Photo by Anne Fishbein
PHILLIPS’ HAS BEEN ACKNOWLEDGED to be the finest Los Angeles barbecue stand for almost 15 years now, a dim, battered, table-free chamber hidden off an urban parking lot, a grease-smeared takeout window with the ambiance of a trapper’s cabin that just happened to have the tastiest barbecued ribs south of Oakland. For many of us, Phillips’ is a Saturday-night ritual: the called-in order, the drive to the south end of the Crenshaw strip, and an hour on line outside the restaurant, trash-talking the Lakers, guzzling off-brand soda pop, and admiring the bootleg Reverend Shirley Caesar CDs somebody always seems to be selling from the trunk of her car. The line outside Phillips’ marinates in hickory smoke, breathes it in like purest oxygen, soaks it into its pores to the extent that I always suspect that given enough time in the line even Luke Walton would eventually glow with the dark, complex chiaroscuro of an unrestored Renaissance painting. The blue, puffing haze outside Phillips’ seems almost edible.
I have been to the famous barbecue pits in Memphis and Tuscaloosa. I have at least half a dozen favorite barbecue stands on Chicago’s South Side, where spareribs are properly served atop French fries cooked in lard. I have been to the rib stand in Austin, a lonely bastion of pig worship in the heart of beef country, where the ribs are so crisp that you can hear them snap from across the room. And I insist: A small-end slab from Phillips’ can hold its own with any barbecued spareribs in the world. The extra-hot sauce, tart with vinegar and so crowded with whole dried chiles that the ribs occasionally look as if they have been embellished with Byzantine mosaics, has tempted better men than you and I to gnaw the flesh right off their fingertips.
Several years ago, Mr. Phillips expanded his empire to a second store in Inglewood, convenient to the swank bachelor pads of View Park and Ladera Heights (though to precious little else), but although the barbecue was pretty close to the original’s, the stand, more suburban mini-mall restaurant than great-city crossroads, never felt quite right. Even when there was a wait, which was pretty much all of the time, come to think of it, the Inglewood crowd seemed more like people rushing home with some takeout rather than a self-selected society of aficionados.
But now comes Phillips’ newest restaurant, in the well-scrubbed chalet-style Crenshaw building that until recently housed the well-regarded Leo’s Bar-B-Q, and it seems as if the supply of great barbecue in Los Angeles has exponentially increased. The new Phillips’— which, unlike the others, is even open on Sunday — is another takeout-only restaurant, and the order and pickup lines curl into one another like loving cuddly snakes, conversations spiced with neighborhood gossip and casual Shaq-bashing, the funk of hickory smoke hanging over the room like a benign spirit. Unless you have some time to kill, a trip to Phillips’ has never been a journey to be taken lightly, but the Crenshaw store is just a couple blocks south of the Santa Monica Freeway, meaning that it is a lot easier to pop in and out if you don’t happen to live in the neighborhood.
The restaurant is an earthly paradise of coarsely ground hot link sausages, of beef ribs vast as knurled walking sticks, of great, dripping slabs of sliced brisket seasoned with salt and smoke, blackened at the edges, oozing sweet grease, ringed with a deep, ruddy stain where the vapors of the pit have penetrated into the meat.
Phillips’ spareribs are cosmopolitan and intensely spiced, a style that is to uptown ’cue what Château Lafitte is to watery domestic red — lean, sinewy smoke-reddened strips of meat pulling away in your teeth, fat and flab transformed into lean, muscled flavor, all pepper and spice, as if the slabs had been worked over by Marine drill sergeants instead of mere grill cooks. Ribs are often described as “falling off the bone,” as if that state of wet, yielding misery were something to be desired, but the meat of Phillips’ ribs seems rather attached to its bones, clinging to them with a lover’s tenacity, embracing the smooth parabolas in a tight, smoky hug that yields only reluctantly to the teeth. Like everything worth having in this world, Phillips’ ribs require effort.
Phillips’ Barbecue: 4307 Leimert Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 292-7613. Lunch and dinner, Mon. 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–midnight. No alcohol. Takeout only. Lot parking. Entrées: $5.25–$13.50. MC, V.
Phillips’ Barbecue #2: 1517 Centinela Ave., Inglewood, (310) 412-7135. Lunch and dinner, Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
Phillips’ Barbecue #3: 2619 S. Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 731-4772. Lunch and dinner, Sun. 11 a.m.–6 p.m., Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–midnight.