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Sam Rattanopas and Mina Sudsaard’s friendship has survived decades and an international move, but starting a restaurant together could have ended it. When Rattanopas decided to open her own upscale Thai restaurant, NaKorn, in Evanston after years of working in the restaurant industry, she “lured” Sudsaard in from a career as a graphic designer to be a co-owner.
Sudsaard then received an equal commitment from Rattanopas in return, assigning her ambitious DIY tasks to turn a former bank into an antique-seeming space with the feel of a bazaar: sanding lumber for tables, painting patterned wooden screens, suspending lightbulbs in birdcages.
“We built everything,” says Sudsaard. “It’s a combination of naïve and passion.”
“And stupid,” Rattanopas chimes in with a laugh.
They poured most of their money into the venture, and then opened in the fall of 2016, at the same time as a certain hometown baseball team was winning its first World Series Championship in more than a hundred years. “We can’t compete with the Cubs,” Rattanopas says. “Some nights we had four people. It was just like, ‘What are we going to do? Maybe people don’t like our food?’”
Rattanopas lost sleep. Before coming to the restaurant, she would often stop at Lake Michigan to sit, cry, and pray. “Hoping that this weekend I’m going to make enough to pay everyone,” she recalls.
But the business survived, and so did their friendship. People did like their food.
NaKorn’s dishes are based on “childhood memories, mom cooking,” according to Sudsaard. There are some dishes you won’t find on Americanized Thai menus, such as tapioca crackers with minced chicken and shrimp, a northern Thai herb sausage, and a whole fried branzino dish named after Rattanopas’s father. When the restaurant opened, there was no pad thai on the menu. (It was added during COVID, but it’s hidden under the name “sautéed tiger prawn and thin rice noodle.”)
Because Rattanopas loves “pretty food,” the dishes are also elaborately plated. There’s a full bar, with cocktails concocted by Rattanopas—even though she doesn’t drink. (She does taste the cocktails while bartending.) A pastry chef, Melissa Tantillo, creates desserts featuring components such as chamomile caramel and red jade tea pastry cream in fancy compositions. (Tantillo’s husband Marc is the restaurant’s general manager.)
“Normally when people think of Thai food, it’s like, ‘I don’t know what I want to eat, let’s just go there or order takeout,’” says Rattanopas. (While Arun Sampanthavivat’s namesake Albany Park restaurant has been a destination for high-end Thai dining for decades, Rattanopas and Sudsaard say that his approach is more classical than theirs.) “We [didn’t want] to open a hole in the wall,” says Sudsaard. “We want some place that people feel comfortable, and they can come here and sit, and relax, and talk, and eat. More like a full picture.”
There’s a full portrait of King Rama IX of Thailand, painted by a Thai art student, to further its homey feeling. Rattanopas says that every household had a photo of the monarch in the dining room when she and Sudsaard were children in Thailand. “We consider this our house,” says Sudsaard. “We open the door for you to come in, and the concept is based off childhood memory. The design, everything is what we remember [from] growing up in Thailand.”
Rattanopas was born in southern Thailand in the small city of Chumphon, but moved to Bangkok when she was ten and met Sudsaard in school there. Sudsaard went to college in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai, but the two friends both came to Chicago in the mid-1990s to get graduate degrees from DePaul (Rattanopas studied telecommunications) and Columbia College (Sudsaard studied graphic design).
They both worked at a Thai restaurant in the basement of one of the DePaul buildings downtown, packing to-go orders—and Rattanopas got hooked on the restaurant business. “I’m very reserved, but somehow when I’m in the restaurant, I like to talk to people, I have fun chit-chatting to people.”
After years as a server, manager, and other roles, she finally decided that she wanted to open her own place. “It took me forever to make my decision that I was going to do it, so I was just like, I’m going to do the restaurant that I want to have.”
Rattanopas had cooked with her mother and grandmother since she was a child, but she didn’t enjoy it—she thinks in part because of a cultural assumption that women will serve a husband as a housewife. Sudsaard had never cooked until she was in Chicago in her twenties and missed home cooking. Rattanopas offered to teach her to cook, telling her what to do so she didn’t have to do it herself. “She did every single dish so good,” Rattanopas says. “I was like, it’s so not fair!”
These days, Rattanopas finds she enjoys being in the kitchen, along with serving other roles in the restaurant. She helps come up with dishes for the menu, which frequently changes a few specials. The “vegetarian scallops,” made out of mushroom, were her idea, and the pad thai introduced during COVID originated with her sister. “I had never, ever made pad thai in my life,” she recalls.
NaKorn added that pad thai to the menu while offering free meals to seniors and unhoused people in Evanston via connections through shelters, churches, and Rotary International, which is headquartered in Evanston. A GoFundMe paid for the meals, allowing Rattanopas and Sudsaard to keep paying their staff while the restaurant was closed for indoor dining. They have also taken part in recent Chicago Chefs Cook fundraisers coordinated by the Chicago food industry for Ukraine and Tigray.
“It makes us feel good when we do a good thing for the community,” says Rattanopas. “COVID is hard, but it’s hard for everyone. If we have a chance to help others, we’re going to do it.”