It seems like good restaurants tend to cluster together. Maybe it is an ancient herding instinct. One neighborhood that is happening of late is Crenshaw and Adams. To see it today, you would never know that this corner has an infamous drug-laden past. Check out Jerry Stahl’s book, Permanent Midnight, for the whole sordid story. Nowadays, it’s all about the food.
On the west side of Crenshaw, just next to the gas station, stands a long, wooden building with smoke billowing from a giant smokestack. You can see the smoke all the way from the 10 freeway, as if it is calling out to you. Well, maybe it doesn’t call out to you, but it sure as hell calls out to me.
The smoke is coming from the third outpost of Phillips Bar-b-que. At one time, this building was home to Leo’s barbecue. There are still people who like to grumble that it was better when it was Leo’s. Even while they are standing in line at Phillip’s. That’s like saying, “My LAST girlfriend used to LOVE giving blowjobs.” Well, I’m not your last girlfriend, and it’s not Leo’s now, so place your order and move on.
And placing your order is easy at Phillips. Because they have helpfully provided detailed directions for you on a giant easel next to the line at the window where you order:
Do you know what you want? In order to expedite your order please know what you want to order when you get to the window
Would you like
(X) Sandwich (X) Dinner (X) Half or Whole A la Carte (X) Tray
WHAT SIDE ORDERS WOULD YOU LIKE?
(with your sandwich dinner or tray)
YOUR CHOICE OF:
Wheat or white bread
Mild mixed or hot sauce
And do you want the sauce on your order or on the side (there is an extra charge to put sauce on the side)
WOULD YOU LIKE EXTRAS?
We’ll be happy to answer any questions
In fact, whenever you mention Phillip’s, the first thing people usually ask is, “You mean the place with all the signs?” The next question is usually, “And they don’t let you eat there?” The main location, on Leimert Boulevard, is take-out only, but the Crenshaw location has two stone benches and a long counter on the side for your dining comfort. Anyways, back to the signs – as you approach the window, there is another helpful sign:
We are trying to give good service but we need your help. The cashier might not have heard everything you said so please allow the person taking your order the opportunity to make any corrections before you walk away. Allow them the chance to repeat and go over the order with you. Please put all conversations on hold. It will only take a few seconds to listen and a minute or so to make any corrections. Once you have walked out the door we are no longer responsible. Please listen.
Now you would think that with all of these bossy signs, service would be abrupt. But the employees are cheerful, friendly, and helpful. They welcome you with open arms at Phillips. Just don’t fuck around. There are people waiting. Luckily, you have probably been waiting in line long enough to ponder their lengthy menu.
It is a pretty predictable menu, except for the chicken links and beef links, which are considerately offered for those customers who don’t eat the swine. Another atypical item on the menu is the “Small ends”. Actually, Phillips is the only place I have ever seen offer such a thing. When I went onto my barbecue chat boards to discuss them, I confounded all of those guys too. Small ends are the very last ribs on the end of the slab. There are only two small ends per slab, so they often run out. It makes me think that someone at Phillips had a very picky aunt who always demanded this special cut at every family barbecue. Small ends can be tender and sweet, but since they are small, they can dry out very quickly. So I would not recommend ordering them later in the day.
What do I recommend? The pork ribs. They somehow seem to have twice as much meat on them as a regular rib. They are just fatty enough to be rich without being greasy. The smoke flavor enhances and does not overwhelm the flavor of the pork. My suggestion of pork ribs is somewhat controversial. There are those who would fight for the sliced beef, and my mother insists the rib tips are the way to go. The chicken is falling-apart tender with crispy skin, but I sometimes find it a little too smoky. The pork links are extremely hot, so I would only recommend them as part of a combo unless you are really into the heat. I would also highly recommend the baby backs. They are probably the second-best choice on the menu. The pulled pork is not really memorable. Phillips offers a your choice of mild or hot barbecue sauce, or the two of them mixed together. It is a smoky, sweet, multi-layered tomato-based sauce with a little hint of vinegar. I would go with the mixed. It is still mellow enough to not mask the other flavors, but with just a little kick to keep things interesting.
Out of all of the sides that come with a dinner, I love the potato salad best. It is sweet and just slightly vinegary with just a little bit of pickle relish. It is not the kind of potato salad I would make, so it is kind of surprising how much I love it. The other sides are good, but not exceptional in any way. There are also sides that you can only get as extras. The macaroni and cheese combines the sweet Velveeta-style with real cheddar cheese, which I personally think is the ultimate form of mac and cheese. The greens are slightly bitter and also slightly vinegary.
For dessert, Phillip’s offers bean pies from Shabazz, and baked goods from Ruby’s in Inglewood. The red velvet cake is vanilla-based, as opposed to the usual cocoa-based red velvet cake.
And never fear, if you ever do have a problem with Phillips’ food, they are more than happy to make it right. Just make sure you obey the sign.