724 W. Maxwell St. 312-243-3660
Rating: 3 (out of 4) Off to a good start
Has Chicago's near-obsession with every step of Lagunitas' Bedford Park brewery construction proved too distracting? I was surprised at how little attention was paid to the city's newest nano-brewery/restaurant hybrid, Moxee, which opened in early May in University Village. I thought the on-site Mad Mouse Brewing facility, while small at just a 3.5-barrel system, would attract its share of beer enthusiasts and college students. But on my recent Saturday night visit, the modern, 120-seat dining room was almost empty. Does this make Moxee a well-kept secret? I tried to sort it out over dinner and drinks.
The beer: Behind glass on the restaurant's west wall, Mad Mouse Brewing churns out two house brews: a Rathmandu pale ale ($5.50 pint) and a Schnickelfritz kolsch ($5.50 pint). Both are balanced and pleasing, if not ground-breaking, and are solid debuts from homebrewer and former restaurant beverage director Philip Zelewsky. I wouldn't be surprised to see Zelewsky and the Moxee owners—who own craft beer-focused taverns in Evanston and Buchanan, Mich.—open a larger, commercial brewery down the line. "We're a destination brewery. We're not really looking to distribute beyond [Moxee and sister restaurant] Prairie Moon [in Evanston]. We're just trying to brew in-house beers and hopefully one day we'll get larger," partner Robert Strom said.
The food: Props to any restaurant that offers free—baked on-site daily—nearly as soon as you sit down. This (unlimited!) cornbread turns out to be a preview of what's to come from dinner and Moxee: You likely will order Southern food. And receive lots of it. The menu is large, aiming for the something-for-everyone routine that's appropriate near college campuses, but the Southern-inspired dishes are the specialty. Moxee smokes its meats in a storefront two doors down from the restaurant, turning out pulled pork ($13.95), baby back ribs ($13.95 half rack; $20.95 full rack) and more. It's sort of like a Cracker Barrel, except with better ingredients and no rocking chairs. I opted for a crawfish and shrimp po' boy ($12.95), which arrived open-faced on a cafeteria-style metal tray piled high with sweet potato fries and coleslaw. I immediately regretted all the cornbread I scarfed down, since my friend's Three Sisters vegetarian hash ($13.95) was flavorful and also large enough to share. Students from nearby UIC can rest assured that sandwiches and entrees in the $9.95-$20.95 range likely will provide at least one meal's worth of leftovers. I'm impressed that the food isn't just about quantity, either; flavors were bright, and my crawfish and shrimp were perfectly battered and fried.
The space: The space that formerly housed Junior's Sports Lounge is nearly unrecognizable—and that's by design. "There were TVs everywhere. It was like a spaghetti of wires in here," Strom said. "We brought it all down to base level to give it an open and airy feel." The dining room is a mix of bar seating, high-top tables and booths accented by steel, reclaimed wood and rotating work from local artists. It's low-key enough to wear jeans to, but not so laid-back that it would be inappropriate for a casual date night.
The bottom line: I have a feeling Moxee will be a slow burn, the type of place that gains momentum based on positive word-of-mouth and the power of free cornbread. I hope to see the dining room full during my next visit.
Reporters visit bars unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye.
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