Abdullah “Max” Tukaemah and his husband, AJ Caudillo, were already on the road from Austin to Laredo when a weather alert popped up on their phones. TORNADO WARNING, it said, in ominous capital letters. The bed of their Toyota pickup truck was packed with rice, noodles, sauces, and herbs when the rain began to fall so hard they couldn’t see the cars in front of them.
The six-hundred-mile trip from Laredo to Austin and back again had become routine for the owners of Kaitodthai—the only Thai restaurant of its kind in Laredo. It’s not like you can find lemongrass or galangal at H-E-B—Tukaemah has looked. “Not even H-E-B plus!” he says.
The duo pulled off the freeway and found shelter in a Target before spending the night in a hotel. Before going to bed, they posted to their Instagram account, letting their loyal customers know they were safe. “Thanks for supporting us and we’ll see you this weekend,” the caption read.
Hours on the road, soaring gas prices, and a tornado scare to boot—it takes a lot of work to get a bowl of stellar pad thai in Laredo. The response from customers, however, is what keeps Caudillo and Tukaemah on the road and in the kitchen. “All the driving and being tired—it pays off,” Tukaemah says.
Caudillo and Tukaemah came to Laredo from San Francisco, where they met six years ago. Tukaemah, who hails from Thailand, says opening their 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 I’d stay 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 confident he knew how to launch a great restaurant. San Francisco, however, turned out to be inhospitable for his dream. The Bay Area was oversaturated with competition. Why even cook here, Tukaemah thought, when customers can go out and get some of the best Thai food in the country on every block? With Tukaemah’s dreams stalled, the pair decided it was time for a move. They could be closer to Caudillo’s family, and competition was practically nonexistent in the 956.
But the question remained: Could Laredo, a town built on carne and mariscos, come around to curry and fish cakes?
For a brief moment, Tukaemah thought perhaps not. The duo unveiled Kaitodthai at Mercado Urbano, a pop-up market where other small businesses were selling jewelry, purses, chilito-covered everything, and more. Traffic inside the repurposed reception hall was bustling, but customers weren’t drawn in by what Tukaemah thought were some of the simpler, more palatable offerings: a spicy Thai chicken salad, mango sticky rice, and Thai iced tea.
“People were scared,” Tukaemah says.
Laredo consistently ranks as one of the most homogenous and least diverse cities in the United States, populated overwhelmingly by white Latinos. According to census data, only half a percent of Laredoans identify as Asian, and as a consequence, Asian cuisine has never been a staple of the local food scene, which is dominated by very good Mexican fare.
Caudillo knew what the demographic figures didn’t: Laredoans love to travel and try new food, and they love even more to complain that they can’t get the same things they could 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’d always eat at the Thai spot across the street. A post-graduation trip to Thailand cemented her love of the cuisine. “It was a bummer to come back home and not have that food,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic, she says, has been the driving force behind the boom of new small businesses in town, 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; we might as well make something of it.’ ”
Data suggest Flores might be onto something. A study of migration patterns shows that the entire region’s population outflow was greatly reduced during the pandemic. Teclo Garcia, the city’s director of economic development, says retail sales taxes, commercial construction, and household income in Laredo are all up since 2019. Laredo was even named the best big city in the U.S. to start a business. “Even if we were ranked No. 1 in Texas, that would be significant, but the whole country, that is absolutely exciting,” Garcia told the Laredo Morning Times.
“Open-minded people came back home and wanted what they had in New York, Los Angeles, Austin, or wherever,” Flores says. Laredoans were coming back and realizing the time was ripe for re-creation. Then the famous Laredo word of mouth, or chisme, did the rest.
Clarissa Valdez, a local teacher’s aide, says she heard that Caudillo, her old 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’d tasted on trips to Austin and was excited to see it had made its way to Laredo. Tukaemah, meanwhile, had begun giving free samples, coaxing curious customers to try his food.
Eventually, Kaitodthai was selling out within two hours.
“They have something that doesn’t need to be marketed,” Valdez says. “It sells itself.”
After a couple 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 they’re available, because they’re the first to sell out. Special items posted on the restaurant’s Instagram, like dumplings in red curry sauce and quail eggs wrapped in crispy wonton skin, are also quick to go. Open only three nights a week, the truck usually sells out of 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 personally know them, but just looking at their stories to get the food supplies, it’s crazy,” she says. “They’re willing to go get the stuff they need and that’s why people are willing to spend top dollar.”
Caudillo and Tukaemah have set their sights on opening a brick-and-mortar, where they can set their own hours and keep more ingredients in stock for longer periods of time. A spot downtown, where they can be a part of the revitalization of the area, is the dream. “Our goal is to give more diversity and options in Laredo and show that we have more than just tacos,” Tukaemah says. “San Antonio and Austin already have that. In Laredo, we’re behind, but hopefully we can help make it happen.”