their stories to get the supplies is crazy,” she says. “They’re willing to go get the things they need and that’s why people are willing to spend top dollar.”
Caudillo and Tukaemah aim to open a physical store, where they can set their own hours and keep more ingredients in stock for longer periods of time. A place downtown, where they can participate in the revitalization of the neighborhood, is the dream. “Our goal is to bring more diversity and options to Laredo and show that we have more than tacos,” says Tukaemah. “San Antonio and Austin already have that. In Laredo we are behind, but hopefully we can help make that happen.
916 Salinas Ave, Laredo
Hours: Thursday–Saturday 6 p.m.–11 p.m.