Thattu Chicago: James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant

Thattu Chicago: James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant
Chef Margaret Pak and her husband Vinod Kalathil behind the counter at their James Beard nominated restaurant. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

James Beard Foundation has just announced their semifinalists for the 2020 Best Restaurant and Chef’s in the nation.

Out of Chicago’s extensive lineup of new restaurants opening in 2019, only two were bestowed the honor of being named a JBF semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. The national winner will be announced at the James Beard Awards Gala at Chicago’s Lyric Opera on May 4.

One of the restaurants selected is Chef Carlos Gaytan’s upscale Tzuco Restaurant in River North.

No surprise.

Gaytan, the Michelin-starred chef, formerly of Mexique, and his newest hotspot, Tzuco have been on everyone’s radar for a long time.

The other JBF semifinalist for Best Restaurant is Thattu--not necessarily a household name with foodies or food critics.

Expect that to change.

Looking back at last year’s “Best New Restaurant” lists, I couldn’t find Thattu on anyone’s radar. It was not in Phil Vettel’s top 50, Chicago Magazine’s Dish, Chicago Eater’s Heatmap or even the Thrillist’s Best Restaurants Now.

Food cart in India.

Food cart in India.

Thattu, shortened from thattukada, the covered carts on the roadsides of Kerala, India that sell Indian street food, entered the scene less than a year ago in the chef-driven Politan Row Food Hall in the West Loop.


Their “stall” which takes about the space of an average-sized living room is located among the stalls of 10 other vendors serving up an international menu of tastes. Although there are places to sit in the food hall, Thattu and the other vendors emit more of a “to-go” vibe.thattuserverSo what is Kerala cuisine?

The food from the Kerala region is said to be the most underrepresented but the most delicious of all India's cuisines.

Kerala is in southwest India on the Malabar Coast along the Arabian Sea shoreline. It is surrounded by a network of canals and the Western Ghat mountains where tea, spice and coffee are grown. There are palm-lined beaches and dozens of sanctuaries for monkeys, tigers and elephants.

The food, inspired by the fusion of Malabari, French, and Arabian, tends to be lighter and less spicy than Northern cuisines. The main focus is on curry leaf and coconut with frying done with coconut oil. Popular spices include nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, tamarind, and ginger.

I stopped by Thattu on Monday, to see what all the buzz is about. I spoke with owner Margaret Pak, who was blown away about being selected for this prestigious honor.

Pak was in corporate for 12 years before making the decision to follow her passion by working at the Korean Polish restaurant Kimski in Bridgeport. She hosted a few pop-ups there and in the West Loop that featured the cuisine of Kerala before being invited by the Politan team and CEO and Founder Will Donaldson to open a stall at the food hall.

The “self-taught chef” fell in love with the cuisine after marrying her husband Vinod, a native of Kerala. Whenever they visit Vinod’s mom in Kerala, Pak learns more Kerala recipes.

The Thattu menu features hearty Kerala curries, house-made appam, masala biscuits and Pak’s popular egg curry — boiled eggs simmered in coconut gravy, served with fermented rice flour pancakes. 

Two of the most popular dishes are Coriander Chicken ($14) and the Kadala Curry ($11). The dishes are similar--both feature spices and coconut--one with coriander chicken the other with chickpeas and curry.

The Coriander Chicken with Appam. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

The Coriander Chicken with Appam. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

I ordered the Coriander Chicken, a traditional kerala that comes with a choice of Appam or Ghee Rice. I got the Appam--similar to a pancake made with a batter of fermented rice and coconut milk. It is eaten in Kerala as a bread with all kinds of stews and curries by breaking off a small piece to pick up some of the main dish.

The menu features 2 beverages--a Malabar Ginger Cooler ($5) with a mix of Indian spices or a Ayurvedic Ajowan Iced Tea ($4) lightly sweetened with lime and spices.

I ordered a hot Cardamom Lime Tea, that is not on the menu but served on request. It comes in a glass (just the way Vinod’s grandmother serves it in Kerala).

Cardamom lime tea. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Cardamom lime tea. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

I also got the Marsala Biscuits (2 for $4) to go. The biscuits, sometimes called cookies, are a signature of the Kerala cuisine. Although they are called cookies, they are not sweet. They are made with chillies, cashew, nigella seeds, jaggery (cane juice or date or palm sap) and 20 Indian spices. They are dense, a little spicy--and pair beautifully with tea.

Politan Hall
111 N. Aberdeen
Chicago, IL.

2020 James Beard’s Semifinals for Best New Restaurant
Thattu’s competition

Here is the complete list of semifinalists for best restaurants opened in 2019 that already demonstrates excellence in cuisine and hospitality, and that are likely to make a significant impact in years to come.

  • Automatic Seafood & Oysters, Birmingham, AL
  • Beit Rima, San Francisco
  • The Blind Goat, Houston
  • Cocina al Fondo, San Juan, PR
  • Cultura, Asheville, NC
  • Demi, Minneapolis
  • Eem, Portland, OR
  • Fox & the Knife, Boston
  • Gado Gado, Portland, OR
  • Gianna, New Orleans
  • Golden Diner, NYC
  • Il Nido, Seattle
  • iNDO, St. Louis
  • Kalaya, Philadelphia
  • Kāwi, NYC
  • Lazy Betty, Atlanta
  • Nightshade, Los Angeles
  • Oak Hill Café & Farm, Greenville, SC
  • Pasjoli, Santa Monica, CA
  • Rooster & Owl, Washington, D.C.
  • Saffron De Twah, Detroit
  • Salaryman, Dallas
  • Squable, Houston
  • Sunday Vinyl, Denver
  • Tanám, Somerville, MA
  • Thamee, Washington, D.C.
  • Thattu, Chicago
  • Tzuco, Chicago
  • Vecina, Phoenix
  • Verjus, San Francisco

Small Bites of Chicago

shamrock1234St. Patrick’s Celebrations 

A Riverfront St. Paddy's Day Celebration at RPM Events
WHEN: Saturday, March 14; 8:00 AM – 12:00 PM

The best location to catch St. Paddy’s Day festivities – including the dyeing of the Chicago River emerald green – is at RPM Events! Join your fellow party-goers for Chicago’s foremost all-inclusive party that features interactive breakfast stations coupled with Irish Coffee, Bellinis & Mimosas, Bloody Mary bar and buckets of beer. VIP lounges and private terraces also available for purchase. For pricing and to purchase tickets, click here.

St. Paddy's Day on the Riverfront at Pizzeria Portofino
WHEN: Saturday, March 14; 8:00 AM – 12:00 PM

Kick-off St. Patrick’s Day at Pizzeria Portofino and enjoy upfront views of the famous dyeing of the Chicago River along with signature cocktails and pizzas. General admission tickets are $45 for adults 21 and over (inclusive of tax & gratuity) and guarantee entry. VIP experiences are also available and include an elevated booth, a designated server and Giuliana Prosecco. A food & beverage minimum is required and will be applied to the final bill. Packages are available from 8:00 AM – 10:30 AM and 11:00 AM – 1:30 PM.  

il Porcellino
WHEN: Saturday, March 14; 11:00 AM – 12:00 AM

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, il Porcellino will be opening early at 11:00 AM on Saturday, March 14. Enjoy festive cocktails and il Porcellino’s hearty Sicilian-Style Pizzas on special alongside an abbreviated lunchtime menu (the full dinner menu begins at 4:00 PM) to keep the party going.  

Hub 51 & Sub 51
WHEN: Saturday, March 14 – Sunday, March 15

Celebrate St. Paddy’s Day at Hub 51 and enjoy food and drink specials, like $5 Green Beer, Corned Beef Sandwiches, Shamrock Carrot Cake and more, starting as early as 8:00 AM on Saturday, March 14 and 10:00 AM on Sunday, March 15. Looking to dance? Sub 51 will be open from 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM on Saturday and offer bottle and table packages. Make a reservation & buy table packages at Hub 51 or Sub 51  

Bar Ramone
WHEN: Saturday, March 14

Bar Ramone will be open early for St. Patrick’s Day starting at 10:00 AM on Saturday, March 14. Enjoy festive favorites including the Prime Beef Cheeseburger with Shullsburg American cheese, house pickles, & griddled onions between bright green buns, and share a porron of green fruit-forward Vinho Verde with friends!

St. Patrick's Day Brunch at Shaw’s Crab House – Chicago
WHEN: Saturday, March 14 – Sunday, March 15; 11:30 AM – 10:00 PM

Enjoy Shaw’s Chicago St. Patrick’s themed brunch on Saturday, March 14 and Sunday, March 15 from 10:00 AM – 1:30 PM. The famous seafood brunch will feature Chef’s Signature Corned Beef & Cabbage, Irish Soda Bread and more. Enjoy your brunch spread with a special Irish Coffee or a Guinness Beer and Tullamore Dew Shot for $10 plus tax, (gratuity not included). Brunch is $65 plus tax, (gratuity not included) for adults, and $15 plus tax, for kids 7–12.  

Raised, An Urban Rooftop Bar
WHEN: March 14

Raised is throwing a St. Patrick’s Day celebration with the best holiday seats in the city. Sitting 3 floors above the streets of Chicago, located at 1 W. Wacker Dr., Raised offers the best views of downtown, the Chicago River dyeing, and the parade with bagpiping performances and Irish festivities. Throughout the day, Raised will be offering themed cocktails including the Heralds to the Heavens, the Don’t Forget to Tipperary, and the Erin on Holiday (In the Quarter) with doors opening at 12:30 p.m. Cover for entry will be $10.

Summer Festival Season
WHEN: May-September 2020

Are you ready for Chicago’s Summer Festival Season, named the best in the country? Click here for Show Me Chicago’s annual calendar of Summer Festivals and Events.

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