I jumped out of a moving car to get a table at Fat Rice (2957 W. Diversey Ave, Chicago, IL ). That is how crowded the place can be get, and how legendarily hard-to-get the tables are. But at 5pm on a Wednesday we need not have worried, as we easily got a table for 2 just when walking in (we were some of the first people there, and by the time we left at 7, it was still not full). The tables at Fat Rice are communal, and the decor is simultaneously sparse and kitschy, with golden pigs, Chinese pottery and a Portuguese rooster holding pride of place.
Fat Rice has received a slew of accolades, including being one of Bon Appetit’s top new restaurants in 2013. The menu features the cuisine of the former Portuguese colony of Macau, a history that lends it a unique fusion of Portuguese and Chinese cuisines. Short of taking a trip to the luxurious island, there aren’t many places to sample Macanese food. To help, the menu at Fat Rice is broken into several sections, small plates, noodles and entrees to share. There were also a rotating number of specials.
We had a tough time deciding what to order, and we went with a few specials, since we hoped the other dishes would be there on our next visit! Some of the items that stood out (that we did not get) included the linguiça appetizer with ginger and olive ($8), the piri-piri chicken with spicy tomato and peanut sauce ($24) and the Malay vegetable curry with sweet potato and cashews ($16). However, when making our order, our waitress pushed us to order a vegetable dish, saying we had too many heavy foods (not sure if this was a personal thing or a management directive). In the end, she may have been right, but we were not super excited to be told multiple times we had ordered incorrectly. I think she was also a little crestfallen when we substituted vegetables for one of the more expensive meat dishes….
To start off with, we ordered a classic dish, the handmade hand-rolled rice noodles, which came either with XO sauce or mushroom and egg ($14). This was the first time we had tried XO sauce, the famous Hong Kong umami bomb, tempered with hot chilies. We absolutely loved it! At the nosy behest of the waitress, we did indeed prefer a vegetable: the special Summer Squash stir fry. The squash was cut into thin ribbons and dressed with a light sauce, tianjin (pickled cabbage) and basil. It was super light and delicious, while also being complex. Finally, we tried the special entree, the whole Branzino. This was definitely the star of the night, with an inexplicable combination of flavors: Thai lime, tamarind and cilantro.
Another thing that really impressed us was the list of rare and unusual teas available, provided by the Rare Tea Cellar. We knew we had to get a pot of tea. Like wine, each of the teas had tasting notes to go along with them. We were intrigued by the “Freak of Nature Oolong” tea ($9) which boasted tasting notes of popcorn, shortbread and watermelon. The cute teapots came with unlimited refills and most cost between $5 and $10, which we felt was reasonable, because the servers do actually do come and refill the teapot.
By the end of our meal, the communal tables had begun to fill up. The people at the end of the table did in fact order the signature item at Fat Rice and its namesake, arroz gordo. There is a charming little illustration depicting all of the myriad ingredients that make up one order of fat rice: prawns, squid, mussels, rice and more ($48). It looked like it took about 3 people to truly handle the dish. We were actually really impressed by Fat Rice, one of the recent places where we felt the hype was warranted. We are excited to try brunch, where our favorite items in the world are featured: egg tarts!