- Michael Gebert
- Steamed “ten karat” shrimp dumplings at Fat Rice
Many people looking at the line ahead of them at Fat Rice, Chicago’s only Portuguese-Macanese-hipster-Asian-fusion restaurant, have surely wished the place would expand. Now it is—but instead of adding space, it’s adding hours with a dim sum brunch on weekends. Which includes some classic Cantonese-style dumplings, as well as things found only in Macau.
“Dim sum is specifically Cantonese, and you see it in Macau all the time,” says Abraham Conlon, chef and owner of the Logan Square restaurant with his wife, Adrienne Lo. “But for our version, we wanted to incorporate just a couple of more Macanese things.”
For the last several weekends they’ve been doing test runs, refining the menu for invited guests, and the menu will launch this Friday. I got to photograph what they think will be the final lineup during prep for Saturday’s run; slide show after the jump.
“We are doing the Macanese version of high tea,” says Conlon. “It’s called cha gordo [“fat tea”]. It incorporates some dumplings, but it incorporates some larger dishes as well. You have your traditional dim sum, which is just kind of small, small, small plates, but cha gordo is more of a community celebration, it might be at somebody’s house. Usually people are standing up and they might be eating a bunch of different things—maybe it’s dumplings, maybe it’s the fat rice, maybe it’s noodles, a little bit heavier than dim sum.”
The lineup includes dumplings but also a bowl of congee with Manila clams and bacon, a Macanese take on European food called minchi (“essentially a not-so-sloppy sloppy joe served over rice,” says Conlon), and two different versions of lacassa, a stew related to Malaysian laksa. It also has, surprisingly, a pork chop sandwich on a Portuguese roll called papo seco—all things that Conlon and Lo remember from their time in Macau.
Lo says it’s been a two-year process perfecting the menu (which puts the start to well before Fat Rice opened), and they both throw out numbers like 100 or 150 when asked how many times they made things to get them right. This day, folding wrappers by hand in the basement prep area, they’re still struggling with a batch of wheat-starch dough that they think is too wet to hold the sharp-edged vegetables inside it.
“It’s a lot of research, it’s a lot of eating, it’s a lot of trial and error because we’re not experienced so much in this style of food,” Conlon says. “You go to Chinatown and the people there have been making this kind of food their entire lives. They can knock it out, and it’s technically kind of perfect. The only thing is, you can see that they don’t use quality ingredients. That was kind of the motivation, like, wow, these items could be amazing if they used a little bit better ingredients or paid a little more attention to the flavors and things like that. We got the flavors, now we’re just pushing for the technique.”
After six hectic weekends of trial runs, they’re clearly ready to just open it to the world. I ask Conlon why they wanted to do dim sum in the first place.
“Jesus, because I’m a masochist,” he says, rolling his eyes. “This town loves brunch, and there’s a lot of things in the Macanese repertoire that we can’t really do at night because they’re more snacky items, or they’re kind of smaller items like the pork chop sandwich, which is superclassic of Macau, the egg tart which is classic of Macau. So we decided it was a perfect opportunity to share some of those things.”
“Some of these things are like re-creating perfection. I mean, it’s a pork chop sandwich and a bun. And it’s the best thing in the world. That’s not the easiest thing to make,” Conlon says. “A 150 trials, and finally we’ve got something close. I mean, people will run out the door screaming for them, but it’s still, for me—I’ve had the real thing. You get a good starting point, and you try to get closer and closer.”
Cha gordo will run at Fat Rice from 11 AM to 2 PM Friday and Saturday, 11 AM to 3 PM Sunday, beginning this weekend. See the opening dishes and how they come together in the slide show.