“Describing Fat Rice is a challenge. It’s a restaurant, the highest level of what a restaurant is,” says Abe Conlon, chef and owner of Fat Rice in Chicago’s Logan Square. “We welcome people and serve them good food and leave them with a memory.”
A native of Lowell, Massachusetts, and of Portuguese heritage, Conlon’s earliest food memories were of mixing cornbread or making salt cod with his grandmother. And that was the beginning of the end—he started cooking at the tender age of 15 years old.
The driving force behind Fat Rice is the cuisine of Macau; Conlon first learned of Macau through an article written in Saveur magazine two decades ago. “It didn’t seem real,” he recalls. “It seemed like, ‘wow, there’s a place in Southern China where there’s Portuguese-speaking people that have been cooking this historic hybrid cuisine for the past 400 or 500 years.’”
Color Conlon fascinated, he finally got the opportunity to travel to Macau 11 years later. “I could really taste elements from my Portuguese upbringing, my travels to Brazil and in China,” he says. “There was a feeling of ‘this feels real, this feels right, it feels like home’—even though I’ve never been there before.”
Prior to Fat Rice’s opening, Conlon and partner Adrienne Lo opened X-marx, an underground supper club in Chicago serving up seven to 12 courses three to four times per week—and no dish was ever repeated. X-marx lasted a whopping five years before the duo decided to open their own restaurant—Fat Rice—in November 2012. “It was a time in Chicago where ultra fine-dining tasting menus were on the forefront of cuisine. Also shareable small plates that weren’t actually shareable—and we wanted to rebel against that.” Conlon says.
The name is a reflection of the restaurant’s signature dish, arroz gordo, aka, fat rice. The arroz gordo at Fat Rice features a bevy of ingredients including roasted pork, chargrilled housemade Portuguese sausages, mammoth-sized prawns, a hard-boiled egg and a variety of pickles. Conlon is fast to point out that the menu is not exclusively Macanese dishes. “We have dishes from the Azores, from Madeira where my family is from, we have dishes from Malaysia or Goan dishes—so really, any place that has a Portuguese heritage and a form of cross-cultural cuisine.” Other menu stand-outs at Fat Rice include uttapam, a South Indian griddle cake served with seasonal vegetables and a sunny side-up egg, and piri piri chicken.
"Bar seating around the open kitchen gives a bird’s-eye view of the mélange of ingredients used in each dish, though servers are happy to walk any guest through the intoxicating mashup of Portuguese-meets-Asian cuisine," state MICHELIN inspectors. The restaurant reached Bib Gourmand-status in 2014 and has maintained the designation ever since.
“Hybrid is the new fusion and it’s a way for us to not say the ‘f word,’ but I think when we say fusion, that’s much more indicative of the chef’s perspective,” Conlon adds. “There’s a beauty in more of a natural progression of cuisines that evolved from families of mixed heritage because it is something that is based on tradition. There’s more love, there’s more heart, there’s more pride. There’s not many places that you find that, and that’s kind of my mission with Fat Rice—to understand these micro-cuisines.”
Learn more about Conlon, Lo and all that is Fat Rice in the video below.