As a soul food staple, oxtail recipes can be the source of serious dispute in the African-American community, and it’s usually about who makes it best. Alta Adams chef Keith Corbin is well-aware of this dynamic while preparing his popular oxtails and rice, which uses non-traditional techniques in this signature dish. Corbin’s saucy, fall-off-the-bone oxtails sell out regularly in the West Adams restaurant. The oxtails and every other Alta dish are possible because of another key team member who ensures the flavors work.
As a former title holder as one of the least expensive beef cuts, the price of oxtails soared in recent years. Its popularity goes beyond the African-American community, and is always available in LA’s Vietnamese, Jamaican, Korean, Mexican, and Caribbean restaurants as well. Many of Alta’s regulars hail from neighborhoods outside of West Adams, but the restaurant still boasts a stream of patrons from its own predominantly African-American and Latinx community. Adding a dish like oxtails to the menu translates to high expectations.
“The first wave of flavor is like your mom’s,” Corbin says of his preparation. “The second is the new flavors.” Corbin seasons the oxtails with heavy salt, browning, and aromatics, including soy sauce, ginger, miso, onions, scallions, and carrots — all of which eventually becomes a rich broth. Then there’s the four-hour oven braise. It’s a simple process, but figuring out this method and ingredients took time and teamwork.
Corbin connected the dish’s flavors with the help of Alta sous chef Gwen Etta. The two met while working at Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi’s now-closed Locol in Watts. “I was six months out of prison in May 2015,” Etta says. “I started working with Keith in January 2016. I started cooking on the line, then he transitioned me into the bakery, then the commissary at Locol where I did prep, food, recipes, the whole menu, and catering.”
As Etta’s manager, Corbin kept moving Etta up through the ranks before pulling her to assist in building the menu at Alta. The two continue to work side-by-side. And though Corbin developed Alta’s menu, Etta tweaked and improved every dish, including the oxtails.
“I create a recipe or dish and turn it over to Gwen, and she refines it,” says Corbin. “She knows my palate. We operate as hustlers in the kitchen, since we both know from hustling in the street how a good product sells itself. That’s how we focus on bringing a good product to the kitchen. And we hold each other accountable.”
In this case, Corbin and Etta’s good product equates to astonishingly tender pieces of oxtail over fluffy rice with a flavorful gravy, and a wonderful, gentle heat that arrives after a few bites. The dish requires no knife to separate the meat from the bones. This is a rich dish, but it’s not too heavy because of Etta and Corbin’s technique.
Corbin’s oxtails might fall into the category of soul food, but his own West Coast definition bears a completely different take. “Food is sustenance for whatever journey you’re on,” Corbin says. “That’s soul food.”
Alta Adams. 5359 W Adams Blvd, West Adams, CA