WEST LOOP — One of the city’s best new restaurants is a West Loop food kiosk, according to the James Beard Foundation Awards.
Less than a year after opening Indian street food-focused Thattu inside Politan Row, 111 N. Aberdeen St., chef Margaret Pak’s menu of aromatic curries and savory masala cookies has garnered a major accolade — being named as a James Beard semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant.
Inside one of the nearly dozen stalls at the food hall, Pak and her husband Vinod Kalathil move around the 17-by-10-foot space prepping dishes from Kalathil’s native home state of Kerala in southwestern India.
“We are shocked, stunned, grateful and truly humbled — in that order,” Pak said with a laugh. “We were over the moon.”
In February, Pak’s Thattu, along with Tzuco in River North, were the only two Chicago eateries listed as semi-finalists for James Beard’s best new restaurant category. The 28 other restaurants across the country include Beit Rima in San Francisco, Demi in Minneapolis and Fox & Knife in Boston.
Pak’s dishes are heavily coconut based and use an assortment of aromatics. The Thattu menu features hearty curries, house-made appam and savory masala cookies. On occasion, diners can find Pak’s signature egg curry — boiled eggs simmered in coconut gravy, served with fermented rice flour pancakes.
Pak said she fell in love with the Kerala cuisine shortly before meeting her husband. In 2005, the couple married in India and she became immersed in her mother-in-law’s cooking.
In 2017 — after 12 years working in the corporate world — Pak left her office job and began working at the Korean Polish restaurant Kimski, 954-960 W. 31st., in Bridgeport. During her time at Kimski, she recalls making the egg curry becoming a favorite staff meal.
Pak also hosted pop-ups featuring Kerala cuisine which caught the eye of Politan Group CEO and founder Will Donaldson last year.
“When we first started this, we wanted people to know about Kerala and the cuisine,” Pak said.
Ahead of the James Beard semi-finalist recognition, Thrillist also named Thattu one of the best new restaurants in the city last November.
The West Loop couple said they are still processing the “unexpected” news.
“This is beyond our wildest expectations,” Kalathil said. “I was just happy that we’re bringing this cuisine that is kind of nonexistent in Chicago to the crowd — that’s makes us happy.”
Pak went from prep cook to a lauded chef-owner in three years, she said.
“It floored me that what I feel like is not a full restaurant…we are on this list with all these full-fledged restaurants,” Pak said.
Still, Pak has ambitions to open a stand-alone brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future.
“We just wanted to cook Kerala food,” Pak said. “We wanted to share the food with Chicago… And we are so happy they’ve been so open to it.”
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