Sliding into a booth at Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe, the legendary soul food joint in downtown Phoenix, I could almost taste and feel the shatter of the fried chicken I had been dreaming about all morning. A waiter walked over to my table. He told me special, I ordered, and 10 minutes later I was staring down not breaded bird but three gnarly discs of oxtail.
Oxtail sounds exotic. But it’s just the tail of the cattle we get steaks from. The best cuts of beef are fatty and on-the-bone (more juice, headier flavor). Like porterhouse, oxtail is packed with fat. And a quarter-sized bone runs though the tail's center, touching every bite of meat.
Elizabeth White, the queen of Phoenician soul food, grew up eating oxtail in Temple, Texas.
She grew up in a time and place where people raised and cooked everything they ate. In Temple, where Mrs. White learned the recipes that make her restaurant so beloved, people didn’t waste any animal parts. Oxtails were slow-cooked, plated up for dinner.
Mrs. White, 94, opened her Phoenix restaurant in 1964, the year the plans for New York’s World Trade Center were announced. Over the years, oxtail rotated onto the menu as a special.
These days, one of Mrs. White’s granddaughters, Kianna White, stews the oxtail.
She, of course, follows a recipe from the restaurant’s eponymous founder who still, in her 10th decade, pops into the kitchen to "crack the whip" and make sure sauces are on-point. She still bakes the desserts, like sweet potato pie and bread pudding, because nobody else can make them like she can.
Kianna starts by placing oxtails in a pot.
She adds scant seasoning: salt, pepper, cayenne, and other secret spices. The goal is to step out of the way, to let the tail speak for itself. She adds water; the oxtails stew until meat all but slides off the bone.
“We put them on at 9 a.m.,” Kianna told me a a few days later. “Yours was one of the first ones ready.” I slid into my booth at half past noon. That made for almost four hours of slow-cooking.
Three rounds of oxtail leaned on my plate, greasy, steaming. Great knobs of fat stuck from the meat. You can knife away that fat, or you can devour it. A knife parts meat from bone somewhat easily once you fall into the rhythm of how the meat hides in the hollows of the weirdly shaped tail bones (actually vertebrae).
The oxtail has simple, honest flavor. No spices get in the way. The only one you can really detect is salt. The oxtail doesn't bring a tidal wave of flavor. The dish is more reserved. The taste is beef: juicy beef with some chew, beef with a trace of game and something of an overlap with the best, darkest-meat turkey thighs you crush on Thanksgiving.
But in a cool way, the oxtail is maximally seasoned. It gains flavor from the marker signatures coating the walls, from the chatter leaking from the kitchen area, from the dudes in front who look like they’ve been sitting at the long counter, inhaling frying smells, and watching Jerry Springer since the '90s.
It's impossible to imagine an eatery with a better vibe than Mrs. White's. The environment makes the food taste even more heavenly than it already is. Oxtails included.
Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe
808 East Jefferson Street