When Thattu operated out of a West Loop food hall, it specialized in South Indian street food. That focus made sense in a counter-service environment with shared seating.
But for its hotly anticipated upcoming full-service restaurant in Avondale, Thattu is swapping the “street food” tagline with “comfort food from Kerala, India’s spice garden.” The focus is on the dishes that remind co-owner Vinod Kalathil of his mother who lives in Kerala, India. Kalathil and his wife Margaret Pak — who’s also the chef and co-owner — make it clear right on the restaurant’s awning.
The couple wants Thattu to be a destination at 3118 N. Rockwell Street, near the complex that houses Metropolitan Brewing and across the street from Guild Row, the club of creatives that counts Pak and Kalathil as members. Pak credits another Guild Row member, Chicago magazine dining critic John Kessler with telling them about the space across the street.
Kessler has already written about how Kalathil and Pak met. They were both in Las Vegas. Kalathil says he was just there to party. Pak was there for a Tori Amos concert. The couple has since traveled the world, including a visit to Kalathil’s family in India where Kalathil’s mother passed down family recipes to Pak. Framed photographs of those handwritten recipes will be on display when Thattu opens later this month, along with Kalathil’s own photography. The design details are thoughtful down to the bathrooms — the all-gender bathroom features signage with two figures, one dressed in a sari and the other in a dhoti.
The restaurant will debut with a counter-service lunch menu including a Kerala fried chicken sandwich, coriander chicken with appam, and veggie curry of the day.
Kalathil and Pak have also added to the kitchen team. Danny Tervort, who worked at the Thattu stall at Politan Row, is now the chef de cuisine. Pak and Kalathil say it was important to find someone they could trust who was also willing to learn how to cook Indian food. Tervort brims with enthusiasm around fine-tuning dinner dishes like Perlan pork chops, a bone-in chop with collard greens and smashed yucca. This is a dish inspired by a visit to a pork plantation in Kodagu, formerly known as Coorg, in Karnataka, India. Other dishes could include Aleppy duck roast and prawns cooked with a Malabar-style tamarind sauce.
South Indian culture is seemingly having a moment in America. The Oscars recognized RRR for Best Original Song for “Naatu Naatu,” bringing a little attention to Tollywood, the nickname for India’s Telugu-language film industry. Many often conflate Telugu films with Bollywood’s Hindi-language movies. Americans also do that with Indian food as Punjabi food buffets represent many Americans’ first contact with Indian cuisine.
Telugu is but one of many languages spoken in Kerala. Others include English, Kannada, and Malayalam. Vinod and Pak used the latter on signs outside the restaurant. But just like there is no one official language for South India, there’s no official food representing the region. Dosa is perhaps the most recognizable food from the region to Americans. India’s five southern states represent 20 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people. As one would expect, that provides for culinary diversity.
There is no dosa on Thattu’s menu. Neither Pak nor Kalathil is fundamentally against the dish, but there’s more to cook.
To properly explore Kerala’s rich culinary history, Thattu’s kitchen staff needs unique skills, like understanding Indian cooking techniques, and how to properly sautee foods and infuse them with ghee and spices. To retain and attract talent who possess those abilities, Kalathil knew the restaurant needed to offer competitive wages and full health care benefits, and so, Thattu will not rely on tips and won’t tack on a service charge. “We feel that it is the right time to take the next step and have a transparent all-inclusive price,” Kalathil says.
Administering a surcharge would have kept menu prices lower, but consumer pushback has been rising and they don’t want to worry about it. At its pop-ups, Thattu would charge around $12 for its Kerala fried chicken sandwich. They’re still working on exact pricing, but the sandwich will cost a little more, yet stay under $16: “Which I think is still a great price for a chicken sandwich,” Kalathil says.
Before deciding to become a no-tipping restaurant, Pak and Kalathil consulted with other restaurants and Raise High Road Restaurants, a national organization that promotes race, gender, and wage equity at restaurants. Lula Cafe, Split-Rail, and Wherewithall are among Chicago restaurants that don’t expect diners to pay gratuities.
Still, Kalathil is nervous about how customers will react. For one, Thattu’s prices will be higher versus the competition. Indian restaurants with giant menus or buffets often have items with interchangeable sauces that keep costs down. Restaurants with more curated and homestyle menus, like Thattu, will need to charge more. And a high price point will always be more of a problem for certain international restaurants. Indian food is often the subject of “cheap eats” features.
“We have always kept a small menu and crafted our dishes individually,” Kalathil and Pak say. “Our customers value that and in general have not complained about the price.”
Stay tuned for more on Thattu, one of Chicago’s most anticipated openings of 2023.
Thattu, 2601 W. Fletcher Street, planned for a late March opening with lunch.