Walking along a quiet, narrow street in Watts lined with single family homes, my friend and I search for a hidden backyard restaurant recommended to us by someone who knows we love such secrets. Cold beers in hand, we hesitantly knock on the front door of a small home, uncertain that we have the right place. “Dad, someone’s at the door,” yells out a young girl just inside. Her father greets us with a knowing smile and directs us to the narrow walkway just to the right of the house. We make our way down the path, through a metal gate to find a tree-lined oasis where the steady 2/4 shuffle of cumbia plays. A group of young guys are already gathered around a long, umbrella-covered table, digging into heaping plates of ceviche and fiery red shrimp. We’re definitely in the right place.
As most adventurous eaters in Los Angeles know, finding your food can be as much of the experience as eating it. That’s certainly the case at Mariscos Doña Mary, which has been quietly turning out Mexican seafood specialties to hungry fans in the know for over a decade. When we arrive, we’re warmly greeted by Leslie Melin, daughter-in-law to the matriarch of this underground operation, Mary Melin. We’re offered a cup with a homemade michelada blend for our beers and a basket of thick tortilla chips with a spicy green salsa. We grab a seat on white plastic chairs and scan the laminated menu that promises an array of mariscos, from ceviches and cocktails, to spicy sauteed camarones a la diabla and even a whole fried fish.
We soon learn that Mary is in fact part of a Nayarit-style seafood dynasty here in Los Angeles, as her brother-in-law is Vicente “Chente” Cossio of the renowned Mariscos Chente restaurants, considered by some to be the godfather of Mexican seafood in L.A. The original Inglewood location has since become the critically acclaimed Coni’Seafood, named for Mary’s niece Connie Cossio. For many years, Mary worked in the kitchens of those establishments, so customers familiar with both will likely recognize much of the menu at Doña Mary’s.
We start with the excellent ceviche mixto, made with shrimp, octopus and imitation crab, all tossed together with lime juice, freshly chopped cucumber, tomatoes, red onions, jalepeño and cilantro. As first-timers, we’re directed to the popular camarones culichis, which features shrimp drowned in an alluringly viscous, light green sauce made with jalapeño peppers, garlic, sour cream and cheese, served with rice. It’s wonderfully addictive, and we learn that you can order a thinner version of the sauce with pasta. We also tried the namesake Camarones a la Maria, shrimp in a deep red sauce with a great peppery kick.
“I began cooking everything myself when I was twelve years old,” Mary tells us when she takes a break from working in the kitchen, as her son Garcia translates. “I'd take my little table and equipment into town and would pay three pesos to rent a spot to sell my food. My grandmother would make and sell food at home, so I learned the recipes from her. She taught me how to cook the different types of chiles, how to make tortillas by hand, and all of that. I’d make pozole, tamales, tacos dorados, tostadas with chicken, enchiladas, a lot of the things that you see in Mexican restaurants here in L.A. now."
Mary recalls first moving with her aunt to Los Angeles when she was fifteen years old after growing up in the small town of El Llano, Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico. The pair first traveled to Tijuana, before crossing the border and eventually settling in Redondo Beach. Her first job here was working as a dishwasher at a convalescent hospital in Torrance, but explains that her early culinary experience helped her quickly land a promotion, “When the cook was out, they put me in to cook.”
Mary would go on to meet her husband, and after having a son followed by two twin boys, she returned to working in the convalescent hospital. But she tells us that the twins began having health issues early on and so she decided to stay home to care for them. To help make ends meet, she made tamales and sold them to neighbors around Wilmington where they lived at the time. Garcia, one of the twins and now 35, adds, “Once she stopped working and was tending to me and my twin brother, we stopped getting sick.”
As the boys grew, the tamale business expanded to become a family operation, with each of them contributing to the cottage operation in their own way. “I was ten years old when I first remember helping out,” Garcia recalls fondly. “It was a little system we had between my twin brother, our older brother and my mom. She would prepare the meat and on Friday nights we were each in charge of different tasks. My twin brother was in charge of putting the masa on the husk, my older brother was in charge of making them and would put the meat, potato, onions and slices of jalapeño in them, then he'd give them to me, I'd tie them up and put them in the pot. Then she'd leave them cooking overnight on a low flame, and the next morning, we're out selling them. At first it was around the neighborhood, but we ended up with a route where we would go to Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and other locations.”
In addition to her brisk tamale business, Mary also worked for years with family members at Mariscos Chente and later Coni’Seafood, perfecting the art of Nayarit-style seafood. But as can often happen when family works together, personal disagreements arose. Mary decided to strike out on her own once again, this time in their backyard in Watts where they moved in 2003. “When I had a falling out with Connie, I started selling food from home,” Mary says. “And thank God, it's been going very well.”
Mariscos Doña Mary is typically open Friday through Sunday from around 11am to 7pm, and is especially busy on Sundays. If you happen to visit on a holiday, birthday or any other cause for celebration, you’ll likely find a band playing in the backyard. “I like that I can work from my home and don't have to go anywhere else,” says Mary. “And I'm grateful that people enjoy my food. Nobody can tell me what to do here, and if I feel like getting up in the morning to open up, I do. And if I don't feel like it, I don't.” She also adds that they’ve never had any trouble with neighbors complaining, and instead counts them as regular customers.
As Mary has kept generations of customers full and happy with her food over the years, she’s also quietly fighting health problems of her own. Though, it hasn’t seemed to slow her down. “She's been diabetic since she was 22, and she's 52 now,” Garcia tells us. “So for the past thirty years she's been battling that and as a result had to have her toe amputated, and lost vision in one eye. She beat breast cancer though, and she's still kicking and fighting. But diabetes has really taken a toll. Even when she was diagnosed with cancer and going through chemo treatments, she still wanted to get up and cook.”
Garcia recalls one time when his mother was hospitalized for 45 days, during which time he took charge of the tamale operation. “Even though she was coaching me over the phone, and I had learned how to cook since I was ten, that extreme was an eye-opener because I didn't think it was going to come out as good as hers. But customers couldn't tell the difference. I think that's what turned me onto the love of cooking food.”
“Now, I've learned how to bake cakes, and I love cooking different styles of food, including Italian, Chinese, and I love making boiling crab shrimp,” Garcia adds. He tells us of a time he began making tri-tip steaks, and after sharing some with his mom, she soon purchased six packs of the steaks and insisted he cook them for the family. “She's very good at catching on with new recipes, and will try a lot of things,” he adds.
“I like to cook everything, though I rarely eat seafood myself,” Mary admits. “My favorite dish is fried tacos with chicken made the way they are in Nayarit.” She also tells us that she’s always happy to give out recipes to anyone who asks, though it doesn’t seem to deter them from returning to her backyard. “I've given them out, but they come back and say, 'I made it, but it's not the same.’ And I tell them, 'It's because it wasn't made with my hands.'”
As we finish up our feast, we ask Mary if she minds having strangers come into backyard every weekend. “I'm happy to have people coming to my home, I welcome them because I feel that it's God sending them to me so they can eat,” she says with a big smile. “And I love when they leave happy and get to know the food that I'm cooking.”
She’s also confident that her cooking will continue to be enjoyed long after she’s gone, thanks to her sons who have learned the family trade. “On the day I die, I know that at least my sons will have the recipes, and my traditions and legacy will continue with them. That's why I showed them how to cook. I didn't have any daughters, so I had to teach the boys.”