Yuwadee Poophakumpanart first visited the United States in 2005. Her brother, also from Thailand, had married an American woman and was living in St. Paul, as was her sister.
She liked the city, and, after spending some time walking neighborhoods peppered with immigrant businesses, decided that not only did she want to move to America, she also wanted to open a restaurant in St. Paul. First, however, she would have to learn how to cook. To really cook.
What followed was a three-year exploration of regional culinary specialties in her native Thailand. In cooking classes in Bangkok she learned the precision requiredto make a half a dozen Thai curry sauces. At a job with a chef in Kamphaeng Phet, she mastered the region’s laab, or meat salad. Working at a restaurant several hours to the north, near the border with Myanmar, she picked up the secret of sour pork ribs, a dish fermented in spices for four days before it is stir-fried by hand into a dark red, marbled delicacy.
“I always paid very careful attention to the details,” Poophakumpanart says. “Each region has its own specialty, so to learn a particular dish I knew I would have to go to that area. Then I would try the dish at all the different restaurants, and the one that tasted the best, I would get a job there.”
In 2008, Poophakumpanart got her U.S. visa and moved to St. Paul. And so began her next three-year odyssey, to build startup capital. While working on her English—as a child, Poophakumpanart had to care for young siblings and did not have the opportunity to attend school—she found jobs cooking in restaurants, school cafeterias, and bars in the Twin Cities, and for a time also cleaned offices at night. All the while, she kept an eye out for a suitable retail space to rent.
Shortly before Christmas 2010, with $10,000 saved, a friend tipped her off to a little restaurant closing down in Frogtown, former swampland built up in the late 19th century by immigrants from Poland, Germany, Scandinavia, and Ireland. By January, after asking the owners not to remove the kitchen equipment, she had opened the Thai Café. Business was slow at first—she did all the work herself with help from her school-age daughter—but today she has a steady clientele and help from one employee and her new husband, John Lee, an immigrant from Laos. Both are Hmong, an ethnic group whose name translates as “free people.” Lee, a soldier who assisted U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, came to the United States in 1976 from Laos, where the Hmong were persecuted for having aided American military efforts.
I’m very happy I stuck with it. When a customer comes to eat food and they smile at me and they’re happy—that makes me happy.