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Mission Hills! How could I have forgotten them for so long? I was on a Number 16 bus today, first time in years. Just had to hop out at Goldfinch and Washington. I'm thinking Rip Van Winkle. I ate at the Huddle...well, long ago. Hmm. Maybe another nibble at the Huddle?

Then I catch a dee-licious smell wafting across the road from Phil's BBQ. Ah yes. I remember. There was some fuss over the smoke. But I'm so hooked by the smell, I zombie right across Goldfinch to join -- wow -- a long line waiting outside.

It's a green and cream and brick-fronted place, with a little sidewalk seating and not much else.

"Last time the wait was about 45 minutes," says the guy ahead of me.

"It's that good?"

"Best ribs in town," he says. "Although I almost like the BBQ Broham better than the ribs."

I check out "Broham" on the menu fixed to the window. It's a sandwich with "pork shoulder seasoned, char-grilled, and topped with coleslaw [$6.45]."

"Next!" says the cashier gal just inside the door.

I step in. All hell's breaking loose here. Seem to be about eight cooks in baseball caps with flames embroidered on the sides, all flying, frying, chopping, searing, packing steaming stuff into polystyrene boxes. Guy on my side of the counter shouts, "Waddayagot?"

"I've got numbers 35, 27, 29, 33, 30, and 31, Phil!" calls the cook. He hands boxes over to the guy -- hey. It's Phil. The owner.

"Wait's about 20 minutes," says the order-taker gal. She's under pressure. "So what...?"

Lord. Race-scan of the Big List. The main deal is the "Back Rib Dinners." The full-rib dinner (and it's always pork unless you ask for beef) is $18.95 for 10--12 bones, plus two small sides, like cut-on-the-premises fries, baked beans, coleslaw, potato or macaroni salad, or one big side like a corncob, baked potato, or steamed veggies. The half-rib (6--7 bones) is $12.95, and the quarter-rib (4 bones) $9.95. BBQ chicken's from $6.75 (quarter-chicken) to $9.75 (half-chicken, all white meat). Rib-chicken combos are $10.95, and you can get boneless ribs or chicken dinners -- "no bones about it" -- for $10.95. A 3-bone beef rib dinner's $12.45....

"Sir?"

"Aah...okay. Oh hell, quarter-rib dinner."

"Sides?"

"Fries, beans. And corn on the cob."

"That'll be $2.25 extra. It's a large side."

"Fine."

It comes to 14 bucks, plus tax, once I add a $1.85 soda. 'Course now I see sandwiches, BBQ chicken breast and BBQ turkey burger, for, like, $4.95. Even a one-bone sampler rib for $3.75. Carla's gonna kill me for spending so much. Unless I buy her off somehow, heh heh.

I fill my cup up with ice and Coke. The place is packed. From that small entrance you just keep going through room after cream-painted room with varnished wood skirting, varnished wood tables, varnished bare wood booths, and the standard historic black-and-white pix of San Diego on the walls. And everywhere, people are chowing down with a vengeance, yakking, slurping sodas, grabbing paper towels from tableside rollers. There's a light in their eyes. I swear, BBQ awakens something that all the refined knife-and-fork stuff never will.

"Oh, you've got to live a little, for gosh sakes," says Claire, who's just finishing up ribs with her friend. She's no spring chicken. You'd expect her to be watching every calorie. Not this gal. "We bust out sometimes, right, Cathy?"

I hear my number, grab my tray, find a booth, and start off with the beans. Mmm. Sweet. Then the corn. Wow. Still in its husk. Dab o' butter, oh so sweet and fresh. And the ribs. Mesquite-smoky but also sweet. Plus, can taste the pork, which is good. Lots of fries, and, thank goodness, endless refills on the Coke.

"My parents had an Italian restaurant for 55 years, in Painesville, Ohio." Now I'm talking to Phil -- yes, the actual Phil -- while I'm back at the counter, waiting to pick up a BBQ Broham for Carla.

"And this all started because they used to actually season the spaghetti sauce with spare ribs," Phil says. "So us kids would eat the ribs after. Then a friend said, 'Why don't you serve the ribs?'"

Phil was 15. He invented his own BBQ sauce, opened up his own rib takeout joint, and prospered. He could have stayed there. "But I heard about San Diego weather," he says. "The more fine weather you have, the more customers you get."

He opened here in February 1998, and what started as 800 square feet is now 2700 square feet. Seven employees have become 38. He even overnights orders to places as far away as New York and Chicago. 'Course there was that episode of the neighbors objecting to his smoke. Now, he says, he and his co-owner Jeff "spend $125,000 a year" to run high-tech smoke filters.

And no, he hasn't got sick of his own food.

"We still eat our own ribs," he says.

Me, I'll be eating my own hand if I get this next step wrong. I'm back home, holding my breath. Carla's holding our Broham. She chomps into the large Kaiser bun, loaded with, like, pork shreds and coleslaw. "Oh my God, Bedford," she says. "What's wrong with you, man? Why didn't you bring back two? 'Cause don't even think about whining for some of this."

Editor's Note: Phil's BBQ has since moved to the Midway District:

Phil's BBQ

3750 Sports Arena Boulevard, Midway District

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