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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Authentic, hidden and full of soul: Melly Mel's is worth tracking down
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Credit:Eric Tadsen

Good luck finding Melly Mel's. If you get lost, their digits are 608-270-9512. Write that down now because the number online is incorrect.

I visited Carmell "Melly" Jackson, proprietor and cook, the first time with friends who knew her, had scouted for the location before, and still couldn't find her south-side restaurant. Then we got very specific, if disconcerting, directions to the Genesis Enterprise Center over the phone: "Park around the side of the building next to the red van. Enter through the metal door and come downstairs."

Indeed, if you're the type of person who likes to track down hard-to-find, thrilling-to-discover authentic food spots, Melly Mel's is a gustatory holy grail. This is Madison's very own soul food speakeasy.

While it's mostly a takeout and catering business, there is a welcoming if small dining area styled a bit like a hair salon: mint green walls, a line of chairs to wait in, a few black bar tables and stools, and a full magazine rack. If you choose to stay, you'll be engulfed by the steady traffic for takeout as well as the smell of homemade food, particularly fried chicken. The vibe can feel alternatively like a favorite aunt's kitchen and a house party.

Breakfast is served all day, and there are combos like bacon, sausage, eggs and pancakes all for $5. Egg sandwiches are $3. Chicken and waffles - two soft waffles and four massive crispy wings - are a deal for $5.

I fell in love with the fish and grits, a choice among tilapia, perch and catfish either fried or sautéed, alongside a bowl of silky grits doused in butter. Order the sautéed catfish, which arrives masterfully pan-fried with just a hint of light crust.

There are also everyday items ranging from Philly cheesesteaks to nachos, hot dogs to spaghetti. Some days there are additional specialty dishes like cheesy hashbrown casserole. It just depends on what Carmell feels like making.

"Weekly Specials" are at the heart of the offerings, and the two best days are Wednesdays for fried chicken and Thursdays for barbecue. On Wednesday, a three-piece dark or two-piece white meat combo with two sides and a drink will set you back $8. It will also reveal what a long buttermilk-vinegar soak can do. Or at least that's the best guess as to how this chicken is achieved. Because this is scandalously good fried chicken: crispy, juicy, salty and spicy with an umami-enhancing sour finish.

A long list of available sides includes chili, corn on the cob, Caesar salad and potatoes, but I like both the blackeyed peas and mixed greens made rich with smoked turkey neck. Yams are a bit watery but flavorful, and iconic mac and cheese is delightfully creamy. The all-Americana spaghetti is pure nostalgia - goulash-like, with the noodles endearingly cut as one would for small children. After all, you are in a mother's kitchen. Carmell's business card humorously reads in bold letters: "Where's Your Momma At?"

Thursday's barbecue has the flavor of a summer afternoon cookout. The massive portion of rib tips tastes faintly like lighter fluid and charcoal and is slathered with sticky, gooey sauce. Order a combo and also get a huge chicken breast with slightly charred skin and moist interior. Ever been to a park, seen a big gathering of family and friends, smelled the grill smoke, and yearned to be invited over to eat? This is that barbecue.

Keeping a soul food restaurant open in Madison has been a challenge; most have succumbed to location and logistical challenges. Melly Mel's is currently a boon to a south-side neighborhood that clearly craves the good food and sense of community exuded by this basement hideaway.

When asked about her lack of signage and plans, Carmell cheerfully says, "You have to start somewhere." But she adds quickly that she plans on moving when she can. When she does, she will have a devoted following that may well miss the days when her cooking was hard to find.

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