I don't have a habit of expressing gratitude for European colonialism, but I would like to thank the Portuguese for Fat Rice, the compact and currently booming new spot from the former underground dining team known as X-Marx.
The culinary influence on the cultures Portugal dominated for nearly 600 years isn't as celebrated as, say, the shotgun marriage between French and Vietnamese food. By some reports it's been difficult to even find places serving the old mingling of Chinese and Portuguese food born on the tiny island of Macao ever since the island's handover to the casinos, gamblers, and the People's Republic of China in 1999.
But Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo have somehow managed to bring it to life in Logan Square, drawing on their own travels and the legacy of sailors wayfaring from Brazil to Africa to India to China and beyond. Before the word "fusion" was met with reflexive eyeball rolling, the Macanese were putting seemingly disparate influences together in dishes like arroz gordo, the restaurant's Portuguese namesake: a deep ceramic casserole stuffed with fatty slabs of roast pork, crispy chicken thighs, dense slices of Portuguese sausage, monstrous beady-eyed prawns, plump clams, tea-infused hard-boiled eggs, olives, chiles, and pickled peppers and tomatoes, all crammed in among rice fused crispy to the bottom of the bowl like the socarrat on a perfectly crafted paella. The dish requires a minimum of two people per order, and in the short time the restaurant has been open its price has jumped from $24 to $35 per head. But it's still a fantastic deal, including a soup, vegetable, and a dessert for each person, which allows the table to sample a broad spectrum of the menu.
The only trouble is narrowing these options down. The menu is highly customizable, beginning with a number of small dishes in the vein of Korean panchan, priced at $4 apiece or three for $10. The sour chile cabbage is in fact indistinguishable from a good funky kimchi, smoked strips of tofu mimic creamy but firm mozzarella, and a sliced pig ear with shredded papaya salad had the spicy-sour profile of a Thai som tam—making it one of the most eye-opening of the selections, and one that sadly seems to have made only a brief appearance on the menu.
Like the arroz gordo, the casseroles at the bottom of the menu are generous, stocked with a variety of plants and animals, and are impossible not to share. There's the heaping bowl of catfish, tofu, Thai eggplant, and pork belly marinated in a powerfully funky shrimp paste that mellows with cooking but deepens in flavor—and balances the sweet-sour influence of tamarind. The Portuguese chicken, a simmering cauldron of bird and mussels bubbling in a bright but mild Indian-style coconut curry, presents a divergent but no less enjoyable expression of this uncommon convergence of the trade winds.
The mixing of cuisines is occasionally less evident in stir-fries and simple starters like bacalhau de vovo—a creamy Portuguese brandade lightly garnished with chile, mint, and olive—or a discus of eggy pot stickers fused together with a thick lattice of crispy batter. Conlon and sous chef Hugh Amano (of Food on the Dole fame) also execute a couple of overtly Sichuanese dishes buzzing with the numbing ma la electricity of Sichuan peppercorns: deep-fried nuggets of whitefish stir-fried with shisito peppers and dry red chiles, and house-cured Chinese bacon with pea pods, lotus roots, and fermented black bean paste.
A thin, vividly orange pumpkin soup with chicken-fat-fried croutons carries with it a hint of curry, while a milky-white wintermelon soup floating with slices of white gourd is amped by the addition of generous slices of Chinese bacon and the flavor-enhancing powers of dried scallop. A half "African" chicken, smothered in a thick sauce of coconut and tomato and thick potato wedges, comes across like a chicken cacciatore.
Then again the salada gordo—a heaping garbage salad of Iberico ham, eggs, Parrano cheese, anchovies, more pickled pepper, and more fatty croutons—is every bit as wonderfully excessive as the arroz gordo. The same can be said of the "fat rice noodle"—thick, cylindrical, incomparably chewy house-made chee cheong fun (resembling pig intestines by definition) stir-fried with bean sprouts, red pepper, julienned scallions, and XO sauce.
For dessert there are fewer options, but no way to go wrong: a terrifically moist but none too sweet pineapple upside-down cake is mellowed by sherry-vinegar caramel and drizzled with cream, while a rice crispy treat amalgamated with pork floss and dried seaweed should be something subversive schoolchildren bring to school on holidays. Perhaps the oddest—a glass filled with chunks of coffee gelatin and Lo's mocha-stout Mama's Nuts!, which slowly release their coating's flavors and colors into the cream—was something I liked a lot better the more I thought about it in subsequent days.
Fat Rice isn't some recklessly dumbed down fusion of incompatible cuisines, where the most distinctive characteristics of the dishes are diluted in the service of an untested novelty. What's most impressive about this food is that its flavors are assertive and its compositions fearless. I'm rarely as excited by a new place as I am by Fat Rice, and that's a feeling that extends beyond the startling vibrancy of the food. With its open kitchen and tin ceiling that amplifies the chatter of the hungry, sipping wine and light fizzy cocktails before their turns at the tables, it feels not at all like Logan Square's latest flavor of the day but more like a crowded market street-food stall that's been operating for ages—and for good reason.
Correction: This review has been amended to reflect that the price of the arroz gordo jumped by $11—not from $11—to $35.