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Asian Outpost Next for South Loop Couple Behind Hot Woks Cool Sushi

SOUTH LOOP — When David and Lois Lee graduated from Lane Tech High School years ago, they promised not to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, who both owned restaurants.

So they're a little surprised to be working on their fifth restaurant this year, following the string of Hot Woks Cool Sushi locations they've opened since 2008. 

Asian Outpost at 1315 S. Wabash Ave., a 90-seat restaurant set to open by June, will be their first eatery in their own neighborhood, and their first new concept outside the "Hot Woks" theme.

Lois's father, Paul Fong, ran the famous Cantonese Chef in Chinatown, and the Lee family had a takeout restaurant.

"I actually told my dad when I was in high school, 'There's no way I would ever be in the restaurant business,'" David Lee said. "When I was growing up, I did a lot of helping, doing a lot of work in hot kitchens for long hours. When I graduated from high school, I definitely said, 'This is the end of it.'"

So the high school sweethearts studied accounting together. David launched his own firm, and Lois landed at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she "was always traveling," she said.

When planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Lois Lee quit her job.

"It was like an epiphany: I was always on those flights, and one of my best friends passed away in the building," she said. "I said, 'Oh my God, if this was it, this would be a piss-poor ending.' So I just said, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' So I helped Dave with his practice and started coming up with ideas for Hot Woks Cool Sushi."

Five years later, the Lees have four locations of Hot Woks Cool Sushi restaurants in Irving Park, Roscoe Village and the Loop, including one in Willis Tower.

In every attempt to describe the vibe of the new restaurant, both Lees keep circling back to the word "rustic."

That comes in part from the rough interior of the former Ole Hardwood Gastro-Smokehouse, with exposed brick and worn floorboards that they plan to stock with antiques from Old Temple Chicago and elsewhere.

It's also a nod to the stripped-down, low-gimmick menu they hope will emulate the food cooked in the Lee family kitchen in their South Loop home.

"We were having a big barbecue with all our family and friends, and came up with the idea of a restaurant that feels like the parties we have in our home, with the kind of food we feed the people we love," Lois Lee said. "So we'll have a little bit of sushi, more like signature rolls — I'm not going to have a California roll, I'm afraid."

Their Hot Woks Cool Sushi restaurants include a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Thai foods at most locations, with some variations to fit their target audience and "to be a good neighbor," Lois Lee said.

"When we went into Roscoe Village, there was a Thai restaurant half a block away, and I said, 'You know what, we're not serving any Thai food here,'" Lois Lee said. "Because I have no desire to put these people out. And so none of the dishes — other than the Pad Thai, because I wouldn't give that up — there's no Thai dishes on the menu."

Lois Lee said that while the couple has great relationships with the communities that house their restaurants ("Our customers are absolutely awesome," Lois says), they're especially excited about setting up shop in their home turf and being a part of the commercial community at 13th Street and Wabash Avenue.

"We go to all these restaurants here; that's why this is gonna be kind of fun," she said. "You've got pizza, you've got a pub, you've got Hispanic, you've got Italian. I mean, you've covered the world right here on this corner. I'm looking forward to being a part of it."