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You generally know what you’re getting with a fortune cookie: a loosely worded prediction or proverb, and a few lucky numbers. Less expected is for the unfurled strip of paper to ask, “Do you have McDonald’s money?”
It’s the type of twist Philly chef Kurt Evans is bringing to his latest project, The Last Dragon.
Envisioned as a chain of local restaurants that will debut with preview pop-ups this May, Evans describes the concept as “an infusion of cultures,” bringing together the aesthetics of Chinese takeout spots with the spirit of soul food.
“It’s a Chinese store in the way that we’re used to,” Evans told Billy Penn, “but with a flair of Black culture to it.”
The plan is for The Last Dragon to take up locations previously occupied by Chinese corner shops. Evans noted that in many cases, these takeout restaurants are one of just a few sources for ready-made hot meals in many Philly neighborhoods with lower median incomes.
And they’ll look mostly the same, Evans said, because a new buildout “would be missing the point.”
Expect the familiar photo-heavy menu mounted above the counter, but with different items: collard green egg rolls with mango curry dipping sauce, fried chicken fried rice, or the oxtail rangoons that debuted to rave reviews at the James Beard Taste of America event in Philly in March.
Evans has also developed a take on the most iconic of Chinese-American takeout meals.
“[Instead of] General Tso’s Chicken, we got General Roscoe’s,” Evans said of his tribute to Roscoe Robinson, America’s first Black four-star general. “He was from St. Louis, so it’s a St. Louis-style barbeque with a sweet and sour sauce.”
The fortune cookies will contain what Evans calls “Black proverbs” — for example: “As long as I owe you, you won’t go broke,” and desserts will include sweet potato sesame cookies and a unique fusion pie.
“Chinese Americans make moon pies, Black Muslim Americans make bean pies, so I combined the two,” Evans said of a creation he’s been playfully hyping on social media using clips of Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s epic 1978 “Game of Death” clash.
But it’s a different film from which Evans has taken his inspiration, and project’s namesake.
Released in 1985, the year of Evans’ birth, “The Last Dragon” follows young Black martial artist Bruce Leeroy as he’s relentlessly bullied by, and ultimately forced to confront Sho’nuff, the unhinged “Shogun of Harlem.” Produced by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, the film is a dizzying mishmash of fight sequences, musical performances, and Black and Asian cultural tropes; a cartoonishly entertaining entry in the space Evans describes as “the fine line of Black people in martial arts,” which he aims to celebrate.
Beneath its cultural cross-pollination and 80’s trappings of child sidekicks and wonky special effects, “The Last Dragon” is ultimately a story of silent strength and resilience; of an underdog beating often ridiculous odds.
It’s a theme that’s been constant throughout Evans’s work.
Filling a ‘void in the community’
At 38, Evans already has a long history of culinary projects that speak to his personal passions. He received a Champions of Change award from the World’s 50 Best for his End Mass Incarceration dinners, an annual event held since 2017 that celebrates and raises funds for formerly incarcerated individuals working to have a positive impact on their community.
That effort dates back to an earlier venture, Germantown’s Route 23 Cafe, where Evans frequently hired formerly incarcerated individuals — initially without meaning to.
“It wasn’t a thing I was keeping track of,” he said, but “with 3 out of 5 black men going through the criminal legal system at some point in their lives,” the presence of formerly incarcerated job seekers struck a chord.
In the time since, Evans has become a mass liberation organizer at 215 People’s Alliance and a member of the Judge Accountability Table. Alongside running his catering and hospitality Compliment Your Lifestyle, he also cofounded Everybody Eats, a coalition of restaurant owners distributing upwards of 1,400 free meals in annual day-long events, and helped produce Voices of the Unheard, an exhibition displaying artwork and messages from current and former prisoners.
“That’s the thread of who I am as a person, the work that I do,” Evans said. “I try to use food as a vehicle to highlight issues, to bring people together to talk about these issues.”
The Last Dragon is no different. The long-dwelling concept stems from what Evans sees as a growing “void in the community.”
“I’ve been sitting on this idea since 2016,” he said, recalling when his mentor Earl Boyd of the West Philadelphia Financial Institute (now VestedIn), brought to his attention the number of family-owned Chinese takeout restaurants that had recently shuttered along Lancaster Avenue.
Evans spent the next few years quietly fine-tuning the concept and researching the phenomenon.
“I found that a lot of second and third generation Chinese-Americans aren’t taking [their parents’ stores] anymore,” said Evans. It’s understandable, he said, since “their parents came to the U.S. and worked hard to give their kids a better education in fields like tech and finance.”
But the absence of the takeout shops has a ripple effect, he believes.
“Their existence was essential,” Evans said, to countless Philadelphia neighborhoods, including his own. The towers of Millcreek Projects, where he grew up, are now incorporated into the logo adorning The Last Dragon’s takeout rice containers.
“No matter what you ordered, in 10 minutes it was hot and ready” – a scarcity in neighborhoods that might be otherwise classified as food deserts, he noted. “With food insecurity comes high crime and a lot of issues we as a city are facing.”
Evans is launching The Last Dragon with a franchise model as an effort to “build wealth in the community,” and bring opportunities to neighborhoods where they might be hard to come by. To facilitate a transition into business, ingredients and prepared meals will initially be sent to franchisees who might not be familiar with industry procurement methods.
“[It’s] giving people the tools they need,” he said, “to not want to return to the street life, or a life where they have to do things illegally for money.”
Setting up a commissary from which to service the various locations also means the stores will have smaller imprints, benefitting both the community and city at large. It’s the type of impact he hopes The Last Dragon will embody, even down to sponsoring neighborhood basketball and baseball leagues.
The first location hasn’t yet been determined. Evans is working with realtors to find appropriate venues, looking only at storefronts that went out of business, or are for sale while still operating.
Want an early preview? A Last Dragon pop-up is planned for May 21 at Bridesburg’s Guardhouse Cafe, and there’s a GoFundMe with various perks for contributors.