Fishing for Parking Lot Shrimp

The "Alaskan Shrimp Truck" seen here in Anchorage.
The “Alaskan Shrimp Truck” seen here in Anchorage.

Click for the full audio story:

Today we’re cooking shrimp. And not just any shrimp. This shrimp comes from the back of a pickup truck. Seward resident Barbra Donachy explains.

“We were driving around Kenai and saw this old beat-up truck with a hand-painted plywood sign.”

The sign read “Fresh Alaskan Shrimp.”

“As soon as we saw it we said ‘OK, let’s go try this, fresh shrimp sounds great.’”

Barbra and her husband Jack grew up on the East Coast, and were used to seeing people selling seafood out of their vehicles. But for many Alaskans, the thought of buying shrimp out of a truck is…sketchy to say the least. But Jack Donachy says there’s really no reason to be worried.

“Any legitimate person doing this is not going to be offended if you ask ‘Do you have a license, could I see it?’”

Jack says the shrimp ended up being delicious. And he wasn’t surprised. He says Alaska shrimp are superior to most store-bought shrimp, which usually come from Asia.

“It’s a different species of shrimp. They can live in shallower, warmer more polluted water. And that’s the product you’re getting. Whereas the Alaska shrimp is coming from very cold, deep water. It’s a much cleaner, healthier and I think environmentally responsible product.”

The goods. Alaska side stripe shrimp.
The goods. Alaska side stripe shrimp.

I had to meet the pickup truck guy, so I tracked him down on a Friday night in the Sears Mall parking lot. Patrick Johnson has been selling shrimp and scallops from his truck for about 12 years, and he’s heard it all.

“Well gee, it’s out of truck from alongside the road, what kind of quality can I expect?”

But Johnson says once people try his seafood, they almost always come back. And they usually tell their friends too.

“I get people all the time that say ‘I’ve been driving by you for eight years and I never stopped, and this is my first time.’ They’ll usually talk to someone first and say ‘hey I talked to my buddy who said you had fabulous scallops, so I’m here to try that.’”

Johnson says it’s unlikely you’ll find seafood in town that’s fresher than his. His scallops are frozen on the Kodiak boats that catch them. And his shrimp are sold fresh, never frozen. They come mostly from Whittier, and are generally only a day or two old. Johnson says when you buy seafood from the grocery store; you’re getting it after a lot of middlemen.

“You can have anywhere from three or four, to six or more people in between. And each time you have someone in between there’s a question mark of ‘how long has this been froze? How long has it been temperature abused?’ There’s a lot of variables involved compared to ‘I went and caught it myself’ or ‘I know how it was prepared.’”

At this point I’m sold. I decide to take home some scallops and side-stripped shrimp.

When I get home and inform my wife Sarah I’ve just bought a pound of pickup truck shrimp from a parking lot, she is surprisingly not freaked out.

“They came from an Alaskan guy’s truck; he’s not going to sell us bad shrimp. All those guys have to go on is their reputation, so if they’re selling bad shrimp around town people will find out about it.”

But she hasn’t actually seen the shrimp yet.

“Smells like the ocean…doesn’t smell too shrimpy. They are pink, firm, and they’ve got little legs. Much like if you’ve ever seen The Little Mermaid, there’s this scene where Sebastian is in the kitchen and the French chef is singing about preparing little dead crabs.”

We decide to cook them simply, with a little bit of curry over rice. Johnson suggested we only cook them for two minutes.

The finished product - shrimp curry.
The finished product – shrimp curry.

“It has been about two minutes, and our shells are looking pretty opaque, so I’m going to pull it off the heat and call it ready to eat.”

And the verdict?

“Delicious. It’s fresh, with a little curry flavor.”

Now the flavor is great for sure, but I can’t get over how tender the shrimp is. It’s fresher, and more succulent than just about any shrimp I’ve ever tasted. The wife agrees, although not in those words.

“Store bought shrimp tastes more like used shrimp. That shrimp has been a lot of places. It’s well traveled, but this is fledgling shrimp. I like being on the first stop.”