Comfort food has taken on a new meaning for Americans as the pandemic forces folks to spend more time at home. Chicagoans have plenty of responses to what comforts them: tavern-style pizza, Italian beef, wings, and chicken pot pie. Pink Salt’s Palita Sriratana’s answer differs. For her, it’s shrimp paste fried rice and crispy fried noodles. The chef hopes to share those comforts with Chicago starting Thursday when preorders start for her new pop-up, Room Service by Pink Salt. Customers will order online and pick up their food Monday from Split-Rail’s window in Ukrainian Village.
Last summer, Sriratana introduced Pink Salt to Chicagoans as a stall inside Fulton Galley, the food hall that closed before the pandemic, five months after it opened on Fulton Market. Pink Salt was to continue as a series of pop-ups, but the pandemic altered those plans. Sriratana didn’t feel the timing was right. It wasn’t safe.
Fried rice with fermented shrimp paste is something served at fancy hotels and by street vendors in Thailand; the only differences are the prices and plating, Sriratana says. There are a few Chicago Thai restaurants that will serve it. Still, many Americans remain apprehensive about certain aromas, which feeds into lazy and racist food takes. But for Sriratana, who would spend summers near Bangkok, shrimp paste fried rice is comforting. There’s a simplicity in a one-plate dish, compared to family-style items served at many Asian restaurants.
“These are the things I would order after a late night myself, food I would actually enjoy,” Sriratana says. “These are my comfort foods.”
Sriratana has fond memories of traveling to Thailand, staying at hotels with family. Her family rarely made vacations like these, so they stuck in her head. When her parents allowed Sriratana to order room service, it felt like an indulgence.
Room Service offers one-plate meals that will need reheating at home. Reheating helps limit the number of workers Sriratana needs. She worries about safety for her workers and customers during the pandemic. Over the last few months, she’s developed tight relationships with a group of chefs like Zoë Schor, the owner of Split-Rail in Ukrainian Village. Schor has allowed Sriratana to cook inside her restaurant’s kitchen on days they are closed giving Pink Salt a comfortable kitchen where she could operate. Sriratana has also taken to Split-Rail’s gluten-free fried chicken.
Fulton Galley’s sudden closure was tough for Sriratana as she worked painstakingly to spread the word about her passion: Northeastern Thai food. At Fulton Galley, Pink Salt focused on family-style Isan cuisine; food like larb or gai tod. The pop-up diverges as Sriratana feels certain foods don’t transport well. While she’s thankful for her time at Fulton Galley, it’s liberating getting out of the food hall hierarchy, where there are more financial pressures. As a pop-up, Sriratana is free to experiment. She doesn’t have to worry about the consequences of an ill-tempered Yelper complaining about the funky flavor of shrimp paste.
“I don’t have overhead, so I can serve anything I want,” she says.
For now, the pop-up is a one-time thing. Sriratana says she’s grown in the 10 months since Fulton Galley closed and the novel coronavirus outbreak started. She’s seen other members of the food industry raise their voices about worker conditions and discuss social justice topics. Sriratana feels her voice needs to grow louder, and she’s balancing that with finding a permanent space for Pink Salt. She’s not actively looking, but keeping any eye out.
Room Service by Pink Salt debuts Thursday. Check out the menu below.