What if you could open your dream restaurant without sacrificing your financial well-being?
In November of 2018, Galley Group—a food hall development and management company—offered just that to chefs and budding restauranteurs in Chicago. Former line cook, Palita Sriratana, jumped at the opportunity.
After being rejected from medical school twice, cooking filled the void. Despite successful stints in Chicago staples like Au Cheval (the city’s OG mecca for gourmet burgers) and Nico Osteria (chic Italian in the ‘Viagra Triangle’), Sriratana took up a full-time job working in healthcare.
“I’m the product of Asian parents,” she laughs. “I navigated healthcare administration but, the whole time, I wanted a restaurant.”
For Sriratana, it was more than just wanting to be in restaurants.
“I wanted people to experience Thai food in the way that I did growing up.”
Born to a father from Bangkok and a mother from a suburb along the Klong Wat Sak river in Thailand called Nongthaburi, Sriratana found herself in Thailand at least twice a year. Her love for food blossomed at the knee of her grandmother and aunt, both of whom taught her how to cook.
“The floating market was a thing,” Sriratana recalls of her mother’s river-based community. “We bought our food off the boats. There was no internet. I would sit on the steps and wait for the boats every day.”
Sriratana sits back and wistfully reminisces about a boat that would only sell freshly roasted chicken and another that would float by selling noodles. Whatever the bounty of the day was, her family would gather around the table, bringing their own handmade accompaniments, and dig in.
“It was the highlight of our afternoons,” Sriratana says. “That’s how I remember eating and living.”
While there are no such boats floating along the Chicago river (a serious mistake, in my humble opinion), Sriratana keenly felt a general lack of understanding and interest in authentic Thai cuisine in Chicago. When the Galley Group’s open call sounded, Sriratana answered the call with the idea to create an unapologetically Thai restaurant that put together seasonal, midwestern ingredients without sacrificing authenticity.
After eight rounds of essays and interviews, Sriratana was selected as one of the five individuals to bring their concepts to life at Fulton Galley in the West Loop. Sriratana’s ode to Thai food—Pink Salt—was born.
Fulton Galley as a space is large, with floor to ceiling windows and lots of natural light despite the rainy fall day. The food stalls themselves are small. Within this space, Pink Salt does all the prepping, fermenting, cooking, and testing. A simple counter with a point of sale system is set up. Despite primarily being an “industrial” kitchen, the Pink Salt space feels like you’ve walked into the home of a Thai grandmother—trinkets abound and the scents of spice and piquancy beckon you in. And, as of this week, Fulton Galley has closed.
Despite the closing of this incubator, Sriratana is determined to ride her wave of rave reviews from the past five months, exploring the idea of opening her own space.
“I am forever grateful to have opened Pink Salt in Fulton Galley. However, the building was slow to adapt to each one of our individuals needs,” she says.
For now, Chicago can get a taste of Sriratana’s Thai upbringing through her a series of pop-ups. Below are some fall highlights of hers you won’t want to miss.
Anyone from Sriratana’s family will tell you that Khao Soi Kuhn Yai makes arguably the best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai. It’s tradition for Sriratana and her brother to rush over as soon as their plane lands, in an effort to get there before the restaurant sells out (usually around 2pm or 3pm in the afternoon).
Khao Soi translates simply as ‘cut noodles’ but, for fans of the dish in Thailand and northern Laos, it’s called “Food of the Gods”. It is believed to have Chinese-Muslim origins, given that it is always served with chicken or beef but never pork. Other key ingredients are yellow egg noodles, a curried coconut milk soup, pickled vegetables, and chicken or beef.
“I wanted to recreate the experience of eating Khao Soi at Fulton Galley,” Sriratana tells me. At Pink Salt, the mustard greens are pickled in house. The chicken legs are braised in a curry paste made from roasted shallots and dried chillies.
Sriratana brings out this fragrant, brothy offering topped with crispy noodles in a rooster bowl. This ceramic kitchenware, known for a distinctive chicken pattern on its side is a major product of the Lampang Province in Northern Thailand. Thanks to its overwhelming popularity, the locals believe the rooster to be a symbol of financial stability.
Accompanying Pink Salt’s Khao Soi is a tray of condiments in bowls covered with bright flowers and roosters.
“We serve it like this so that guests can adjust the flavors in the dishes to their palate,” Sriratana explains to me as she indicates each condiment—fish sauce, chillies stewed in vinegar, dried chillies and, sugar. These items are in keeping with “saap” which is the perfect combination of salty, spicy, sour, sweet, and bitterness in Thai cooking. “Thai people don’t take offense to people adding more seasoning to their dish,” she adds.
I take my first bite. It warms me as any good broth should on a blustery Chicago day but there’s more to it. Tamarind tiptoes lightly across my tongue, giving the broth a hint of acidity. The roasted chilli jam, cilantro oil, and crispy egg noodles are more aggressive with their presence of flavor and texture, each one earning the right to be so. The pickled mustard greens, buried towards the bottom of the bowl, make my lips purse with sour glee, leaving a light element of bitterness as I swallow. I timidly experiment with the condiments, adding one at a time to each individual bite. I finally find my perfect “saap”; palm sugar and fish sauce with every bite for a perfect finish.
My eyes light up when I see the crispy rice salad listed on the menu. A favorite of mine after I first tried the dish at Laotian restaurant Thip Khao in Washington D.C.
The concept of “salad” in Asian cultures varies significantly from the more European and American styles.
“We call it ‘Yum,’” Sriratana explains. “It means whatever is tossed in a bit of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chilli.”
Pink Salt’s Yum Khao has crispy rice mixed with salt and pork fermented and cured with garlic. The pork is rolled into a ball with sticky rice and fried. The dressing is a mixture of palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, and chilli oil. The entire dish is topped with a crispy fried egg, purposely made with lacey edges.
I have a ball mixing the crispy rice, which has a fair amount of heat from the chilli, with the broth of the Khao Soi.
While sold individually at Pink Salt, Sriratana treated me to an assorted platter that included:
Kor Moo Yang—pork shoulder marinated in palm sugar and oyster sauce for that “tongue-smacky feel” served with a sauce made from tamarind and roasted rice grains known as Nam Jim Jaew
Sai Krok Isaan—pork sausage stuffed with red curry paste, makrut lime leaves, and lemongrass, making for a pungent bite
Si Krong Moo—white peppercorn ribs made with Sriratana’s special marinade of garlic and white peppercorns that have been pounded with a mortar and pestle, combined with a mixture of light and dark soy sauce. This is a recipe that Sriratana created especially for her father growing up and, I’m sure, will find its way onto her new menu.