The best lesson learned in working for a corporation is the importance of quality and consistency. The downside is a lack of creativity given to employees. Former P.F. Chang's corporate employees Scott Lucas and Fred Garcia experienced both while running a string of Pei Wei Asian Diners in Colorado. After ten years with the company, Lucas decided he needed the freedom to run a restaurant his way, so he and Garcia came up with a plan to open their own Asian eatery.
First they had to wait a year to meet the conditions of a non-competition agreement, and then the two found a vacant restaurant space at 2720 South Colorado Boulevard in the University Hills shopping center. They decided their new venture would incorporate wok cooking, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese recipes and ingredients, and a playful American element to set their menu apart. Lucas's wife came up with a name: Wok Hei, which means "breath of the wok," a phrase often used to describe the distinct flavor imparted by stir-frying in a well-seasoned, searing-hot wok.
Lucas is behind operations at Wok Hei and Garcia is the chef; his menu is divided into small plates, soups and salads, lettuce wraps, sandwiches, and larger stir-fries and noodle bowls. Lucas notes that signature dishes and early favorites include wings in four flavors; a Thai tom kha soup; pad Thai made traditionally with tamarind paste and no tomato-based sauces or sweeteners; and a banh mi "bomb" burger sporting a patty made with ground beef, pork and shrimp. Wok entrees encompass several American-Chinese classics — think kung pao, sesame orange and Mongolian — available with five protein options (including tofu for vegetarians).
Lucas designed the logo, and his wife came up with the name Wok Hei.
Fun American-fusion touches included a wasabi tempura burger with a battered-and-fried patty (that Lucas describes as surprisingly light); a five-spice pulled pork sandwich; and Wok Hei fish tacos served with creamy sriracha and wasabi slaw on crispy wonton shells. For dessert, Lucas tracked down a Denver ice cream company that mixes up several unusual flavors, including avocado-lime, Thai basil and spicy sriracha.
The interior is clean, bright and professional, as to be expected from a team with a P.F. Chang's background. Much of the art and logos were designed by Lucas, who learned to use design software in the months spent waiting for city permits and licenses. Wok Hei will be a counter-service restaurant, but Lucas notes that it's not point-and-order; everything is prepared and cooked to order, and the dining room will be patrolled by staff who will bring drink refills, clean tables and handle other customer needs.
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The restaurant will host a soft opening on Saturday, December 10, with limited hours and menu items, but will run with regular daily hours of 10:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. starting next week (with earlier closing hours on Sundays).
Lucas says he saved thousands of dollars by creating the art and logos for Wok Hei himself.