The “Belt noodle Yibin style” at Bixi Beer is one of the best bowls of pasta I’ve eaten all year. I don’t care that it’s a black-market merger of two different regional Chinese noodle dishes; the chewy, wide Shanxi-province biang biang noodles—like steroidal pappardelle—tangle adaptably well amid funky black beans, pickled mustard greens, chopped peanuts, and the electric ma la buzz that together make up the MO of the southeastern Sichuanese dish they’re named for.
But if you’re offended by such blatant disregard for borders, you’ll look away in horror from the “Chicago beef bao,” two taco-size steamed buns folded over bulging portions of shaved prime rib and giardiniera. Too bad, because those are pretty scarfable too.
“Pan-Asian” is possibly the most meaningless descriptor in restaurant critic-ese, and yet that’s what you get at Bixi Beer, a new brewpub from chef Bo Fowler of Fat Willy’s Rib Shack and Owen & Engine. Her portfolio is nothing if not diverse.
Pronounced “beeshee” and named for the hybrid dragon-turtle of Chinese mythology, the two-story Logan Square buildout adopts the hybridized approach mapped out by the likes of Momofuku and Mission Chinese (or closer to home and more recently Kimski and Ludlow Liquors), but with food specifically meant to be eaten with eight beers brewed off to the side of the dim first-floor barroom.
Such a sweeping, pancontinental scope—which also references the food of Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, and Korea—presents real risks on a menu where the same noodles are deployed in a trio of soups including one, a murky, vaguely Korean chicken broth with bok choi, that tends to soften and disintegrate them into mush.
Textures also seem to be a problem with the various dumplings, which include pulpy, sticky steamed mandu with kimchi and mushrooms and momo that arrived pasty and undercooked, filled with mealy curry-spiced chicken that tasted as if it had been murdered by five-spice powder. On the other hand, crispy fried cylindrical “pot stickers” that perform suspiciously like fried spring rolls are tightly packed with a juicy shrimp-and-pork farce and come with a pleasingly acidic dipping sauce.
A salad of watercress, rice vermicelli, and thinly sliced beef tongue has a similarly bright, fish-sauce-tinged profile, as does the inexplicable pool beneath two scoops of creamy shrimp-and-crab dip bedecked with fat slices of roasted peach.
These broad strokes of sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and sometimes fishy are splashed all over the menu, particularly in larger-format dishes like a bowl of chicken gong bao (aka “kung pao”) with squash and peanuts or a crispy whole loup de mer showered in sliced Fresno chiles and scallions and served in a wide bowl of black bean sauce and whole green peppercorns.
But nowhere is the deliberate blurring of cuisines so stark as on the restaurant’s legally mandated burger, redolent of a more subtle application of five-spice powder and sandwiched between rounds of squishy toasted bao topped with melted American cheese, and slabs of sweet Chinese bacon. This isn’t in the same league as Owen & Engine’s now legendary burger, but like the Chicago beef bao, it’s one of the more winning mashups. It’s certainly a more deft and targeted fusion than the monstrous, messy chocolate sundae dripping with marshmallow fluff, peanut butter fudge, and Sichuan peanuts
Conversely, restraint seems like it was more thoroughly applied to the beer (and cocktail) lists—the advertised Asian-ish ingredients are barely perceptible even in interesting offerings like the dark, malty Chelonian Lair ale with Sichuan peppercorns, or the Shifties, a Bud-like lager whose promise of puffed jasmine rice fails to materialize, or the Smallmouth Buffalo, a bourbon-based cocktail whose fish-sauce syrup barely registers.
I’m sorry I used the F-word just above. Like “pan-Asian,” “fusion” is usually forbidden—and definitely frowned upon—thanks to the abuses historically committed in its name. I won’t go so far as to use that word to describe Bixi Beer. But despite some inspired cross-cultural cooperation, the wide focus just leads to a lot of confusion. v