Follow some young people wearing big sneakers and baggy jeans into Chinatown at 8:30 on a Saturday night, and you figure they're heading to a show at the Trocadero.
But they walk farther, toward a yellow awning on North 10th Street, golden-brown ducks hanging in the large window below it. Next to the ducks: pricey purple Air Jordans.
Step inside and you start to sense that Abakus Takeout isn't what it seems.
Amid racks of hoodies are white Chinese food boxes with T-shirts inside, and plastic sauce containers loaded with colorful shoelaces. Cold cases hold Nikes. Illuminated menus on the wall show sneakers on plates and toys springing out of egg rolls.
At a stainless-steel wok station, the woks are filled with jeans. There's a walk-in freezer, too, but there's no meat in this locker, just pastel paintings of ducks and pigs - it's a dressing room.
"That's the point," says Rick Cao, Abakus Takeout's conceptual director and designer.
Along with his brother Ky Cao and their best bud, Jackson Fu, they founded Abakus to confound. But not just with visual tricks and satires on cultural stereotypes. The trio seek to modernize and Westernize an area rife with old-world traditionalism.
"There's little but restaurants and bakeries in Chinatown," says Ky Cao, 25. "Selling sneakers and clothing with a hip-hop feel is different. It's new world."
"Chinatown is overshadowed by just having food places," says Fu, 22. "There's nothing Americanized or modern, at least not for our generation - the first born-in-America. What Abakus does reaches out to the entire community."
The bright-red interior of this 840-square-foot faux-food haunt feels like a hangout, thanks in part to big television monitors and a video-game system. Kids flock here.
"We encourage them to come in since we don't want them in trouble," says Ky Cao, who with Fu is part of the Philadelphia Suns basketball team and North 10th Street's Chinese Christian Church, involved in efforts to keep Chinatown's youths off the streets and learning about their culture.
Behind the good intentions is the business of crafting this adventurous boutique, taken on by three "sneaker-head" friends who, separately, once owned a warehouse worth of designer shoewear. Owned being the operative word.
"I don't think I'm a super-sneaker head because I like girls and have a life," jokes Rick Cao, 27. "But it's all-consuming. I've seen people rent out storage space to warehouse them all. I happened to be one of them."
Rick Cao was doing film production for commercials before conceiving Abakus. He, his brother and Fu sold their sneaker collections to get capital to open the store.
When Rick first told him about his idea for a concept store - one that would toy with the stereotype of Chinese takeout - brother Ky thought it was stupid.
"I was a business major at Drexel. I thought the store should be like the outline our classes detailed: Boutiques get wooden floors, Ikea furniture and hang the clothes," he says. "But after you work corporate jobs, any fresh idea looks attractive."
Even more attractive was a long-abandoned restaurant space, a duck house through the 1970s and early '80s whose owners didn't want to rent it for food services. Too much grease and trash.
When the trio approached with a retail concept that traded on the heritage of Chinese food, it clicked.
"A mock restaurant that doesn't deal with grease traps was perfect for them," Fu says.
Less than perfect maybe for Chinatown's real restaurant owners, who thought Abakus Takeout spelled competition.
"I think we upset the neighborhood elders," says Rick Cao. "Then again, we didn't tell anyone we were selling apparel. We covered the windows."
The Caos and Fu designed and built the place themselves with just under $50,000 of their own money. And when the store opened in May, they pulled the newspapers off the window to reveal the sneakers and "roasted" ducks.
The ducks - they're plastic, made by a prop house in California Rick Cao had worked with previously. Price: $200 each, not including the cost of Fu's having to overnight real ducks to Los Angeles for the company to use as models.
"I guess they don't have real ducks in Hollywood," he says dryly.
"But they totally grab your attention," says Rick Cao.
As well as causing, by their estimation, a few bumper-scraping accidents. During a recent visit, people on the street outside stopped, grimaced then laughed, and took cell-phone pictures.
"I used to come here when this was a restaurant," said Gene "Whirly" Williams, 62, a North Philly native who lives in Camden. He happened to be on 10th Street buying fruit when he saw Abakus.
"The sneakers and the ducks - I've heard about this place. Now that I found it, I'll bring my grandson Lundy here and buy him whatever he wants. I think the place looks great."
The ducks are just the icing on the cake, so to speak.
The poinsettia-red walls and crown molding give Abakus a true vintage-restaurant feel, yet it's the ceilings the trio are proudest of. The Chinese ceiling plates, done up in images of dragons and such, couldn't be found in Manhattan or in China.
"We searched the world," Fu says. That is, until they found them in their landlord's storage area, collecting dust.
"They're a genuine rare find, a nice bit of authenticity," says Rick Cao.
Ky Cao won the argument for wooden floors - they're "simply more elegant," says Rick, who wanted tile - but the rest of Abakus reeks of authenticity.
The stainless-steel dressing room was given a genuine refrigerator door hinge and an air-cooling system to seem like a real meat locker.
The 10-foot-long wok station seems ready for grilling - if you're frying up denim.
Abakus Takeout is located at 227 N. 10th St., Philadelphia. Hours: Monday-
Thursday noon to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Information: 215-351-7978 or www.abakustakeout.com.