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Sam Rattanopas and Mina Sudsaard, co-owners of Evanston’s NaKorn Urban Thai restaurant, were 11 years old when they met and became friends while students at their Bangkok school. Later, in 1996, the good friends spread their wings and emigrated from Thailand to the United States for graduate school to prepare them for careers in graphic design and telecommunications.
At that time, the last thing either of them imagined was that they’d ultimately re-invent themselves as hands-on creators of a unique restaurant with strong connections to their homeland. As NaKorn celebrates its fifth anniversary soon, the founders recall the excitement and pride they’ve felt watching the restaurant thrive. They also vividly recall the stress and worry inflicted by COVID-19
“Unlike Sam, before opening NaKorn, I’d never cooked in my life,” laughed Sudsaard. She received her Master’s Degree in graphic design from Columbia College and still feels satisfied and well-suited to her career choice.
Rattanopas, on the other hand, regretted having chosen telecommunications for her field of study at DePaul University but found herself quite at home working in and eventually managing a popular Italian restaurant in Chicago’s South Loop.
After long talks the two friends decided to merge their personal strengths and work experience – and utilize their shared Thai heritage to open a restaurant where they’d love to eat.
“I’ll oversee the kitchen and manage the front of the house too,” Rattanopas said as they planned the venture. She would be the creative force in terms of the food, and Sudsaard would design a beautiful space for their prospective diners and create a strong identity for the restaurant to help ensure its success.
The restaurant they created at 1622 Orrington Ave. looks and feels both traditional and contemporary. In the Thai language NaKorn means “metropolitan,” and both women wanted the restaurant to have an urban vibe.
Sudsaard acquired many beautiful hand-carved wooden birdcages from Thailand and had them refitted as unique-looking light fixtures. Another eclectic part of the décor is an arrangement of green velvet chairs setting off a very large wall portrait of a beloved former monarch of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“Since we were young, pretty much every house in Thailand has had a photo of the king in their living room,” Rattanopas explained. “So we chose to have his portrait in our restaurant dining room. We feel like he watches over us.”
The owners explained that their food is unlike that found at most Thai restaurants in America. There’s no Pad Thai or Pad See Ewe. At NaKorn diners can order interesting entrees like Ginger-Bourbon Popcorn Chicken, Duck Confit or Khun Sompit Big Fish, as well as many other dishes they describe as having bold layered flavors from old-world recipes in presentations created with much attention to detail.
On the day in mid-March 2020 that Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the closing of all bars and restaurants due to the spread of COVID -19, NaKorn staff had been preparing for 70 diners.
The refrigerators and freezers were stocked, as was the interesting-looking bar built from abacus frames. Like many other restaurant owners, Rattanopas and Sudsaard were left with large quantities of purchased food that would quickly spoil if not eaten.
“We were devastated but didn’t want the food to go to waste,” said Rattanopas. “We called Soul and Smoke [restaurant], that had already been making and donating meals to needy people, to see if they could put our food to good use feeding people in the community.”
That was the beginning of a new reality for NaKorn and many other Evanston eateries: be resilient and flexible and stay connected to your community as you ride out the storm.
Over the next months, with some support from the Evanston Lighthouse Rotary Club, Chef Q Ibraheem, Taste of Evanston and some private donations, NaKorn continued providing free food. They made meals to donate or they donated ingredients to organizations such as Connections for the Homeless, Chicago Methodist Senior Services, Reba Place Development, Jacob Blake Tower (Evanston affordable housing community for the elderly) and Evanston Latinos.
Meals were also made and donated to healthcare workers at Evanston Hospital and at the University of Chicago Hospital. During the Pandemic, Nakorn’s staff was reduced from 15 to four people. “We didn’t want our employees having to ride public transportation during the Pandemic, “ said Rattanopas.
Every day she picked them up and drove them back home during her own commute from the South Loop to Evanston. Sudsaard found herself washing dishes and doing other sundry jobs at the restaurant after completing her day job as a graphic designer.
Since late January 2021, Evanston restaurants and bars have been allowed to resume indoor dining, and both Rattanopas and Sudsaard have been pleased to see their beautiful restaurant again full of life inside, as well as at sidewalk tables.
They and other Evanston restaurant owners are hoping for less stressful times: more vaccinated people so the virus will subside, an easier time finding good employees again and the energy to keep doing this hard work that has been a passion.
Current hours of operation and carry-out information can be found on the Nakorn website.