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True Grits

April 22, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

If the South is once again the cool thing, with an Arkansan in the White House, Garth Brooks at the top of the pop charts and fried green tomatoes on half the restaurant menus in town, Johnny Reb's Southern Smokehouse is the coolest place around, a slapped-together palace of catfish, hushpuppies and chicken-fried steak, barbecue, Dixie Beer, lemonade served in Mason jars, all the salted goobers you can hold. (Dixie Beer has no flavor to speak of, which is OK because it makes it easier to drink a lot of it.)

Johnny Reb's is something of a Southern theme park on Long Beach's northern edge, a noisy evocation of a pan-Dixie roadhouse that may have been around only a decade or so but feels as old as time. The plywood floor is worn through to near its last ply, and drifts of peanut shells reach almost ankle-high where they have been tossed down near the tables. Country music--Hank Williams Jr., George Strait, stuff like that--blares from speakers overhead, though you'll have to go someplace else to hear "Achy Breaky Heart." (On the bright-yellow suggestion form, which is presented with the check, the only improvement a friend could come up with was: "Put some Pam Tillis songs on the juke.")

The ceilings are encrusted with pennants from every Southern college you've ever heard of, and a few that you haven't; state license plates from the South line the walls. You can smell the wood smoke from the street long before you see the weathered Confederate soldier on the restaurant's sign. If you tell them it's your Aunt Debbi's birthday, somebody will come out and bang on an iron pig.

"Hey," says a waiter who looks like a lean version of Bill Clinton, "you've brought along another critter." The baby, cradled in her father's arms, positively beams.

Here, at least some of the time, are fried green tomatoes that might inspire somebody to write a book--firm, bright-green things dipped in cornmeal and fried, topped with crumbled bacon and as sweet, tart and savory as you could want. (Most of the uptown "Southern" restaurants use tomatoes tending toward ripeness, which collapse into mush in the frying pan.) Hushpuppies, round balls of corn-batter deep-fried into a golden crunchiness, have all the terrific, trashy fried-onion flavor that most places try to civilize out of them.

Here are lavishly buttered bowls of grits at breakfast, served with hot cornbread, eggs any way you like them, and pungent, profoundly salty slabs of real country ham--the kind of breakfast that any sensible person would trade for the ability to squeeze into a pair of size-6 jeans.

Johnny Reb's prides itself on its barbecued ribs and links and pork--in the mornings, the restaurant even serves something called a barbecue omelette--which is fine in an authentically generic Southern barbecue sort of way but lacks the crispness, the smoky punch of first-rate pit barbecue. I once stayed a week at a motel out past the Atlanta airport and ate at a nearby 24-hour barbecue place every night. That barbecue was good enough so that I always looked forward to dinner, but I also realized that there was no single other restaurant open at 3 a.m. in the area. Reb's ribs kind of remind me of that place. So does the bland, chicken-based Brunswick stew--served as an inevitable side dish--which bursts into life with a splash or two of Texas Pete hot sauce. You won't miss the squirrel at all.

French fries are enormous, crisp logs of unpeeled potato; "Cajun rice" is the dirty rice some of us have been missing ever since Carl's on Pico shut its doors a while back; pinto beans are sweet; collards are manly; mashed potatoes are smooth and gluey, but unmistakably real.

The main dishes can be spotty here, the gumbo dull, the chicken-fried steak soft, the barbecued-chicken sandwich dry as a wishbone. Johnny Reb's, in fact, is not the place to get fried chicken, either--the bird tends to be underseasoned and overcooked.

But the blackened prime rib, smoked first in the pit, coated with Prudhommesque seasonings and charred, is great, if not precisely as rare as you might wish; the batter-fried pork chops are juicy and crisp. And the curls of fried catfish, cornmeal-coated fillets that practically dissolve on your tongue, are the best in the county, all spice, juice and crunch.

You will not be hungry after a Johnny Reb's meal, but at least one person at your table should order the pecan pie, which is rich and pully, full of nuts, and has the kind of perfectly crisp, ultra-short crust that falls to powder at the touch of your teeth--assuredly a rare, welcome visit from The Shortening That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

Johnny Reb's Southern Smokehouse

4663 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, (310) 423-7327. Open daily 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $13 to $20.

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