A permanent home for Thattu, a James Beard Award- and Jean Banchet Award-nominated Indian restaurant that started as a pop-up dinner series and a stall at a West Loop food hall, is under construction in Avondale, steps away from Metropolitan Brewing Company and social club and food incubator Guild Row.
The opening, projected for fall 2022, will be one of the most anticipated of the year thanks to Thattu’s unique spin on South Indian food. Fans have been waiting for it since the stall pulled out in of Politan Row food hall in 2020 and switched to a pop-up model. The goal of owners Vinod Kalathil and Margaret Pak was to break the mold of formulaic Indian-American restaurants that focus on churning out butter chicken and naan, pandering to mainstream American diners with an unhealthy fixation on spice and heat.
Thattu serves the cuisine of Kerala, a coastal state in southwestern India where spices like cardamom and black pepper were first harvested, an important culinary capital of the world that only recently has received mass attention in America. Regional specialties include griddled appams (fermented rice cakes with coconut milk), beef curries, and masala biscuits. Chef Pak, who is Korean American, adapted recipes from Kalathil’s mother. Thattu will bring all of those recipes to Avondale, along with a full bar and room for a retail space, since Pak has noticed that Chicago doesn’t have many South Asian grocers between the cluster along Devon in West Ridge and Metro Spice Mart in West Loop. She want to bring Indian pantry items, such as a spice blend for rasam, a tamarind broth, to a wider audience: “Patel Brothers can be intimidating,” says Pak, referring to the iconic South Asian grocer chain founded in Chicago.
Kalathil and Pak realize Indian food in America — like many international cuisines — can often be subjected to unfair expectations from both the customers unfamiliar with the food’s origins and from members of communities from which the food emerges.
Kalathil and Pak are trying to elude that trap with playful recipes. For example, Pak has been toying around with soba noodles with octopus and eel that uses the same coconut milk base as her fish curry. It’s a little bit more smoky and crunchy and showcase how Thattu hopes to distinguish itself.
“We don’t want anything to do with ‘authentic,’” Kalathil says.
The Avondale space also has a bar that will put place Thattu in the midst of a recent surge of South Asian restaurants with top-flight cocktail programs including Vajra, Superkhana International, and Rooh.
Thattu started in 2018 as a series of pop-ups at places like Kimski in Bridgeport and Saigon Sisters in West Loop. Pak’s cooking gained her a following, and Thattu was part of Politan Row’s opening vendor lineup in 2019.
Pak and Kalathil’s path toward restaurant ownership differs from most in the culinary world. The project is self-financed — the two worked in the finance industry before leaving for restaurants. While at Politan Row, the food hall that’s been closed since the pandemic led government officials to suspend indoor dining, they began hunting for a permanent restaurant location. They had money saved, so they weren’t in a rush to find a space; they could afford to be picky. As their search continued, they engaged in a partnership with Guild Row, a social club and coworking space for cooks and other creatives co-founded by Jim Lasko of the defunct Redmoon Theater.
Using Guild Row’s kitchen, Thattu continued its pop-up series in 2021. They’d often sell out of food shortly after announcing preorders via social media. While that operation gave them a chance to try out recipes, none of the potential restaurant spaces they looked at were working out. Thattu was close to signing a lease on a spot in Lincoln Park, but the parties couldn’t finalize a deal. Other potential locations were too small. Others didn’t feel comfy enough.
Little did Pak and Kalathil know, the ideal space was just across the street from Guild Row, a building that was pegged for private events. At 2,900 square feet, this was a little larger than they planned, and the area — hidden beside the Chicago River and near car dealerships — doesn’t draw a lot of foot traffic. Developers have seen the potential in new construction in the area, but — for now — it’s quiet. Kalathil knows they’re taking a risk in hoping the area will realize its potential, but they’re confident in what Thattu can provide.
“What I literally love the most about it is that it’s a blank canvas,” Pak says.
Kalathil adds: “We didn’t want fine dining. This is not all reservation, it’s a ‘walk in, enjoy’ kind of a space.”
The space, which will feature a garage door window to let the wind into the main dining room and a sidewalk patio is coming along. Beyond the restaurant and retail, the space offers more potential versus others they had considered: “A chai shop has always been on my mind,” Kalathil says.
Thattu, 3118 N. Rockwell Street, planned for a fall opening.