What is in this article?:
It’s quite simple: Customers are drawn to cool restaurants because it makes them cool by association. What gives a restaurant that “it” factor? Check out these five concepts that have taken cool all the way to the bank.
Fat Rice, Chicago
Principals: Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo
Concept: The food of Macau in a casual neighborhood restaurant.
Hook: It’s Macanese! Yes, Macanese. Guests line up for a bar seat where they can watch the elaborate construction of the restaurant’s namesake dish. In this case, it’s cool to be off-the-charts different.
• Fat rice: A casserole made with jasmine rice laced with sofrito, Chinese sausage and salted duck and topped with Portuguese chicken thighs, char sui pork, linguica sausage, prawns, clams, tea eggs, croutons and assorted pickled peppers, $42
• Balichang Tamarindo (braised sweet and sour pork belly, tamarind, pineapple, chicharrones, $16)
• Po Kok Gai (Mussels, chorizo, olives, cabbage, coconut curry, $18)
• Piri Piri Chicken (Char-grilled half bird, spicy “African” tomato sauce, grilled potato, peanuts, $21)
Prices: Starters around $8; entrees around $18.
Why it's cool: “They are not the latest new-new thing—they are an actual new thing,” wrote the Chicago Tribune of Fat Rice. Well, sort of. Macanese cooking is actually really old, explains Abraham Conlon, who runs it with his partner Adrienne Lo. And trust us, he knows. Conlon is knee-deep in Macanese history and its gastronomic evolution. It boils down to this: A long time ago, the Asian Island of Macau was colonized by Portugual, and then they all made some great, incredibly complex food. But it’s not fusion. “With the exception of chefs like Norman Van Aken (for whom Conlon worked), I always thought fusion seemed forced. This came about organically over hundreds of years.”
Conlon and Lo, who ran an underground supper club in Chicago, understood Fat Rice was risky. “We knew people would be like, ‘What the hell is Macanese’?” says Conlon. “We described it as European-Asian comfort food. We could have done something stupid like call it Saffron and Lotus. Nobody would have come. Fat Rice is a dead simple name that’s easy to understand.”
To introduce a hip factor to an ancient cuisine, Conlon and Lo created a super casual spot and hired a comic book artist to help decorate the place with funky art. On top of that, Conlon carefully mixes the restaurant’s soundtrack, employing mostly hip-hop from far-flung places. Another lesson about cool: Deliver the unexpected and offer surprises. They certainly surprised Bon Appetit, which named Fat Rice to its “Hot 10” list. The whole idea was a risky bet, but one Lo and Conlon won. Customers often wait up to two hours for a seat.
The Tribune described the duo as “interesting looking, the kind of couple you see around town and wonder what their deal is.” But Conlon admits they’re no hipsters. “We’re eggheads. We want to put together food for a reason, to respect the cultures and cooks before us.”
They are particularly serious about Macao because a lot of its old culture has been pushed aside since China assumed sovereignty over the territory back in 1999. As a result, Conlon digs deep into the internet to find people who might be willing to share old family Macanese recipes. “But we keep all that behind the line and in the office,” says Conlon. “Out front we present something simple and fun.”