Mel's Fish Shack on Jefferson Boulevard wasn't even supposed to exist, really. It was created as a stopgap. Serial entrepreneur Mel Powell's original business, Mel's Fish Market (five blocks away, also on Jefferson), opened in 1982 as a "you buy, we fry" casual seafood restaurant, providing West Adams and the surrounding neighborhood with fresh catfish, snapper, salmon, and shrimp.
At the Fish Market, you'd select fish from the display case and could either take it home or they'd cook it up right there for you. In the mid-2000s, Mel's daughter and current owner Georgette Powell hired a contractor to install a grease trap, fix the roof, and conduct other major renovations at the Fish Market (she has run the business since 1997; Mel Powell sadly passed away in 2001). According to Powell, that contractor turned out to be highly unscrupulous and ran away with nearly $300,000 of her family's money. "I was swimming with sharks," she said. "It all started unraveling so quickly."
Therein was born the need for the Fish Shack. "I started scrambling because everything was in jeopardy. I couldn't produce any income... I couldn't even think about going after him [the contractor]." She had to do something, and quickly, lest she risk going further into debt and truly running her father's business into the ground.
She took what she had left and put it into opening Mel's Fish Shack in 2008 on the corner of West Jefferson and Farmdale, in a modest structure that resembles a hat box, painted sea foam green and covered in depictions of silvery butterflies sipping nectar from their proboscises. People still miss the original Fish Market, though, and seek it out despite the fact it's been shuttered for seven years. "To this day, three to five customers show up [to the Fish Market] everyday to find out where we've gone," Powell said.
The bright side is that the Fish Shack, despite lacking the actual market aspect and serving exclusively as a hot food restaurant, took off immediately and quickly filled the hole in the neighborhood left by the Fish Market's closure. And the fish is excellent; I can only imagine (I never had a chance to go to the original business) that it is just as good as it was in the old location. Red snapper ($7.75 for lunch, comes with one side) is lean and mild; the meat is delicately treated with a cornmeal batter and tastes as excellent fried fish should — tender and moist, with the juxtaposing texture of the crunchy coating.
Catfish is similar but slightly softer, more yielding, and with a more buttery flavor. All the fried fish goes well with Mel's accompanying sauce, which is not strictly a tartar sauce — it's not quite as mayonnaise-y as most, and hits garlicky notes much harder. The sides I tried were also all excellent: smoky red beans & rice, crunchy, moist hush puppies, and a creamy, eggy potato salad.
Mel Powell, who opened the business nearly 35 years ago, was a remarkable and fearless businessman. He was a math and metal shop teacher at Crenshaw High School, and simultaneously ran a commercial laundry business and had a contract with L.A. Unified School District. He also opened a wrought iron business. And a liquor store. And then, finally, a fish market. "He liked to cook," Powell said, "but he didn't really know anything about fish. He was actually going to open a Mexican restaurant." Mel Powell, who was African American, also taught Spanish in schools and spoke Spanish fluently.
"But then some guy came up and said 'Naw man, you should open up a fish market, because that's what the Black people do over here; they like fried fish and eat fish every Friday...' and my dad just took a stab at it," Powell said. "He was very cavalier. He knew he could do anything he wanted to do... my dad didn't even have the damn permits. He just did it." Mel's Fish Market was eventually shut down while he applied for the proper permits, but Powell remembers her father embodying the brazenly heedless spirit of the true entrepreneur. "He was like, 'The health department will catch me if they can but, in the meantime, I'm gonna make this money.'"
Mel's Fish Shack is located at 4524 W Jefferson in Los Angeles. They are open from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.