CITY GUIDES | Chicago

CITY GUIDES | Chicago

All the stuff you’re missing in the Windy City, according to Fat Rice chef Abraham Conlon.

May 22, 2019
CITY GUIDES | Chicago

CITY GUIDES | Chicago

All the stuff you’re missing in the Windy City, according to Fat Rice chef Abraham Conlon.

May 22, 2019
As told to Cassandra Landry | Art by ChefsFeed

Abraham Conlon, chef of Chicago’s exuberant award-winning Macanese joint, Fat Rice, isn’t a sit-on-your-heels type of person. He’s an all-out Food Person: Every meal’s an opportunity to map a little more of a city and find what’s good.

“I go where no one goes, for food that no one knows,” he offers as explanation. (Cryptic, but promising!) “I've explored basically every aspect of this city to find ingredients and places off the beaten path.”

A native of Lowell, Massachusetts, Conlon’s been in Chicago for twelve years. He’s done New York, he’s done California, he says, but at the end of the day, you can’t beat those neighborly Midwestern vibes. “People are just nice here.”

And we all know what they say about nice people: they make nicer than nice food. Here’s a few gems he’s uncovered along the way.

BREAKFAST AND COFFEE

The place that sticks out in my mind is Chiu Quon Bakery and Dim Sum. Chiu Quon is a Chinese bakery in the Vietnamese and Thai part of town, which they call Asia on Argyle. There’s a bunch of old guys hanging around in the back, reading the papers, having conversations, playing card games. They have really great hot milk teas, and they make these hand-rolled rice noodles, almost like Chinese cavatelli, if you will, but a little bit bigger.

They take a little scoop of it and pop it in the microwave for a second, and then they give it to you with your milk tea, with a little Sriracha on the side. It’s a spicy, satisfying, relatively healthy, quick little breakfast.

Another thing I really like for breakfast is pho or a savory, spicy soup. Nha Hang Vietnam Restaurant is a fantastic, family-run, from-scratch Vietnamese restaurant with an excellent bun cha ca noodle soup with pineapple, tomato, and fish cakes. The broth is delicious; nourishing and light, lots of vibrant flavors that kick off your day. They have the best bánh xèo in the city, as far as I'm concerned, and they do a super strong chicory coffee with condensed milk (I drink it with a spoon so I can eat some of the condensed milk that's on the bottom). It's a beautiful thing.

I usually drink the coffee at the bakery at Fat Rice, because it’s fantastic. We use Sparrow Coffee, an independent roaster. [Roaster] Chris Chacko works with a lot of the higher end restaurants in Chicago to give them the flavor profile that they need based on cuisine. He's really about how the coffee goes with the food, which is a cool thing that I don't think a lot of people really think about. He has a roasting facility out in Naperville, and they just opened a cafe downtown.

LUNCH

Lula Café is a fantastic restaurant, period, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I could talk all day about Lula Café and [chef] Jason Hammel because I love him, and I love his place. I go there at least once a week. That's my home.

He offers something for everybody: the thing that you crave, and the thing that you come back for, whether it's a quesadilla or a turkey sandwich with bacon, or a breakfast burrito, or a pasta. He’s got the café menu which has all those staples, but then you have your breakfast and lunch and brunch options, where they're doing seasonal ingredients and really inventive techniques and interesting flavor profiles and combinations—I had a “risotto” recently that was beautiful meaty morel mushrooms and sunflower seeds and buckwheat, with rabbit—he's the first one there at the farmer's market every day, and he's been that way for 20 years. It's an amazing restaurant that embodies what a restaurant should be. The atmosphere is chill, especially during the day; it's bright, it's sunny, always friendly and professional service.

I also love Dove's Luncheonette. It has this Tex-Mex-Chicago vibe. They have really awesome ceviche and pozole, but then they'll also do a delicious smoked brisket thing. You can get a mezcal margarita and awesome chilaquiles with a big half an avocado on it.

There's a great place called Cellar Door Provisions with an inventive, cerebral lunch that's light and very, very thoughtful. They're implementing a lot of naturally fermented products and local sourcing. It’s how a small, ideal restaurant should be, giving back to the community. Just doing everything right.

If anybody is flying into Midway airport, I'm always the first one to volunteer to pick them up, because I’ll go to Birrieria Zaragoza for steamed, roasted goat with handmade tortillas with a molcajete salsa. They have really nice coffee with cinnamon in it, too.

Lula Café
Hot Spot
Logan Square, Chicago
$$, Modern, American, Breakfast, Reservations, Outdoor Seating, Full Bar, Café
19 Recommendations

DINNER

I came from the fine dining world, so I don't necessarily seek that out. But there are some great places that I find myself going back to: I really like to go to Momotaro for sushi. They have a good cross-section of Japanese-inspired foods; I always get the sushi omakase. There’s nice skewers, cool cocktails. Service is great, and they always remember you.

Café Marie-Jeanne is a delicious place for any time of day, but for dinner especially. [Chef Michael Simmons] does a lot of cool stuff with off-cuts and seafood; he does a great omelet with caviar.

I'm ready to blow some dough on the new omakase at Kyōten. I love all things sushi. The simplest things are the hardest to prepare because there's nothing to hide behind, right? Your rice needs to be spot on, your fish needs to be at the right temperature. It really employs all of the senses and the sensibility, and the determination and judgment of a chef. Maybe I'm going to sound like a hippie on this, but there's something about the energy transference that we don't always pay attention to within cuisine. The rice comes out of the steamer. The fish goes on the top, is compressed with the warmth of the hand. There's a lot of variables, and intention, and real energy. It's somebody giving something of themselves. They're giving their perspective, more so than in any culinary art.

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