Crowds come from near and far to experience the well-traveled flavors at Fat Rice
When Fat Rice opened in November 2012, it became an instant hit, with hours-long waits. The restaurant set itself apart by homing in on Macanese cuisine, a regional specialty rare in the U.S. People came from near and far to savor chile clams, rolled fat noodles and the namesake arroz gordo, or fat rice, studded with chicken, Manila clams, char siu pork, olives, tea egg and linguica sausage. Five years later, business partners Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo feel they’ve finally settled in, having added a cocktail bar and bakery, written a cookbook, begun a wholesale business and established Fat Rice as a Chicago legend in the making.
Zagat: What have been the biggest challenges over the past five years?
Adrienne Lo: When we opened, we didn’t know what this was going to be; we didn’t know what to expect. We thought we’d have a corner restaurant with 40 seats, a lot more simple of a restaurant. So that was a big challenge. It got relatively popular quickly and grew quicker than we thought.
Abe Conlon: Dealing with those growing pains and understanding that the idealistic lifestyle of a mom-and-pop kind of place is not necessarily reality. Next thing you know, we have a line of 200 people outside. We went from a very small-scale staff of 10 people to 40. Our crew for dinner has expanded significantly as well.
Lo: We were walk-in only for the first two years, so we went from a no-reservations restaurant to almost all reservations. It takes people a long time to come around. I would go through the line of people outside for an hour and a half telling people they had to come back tomorrow.
Conlon: Almost the entire time, we’ve been growing, with the addition of brunch, then lunch, then tasting menu. We’ve had to create new positions too. We didn’t realize we’d have to do that. We’re kind of a ragtag band of pirates. It’s all about structure and systems and processes and troubleshooting and guiding and coaching. These are the things that you need to do to run a restaurant to be successful. You’re running it to be potentially successful.
Lo: There’s a difference between running a successful restaurant and running a successful business, and we’re still working on that. And we added the waiting room six to eight months after we opened, so we revamped this room we imagined being a retail space for Mama’s Nuts (a snack line started by Lo). And the bakery too, which was a relatively self-funded expansion, and that put a big strain on us financially and mentally. We were writing the book at the same time. We’re kind of just settling in with our space.
The Ladies' Room is a clandestine cocktail lounge in Fat Rice's former waiting room; photo courtesy of Fat Rice
Zagat: What have been the most significant changes since you opened?
Conlon: The restaurant and its cuisine has evolved a lot. We started off with dishes from Macau, and then when people started recognizing some foods from Macau, that’s when we realized we needed to get rid of Indian and Sichaun dishes. We wanted to focus on Macau and the culture. I think now, with the cookbook being mostly Macanese dishes, we want to understand where these dishes came from, like Singapore, Malaysia, Goa, Brazil, Portugal. We’re kind of looking back.
Lo: That’s the way that the cuisine is evolving. We as a restaurant are evolving. Like butternut squash sambal — we adapted those flavors. Seasonal things like that are really fun. The food in Macau is not a seasonal cuisine, and neither is Portugal. It’s potatoes, fish, onions, cabbage, olives, sausage, maybe some peppers. But living here in Chicago and having relationships with farmers, we want to change things for our guests and utilize what’s here right now.
Conlon: One thing that’s changed since we started is the drinks. We initially wanted to just do refreshing drinks that had booze in them. Then things started evolving, we started making some cocktails. And with wine, Craig Perman [of Perman Wine Selections] asked us what kind of wine they have in Macau. For Fat Rice, we wanted to go to Portugal with our wine list. Now our list is 95% Portuguese, really the best that the country has to offer. That’s definitely evolved.
Zagat: Where do you find new inspiration?
Conlon: Inspiration can come from anywhere, but with recipes we riff off of...I’m translating recipes from books that are in Portuguese and Chinese. When we first opened, the idea was Fat Rice is old. Saying that it’s old, it’s that these are things that have been done before, but with new techniques. We didn’t invent these things. There’s cool things out there that only a certain amount of people know about. How do we adapt them into our style and tell a story?
The egg tarts were a labor of love; photo courtesy of Fat Rice
Zagat: What has been the most memorable dish you’ve created?
Conlon: The egg tart has been a struggle.
Lo: The first time we went to Macau in 2011, we ate the egg tart there. It blew our minds and we cried and it changed us. It’s something so perfect, almost impossible to achieve. For us, it was seven years of trial and error with recipes, most rigorously in the past four years. In Chinatown here, they’re not caramelized on top, and they’re made with short dough. We do a puff pastry, the top is caramelized, it’s flaky and buttery. It’s all about getting the dough right, the custard right, and you don’t par-cook the dough. It’s all baked at the same time. It’s a serious, constant trial and error. We say it’s made with love and secrets. It’s like my blood, sweat and tears went into this.
Zagat: Last year you released a cookbook, The Adventures of Fat Rice. What was the process like, and where did that idea come from?
Lo: The fact that we were building out the new space at the same time, it was a serious challenge. We were using very specific ingredients and converting them from large scale to small size.
Conlon: Just talking to people like Heather Sperling, Chandra Ram and Francis Lam, they’d ask us, “When are you guys doing a book?” So we thought, maybe we should be doing this.
Lo: We had talked about trying to write some kind of book with [Conlon and Lo’s former underground dining club] X-Marx after we finished, and these different dinners we had. But after we opened Fat Rice, there was no time to go back to that, so we took the idea in a different direction.
Zagat: How would you describe your overall style and philosophy?
Conlon: There was always this Fat Rice style that it’s a little bit big — might be big in size and flavor — it might be spicy, and we’ve always maintained that style and apply it to something as simple as an old fashioned or Portuguese arroz, which is more like a risotto but with long-grain rice with seafood, clams, salt cod. In effect, it’s a fat rice; an abundant ricey dish with things in it. The coolest thing is with this five-year anniversary we’re changing the arroz gordo, the signature dish. It’s not going to be drastically different, we just want to improve the dish overall. We’ll be putting a different kind of roast pork on it, we’re adding beef, a different type of chicken, more traditional crispy little pigs feet on top. It’ll still be served in the clay pot with raisins in the rice; it’s just evolving. You see it all across the country: You have to reinvent yourself. There’s gotta be new things. People want to be trying new things too.
The adjoining bakery not only provided more space and daytime hours, but the opportunity to expand into wholesale; photo courtesy of Fat Rice
Lo: The bakery team has been coming up with new products and new stuff that we can scale. And that’s the thing about a bakery, you need to be able to make it sustainable. The Shake Shack thing was cool. It’s getting us into different parts of the city. They’re Downtown, and we’re not anywhere near Downtown. That cross-marketing is definitely helping each others’ businesses. So we’re looking to do more of that for sure in this next year.
Conlon: Having the extra space next door and being able to accommodate larger parties is big. We have a space that people can rent out, and we’re thinking of more wholesaling things, collaborations, bigger groups. I want to do some stuff in the new year when we bring in like a guest chef or a themed dinner with one of our sous-chefs, where they take the reins.
Zagat: What would you like to do in the future?
Conlon: My idea was small restaurant, big brand. Not like we’re selling a lot of stuff, but more like you’re walking down the street and see someone wearing a Fat Rice shirt. We go to Feast Portland every year, we’re doing something in Toronto and a dinner in Napa. We’re just being more involved, giving back not only to our direct community here but chefs and organizations that help with the food system that we can have small impacts on here and there.
Lo: We do a little production of some of our hot sauces. No matter what, we have these things that we could do. It’s hard to make money in the restaurant business, so finding other ways is important.