Editor’s note: With the opening of the Expo Line’s extension to Santa Monica, locals have a new way to explore neighboring areas. The Daily Press will publish a weekly travelogue about what to eat, see and do near each of the stations along the Expo Line, continuing this week at the Expo/Farmdale stop.
The stretch of West Jefferson Boulevard just north of the Expo/Farmdale station is noticeably drab, a simple thoroughfare of commercial and industrial buildings colored with dreary grays, dull browns and faded blacks.
Then you come upon Mel’s Fish Shack, and the area immediately brightens.
The exterior of the small corner eatery features butterflies fluttering on a mural of aqua greens, bright yellows, deep purples and fluorescent reds. The main door, already propped open, welcomes customers with a painted hand pointing in the direction of the restaurant.
It’s a place where the late owner and his daughter have cultivated a sense of community for local residents and visitors alike, where fried fish and a host of sides come with an abundance of good vibes to boot.
The shack was the brainchild of serial entrepreneur Mel Powell, who launched it in 1982 with the goal of bringing Louisiana seafood favorites to Southern California. His daughter, Georgette, took the reins in 1997.
The fried fish hub currently stands at 4524 W. Jefferson Blvd., but Georgette doesn’t want it to stay there forever. Last year she launched a crowdfunding campaign with the hopes of moving the business back to its original location a few blocks east. The drive’s $100,000 goal remains unmet.
In the meantime, Mel’s Fish Shack remains a neighborhood nucleus with curb and culinary appeal. You can judge this place by its cover, too, because the shack’s aesthetic vibrancy on the outside is matched by its buzzing verve on the inside.
The fact that the quarters are cramped only adds to the aura. Six stools line a counter that offers views into the kitchen, and around the corner from the passageway behind the seats is an ordering window with a menu posted off to the side. It feels crowded — in a good, homey way — even when just a handful of people are waiting for their cooked-to-order seafood.
“We’ll see you again soon,” an employee says as two women leave with their food.
“I hope so,” one says.
Replies the employee: “I know so.”
Popular menu items like catfish and shrimp are complemented by other creatures of the ocean, such as sole, tilapia and orange roughy. Pretty much everything can be grilled or fried, and orders for fried seafood can be filled at three different levels of crispiness. (When, exactly, would “extra crispy” be a bad thing?)
Since you’ll want to try a variety, opt for the $15 combo that comes with two kinds of fish as well as two sides. The red snapper, juicy and flavorful and piping hot, pairs well with the specialty tartar sauce. The salmon, more suited to be grilled, finds a friendly companion in a dab of complimentary hot sauce.
You can’t go wrong with the sides at Mel’s. The macaroni salad is cool and creamy, while the red beans and rice mix perfectly. French fries, greens and homemade potato salad are also among the offerings, which can be purchased a la carte.
If you’ve never had hushpuppies, get your introduction at Mel’s. Sometimes known as cornbread balls, these savory deep-fried poppers are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Order a dozen ($3.25) and watch them disappear.
Pro tip: Mel’s Fish Shack doubles as an Expo Line access point for delectable desserts from 27th Street Bakery. Located south of Downtown Los Angeles and more than five miles east of Mel’s, the bakery makes mini sweet potato pies that have a second home near the Expo/Farmdale station — that is, until they’re gone.
The pie is small, bursting with color and totally enjoyable, and at this point I may or may not be describing the pie.
The Expo Line now has 19 stations covering 15.2 miles between Downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. A regular one-way fare is $1.75 and includes two hours of free transfers for riders using a TAP card. A daily pass good for unlimited rides on Metro is $7 and monthly passes are $100. Visit taptogo.net for more information.