Chef Keith Corbin fires up the stove at Alta Adams. Raw rice, soon to be the bed for a helping of slow-braised oxtails, starts to sizzle in a cast iron pan. Dressed in a black chef’s coat and already sweaty on his brow, Corbin looks focused. The restaurant, which opened last week in the neighborhood of West Adams, is his first gig as an executive chef. Here, he hopes to display his personalized style of soul food, using California ingredients and a lighter touch with fats and oils. But Alta Adams has plenty of battles to address, from issues of gentrification to finding the right audience in a stretch of LA that doesn’t have much in the way of sit-down dining.
Corbin, 37, is no stranger to the kitchen, but his path to Alta Adams has hardly been a conventional one. The Watts native learned to cook from his grandmother, who raised him from an early age. They lived in South LA’s housing projects, a place Corbin clearly recalls with love. There wasn’t always a lot in the kitchen cupboards but they would share whatever they had.
“My granny made big pots of food every night and the door stayed open,” he said. “She had five grandkids in the house with her. She cooked for them, for the kids outside, for the community.”
Corbin liked feeding his siblings and anyone else nearby who was hungry. Even when he fell into trouble, the kitchen was his safety net. Corbin spent seven years in prison but cooked nearly the entire time. He says his creativity as a chef likely stems from those non-professional years, preparing meals with just a few ingredients and making the best of it.
Corbin went back home to Watts when he was released from prison. He got a job at an oil refinery, but after his employers did a background check they let him go. He was walking around his neighborhood a week and a half later when he spotted a job posting for Locol, Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi’s groundbreaking fast food restaurant. Corbin worked in the kitchen before moving into a leadership role, where his skill was visible from the start.
Patterson recalls, “During that time, when everything was chaotic, what was very clear was that Keith had a passion for cooking, a great palate, and a lot of drive. Those things have carried him throughout his life. And they are things we look for in a chef.”
Patterson, a San Francisco chef who’s earned accolades and recognition for his Bay Area restaurants, gave Corbin a chance to learn from more established kitchens. Corbin helped open Locol in Oakland while interning at Patterson’s fine dining establishment Coi in San Francisco and also at Reem Assil’s Dyafa restaurant in Oakland, honing what Corbin would eventually dub “California soul food.”
Corbin’s grandmother’s cooking inspired many of Alta Adams’s early dishes. For example, the oxtail meat and potato burritos Corbin ate as a kid were seasoned with dry spices like garlic salt and onion powder. The Alta version uses four hour braised oxtails in a miso and soy broth. Black-eyed pea fritters replace traditional cornflour hushpuppies, pairing them with a spicy herb sauce of serrano peppers, cilantro, parsley, and garlic. Corbin candies yams with brown butter, almond milk, and less sugar than usual.
“We are taking something you’re used to and making it unique, making it better. It’s like N.W.A.,” Corbin chuckles. “We always had hip hop in New York, but then N.W.A. came out and it was a smash. They took hip hop and made it West Coast. They changed the beat, they changed the way it was delivered. That’s what I want to do with this: California cuisine, California soul.”
It feels appropriate to wonder if Alta, even with the best of intentions, will thrive in West Adams. Though Patterson and Roy Choi’s Locol, which closed in Watts in August, and Alta are very different restaurants, similar questions arise from their stories. Locol is a fast food restaurant intent on bringing reasonably-priced, quality, made-from-scratch fare to underserved communities. But Locol is no longer open to the public anymore (they still do catering in Watts), perhaps in part because the customer base couldn’t make it a profitable enterprise. Will locals feel at home at Alta and Adams Coffee Shop, its adjoining casual space? One also wonders if the prices ring reasonable in a neighborhood where the median annual household income hovers around $40,000. Or if Angelenos living in other neighborhoods will make the drive to West Adams like they do to Downtown’s Arts District.
Corbin just works to refine what they can control. He thinks the location is just right. He’s cooking his version of soul food in a community that, to him, feels similar to Watts. The main thoroughfare — in this case, Adams Boulevard — is surrounded by homes full of people cooking, and there’s a limited number of places to eat out. And in terms of more sit-down restaurants with table service, there’s only the longtime Creole restaurant Harold and Belle’s, two miles away on Jefferson Boulevard. It’s a niche that Corbin hopes to build in West Adams, on his own terms, and in a way that welcomes everyone.
“This is the perfect time for us to come in and connect with the community that’s here right now,” he says. Go to any neighborhood association meeting in the area and learn quickly that gentrification is an ugly word for many residents. And while they take pride in their corner of Los Angeles, the locals also want more access to quality food, to gathering places, to family-friendly resources. But they want those things to come without pushing anyone out.
Corbin and Patterson realize how important this first impression is. At Adams Coffee Shop, drip coffee costs $2. Lunch dishes include an $8 cold fried chicken salad sandwich, $9 roasted turkey muffuletta, and $11 sprouted grain bowl.
At Alta Adams, the menu allows guests to go high or low in terms of price. Side dishes cost $6 each, and includes collard greens, glazed carrots, candied yams, mac and cheese, long-cooked green beans, mashed potatoes, or beans and rice. Entrees top out with a $23 plate of oxtails and rice and or $28 smothered hanger steak, both of which can be shared. A grilled whole fish sells at market price.
Patterson urges guests to think beyond price, too. “We want to create a space that is super accessible,” he says. “The cuisine and the vibe speaks to the history of here. What we’re also focused on is: Can we provide great jobs? Can we pay people living wages? Can we be a place that creates opportunity in all kinds of ways? But as you know, if you’re going to pay people well, you can’t then charge a little bit. So then you have to have a conversation about the value of food, and that takes you into this big fabric of things.”
It’s no simple thing to be something to everyone in that fabric. But it seems that some locals share Corbin and Patterson’s optimism. Lillie Mae Briggs, 72, lives a few blocks from Alta. She’s retired and on a fixed income, but the thought of a soul food spot she can walk to thrills her. Briggs is originally from Beaumont, Texas, but relocated to Los Angeles when she was 21. Even a glass of iced tea or a slice of coconut cake will lure her in, she says.
“Once you go to a place, if they make something that’s got a taste you really like, you’ll find the money to treat yourself,” Briggs remarks. “Because in this life, you only live once. So you have to have some sort of enjoyment.”
Hannibal Tabu, project manager by day and comic book writer by night, is a slightly tougher sell, mostly because he has a go-to soul food spot already with Chef Marilyn’s less than two miles away on Crenshaw Boulevard. But the thought of soul food prepared in a healthier way by a local black chef piques his interest. “I’m 45 now, so I have to take better care of myself,” says Tabu. “I can’t do Roscoe’s every week like I used to.”
He thinks about the politics of spending, too. Tabu is more than willing to drive out of the neighborhood if it means providing his daughters, ages 8 and 14, a healthier meal, or if it means supporting a black business. He says his added effort is an example of the black tax, the axiom that black people must work harder to access or achieve the same things as their white counterparts.
Tabu also represents the family demographic of the area. In the 90016 zip code, which is where Alta sits, about 31 percent of homes have children under the age of 18. Nicole Lemoine, 37, is a stylist, ceramicist, model, actor, and mother who’s been in the area since 2007. She checks out anything new in the neighborhood with her three-year-old son, and thinks that creating a welcoming and equitable space is crucial to a business’s success.
“There are some really great people who have lived here for ages, and also many who are moving in that want to experience community,” she says. “If inclusion is taken into consideration within the business model, whether it be in design or in price, everyone will see it as a win.”
Corbin and Patterson welcome the challenge of being the new kids on the block. They’ve already fielded locals’ concerns, from noise on the patio to parking and accessible prices. They’ve tested and tweaked the food they think will please their customers. Only time will tell the rest.
“We can’t do anything about how we’re perceived,” says Patterson. “What we can do is be honest with ourselves, do the best work we can do, and be really kind to each other and the people who come in. That’s what we’re promising.”
Corbin promises to serve honest food in an inviting atmosphere. He hopes guests will chat with him over the bar, and he’ll likely watch as they take their first bite of a dish, because that’s his favorite moment.
“For me, it’s always gonna be about the people,” he said. “Energy reflects energy. If you’re coming with love, you’ll be met with love.”
Alta Adams opened October 11 in West Adams with hours from 5 to 10 p.m. daily, and until 10:30 p.m. on weekends. The coffee shop is open daily from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Alta Adams. 5359 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, CA
Edited by Matthew Kang