If you had asked me a week ago if I knew what Macanese and Polynesian fusion cuisine was, I would have ZERO clue what to tell you. Not only have I not visited any of the countries that have inspired this style of cooking, but despite being a foodie, I had no idea what ingredients these dishes required. Fat Rice, purveyor of these fine culinary traditions in Chicago, serves delectable, unconventional plates of wonders including balichang, a savory blend of pork belly, tamarind, and rice; raba-raba, a pescetarian dish made with green papaya, mushrooms, and mackerel chutney; and the crème de la crème, arroz gordo, a sumptuous dish otherwise known as fat rice. Countless attendees sat at the National Hellenic Museum to see Chef Abraham Conlon and GM Adrienne Lo discuss the concepts and brilliance behind their revered Chicago restaurant, as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival Fallfest/16: Speed.
The closest I’ve gotten to this type of cuisine is via Anthony Bourdain specials; however, when Abe and Adrienne spoke about their travels and inspirations for opening this restaurant, I could almost taste the dishes described, and imagined myself sitting at their favorite restaurant in Macau, Riquexo Café. I booked my reservation at Fat Rice on the spot. Macanese cuisine came to be centuries ago, featuring influences that are distinctly Portuguese, Chinese, Indian, and Malay. It’s this melting pot that allows for the utmost uniqueness in flavors and unconventional dining options.
“With these dishes, people read these ingredients and a lot of them sound so foreign, and I think it’s so intriguing to people. Then, even though they don’t know what they’re eating, suddenly it sounds so familiar. It is so foreign, but it’s such a homestyle food that immediately feels comforting,” Conlon and Lo explained.
Conlon also noted that their menu uses imagery to help Fat Rice guests visualize what’s going to be on their plate. This served as further inspiration for their cookbook, The Adventures of Fat Rice, released just this month. Open to someone who is just starting their cooking journey as well as expert chefs, the cookbook features a host of recipes spanning a range of difficulty levels. “Butchering a surf clam may not be for every home cook. We want it to appeal to home and professional cooks, as some recipes do take three days,” Conlon noted.
The identity of the restaurant has become such a Chicago staple these days, but in the beginning, they didn’t know what to call it. Fat Rice as a name didn’t come easily, but after awhile just made sense. As do the portraits in the bathroom, many of which are of Adrienne’s grandparents. This spot has become an infamous, Insta-worthy photo opp. The dining room is decadent, showcasing the glitzy side of Macau, and it’s where most people want to be when in the restaurant space.
So, where did their influences come from when opening Fat Rice? The answer isn’t localized to one spot, but rather the cuisine stems from a variety of sources found all around the world. They traveled to Malacca City in Malaysia, where they were told to get in touch with Big Ben. Who is this, and where would they find him? You just find him, they were told. So they went. They also traveled to Singapore and Goa, India, along with Macau. Discovering the traditions of this cuisine allowed them to reinforce utmost authenticity within each dish at Fat Rice. They complemented food offerings with wines from Spain and Portugal, and traveled to the latter, speaking with winemakers, learning about seasonality and what dishes to pair their wines with.
“Find the winemakers. The winemakers know the seasonality, region, all the best restaurants, seasonal dishes, and they will bring you there,” Conlon said of the trip to Portugal.
Today, you can not only visit Fat Rice, but the bakery, as well. The Bakery at Fat Rice serves the coveted egg tart that Lo and Conlon ate while in Macau, and sweet and savory ingredients baked inside dough. They even have a Chicago-style hot dog bun blended with traditional Chinese elements. Fat Rice was running out of space for this new development, so they opened up shop and tried something new.
At Fat Rice, innovation is constant. Whether they’re distilling their own malort with the help of CH Distillery, traveling the world in search of authentic flavors, or creating a cookbook, Conlon and Lo have truly built a Chicago spot to be savored with every last bite, creating the longing to return shortly after you’ve left.