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Defying the Odds : Killer Shrimp appears to be enjoying a runaway success, even with a limited menu.

September 17, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

STUDIO CITY — Everyone knows restaurants are high-risk propositions. Well, Killer Shrimp serves a total of one entree and has now grown to three locations, the newest in Studio City. How's that for defying the odds?

So far, so good. Because Killer Shrimp, from all appearances, is enjoying a runaway success.

When you drive down Ventura Boulevard, heading east from Laurel Canyon Boulevard, lurid red letters reading Killer Shrimp should grab your attention. No one will blame you if you think that the sign is an ad for the latest Wes Craven film.

It's really an ultra-minimalist operation, an angular, mustard-yellow dining room with black tables. It looks more like a partly furnished beach house in Malibu. On warm evenings, the interior is virtually deserted, besides one or two terminally hip grungers sitting, make that slouching, at the center bar. Most customers have staked a claim on the outdoor terrace, a distinctly stylish crowd looking far less at home on these white plastic patio chairs than they would, say, in the earth-tone elegance of Il Mito down the street. But you know what? They all look pretty happy.

The reason for their contentment: the eponymous house specialty, killer shrimp, a huge bowl of them and the only real thing to eat here. They're still in the shell when they come to you, an even dozen drowned in a spicy sauce and served in a white ceramic bowl. The price is $10.95. Pay an extra $4 and someone will shell them for you, plus give you your choice of either steamed rice or fresh pasta to mop up the killer sauce. Personally, I'd take advantage of the sweat equity and go for the cheaper model. It is definitely the most fun to eat.

The hook is that these are fresh Louisiana shrimp, never frozen. This operation is so confident that you are going to love its product, the only accompaniment is a basket of French bread for dunking. As to the secret spicy broth/sauce that lies at the heart of this gimmick, the menu says it is composed of natural ingredients simmered for as long as 10 hours. I'm not given to numerical evaluations, but this stuff is nowhere near a 10-plus. On my scale, I automatically deduct two points when I don't know what I'm eating.

You will be served by black-clad waitresses who look as if they have stepped directly from the set of "La Femme Nikita, " and when they come by to take your order, they won't drop any company secrets. I asked our waitress what was in the sauce and she looked away, completely bored. "I don't really know," ours managed, finally, as she walked toward another table. "They don't want anybody to know."

Big deal. Two obvious ingredients in this sauce are garlic and red pepper, so much of the latter that almost anyone would concede that this is hot food. The others are anybody's best guess, though if salt is one of them, you could have fooled me.

Here's how you eat it. You'll tie a plastic bib around your neck (this sauce splatters) and pull a shrimp out of the sauce, much in the spirit of pounding crabs at a Chesapeake Bay crab house or feeding on catfish in cornmeal batter somewhere on the Mississippi. The shrimp are, by any standards, fresh and squeaky on the teeth, a far cry from frozen shrimp to be sure. But this sauce, to my mind, is one-dimensional, lacking the complexity you'd expect from the stewpot of a great Cajun chef.

The sauce is pretty good on rice, but then you miss the fun of shelling the shrimp and sucking on the shells.

The restaurant breaks character long enough to offer one dessert, sweet potato pecan pie, a sweet potato bottom with a crusty pecan top. I actually enjoyed this dessert more than my entree, mixing every bite with the mountain of fresh, hand-whipped cream on the side.

Where and When Location: Killer Shrimp, 4000 Colfax Ave., Studio City. Suggested Dishes: killer shrimp and bread, $10.95; sweet potato pecan pie, $3.50. Hours: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Price: Dinner for two, $26 to $35. Beer and wine only. Parking in side lot. MasterCard and Visa. Call: (818) 508-1570.

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