Why Fat Rice and Sun Wah deserved their Beard awards | Bleader

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Why Fat Rice and Sun Wah deserved their Beard awards

Posted By on 05.08.18 at 06:00 AM

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Some of the great dishes at Fat Rice (clockwise from top middle): arroz gordo ("fat rice"), Fat Rice noodle, bok choy with pork stock, balichang catfish, African chicken, and shaking chile whitefish - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • Some of the great dishes at Fat Rice (clockwise from top middle): arroz gordo ("fat rice"), Fat Rice noodle, bok choy with pork stock, balichang catfish, African chicken, and shaking chile whitefish

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Last night was a sad one for most of the Chicago chefs who were hoping to take home a medal at the annual James Beard Awards, the so-called Oscars of the food world. They got shut out in all categories except for Best Chef: Great Lakes, where it was a foregone conclusion that a Chicagoan would win because there weren't any nominees from any other city. (So imagine how bad the chefs of Milwaukee and Detroit must be feeling right now.) The winner was Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice. And Sun Wah Bar-B-Que won a lifetime achievement award, but everybody knew that was coming.

Anyway, it's been five and a half years since Fat Rice opened in Logan Square, an eternity in restaurant years, so let's take a moment to look back and remember how excited Mike Sula was when Conlon and his co-owner, Adrienne Lo, brought Macanese cuisine to our fair city.

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. 
"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," Sula concluded. "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."

In the years that have followed, Conlon and Lo published a cookbook/comic book, The Adventures of Fat Rice, an attempt at creating the most comprehensive collection of Macanese recipes in print. It's true that there aren't many others, but the Macanese population is aging, and Conlon and Lo wanted to document that way of home cooking before it was too late. They've also opened a bakery and a bar. Its peri-peri chicken is better than that at the upstart invader Nando's. And Conlon has demonstrated the right way and the wrong way to cook a pig uterus.

If the Reader reviewed Sun Wah when it first opened in 1986, there remains no record of it in the online archive. But Reader writers have written about it plenty of times over the year, both in good times (the Peking duck, introduced after a renovation in 2010, has made the annual Best of Chicago list twice, first as the Best Bang for Your Buck and then simply for its greatness) and in bad (its difficulties with the Chicago Department of Public Health).

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