Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
The catchword for the food served at Fat Rice in Chicago's Logan Square is Macanese—the singular, worldly cuisine of Macau that emerged during Portugal's 400-year occupation of the region. (Its reign ended in 1999, when rule reverted to China.) Over the centuries, cooks mingled local ingredients and flavors with Portuguese staples, producing dishes like caldo verde simmered with bok choy rather than kale, or the curried pork or beef hash with potatoes called minchi, often finished with an egg on top. Fat Rice co-owners Adrienne Lo and Abraham Conlon, who previously ran a Chicago supper club called X-Marx, spent a week in Macau in 2011, learning about its vanishing traditions and spending time with elder cooks who shared recipes. Lo's family comes from China, Conlon has roots in Portugal; Macau became their culinary totem when they opened their restaurant in November 2012.
But a descriptor like "Macanese" doesn't quite capture the menu's wayfaring scope. I peppered my server with questions about the South Indian curry leaves in a shrimp and okra sauté, the Goan mustard seed masala spiking pickled radish sprouts, the "gallina Africana" (piri piri chicken in tomato-peanut sauce), and the appearance of a spicy Malaysian sambal as part of a seafood escabeche. She nodded and said, "Yes, 'post-colonial Portuguese cuisine' is a better term for our food."
That makes all sorts of sense: In the early 1500s Portugal began what would become Europe's centuries-long endeavors in imperialism. Vasco da Gama and the colonialists that followed him originally set out to discover the sources of the lucrative spice routes and seize control of the trade. By the time the Portuguese arrived in Macau, they had already established posts in Africa and India, bringing the fragrant kitchen staples of those lands with them.
Arroz gordo, a specialty of Macanese home cooks and Fat Rice's namesake dish, forever dispels the notion that fusion cuisine began with wasabi mashed potatoes and its horrific ilk. Lo and Conlon crafted a version of arroz gordo that is two parts history and one part self-expression. They begin by "buttering" a clay pot with lard, the better to make the spiced rice dotted with hunks of lap cheong (toothy Chinese sausage) crisp on the bottom like a deftly timed paella or Persian tahdig. After the rice bakes, it is buried with a deluge of proteins—char siu (barbecued pork), linguiça (wonderfully fatty Portuguese smoked sausage), garlicky chile prawns, littleneck clams, turmeric-stained chicken thighs, and hardboiled eggs steeped in soy and pu-erh (fermented tea)—and scattered with pickled peppers, olives, and scallions. The whole is a lot to process, but on the fork it condenses generations of evolution into delicious, varied bites.
Don't fill up too much, there is plenty more to savor: wide noodles, rolled like Ethiopian injera and served in pungent XO sauce. Po kok gai, a classic Macau synthesis of chicken, chorizo, cabbage, and olives bathed in coconut curry. Scan the daily specials menu for standouts like pig ear salad with coriander seed, lime, and onion, or a simple green salad elevated by a clever vinaigrette made from mango-port chutney. A frequent don't-miss dessert suspends seasonal fruit (perhaps cherries or peaches or plums) and crunchy basil seeds in an aromatic almond gelee.
Occasionally the menu strays into purer Portuguese and Chinese dishes—a straightforward bacalhau spread or eggplant seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns and peanuts—but it's the unflinching exploration of spice route cooking that draws perpetual long lines at Fat Rice, which can only hold 40 seats. In warm weather, would-be diners huddle on the tiny, cramped patio outside, and a server swings through to take drink orders. Bide the time by sipping an East-West cocktail made with tea-infused brandy and white port or gin perfumed by Thai basil. The wait yields many rewards.
This post has been updated to clarify information about the restaurant's waiting area. In warm weather the staff directs patrons to the restaurant's patio, with was expanded this summer; in inclement weather the staff opens another room inside as a waiting area.
Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @BillAddison.