Chicago’s brewing scene continues to expand, and one of the newest brewpubs is also one of this year’s Imbibe 75 Places to Watch. Bixi (pronounced bee-shee), an Asian-inspired brewpub from the team behind Owen & Engine, opened last summer in the Logan Square neighborhood, and every element—from the beer and food to the interior design—speaks to owner and executive chef Bo Fowler’s creative vision.
Inspired by the unapologetically fiery dishes she discovered years ago during a meal at Mission Chinese, Fowler dreamed of opening an Asian-inspired restaurant where she could cook food that feeds her soul, without being limited to a single style or regional cuisine. Melding her South Korean roots with her upbringing in the Midwest, the menu references a kaleidoscope of Asian cuisine, drawing on influences from Vietnam, Japan, Thailand and beyond, plus some cross-over plates designed to appeal to Chicago-centric tastes, like Cheeseburger Bao and beef fat fries with furikake.
The two-story brewpub is a stunner. Designed in collaboration with SPACE Architects + Planners, each floor has a distinct personality. On the entry level, where the brewing operations flank the main dining room and bar (windows let guests get a sneak peek at the beer making action), Fowler sets a dark, industrial tone with sleek black leather booths and light fixtures designed by her brother Aaron Buccholz of St. Louis Glass. The upstairs decor showcases Fowler’s lighter, more whimsical side. In the atrium-like space, bright white walls reflect the abundant sunlight, with tropical plants bringing warmth to the room. A full living wall designed by Bottle & Branch is one of Fowler’s favorite elements. “I crave sun so badly in the winter, so I thought if I were a guest if I could go up there and eat brunch in the sunshine and that would be amazing,” Fowler says of the top floor. “I’m a humble chef, and I like to keep it casual, because that’s how I cook and that’s how my life is, so it’s both casual and beautiful.”
For a bar named after a mythical Chinese creature that’s half dragon and half turtle, nods to the unusual beast intertwine with the interior design at every turn. The most obvious instance is a large mural designed by DC comics graphic artist Eduardo Risso. “I’ve always admired strong, graphic work and comic books, and I wanted to have some fun and reflect my love for Chicago in the bar, so I thought, ‘What would it look like if you put Bixi in Michigan with the Chicago skyline in the background?’ That’s the story we have going throughout the space,” Fowler says. Bixi also appears in the wallpaper and the “family portraits” in the lounge. It took two years of collaboration with Chicago artist Max Unterhaslberger to create the 48 oil paintings, many of which show the staff with dragon features. “I wondered, ‘If Bixi came down and populated the earth, what the lineage of these people would look like through the years?’ So I hired Max and told him to start in 1200 AD and go to 1940.”
The beer side of Bixi is similarly adventurous. Native Brazilian Eymard Freire (who trained and now teaches at Chicago’s Siebel Institute) brews beers with balance and restraint and also serves as lab tech, responsible for propagating the brewery’s in-house yeast strain. “We want to be a place where food and beer marry each other from the get-go, so we’re looking at how the beer accents the food and how to marry a classic German style—his style of brewing is very classicist, very professorial—with exciting ingredients,” says Fowler.
Many of the house beers feature unique additions, such as puffed rice, lemongrass, and szechuan peppercorn, to keep the drinks in good company with ingredients on the food menu. Take Shifties, the flagship American lager brewed with jasmine tea. “You’d think being a jasmine tea beer would be weird against spicy food, but even though it’s a light crisp beer that cools the palate, it has a backbone and structure that holds up to this aggressive food. It adds a floral note right when you least expect it,” says Fowler. Train of Thought, a bold imperial stout reminiscent of Vietnamese coffee, is another example of Freire’s mastery of beer and food pairings. “It’s made with lactose, chicory and coffee, and it goes well with our desserts, but it goes with a lot of super spicy food, too,” Fowler says.
Bixi’s beer program may veer toward the adventurous, but Freire always keeps a keen eye on balance and discipline. “Before you break the rules, you have to know the rules,” Freire says of his brewing philosophy. “There’s a fine line that divides gimmicky and novelty, and I stand on traditional practices, so if I’m going to innovate, I’m going to maintain the integrity of that beer at the same time.”
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