Thattu, the restaurant that Margaret Pak and Vinod Kalathil are in the midst of opening on Rockwell Street in Avondale, is an Indian spot like nothing Chicago has seen: a market, a lounge, a bar, a place for a quick lunch or a full dinner. Above all, it’s an exploration of the food and coastal vibe of Kalathil’s native Kerala.
Pak, 45, and Kalathil, 54, met on the floor of a Las Vegas dance club 20 years ago — she a Korean American statistician from California in town for her 40th Tori Amos concert, he a consultant who traveled the world designing warehouses. After three years of a long-distance relationship, they both relocated to Chicago. They soon married and went to India to visit Kalathil’s mother, who prepared fish molee and payasam (rice pudding), typical dishes from the Malabar Coast. For Pak, a self-proclaimed “expert eater,” it was instant love.
She made the transition to expert cook when, a decade later, she was laid off and Won Kim of Kimski took her under his wing. “With Margaret it’s all or nothing,” Kalathil says. The couple launched the first iteration of Thattu in the food hall Politan Row in 2019. During the 10 months it was open, it earned rave notices, including a James Beard Award semifinalist nod. “But the volume was soul sucking,” Pak recalls. “Seven days a week, and 14-plus hours a day.”
This version, set in an old dental implements factory with exquisite light hitting its Chicago common brick walls, will be different. A dedicated staff earning salaries, not tips, will run the restaurant five days a week, and the place will share the laid-back but creative vibe of Guild Row, the social club next door to which the couple belong. As Kalathil says, “It’s not just about the food, it’s about the human interaction.”