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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

'Cue-Tip: Line on L.A.'s Best Barbecue

May 02, 1991|JONATHAN GOLD

Phillips Barbecue is situated in the throbbing center of the Crenshaw district, in the shadow of the old Watchtower complex, right where Crenshaw and Vernon run headlong into Leimert. The restaurant, tucked into a mini-mall between a liquor store and the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, might be a little hard to find, but if you keep your window open, you should be able to sniff it from half a mile away. Or maybe see the throng of people waiting to take home some ribs.

The order line snakes from the takeout window through the long, narrow lobby, out the door, onto the sidewalk. The inside of the restaurant itself is nearly as vast as two well-smoked phone booths placed side to side. On weekends, the line veers left where it seems in danger of spilling into the cars that roar though the parking lot. It continues on almost to the liquor store on the corner: the Saturday-night barbecue equivalent of a Westwood movie line, sometimes an hour long.

To the right of the door, the pick-up crowd loiters, post-line, each person ready to plunge back toward the takeout window the minute their numbers are called. When the wind is right, the line bastes in a pungent haze of woodsmoke, too opaque to see very far through, thick enough to perfume everybody's hair. At Phillips, supper sometimes takes more dedication than some people think is strictly necessary.

Last week a couple of women dressed for dancing complained, loudly--they evidently didn't want to waltz into Paradise 24 smelling like hardwood charcoal briquettes. Their dates seemed too hungry to listen. Other people passed the time by engaging strangers in conversation, usually about how many times a week they come to Phillips, how things are between Phillips and Woody's down on Slauson to which it's somehow related, or otherwise about food:

"The older you get, the better you cook," one lady said. "That's why your grandmama cooks better than your mama and your mama cooks better than you."

But is Phillips worth the fuss? Yes.

When I wrote about another rib stand a couple of months ago, dozens of readers called or wrote in: almost all of them mentioned Phillips, with a unanimity that would be unthinkable when discussing, say, the best hamburgers or soft-shell crabs in the city. When I brought an enormous tray of food into the office, Phillips' chicken and ribs and hot links disappeared while slabs of ribs from other, more famous places, brought in as controls, were barely touched. It's about a dollar an order cheaper than most barbecues. And here, meats taste of themselves.

Spareribs, crusted with black and deeply smoky, are rich and crisp and juicy, not too lean; beef ribs, almost as big around as beer cans, are beefy as rib roasts beneath their coat of char, tasty even without the sauce. The big Styrofoam containers of extra-hot sauce, a scary, solid inch of whole chile peppers floating on top, can be pretty exhilarating. House-made beef hot links, denser than some, are gently spiced, closer to bouncy bratwurst than to intense, coarse-ground monsters. Chicken, smoked through to the bone, retains all its juice, though overcooked sliced beef does not. Heck, even the beans taste good, packed with more smoke and spice than most places manage to get into their ribs.

That's why everybody was surprised Saturday when one guy toward the middle of the line actually left without any food: "I got takeout here just last Tuesday," he said. "I think I'm going to get me some chicken somewhere else instead."

"Last Tuesday?" said a woman two places back. "Dear, I come here three times a week . You can't get better food than at Phillips."

But really, I think she was pleased to be 30 seconds closer to her small-end dinner, extra-hot sauce. Mr. Phillips himself, natty in suit and tie, peered out the front end of the place and grinned.

Phillips Barbecue, 4307 Leimert Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 292-7613. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, till midnight. Takeout only. Cash only. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$15.

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