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Next time, order the oxtails

A bowl filled with oxtails in black bean sauce over glass noodles with stir-fried vegetables.
Oxtails braised in black bean sauce over glass noodles with stir-fried vegetables. Made by Imen Shan of Alhambra.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Oxtail stew is a favorite mainstay on Yonette Alleyne’s menu for Caribbean Gourmet, the pop-up and catering business that spotlights dishes from her native Guyana.

She simmers the fleshy knobs long enough so the meat nudges easily from the bones; the scent of allspice in the brown sauce underscores a taut balance of sweet and savory flavors. The complete meal is a cheering bundle of coconut rice, sauteed vegetables and plantains fried to the color of butterscotch.

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And there was the October afternoon at long-adored Pho 79 in Garden Grove when I scored the day’s last side order of oxtail to add to the beef pho (its stock famously rich in oxtail essence). I bent over the Styrofoam container, bobbing for the bits and strands snarled among the noodles while the soup’s steam fogged the car windows.

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I posted a pic of the dish recently on Instagram and my friend Ernesto responded with a comment: “Most people don’t get oxtail, no matter how I try to [explain] it! … They are my favorite as a Caribbeano.”

Reading his remark, I considered my very opposite experience — how often I had sought out oxtails during the last year without thinking much of it. For Kuya Lord, the pop-up that Lord Maynard Llera has been running out of his home in La Cañada Flintridge, he lines oxtails over banana leaves in a blanket of smooth kare-kare thrumming with peanut, garlic and bagoong (fermented seafood paste). This winter Josef Centeno ran a special of oxtail birria at Bar Amá. Everything about it — its glow, its chile fire, its hearty oomph — had me seeing red in the best possible way.

I knew what Ernesto meant, though. Oxtails — the 2- to 4-pound tailbones of beef cattle, typically cut into 3-inch hunks ideal for braising — never once landed on the dinner table during my white middle-class Maryland upbringing. I came to love them early in adulthood living in Atlanta, specifically at the Busy Bee Cafe, a Black-owned restaurant since its inception in 1947. (Tracy Gates is the longtime current owner.) Mondays and Thursdays were best back then at Busy Bee; on those days turnip greens were one of the side specials. They arrived in a small bowl, and I drank some of their peppery juice, then tipped the rest of the “pot likker” onto the plate. It trickled into the gravy and seasoned the bed of white rice over which the oxtails were served.

When I moved to Los Angeles, the deeply browned, almost sticky oxtails over rice at Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen was among my first meals. (Preferred sides every time: collards, a mound of custardy mac and cheese, and a cornbread muffin for sopping up gravy and pot likker.) The Inglewood location isn’t far from the Times offices in El Segundo; the Dulan family’s lulling Southern cooking anchored me on arrival — and bolstered me in carryout form the week of the March 2020 shutdowns.

Oxtails over rice is one of Keith Corbin's signature dishes at Alta Adams.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

African foodways authority Jessica B. Harris, whose many books include “High on the Hog” and “The Africa Cookbook,” has written in her work about how oxtails consumed on plantations in the South and the Caribbean were likely considered leftover meat after the slaughter and given to the enslaved for sustenance. Over the centuries oxtails have become celebration foods in these cultures — and for chefs they can be a means by which to express connection to heritage and also creative individualism. At Alta Adams, Keith Corbin simmers his signature oxtails in miso and soy, then lights them up with a garnish of pickled Fresno chile. One of 2020’s saving-grace joys: the Bajan-style savory patties filled with shredded and curried oxtail meat from Rashida Holmes and her Arts District-based pop-up, Bridgetown Roti.

I want to say that Holmes’ patties are an exception to a rule — that on the whole I favor oxtails slow-cooked and intact rather than eating the meat pre-separated from the bone. But really it isn’t the case. There is equal pleasure in Sun Nong Dan’s kkori gomtang (oxtail soup), in which collagen-rich petals of meat almost seem to bloom from the bone’s center, as there is in savoring the filigreed meat on a taco from My Two Cents or in the dark-chocolate-brown oxtail gravy ladled over poutine at Animal (which will hopefully reopen soon).

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It all affirms the boundless pluralism of Los Angeles.

A few weeks ago a trusted friend who lives in Alhambra reached out. Fully vaccinated, Imen wondered if I wanted to get together for tea and a meal. Usually we run through the San Gabriel Valley trying restaurants; this time she asked if she could cook. “I bought some wagyu oxtails,” she texted.

She braised them in Cantonese black bean sauce and laid them over a bed of thick glass noodles, along with a side of stir-fried vegetables. We chattered nonstop while setting the table and filling our plates, then fell into contented quiet as we plucked ropes of meat from the oxtail’s jagged hollows. It was the first time we’d shared a meal indoors in over a year. It was strange in all the ways you imagine it might be. She couldn’t have chosen a more perfect comfort food to meet the silences and bridge the months apart.

OUR STORIES

Jenn Harris went deep and wide this week on the condiment that has taken over Los Angeles: chile crisp.

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— Following the theme, Stephanie Breijo writes about the runaway side project of Spencer Bezaire, co-owner of Eszett in Silver Lake: Sbez Hot Sauce, which, as Stephanie, writes, “delivers deep flavor thanks to charred peppers, blistered garlic and cheffy infusions of seasonal fresh fruit.” She also points you toward five other local and recently released hot sauces.

— Stephanie also reports on a community-minded sandwich shop and store, Open Market, that recently launched in Koreatown, as well as a new restaurant from Maude and Gwen chef Curtis Stone and his brother Luke.

— On the cooking front, Ben Mims makes the case for freezing the season’s fava beans for year-round enjoyment, with some springtime recipes for enjoying the bounty right now.

Fresh favas and merguez orecchiette with Manchego, a recipe from Ben Mims.
(Ben Mims / Los Angeles Times)

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