This Pan-Asian Brewpub Serves Hand-Torn Noodles With Tea-Infused BeerSeptember 17, 2018
Possibly the closest you can get to stepping inside someone’s head is by visiting BiXi Beer, the East Asian-inspired brewpub that chef and owner Bo Fowler opened with husband and co-owner Arden this summer in Chicago. From the beer taps designed by a local comic book author to each painstakingly hand-selected doorknob, Fowler’s singular aesthetic and Asian-American experience seep out of each detail of this two-story behemoth.
“This definitely took an army,” says Bo Fowler, gesturing around as she sips coffee. She wears thick-rimmed glasses and a raw-edged chambray shirt, her black hair heaped into a bun. “I wanted BiXi to be pretty, but also bring out my love for sci-fi fantasy, which is why it looks a little schizophrenic.” A Gotham-esque, monochrome mural of the Chicago skyline featuring an enormous turtle is by DC Comics artist Eduardo Risso and overlooks the moody, industrial ground-floor bar, which is lit by 117 caged glass light fixtures hand-blown by Fowler’s brother.
I’m chatting with Fowler and master brewer Eymard Freire in the second-floor atrium, a soaring contrast to scene I just described downstairs. Behind the handsome white marble bar, built-in shelves resembling arched windows display a series of hanging plants. Wood tables and chairs are scattered across a black-and-white tile floor, bathed in light from a retractable skylight and floor-to-ceiling windows leading to a roomy patio. Two custom terrarium walls section off a sultry lounge outfitted in vintage furniture handpicked by Fowler. It’s adjacent to a jade-green dining room bedecked in bold portraits by artist Max Unterhaslberger, above which lurks a bewitching pair of spider chandeliers.
It took nearly four years and plenty of bootstrapping to complete BiXi (pronounced bee-shee), which is the first on-premise brewery venture for the Fowlers, who also own beloved British pub Owen & Engine and Fat Willy’s Rib Shack, both also in Logan Square.
“I wasn’t even married when Bo and I first sat down,” Freire jokes, side-eyeing Fowler. “Now I’m married with a three-month-old kid.”
The Brazil-born brewer with a perpetual five o’ clock shadow and formidable eagle tattoo on his chest is fond of phrases like “hazy is lazy,” apologizing for the first-run cloudiness of the caramel-hued Sunsinger pale ale he’s poured me—with amarillo hops and zippy notes of strawberry and lemongrass. It’s a testament to his training in brewing technology and science at the Siebel Institute and Doemens Academy in Munich and explains his penchant for lagers with perfect clarity. His even-keeled demeanor occasionally betrays that wry sense of humor—usually aimed at his own perfectionism—to the point where I catch him picking sticker residue off my laptop.
He was still a consultant at suburban Prairie Krafts Brewing Co. when he and Fowler met in March 2016, two years after she’d signed the lease at 2515 North Milwaukee Avenue. Incidentally, Chicago saw a flurry of acclaimed brewery and chef-driven brewpub openings that year, including Rick Bayless’ taqueria and brewery Cruz Blanca, lager-focused Hopewell Brewing and Jared Rouben’s culinary brewery and tasting room Moody Tongue. It hasn’t slowed down, either. BiXi’s opening marked Chicago’s 28th brewpub out of 69 breweries in the city alone, per the Hop Review’s August 2018 compendium.
So what sets BiXi apart?
“We’re keeping the tradition of what beer is supposed to be like,” Freire says. “It’s not easy to make beer that tastes like beer.”
He pours me Unspoken Rule, a lagered golden ale infused with pearled jasmine tea that’s easily my favorite in the lineup. Clean, refreshing and brilliantly clear, the tea’s floral character complements the hay-like hop bitterness and sweetness of the malt. Fowler first dreamed up the palate-washing brew in her head. It’s also a spot-on pairing for BiXi’s yibin-style belt noodles tossed in a searing oil laced with crushed Sichuan peppercorns, fermented black beans and yacai (preserved mustard greens).
Fowler’s the first to admit she’s no beer expert, nor does she drink it much, save for a requisite round of Shifties—a crushable American lager infused with puffed jasmine rice—with staff after hours. But she applies the same fearless curiosity she does to cooking, challenging Freire to incorporate interesting ingredients without straying into gimmickry. Their partnership yields the occasional argument, including a recurring one about the use of fresh versus dried fruit infusions. But it also creates beers that are at once intriguing and beautifully structured, such as the spicy, smoky Chelonian Lair dark ale brewed with cherrywood smoked malt and Sichuan peppercorns.
Most importantly, Fowler says, the beers “don’t compete with the food.” You may roll your eyes when you first glance the “pan-Asian” descriptor portraying her boldly spiced menu of snacks, raw seafood and heartier seconds that span in influence from China to Thailand, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. But this no trite catchall.
Numbing belt noodles mimic the 80-cent street food Fowler gets whenever she’s in Chengdu, China, where her sister used to live. Crispy, pork-and shrimp-Vietnamese egg rolls, loaded with fish sauce and dried shrimp, were a staple of Fowler’s childhood home in northern Minnesota, where she, a Korean immigrant, grew up alongside nine siblings, most of whom were adopted from Vietnam and China. Kimchi and veggie dumplings pay homage to her earliest stateside memories.
“I wasn’t even speaking English yet, and my dad and I were making kimchi together,” she says. Her pan-Asian family tree also lends satisfying credence to the brewpub’s namesake, the mythical Chinese figure of a dragon housed in a turtle shell that’s one of few recognized widely throughout Asia.
Fowler first came to Chicago to attend medical school, but dropped out after two years to work in restaurants. Her tireless work ethic earned her a quick ascent to sous chef. She opened her first wine bar at age 28, largely out of self-preservation as a woman and Asian immigrant in white male-dominated kitchens.
“One time I asked to run a couple ideas by the chef, and he said, ‘Sure, come sit on my lap,’” she says. She put her hand in his face and walked away, deciding the only way to control her environment thereafter was to open her own restaurants.
But it’s a different world now, sorta.
“I see these young women with amazing pedigrees doing whatever they want, and it’s inspirational,” she says, nodding to Diana Davila, who owns nearby, acclaimed, regional Mexican restaurant Mi Tocaya Antojeria. “You’d think, me being 50, it’d be other way around, but their freedom and courage inspires me to say, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to do what I like.’”
That largely translates to self-acceptance of her collaborative, all-in ownership style. She not only brought two Owen & Engine vets, beverage director Elliot Beier and chef de cuisine Jeff Smyl over to respectively helm BiXi’s beer education and kitchen; she also lives above her eight-year-old restaurant, and has been known to volunteer to pull confited meat out of the oven at 4 a.m. So far, the lengthy one-mile commute to BiXi is having negligible effect on her dedication.
“That first week, I was here from 8:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day—surviving off of sheer will,” she says, shrugging. “I haven’t slept in 25 years anyway.”