It's not often that a restaurant becomes so popular that it boasts impressive wait times years after opening. Rarer still is for a hotspot to explore an "unfamiliar" cuisine. But that's exactly what co-owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo are doing at their absolutely essential Chicago restaurant Fat Rice, where the cuisine of Macau and the legacy of Portuguese decolonization provides inspiration for a menu that includes hand-rolled rice noodles, Macau's signature arroz gordo (the namesake dish of the restaurant), and linguiça sausage. "The wait," wrote Eater's Bill Addison when he filed on the restaurant last year, "yields many rewards."
Nearly three years in and the restaurant shows no sign of slowing. There's a book deal, a new lunch service, a space expansion in the works, and rumors of further growth. Eater caught up with Conlon at Feast Portland; read on for what he has to say about the current state of Fat Rice:
On realizing what Fat Rice is:
We’ve built ourselves a large box.
"The thing about this food is the history. Macau was the place where it all culminated, so the same thing that's happening in Macau is happening in Malacca. It's the same thing that's happening in Goa. This food and culture is dwindling, and people are trying to hold onto their roots, their customs, and their traditions... We have spent some time in Malaysia, in Singapore, where you do find these Eurasian [influences], and that's the thing about Fat Rice. Again, the bulk of our stuff is Macanese, but we do have Malaccan dishes. We do have Goan dishes...
We've built ourselves a large box. Essentially, what I think we realized on this past trip to Malaysia and to Singapore, is that we are not necessarily a concept. We never initially intended for, 'We're going to open this specific fried chicken restaurant,' whatever. This is an ever-evolving thing, and we've realized that yes, we are doing the food of Macau, but we're also doing kind of Portuguese food, and not food of Portugal. Portuguese [decolonization], the thing that these people are very, very, very proud of, and things that they want to pass on to continue their legacy in the world."
On the "stigma" of having a tough door:
"We do have waits on occasion, on busy nights. But it's not as bad as people think it is — because it's like, 'What is that? Fat Rice. You can't get into that place.' That's the stigma that we have... If people come in at 7 p.m. on any given night, they're going to have to wait, and hopefully this expansion will alleviate a little bit of that."
On the new expansion at Fat Rice:
"When we blew up, for a lack of a better term, we expanded next door into a small, 500-square-foot retail space that we intended for another company that we have, which is Mama's Nuts!... It happened naturally, this little speakeasy lounge space where people hung out, had drinks, had snacks, that sort of thing.
So when the space next to that became available, we took that opportunity... We're going to keep the idea of this speakeasy lounge that we already had, and when we have this bakery department, it's actually what you would expect to see in Portugal or Spain where it's a walk-up counter where you can get small snacks, get a drink, and hang out. It's two concepts in one. We have an exaggerated version of our waiting room with our snacks and our cocktails along the bar... and then the space will provide that extra 25 seats for people that want to just eat Fat Rice."
On when that expansion will open:
"Probably December 1st."
On Fat Rice's new weekday lunch service:
"It gives [families] an opportunity to come in, and it gives us an opportunity to offer some more casual things that wouldn't necessarily work at night, like a basic pork chop sandwich (zhu pa bao)... [and] our piri piri chicken, which is interestingly a trend happening — I don't know if it's happening everywhere, but it just seems in Chicago definitely.
Every night it’s like, "I’d like to place a [take-out] order," because people think we’re a Chinese restaurant.
We want to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and the other thing that the lunch service provides is [food] to-go. Every night it's like, 'I'd like to place [an order],' because people think we're a Chinese restaurant. We do have some Chinese influence, but we are not a 'Chinese restaurant,' in so far as what people think: 'Let me get a pork fried rice. Let me get some egg rolls.'
I always said if I'm going to do to-go, I have to open up another restaurant. We have done that within our own restaurant. That's what our expansion is doing. It's like a Fat Rice fun house. We have different services, different spaces, different things that we can offer, different things to different people."
On why there's no current plan for a new location:
"We never intended to open another restaurant to do [piri piri takeout]. We always intended to open as a lunch service. It's not to say that it couldn't be done, but that wasn't really the plan. As a business owner, as a restaurateur, you have to maximize your space as much as possible. Why are you going to open another restaurant while you have one already that has an empty dining room during the daytime?"
On Chicago's rising minimum wages:
"It's a broken system. Will it hurt small businesses? Yes. Will it hurt large businesses? These [fast-food chains]... they can afford to have a smaller profit margin."
On raising prices at Fat Rice:
"There are some chefs and business owners around the country that are working on taking measures. A lot of it's experimentation, trying to figure out what actually works. We're increasing prices... if you want to decrease [use of] GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, MSG, and these kinds of things, you have to pay more for it. We use tamari for all of our soy sauce — all of it — and it costs 20 times as much, but that's what we want to do, and that's what we want to present. Yes, inevitably we have to raise prices here and there, and obviously we still want to be a value-oriented restaurant, but it comes down to what we wish to provide to our customer. We don't want to give that away. We don't want to be like, 'Here you go. Anywhere else, you'd be paying 10 more dollars for this dish, but just because we're nice.'"
On goals for the upcoming cookbook, The Adventures of Fat Rice, co-authored by the Conlon, Lo, and former Fat Rice sous chef Hugh Amano with photos by Dan Goldberg:
"The main goal for the book is to be the most comprehensive documentation of Macanese cuisine that there is. Not only the food of Macau, but the food of Macanese people, the Portuguese and Chinese-mixed families that we mainly focus on at Fat Rice. We do serve the food of Macau... but also there are dishes that as a person who goes to Macau, goes to a so-called Macanese restaurant, they will never find the dishes you'd find at Fat Rice because the food comes from the home.
I want this book to sell in Macau. I want this book to sell in Portugal.
It's to showcase and document what we've learned over the past years. And [it's also] to show our interpretation of these dishes, and maybe enlighten people as far as the history of food as we know it, through the lens of Macanese cuisine and the other places that Macanese cuisine is influenced by, whether it be Malacca, Malaysia, Brazil, Africa, Japan, or wherever. That's the main goal. It's a great opportunity for us to showcase what we've done over the three years with the people that we've been working with, the people that have contributed throughout the time at the restaurant: cooks, servers, and bartenders...
I want this book to sell in Macau. I want this book to sell in Portugal. I don't want this to just be an American foodie book."
On long-term goals:
"The goal for me is to write more books. The Adventure of Fat Rice, Volume Two."