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Forget Paris


Two years ago, when I returned from my annual gastronomic pilgrimage to France, my wife met me at the airport and announced that she knew exactly where to take me for my first meal in Los Angeles after 10 nights in the hallowed halls of haute cuisine.

"Barbecue," she said. "We're going to Phillips."

All right! We sped east past Crenshaw Boulevard to Leimert Park, pulled into the parking lot and got in line. (There's always a line at Phillips.) A few minutes later, I ordered my standard three-meals-for-two-people: "A small-end rib dinner, a chicken dinner and a links sandwich."

We took our dinners home--Phillips serves only takeout--and an hour later, I was almost as gastronomically content as I had been the night before in Paris at the three-star restaurant Robuchon, where the bill had been about 30 times as much per person.

I know there are many barbecue purists who insist you can't get good barbecue outside Memphis. Or Kansas City. Or West Texas. Or North Carolina. There are even some 'cue aficionados who say the best barbecue is in Oakland. Or Cincinnati. Or Atlanta.

Maybe, maybe not. But I've eaten in some of those places and, with the possible exception of Kansas City, I've never tasted barbecue any better than what Phillips offers in that little mini-mall on 43rd Street.

The pork ribs are black, crusty and heavily smoked--moist and slightly chewy, especially if you order the small-end ribs. The pork links have a slightly resilient texture, not like the mushy sausages you get at so many other barbecue stands. The chicken falls off the bone, but it, too, has substance beneath that charred, almost crunchy surface.

You can get mild sauce or medium sauce at Phillips, but that's like going to Baskin-Robbins and ordering nonfat yogurt. The really hot sauce is the only way to go here--all the more so if you have a cold; its mouth-searing heat will clear your sinuses faster than you can say "Vicks."

Foster Phillips opened Phillips in 1980 and, before long, the pork-loving world beat a path to his narrow doorway. Two years ago, he opened a second outlet, in Inglewood, which is managed by his son and daughter, both in their mid-20s. Phillips' eldest child, Breena, 29, is the manager at the original stand.

I drive to Phillips for lunch every few weeks or so. Several months ago, I took along a fellow Phillips lover and a second friend, Sicilian-born Piero Selvaggio, who owns Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica but who was then a barbecue virgin. We took our feast to a stone picnic table around the corner from Phillips, in a vest-pocket park where I always eat when I order their ribs for lunch.

"You know, Piero," my other friend said at one point. "There are only two great restaurants in Los Angeles--Valentino . . . and Phillips."

I think Piero was about to object to having his elegant home of alta cucina classed with a barbecue pit that had paper napkins and plates, plastic forks and canned soda instead of linen, china, silver and 40-year-old wine, but before he could say anything, he jumped up, his eyes bulging.

The hot sauce?

No, a bee.

One had landed on Piero's ribs, and he'd tried--unsuccessfully--to crush it. The bee had stung his finger. Judging from the look on Piero's face, it hurt like hell. Either that or he'd inadvertently swallowed one of the dozens of hot chile peppers in the sauce. But he insisted everything was OK--as he did again a few minutes later, when we left and he found a parking ticket on his car.

His protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, I'm not sure Piero quite shares my enthusiasm for Phillips. But when I picked up some ribs for a party recently, I told Mr. Phillips about that lunch--and about my friend linking his barbecue pit with Valentino in the pantheon of culinary greatness.

"Where is this Valentino?" he asked. "I like to take my family out for a good meal."

I gave him the address and telephone number. I bet he goes. And I bet he gets neither a bee sting nor a parking ticket.

Of course, Valentino has indoor seating. And valet parking.

Given all the Cadillacs, Mercedes and Jaguars I've seen in the Phillips parking lot--right alongside pickups, rusted-out junkers and simple Toyotas--maybe he should consider valet parking too. After all, if a hamburger stand (Hampton's in Hollywood) can have it, why not a barbecue pit?

Phillips just laughed when I raised that possibility. He has more important things to worry about than parking cars. Right now, for example, he's busy trying to find a new supplier for the beans he serves in his special sauce (the best of the side orders on his menu).

When his longtime supplier told him he was probably going to stop carrying those beans, Phillips bought all he had on hand. He figures that should last him another five or six months, by which time he hopes to have found a new supplier.

"I want the best quality in all my products," Phillips insists, sounding very much like Piero.


Where to Go

Phillips Barbecue, 4307 Leimert Blvd., L.A., (213) 292-7613. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Parking lot. Dinner for two, food only, $12 to $20.50.

What to Get

Pork ribs (small end), rib tips, pork link sandwich, chicken dinner, beans.

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