Brewpubs are popping up all across Chicago and when Bixi Beer opens Thursday afternoon, the city will have 26 restaurants that house mini breweries. Chicago’s latest brewpub is unlike any the city’s seen with two floors, a roof deck, and unique touches that pander to comic book and sci-fi fans. Chicagoans have guzzled beer at brewpubs with pizza (Piece Pizza), Mexican food (Cruz Blanca), and Michelin-starred fine dining (Band of Bohemia). Now it’s time to wash down a bowl of Chinese noodles or a burger served as a bao with a jasmine tea-infused beer.
When Bo and Arden Fowler took over the empty space at 2515 N. Milwaukee Avenue, it was an empty shell. The Fowlers have two restaurants, also both in Logan Square: Fat Willy’s Rib Shack and Owen & Engine, the latter a beer-centric gastropub that homages British culture. Owen & Engine manager/beer director Elliot Beier pushed the idea for Bixi (pronounced “bee-shee”) — an Asian-inspired brewpub where Bo Fowler could unleash her inhibitions and cook Asian food. Beier, an advanced Cicerone (opposed to merely a Cicerone, there are only 100 advanced Cicerones in the world), noticed a trend of brewpubs in China, and saw an opportunity. Fowler immigrated from South Korea when she was 6 and was raised in Minnesota with a Foster family of brothers and sisters from all over Asia.
While opening another European-style gastropub could have been a safe play, Fowler, 50, was compelled to try something new. She’s battled sexism and racism in the industry. But now Americans were consuming more Asian food — whether it’s Korean fried chicken, ramen, or dumplings — than ever. It was time for Fowler to strike.
“I don’t know if I could have done this 10 years ago,” Fowler said.
Fowler’s husband made a social media post in January 2015 announcing they had purchased the property. They wanted to open in 2016 but funding dried up as industry experts worried about a restaurant bubble bursting.
“This project grew larger to what I originally thought,” Fowler said.
But it’s finally happening. Fowler said the food reminds her of what her Korean grandmother fed her. The opening menu is succinct and Fowler will add items. She eventually wants to work with brewer Eymard Freire on special dinners with beer pairings. Dim sum is also on its way. Fowler is also serving an Italian beef bao with Asian seasonings. She’ll use Sichuan peppercorns, chilies, star anise, and cinnamon will zest up a Chicago icon.
SPACE Architects + Planners worked with the Fowlers on the restaurant’s design. The ground level is dark and moody, the kind of place where a beer lover won’t be disturbed. There aren’t any TVs inside. Diners can see the brewery equipment through windows behind the booths. A backdoor leads to the kitchen and to another tiny bar. That space won’t open with the rest of Bixi. Fowler will serve late-night noodles and beer hoping the space becomes a haven for food industry workers after their shifts.
The material upstairs are lighter compared to downstairs and lead to a balcony overlooking Milwaukee Avenue. Fowler envisions plenty of private events. There are skylights and a slushy machine. Owen & Engine beverage director Jameson Metcalf is using ingredients like hibiscus ginger syrup and fish sauce syrup.
Named for a Chinese turtle god, Bixi’s journey has been longer than expected. Now that the opening imminent, Fowler has a simple message to her customers.
“Have a ball, drink, be comforted,” she said.
Turtles take their time. Apparently, so do Chinese turtle gods. Bixi Beer finally opens at 4 p.m. today. Take a look at the drink list below.
Bixi Beer, 2515 N. Milwaukee Avenue, open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily; kitchen open until 1 a.m.