“IN THIS CLOSE NEIGHBORHOOD,” ABE CONLON says, sweeping his arm around his head to indicate that he means the few blocks in each direction, “there isn’t really a place to get coffee, or tea, or a good breakfast thing at 7 am. We’re hoping to fill that void. And make some office heroes around town, you show up with a box of pastries and buns and you’re the hero for the day.”
The Bakery at Fat Rice is likely to do that as it opens tomorrow, July 6, but that’s not all—like the restaurant it springs from, it’s also an introduction to an aspect of world cuisine which has been somewhere between half-hidden and completely unknown in America. That would be the pastry traditions of Asia, which descend from European baking brought to the far east by European traders and travelers, but blend those techniques with the distinct flavors of China, Singapore, Malaysia and, of course, Fat Rice’s central influence—the Portuguese colony of Macau.
When I visited they were still a few days from launch, but they’d filled the cases with the items they plan to offer, for their own practice in the last few days before opening, and for brunch guests to sample. (Only one opening item, a curried corned beef roll made with Sri Lankan flavors, wasn’t on display.) They invited me to take the first approved photos of the lineup:
Gallery: What’s Baking at The Bakery at Fat Rice
The opening choices of a dozen or so items all had the comfiness of warmed baked things out of the oven, but with tastes that might surprise you—coconut and ube, the purple yam that Filipinos use in ice cream; tangy, tropical guava and cheese; funky Chinese sausage and pork floss, the ultra-shredded dried pork that has the texture of cotton candy. And then there’s the one with a deconstructed Chicago hot dog and all its accoutrements on top—”I like this one for the kids because they can kind of break it apart, like monkey bread,” Abe says.
Many of them are versions of things they ate on their most recent trips to Asia—you can compare a few of them to photos they shot of similar items in their account of their travels at Fooditor, which is must reading for anyone interested in how Chicago’s most fascinating Asian restaurant finds things to make. In line with that, the offerings when The Bakery opens will only scratch the surface of their researches—for instance, an ube-flavored cake featured in Chicago magazine a few months back is “still not dialed in exactly yet, it’s coming along,” says Abe, as is the malasada, a marshmallow-filled Portuguese doughnut. (And, okay, the sardine puffs they tried there and said would be on the menu might be a hard sell, at least at first.)
“This is just the opening menu, and we’re going to continue to evolve and grow like we always do,” Abe says. “Moving forward, we have to see what happens in this space, but I’m interested in the kaya toast, which we found in Singapore. It’s basically toast, with pandan and coconut jam, with a poached egg and soy sauce and chile. And we’re working on a fun one, which is ‘cocktail cocktail bun’—cocktail buns are a traditional Chinese bakery item, but cocktail cocktail because we’re going to flavor it with Mai Tai flavors. We’re working on some Chinese salted olive and candied ginger cookies, we’re working on some Indian-spiced Snickerdoodles… once it gets flowing, we’re going to bring on a lot more things to diversify.”
Sounds great, but what’s the setting for all these interesting things, you ask? It’s a simple room with a couple of long tables, and deliberately utilitarian metal chairs—they wanted to get the exact plastic chairs you find next to street food everywhere in Asia, but couldn’t order them in quantities below 1000, so settled for the sturdier metal chairs as still matching the aesthetic. Besides the pastries, they’ll serve Vietnamese-style coffee (from Sparrow) and tea—”We’ll do the pulled milk coffee and pulled milk tea, basically you pour it back and forth between two metal vessels,” Abe says. “And we’ll have carrot juice, on ice, with evaporated milk, called carrot milk, which is delicious. Same thing with a mango-grapefruit combination, which is a classic Hong Kong dessert combo.”
From there he’s soon spinning his idea for an ultimate Vietnamese iced coffee—using the fish sauce caramel they’ve already been making for the Rice Krispies-like dessert at Fat Rice (which will be in the bakery case, too). That’s what’s so consistently exciting about Fat Rice, they’re full of ideas even as they’re busting their butts to simply make it to a (long-delayed) opening. In the end, for all the serious research and thought that goes into their food, Abe’s pitch is pretty simple: “I think the cool thing about this bakery is, it offers another time people can come and eat our food, without ‘Oh, there’s a line.’ You can just come in here and eat.”
Michael Gebert likes a cuppa joe and a sardine puff to dunk as editor of Fooditor.
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