Thattu Will Shine Brighter Spotlight on South Indian Culture in Chicago

When Thattu operated out of a West Loop food hall, he specialized in South Indian street food. This concentration made sense in a counter service environment with shared seating.

But for its highly anticipated next full-service restaurant in Avondale, Thattu is replacing the “street food” tagline with “comfort food from Kerala, the spice garden of India.” The focus is on dishes that remind co-owner Vinod Kalathil of his mother who lives in Kerala, India. Kalathil and his wife Margaret Pak – who is also the chef and co-owner – make it clear on the restaurant’s awning that diners will savor “comforting dishes from Kerala, the spice garden of India”.

The couple want Thattu to be a destination at 3118 N. Rockwell Street, near the complex that houses Metropolitan Brewing and across from Guild Row, the creative club that counts Pak and Kalathil among its members. Pak credits another Guild Row member, Chicago magazine food critic John Kessler told them about the space across the street.

Kessler has previously 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 have 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 these handwritten recipes will be on display when Thattu opens later this month, along with Kalathil’s own photographs. Design details are thoughtful right down to the bathrooms – the gender-neutral bathroom features signage with two figures, one wearing a sari and the other a dhoti.

The restaurant will debut a counter lunch menu featuring a Kerala fried chicken sandwich, cilantro chicken with appam and vegetable curry of the day.

Vinod Kalathil holds up a frame with a photo of his wife, Margaret Pak and her mother in India, alongside images of handwritten recipes.
Ashok Selvam / Eater Chicago


Kalathil and Pak also joined the kitchen team. Danny Tervort, who worked at the Thattu stand in Politan Row, is now the head chef. 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 excitement over fine dinner dishes like Perlan Pork Chops, a bone-in cutlet with collard greens and smashed yucca. This is a dish inspired by a visit to a pork plantation in Kodagu, formerly known as Coorg, Karnataka, India. Other dishes could include Aleppy roast duck and cooked prawns with a Malabar style tamarind sauce.

South Indian culture seems to be having a moment in America. The recognized Oscars RRR for Best Original Song for “Naatu Naatu, bringing some attention to Tollywood, the nickname of the Indian film industry in the Telugu language. Many often confuse Telugu movies with Bollywood Hindi movies. Americans also do this with Indian cuisine, as buffets of Punjabi dishes represent many Americans’ first contact with Indian cuisine.

Telugu is just one of the many languages ​​spoken in Kerala. Others include English, Kannada, and Malayalam. Vinod and Pak used the latter on signs outside the restaurant. But just as there is no official language for South India, there is no official food representing the region. Dosa is perhaps the region’s most recognizable food for Americans. India’s five southern states make up 20% of the country’s 1.3 billion people. As you might expect, this allows for culinary diversity.

There is no dosa on Thattu’s menu. Neither Pak nor Kalathil are fundamentally against the dish, but there is more to cook.

To properly explore Kerala’s rich culinary history, Thattu’s kitchen staff require unique skills, such as understanding Indian cooking techniques and knowing how to properly sauté foods and infuse them with ghee and spices. To retain and attract talent who possesses these abilities, Kalathil knew the restaurant needed to offer competitive salaries and comprehensive healthcare benefits, and so Thattu will not rely on tips or add service charges. “We think now is the right time to take the next step and have a transparent all-inclusive price,” says Kalathil.

Administering a supplement would have kept menu prices lower, but consumer refusal has increased and they don’t want to worry about it. During his pop-ups, Thattu would charge around $12 for his Kerala Fried Chicken Sandwich. They’re still working out exact prices, but the sandwich will cost a little more, while still under $16: “Which I think is still a great price for a chicken sandwich,” Kalathil says.

Before deciding to become a tip-free restaurant, Pak and Kalathil consulted with other restaurants and Raise High Road Restaurants, a national organization that promotes race, gender and pay equity in restaurants. Lula Cafe, Split-Rail and Wherewithall are among Chicago restaurants that don’t expect diners to pay tips.

Still, Kalathil is nervous about the reaction from customers. For one thing, Thattu’s prices will be higher than the competition. Indian restaurants with giant menus or buffets often have items with interchangeable sauces which keep costs down. Restaurants with more curated, home-style menus, like Thattu, will have to charge more. And a high price will always be more of a problem for some international restaurants. Indian cuisine is often the subject of “cheap meals” headings.

“We’ve always kept a small menu and crafted our dishes individually,” Kalathil and Pak explain. “Our customers appreciate this and generally have not complained about the price.”

Stay tuned for more on Thattu, one of Chicago’s most anticipated openings of 2023.

Thattu2601 W. Fletcher Street, scheduled to open in late March with lunch.