A few decades ago, the culinary cognoscenti anointed the best bastions of bodacious barbecue–Kansas City, Memphis, Texas and the Carolinas…and there was much rejoicing. Since then, it’s been widely accepted that this exclusive quadrumvirate is where the very best barbecue in America is to be found. Much of this acceptance is because the four regions have deployed their marketing machines to continue reenforcing the notion–some would say myth–that their barbecue is sacrosanct and evermore defines barbecue greatness.
There were a number of reasons these four regions were anointed as America’s barbecue capitals. For one, barbecue is more than just another important part of the culture at these regions; it’s as close to a religion as you’ll find. Secondly, restaurants specializing in barbecue are plentiful and they seem to be clustered in close proximity to one another. The recognition that these four regions do barbecue especially well is in no way an indictment of other regions. It’s well known that there’s some superb smoking going on across the entire fruited plain, from sea to shining sea.
Visit any state in the union and you’ll find eager diners queuing up for their local ‘cue. There’s often as much pride in local barbecue as there is in the local sports teams. That’s certainly the case in San Diego where a number of restaurants vie for smoker supremacy. Long recognized as one of, if not the very best, in Southern California is Phil’s BBQ Restaurant. That recognition transcends restaurants of all genres. Phil’s ranks right up there with the best fine dining and seafood restaurants in the San Diego area, consistently earning “best restaurant” honors from TripAdvisor.com, San Diego Magazine and others.
Proprietor Phil Pace is a self-taught barbecue master, having concocted from scratch a top-secret recipe for barbecue rubs and sauce before launching his first barbecue restaurant in 1998. Since its opening, Phil’s BBQ has served over one million pounds of barbecue sauce. That’s enough to fill Shamu’s tank. Phil’s is frequented by guests of all income levels–everything from skateboarders to Bentley drivers. Many pilgrimage from afar to satisfy a singular craving–mesquite-grilled baby back and beef ribs, chicken and sandwiches.
Perhaps taking a cue from Disneyland, a northern neighbor, Phil’s pretty much apprises guests how long it will be before they’ll be enjoying a meaty repast. Signage on a girder asks them to “Smile. You are live on the Barbecue Cam.” The Cam monitors queue lengths and provides estimated wait times. It’s a fairly exact science. With lines snaking out the door, it could be a half hour or longer before you’re served. You can bypass the longer lines by going through the take-out line. It means you won’t actually get to sink your teeth into your order until you find a place to park, but you’ll probably still be biting into barbecue before the legions in line.
As with all restaurants deemed of excelsior repute, there are several “must order” items at Phil’s. One such item are the colossal onion rings. Nearly the size of an inner tube (is that reference anachronistic?) each onion ring can feed a developing nation. Seriously, these are huge onion rings with a serious beer batter sheathing a sweet, delicious onion. The onion rings would kick sand on the wimpy, out-of-the-bag onion rings served at most restaurants. They’re served with ranch dressing, but to add anything would be a desecration, like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa (or Linda Beaver if you’re Bob of the Village People).
Phil’s uses mesquite wood to impart a sweet, smoky taste on all meats. Mesquite, which is practically the official state smoking wood of Texas, produces a very heavy smoke and adds a lot of flavor to meats. To some purists (and wimps), it can be a bit on the overpowering side. The signature rubs and sauces were inspired by North Carolina- and Kansas City-barbecue styles which means sweet-tangy flavor pronouncements. Phil’s is generous with both rub and sauce, imbuing each meat with a distinctive smokiness and a lick-it-off-your-fingers quality. The sauce isn’t “lacquered on” as too many barbecue sauces tend to be. Instead, it’s slathered on so it’s moist when you taste it. The meats are fall-off-the-bone tender and absolutely delicious.
My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver would have loved the half chicken, some of the most pulchritudinous poultry we’ve had in recent memory. The edges and bottom of the chicken were charred to the point of nearly being caramelized, but this only lent to the flavor profile. The chicken was moist and tender with plenty of the cherished white meat. The combination of smokiness and sweet-tangy sauce is an addictive blend.
A full rib dinner includes ten to twelve baby back ribs or five beef ribs served with your choice of two sides. The baby backs are foodgasm worthy, as good as we’ve had outside of Kansas City. The baby backs are generously sauced, preventing the meat from even thinking about drying up. A beautiful char on the edges and an overall smokiness blends magnificently with the sweet-tangy sauce to make each bite memorable. The meat is off-the-bone tender and melt-in-your-mouth-delicious; you can gnaw it off the bones without teeth.
During our trek to Phil’s, I reminded my Kim in glowing terms that Phil’s tri-tip sandwich was the west coast region winner of Adam Richman’s Best Sandwiches in America competition of 30 sandwiches from among 10 geographical regions. So, what does she order for dinner? A barbecue pork sandwich. I couldn’t tell Kim how much I thoroughly enjoyed the pork sandwich because my manly pride was injured by her not having ordered the fabled tri-tip. Don’t tell her, but I think this is one of the best pork sandwiches we’ve ever had.
The sides are more hit and miss. The best of the lot are the baked beans which are perfectly baked and have a sweet-smoky flavor. The potato salad is a bit on the humdrum side with a sheen of salad cream and pepper providing the only flavor that isn’t potato. Worse is the baked potato which is slathered with the same type of gloppy cheese sauce you often see on bad ballpark nachos.
While it’s probably premature to append the list of barbecue regions to include San Diego, there’s no doubt Phil’s BBQ Restaurant should be on any discussion of the best barbecue restaurants in America.
Phil’s BBQ Restaurant
3750 Sports Arena Blvd
San Diego, California
LATEST VISIT: 3 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Barbecue Baby back Ribs, Half Chicken, Pork Sandwich, Onion Rings, Baked Beans