Deep dish pizza, hot dogs, and Italian beef are all iconic staples that are famously associated with Chicago, but the city’s culinary achievements extend far beyond those dishes. From north to south, diverse restaurants line the streets offering tastes from around the globe.
It’s only fitting, then, that Logan Square’s Fat Rice is considered to be among the crème de la crème of Chicago eateries. The popular Macanese-style restaurant is the crown jewel of the growing ‘fusion’ trend that melds disparate cuisines to produce bold, new flavors. And no dish is more emblematic of the cooking style than Fat Rice’s signature arroz gordo.
Anyone who’s dined at the perennial hotspot has seen it. The arroz gordo, which literally translates to “fat rice,” is a jaw-dropping, bountiful creation. The dish’s origins hail from Macau but the influence draws from several regions.
Although arroz gordo is commonly enjoyed during feasts and celebrations back in its homeland, the dish didn’t make its way stateside until Fat Rice opened in 2012. Since then, it has garnered widespread attention. Despite the popularity, though, Adrienne Lo — who co-owns Fat Rice with chef Abraham Conlon — thinks they’re still the "only restaurant in the world to serve fat rice."
With so many different parts, arroz gordo isn’t something that can be whipped up at a moment’s notice. "We work around the clock for the components of the dish," Lo says.
The process begins with the jasmine rice, which is par-cooked and laced with shredded duck, sofrito, and Sherry vinegar-soaked raisins. It’s a long process that can take up to 12 hours and according to chef de cuisine Eric Sjaaheim, "there are a lot of hands involved." When an order is placed, the prepped rice is placed in a lard-coated clay pot on the grill and studded with lap cheong (Chinese sausage). The fat helps form the socarrat, a crispy, paella-like rice layer traditionally not found in arroz gordo.
Once it starts to smoke, chicken stock is added to the center of the pot and the whole thing goes into the oven. Also roasting away in there are curried chicken thighs and char siu (barbecue pork) that have been sliced and marinated.
While the rice cooks, the attention turns toward the other proteins. Manila clams and jumbo prawns that have been stuffed with a mix of piri piri peppers, garlic, fermented black beans, and cilantro stems are steamed in a pan until they develop a nice color. Linguiça sausage, a Portuguese specialty, is also finished on the grill.
After about 15 minutes in the oven, the dish is ready for assembly. The chicken thighs, char siu, linguiça, prawns, and clams are artfully piled atop the bed of rice. Not content at stopping just there, Sjaaheim tops it off with a smattering of accompaniments — a tea-brined egg, cornichons, Portuguese olives, red chilis, scallions, chicken fat croutons, and chili lemons for some heat and acidity.
The eye-popping final product is an amalgam of multicultural flavors. All-in-all, it takes even a seasoned cook at least 25 minutes to prepare but Sjaaheim says "if you’re doing it at home, it would take a day-and-a-half." He estimates the kitchen "goes through about 50 [orders] on a Saturday," so the amount of work required is no small feat.
Aside from just being a best seller, the namesake dish holds special significance. Lo and Conlon repeatedly came across recipes for fat rice as they pored over various cookbooks and decided it was a fitting term to call their restaurant. "The name is indicative of what we want to convey—comfort food, abundance," Lo says. "You come out with your friends and you chow down."
Even though it seems like an obvious must-order dish, Lo actually suggests that first-time diners explore the rest of the menu instead. That way they can sample a larger variety of seasonal items while saving the arroz gordo for another visit since it’s a sizable commitment meant to be shared by two-to-four people. After all, she promises "it’s always going to be here."