Three years of anticipation have led to Thursday. Bixi Beer, the two-story Asian brewery and restaurant, finally opens tomorrow in Logan Square. Inspired by brewpubs in China, Bo Fowler (Owen & Engine, Fat Willy’s Rib Shack) and her team have created a casual and fun restaurant full of surprises. Fowler means business, cooking food that reminds her tastebuds of the flavors she grew up with in her native South Korea. But it’s not all serious with whimsical items like an Italian beef bao with Sichuan giardiniera.
“I want people to be happy, to come here and see their friends,” Fowler said, with a wave of relief after years of planning. “There’s enough space here where they can do it.”
Pronounced “bee-shee,” named after the Chinese turtle god, Bixi is a brewpub with beer brewed on premises and bars on both floors at 2515 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Other Chicago brewers use Asian ingredients like puffed rice, but Fowler is trying to tell a cohesive story with beers complementing her menu.
Fowler’s techniques are practiced. Her belt noodle soup uses a triple broth that’s first cooked with bones, then chicken wings, then a third time with meat. She believes the extra care produces more comforting flavors. Though Bixi has a patio that soaks up the sun off Milwaukee Avenue, she also knows Chicagoans needs something more nourishing and hearty in the winter. The menu — which jumps from China, Korea, and Japan — will eventually expand. Fowler said she’ll eventually offer dim sum and brunch is upcoming.
Owen & Engine opened eight years ago, and American’s dining habits have evolved since with Asian flavors appearing everywhere giving Fowler the confidence to put her childhood tastes front and center. The feeling of otherism for an immigrant can be difficult to combat, and Fowler will occasionally revert. During a Bixi tasting, she worried about the heat level and made a particular dish mild to in an effort to pander. She was particularly concerned about beverage director Jameson Metcalf who’s not a fan of spicy food. Not only did her staff ask her to make the food spicier, but when she did, Metcalf enjoyed the amped-up dish better: “Well, that was a quick learning curve,” Fowler joked.
Mission Chinese Food in New York and San Francisco provided her with inspiration, particularly its kung pao pastrami. Fowler wants to take familiar flavors and tweak them. She’ll also take advantage of the season. If ramps are available, she’ll turn them into kimchi.
One of Fowler’s strengths is to bridge cultures. Some of recipes, like Bixi’s egg rolls, stem from Fowler’s family. Fowler’s not pushing for authentic dishes, but she is stubborn about authentic ingredients. Bixi uses Long Bean Farms, a South Side produce supplier that’s served restaurants in Chinatown since 1988. Bixi will be one of their first clients outside of Chinatown and ensure Fowler has the right exotic ingredients to flavor her food. Bixi’s burger is also a mesh of cultures. Owen & Engine is known for its burger, and Bixi will have its own.
“It’s totally different,” Fowler said. “I don’t like American cheese, but we put American on it. For Owen, we treated it like a piece of steak. At Bixi, we treat it like a pot roast. This is a smashed burger — it’s just supposed to be a silly, fun burger.”
There’s also a small counter in the back of the restaurant dedicated to former Owen & Engine pastry chef Todd Kunkleman. He died in 2013. The room will only stay open late night and they’ll serve only one or two noodle dishes (“More than ramen,” Fowler said.). Customers will have to enter through the back alley. Fowler won’t commit to an opening date for this feature, however. After Bixi’s delays, she doesn’t want to fall into that trap: “You know me,” she joked.
There have been doubters, as Fowler and husband Arden needed the last three years to raise money to complete the project. They’re independent restaurateurs working a volatile Chicago restaurant market without the benefit of the resources of a large restaurant group. But they’ve surmounted those challengers and it’s really happening. After three years, Bixi Beer finally debuts on Thursday in Logan Square.