August 22, 2013
One of the attractions of ethnic dining is the opportunity to immerse oneself, however briefly, however imperfectly, in another culture; to step out of one's comfort zone and revel, for an hour or two, in the unknown. Travel, without the inconvenience of travel.
That the experience is less than pure is a given; chefs who wish to stay in business must balance strict authenticity with the possible (i.e., product availability) and/or the prudent (what the market will support). This explains Scottish-salmon fish tacos, chocolate cake on Asian-restaurant menus and street-food concepts with wine lists; it's why that which promises to be different can seem disappointingly familiar.
Fat Rice, which opened in November, keeps its this-will-be-different promise. The restaurant has its roots in rebellion; owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo were underground restaurateurs for five years. Fat Rice makes demands of its patrons, grouping them into communal tables, or along an L-shaped counter, in a deafeningly noisy dining room that holds no more than 38 people. There are no reservations, and no waiting space in the main room, though a few doors down, a small anteroom can accommodate 18 or so. (Lines out the door were common before Bon Appetit magazine named Fat Rice one of the year's 10 best new restaurants; now ...)
The food is from Macau, a onetime Portuguese colony now controlled by the People's Republic of China; accordingly, Fat Rice's menu melds Portuguese and Chinese elements, but also Goan, African and Malaysian influences.
You will most definitely be outside your comfort zone. But you're probably going to love it.
Begin with Happy Valley, the unofficial nickname given to the waiting area, where you're sure to spend some time. It's small and dark and the entrance so ambiguously marked that first-timers cautiously poke their heads in, not certain they're in the right place. But here there are drinks and exotic snacks: crab chips with spicy ketchup, a sea-and-tomato creation that mimics the effect of a shrimp cocktail. There will be fried pork rinds with pineapple vinegar, or perhaps pineapple salsa, and silky jamon Iberico with Spanish almonds and Portuguese cheese.
When you make it to the big room, you'll be faced with a sizable menu of bites, sides and small, medium, large and extra-large plates. The menu and terms can be daunting — the dish called "crazy squid" bears the tag line, "now with more crazy!" — but fear not; knowledgeable staffers are friendly tour guides who ease the fear factor considerably.
The arroz gordo, or fat rice, is of course the signature dish. To a base of sofrito rice, Conlon adds shredded salted duck and Chinese pork liver sausage, and a few pickled raisins. Over that go turmeric-laced chicken thighs, linguica sausage, char siu pork, Macau spicy prawns, littleneck clams, a couple of hard-boiled eggs steeped in fermented tea and soy, and a scattering of olives and croutons. Think paella, with quadruple the protein. It's an awe-inspiring dish, and probably the one you should save for a return visit, because even split among two or three diners, this monster will leave you with little room for much else — and sampling is the reason to come here.
Rather, start with the smoky tofu and mushroom bite. Served in an agreeable jumble with trumpet mushrooms, the soy-cured and cold-smoked tofu strips have a remarkable, meaty density. House-made linguica sausage arrives in fat, glistening slices, contrasted by a lively salad of pickled cabbage, chili and olive. Szechwan green beans are delicious, and keep an eye out for such specials as chilled zucchini soup with crunchy almond, toasted garlic and olive oil; and a smoky yet refreshing green papaya fish salad.
One of my favorite dishes looks like a mistake. Pork and shrimp potstickers are bonded to a crispy crepe; flipped out of the pan and served upside down like some savory Asian tarte tatin, the dish confronts diners with a crunchy shell, beneath which lurk about a half-dozen potstickers (the burn spots on the shell mark their location). It's like some culinary game of "Minesweeper" and looks absolutely atrocious, but the dish delivers pretty good potstickers with a crunchy-pancake bonus. It's fun.
Servers are good at directing you toward — or clear of, if you prefer — Fat Rice's more spice-forward dishes, and there are quite a few of these, some rather stealthy. The innocent-looking piri-piri chicken, golden-brown pieces amid garlicky grilled potatoes, arrives with an African-chili and coconut-tomato peanut sauce that quickly asserts itself. Thai bird chilies keep the crazy squid good and hot, and even the pepper steak, topped with Iberico ham and egg with shishito and kampot peppers, has a bit more oomph than one might anticipate. And the aforementioned potstickers come with a lethal house-made sauce of habaneros and ghost peppers (I managed one tiny spoonful before my tongue went numb).
Desserts are surprisingly effective. I enjoyed a very pleasant pineapple upside-down cake with hints of licorice and clove, a diner-inspired French toast creation that was a cross between a beignet and an Eggo waffle (sadly, it's off the menu), and a rich banana-guava pudding topped with crumbled tea biscuits that conveyed a banana-pudding-with-Nilla-wafers vibe.
The beverage program is surprisingly large, embracing cocktails, craft beers and a food-friendly, modestly priced wine list. There's also a variety of spirits and a well-chosen tea selection; Bang Bang Pie Shop supplies the coffee.
The dining room, as I mentioned, is a noise factory, but otherwise comfortable. You're not elbow-to-elbow with your communal-table companions, and while the dining room couldn't be more casual, it's prettily appointed with rough-sawn wood trim, colorful art, knickknack-filled shelves and a preserved pressed-tin ceiling. That last detail is a reminder that your trip back to Chicago will be a short one.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
2957 W. Diversey Ave.; 773-661-9170
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: Large plates $18-$23
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Not accepted
Noise: Bring earplugs
Other: Wheelchair accessible
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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