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Fat Rice

Critics' pick
Photograph: Martha Williams
Fat Rice
Logan Square
OpenTable

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Let’s knock this out right away: You’re getting the arroz gordo. It’s a spectacle to behold, a paella-like thicket in which sausage, pork, clams and prawns are piled on a bed of rice—a dish worthy of sharing its name (which translates to fat rice) with the restaurant itself.

Tackle the prawns first: Crack their shells and disengage their plump insides. Now the clams. There might be a stray sandy one in there, but the rest have integrity. Next, a tea egg (boiled, then cracked and steeped in tea and soy sauce, such that the liquid seeps in, marbling the exterior): It’s fragrant and saturated with seasoning. And now the unsightly hunks of pork, a disappointing mass of tough and chewy meat.

Just when the arroz gordo becomes almost senseless, there’s an olive: an acidic reprieve. And then there’s the soul of the dish, crisped black at the pot’s edges, packed with nuggets of Chinese sausage and pickled raisins that burst with sweet, tangy juices. I’m talking about the rice.

There’s something about big, conglomerate dishes like this—the fat rice, the low-country boil at Carriage House, the moqueca at La Sirena Clandestina—that makes them immensely pleasurable to eat. They’re the opposite of faddish: They’re dishes with long histories, things you don’t have to think about to enjoy. This sense of history and of place is what makes Fat Rice’s approach so successful: Owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo (formerly the duo behind the supper club X-Marx) are cooking the food of Macau, a former Portuguese colony along the South China Sea. As such, their menu is heavy with influences both Portuguese (bacalhau, salt cod) and Chinese (pot stickers, Szechuan peppercorns), not to mention any other forays toward which Conlon, the chef, is guided. If this convergence sounds like “fusion,” what’s remarkable about Fat Rice is it certainly doesn’t taste like it: The food is natural and understated.

Which leads me to the only problem with getting the fat rice, which is you’re only getting the fat rice. The dish is served as part of a $35 prix fixe, preceded by a soup and followed by a dessert, and two people minimum must order it. This is not (I promise) kitchen despotism; it’s Conlon/Lo having your back. There is so much in this dish that it’d be a waste to order more. Not to mention how pleasing the soups are, whether it’s silky tofu complementing creamy pumpkin or lush winter melon played against funky Chinese sausage. Everyone gets their own dessert, but I’ll leave the too-soft pineapple cake and the Rice Krispie–like confections topped with savory, thread-like dried pork to my companions: For me there’s only the serradura, a Portuguese trifle-like dessert I prefer to think of as the most socially acceptable way to eat an entire bowl of whipped cream. (There is, I should note, also drinking to be done: The “adult sodas” are lighthearted, zero-pretense cocktails, and Craig Perman of Perman Wine Selections has assembled a small, exciting, well-priced list.)

The other ramification of ordering the arroz gordo is that you’re going to have to go back to Fat Rice. Because there is just too much worth trying. Egg-and-chive pot stickers—who would have thought such things could be so delicate? The salada gordo is a veritable garbage salad, not totally harmonious and not sufficiently dressed, but hey: If Fat Rice is a place where big folds of jamón Iberico and candied nuts are garbage, I’ll take it. I thought I was familiar with the numbing sensation that comes from Szechuan peppercorns, but the Shaking Chili Whitefish left me shivering and so numb I had to stop eating it for fear I wouldn’t be able to taste the rest of the meal. And there’s one thing in particular I’m glad I could still taste, the Balichang & Catfish, a pot of unsung riches: steamed fish, smooth tofu, meaty eggplant and pork belly with the sour twang of balichao, Macanese shrimp paste. I’d never heard of balichao, and yet this dish had such warmth and comfort that it, like Fat Rice writ large, instantly felt familiar.

Venue name: Fat Rice
Address: 2957 W Diversey Ave
Chicago

Cross street: between Richmond St and Sacramento Ave
Venue phone: 773-661-9170
Website: http://eatfatrice.com
Opening hours: Dinner (Tue–Sat)
Transport: El stop:Blue to Logan Square. Bus:52,76.
Price: Average share plate: $14
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