AVONDALE — The husband-and-wife team behind the lauded south Indian food pop-up Thattu is taking their business to the next level and opening a restaurant in a booming part of Avondale.
Chef Margaret Pak and her husband Vinod Kalathil have taken over one of the warehouses owned by social club Guild Row. They plan to open Thattu, the restaurant at 3118 N. Rockwell St. sometime later this year, possibly in the fall. Eater was first to report on the opening.
It’s a big step forward for Pak and Kalathil, who have spent the last four years doing pop-ups and operating out of the food hall Politan Row — a stint that earned them major accolades typically awarded to more established restauranteurs.
“I feel like it’s a cycle of nerve-wracking, total excitement and a feeling of relief — and also a feeling of starting 100 percent all over again, in a good way,” Pak said.
Once open, the restaurant will serve Thattu staples like Pak’s signature egg curry — boiled eggs simmered in coconut gravy, served with fermented rice flour pancakes — and Pak’s “creations,” new dishes that incorporate fresh seafood, aromatics, coconut milk and other ingredients found in south Indian cuisine. For instance, Pak is working on a soba noodle and octopus dish with a spicy and tangy coconut milk-based sauce.
Thattu is a love letter to Kalathil’s native home state of Kerala in southwestern India. Pak became enamored with the cuisine shortly before meeting Kalathil and eventually began picking up his mother’s recipes.
Most Indian restaurants in the city serve dishes like chicken tikka masala and palak paneer — menu items from northern parts of India, Kalathil said. With Thattu, the two want to put south Indian food, and more specifically, Kerala cuisine — a lesser known type of Indian fare — on the map in Chicago.
“That was a big thing for us. Chicago needs to try this,” Pak said. “People want to try these things, and that’s something from the get-go, from doing the first pop-up” we’ve seen.
In 2017, Pak left her office job of 12 years to work at Korean Polish restaurant Kimski in Bridgeport, which catapulted her into Chicago’s food world. Pak teamed up with Kalathil, an engineer, to launch Thattu the following year, partnering with local restaurants across the city like Kimski, Superkhana International and Saigon Sisters on pop-ups.
Politan Row’s operators took notice of the pop-ups and brought Thattu on as a vendor in 2019.
The West Loop food hall kiosk was a hit among locals and foodies alike. Thattu was nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award, one of only two Chicago eateries listed as semi-finalists for James Beard’s best new restaurant category. The pop-up was also nominated for a Jean Banchet Award for best counter service.
A brick-and-mortar for Thattu started to take shape last year, after Pak and Kalathil cooked a 40-person dinner at Guild Row, a social club and co-working space home to local artists, chefs and other creatives. The dinner was another huge success, which prompted Guild Row’s founders to offer the couple one of their warehouses as a permanent location.
“It was like-minds coming together,” Kalathil said.
Now, Pak and Kalathil are working with an architect to build out their first restaurant. They expect the process to take most of the year, especially with the pandemic continuing to disrupt the supply chain and construction industry. The old warehouse, which has a similar industrial vibe to Guild Row, currently doesn’t have a kitchen — just a bar and bathrooms, Pak said.
The couple told Eater they want the restaurant to be a casual spot that accepts walk-ins.
In addition to a dining area, the 2,900-square-foot restaurant will house a full bar and a retail shop selling an array of south Indian pantry items like banana chips and appam instant mix, as well as pre-packaged foods prepared on site, including Pak’s spice mixes, the couple said.
With the retail component, the couple hopes Thattu will be a one-stop shop for south Indian food, filling a hole in the area, they said.
“Outside of Devon [Avenue], there’s nothing else in Chicago that sells Indian specialty goods,” Kalathil said, referring to Chicago’s “Little India” on the Far North Side.
After four years of testing out recipes, Kalathil said they’re ready to join the ranks of independent restaurant owners across the city. Thattu is moving to a blossoming part of Avondale home to Guild Row, Metropolitan Brewing Company and other creative businesses.
“This is a scary time to be doing this, but we’re taking a risk. I feel like this is what we want to do with our lives, so let’s do it,” he said.