Great Balls o' Shrimp

Before most of the businesses were turned into parking lots or government office buildings, before street people became feared as "the homeless," downtown's Main Street was a seedy--though good-natured--strip of "art" movies, fried food and beery dive bars that seemed straight out of John Rechy's "City of Night."

One theater near city hall played the kind of cheeseball samurai movies that never quite made it to the more respectable Japanese theaters on Crenshaw and La Brea; a theater down toward Seventh, decorated with a grand mural rendered all but invisible with grime, functioned mostly as a flophouse but showed the bottom-bill AIP and Herschell Gordon Lewis stuff

that was too weird for even Hollywood's old World theater. Sometimes on a summer Friday evening, Main could seem like a giant, vice-ridden block party, straight past Hopper and down into Hogarth.

And right in the middle of it, for as long as anyone could remember, the fried-seafood stand Johnny's Shrimp Boat sold cheap coffee and ladled out chili and beans, fed the locals and drew a crowd of late-model cars. It was the one place on that stretch of Main Street that everybody seemed to go to on purpose. Sometimes at Johnny's, amid the discarded wine bottles and the passersby pestering for quarters, the line stretched as long as the one at Tommy's or Pink's, though the crowds dwindled as the neighborhood got worse.

For 40-odd years, until its closing, Johnny's made the fried shrimp that fed the Eastside: crisp golf balls of fried dough, deep golden speckled with sandy brown, that tasted of clean oil and happened to have a shrimp hidden somewhere inside each one. They were kind of weird, these shrimp, and sometimes the batter stayed too liquid at the center, but they satisfied some primordial fried-shrimp need, bought by fours, sixes or eights, swabbed with a dab or two of the Shrimp Boat's mild chile sauce. These were Chinese-style fried shrimp, I think, though the owners were Korean and the customers mostly Spanish-speaking: The thick batter defied ethnicity.

Anyway, Johnny's reopened a while ago, a successful transplant to a converted roadside stand near where Temple City fades into El Monte--a few picnic tables and a takeout window, a few taped-up pictures of the old place, a handsome new sign. The fried shrimp is pretty much the same as ever: fresh and hot, crisp and greasy, a little gooey. There are $2.99 lunch plates, which include a couple of the shrimp, a braised short rib or two, a mound of rice, a ladleful of plain pinto beans and a wash of thick brown gravy--the kind of tasty, Spartan lunch you'd probably want if you had only $3 to your name. The chile fries aren't bad. You can even get a T-bone steak, though I've never actually seen anybody order one. But sometimes, all it takes is a basket of shrimp and a Pepsi with ice, and everything seems right with the world.

Johnny's Shrimp Boat

10531 Lower Azusa Road, Temple City, (818) 448-9285. Open Monday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to midnight. Second location at 2712 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 262-8713. No alcohol. Cash only. Takeout. Lunch for two, food only, $6.

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