Phil's baby back ribs, charred from the grill and smothered in the stickiest barbecue sauce of all time.
  • Phil's baby back ribs, charred from the grill and smothered in the stickiest barbecue sauce of all time.
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Phil's BBQ

3750 Sports Arena Boulevard, Midway District

Any survey of San Diego’s barbecue scene would be woefully incomplete without considering the juggernaut of local ‘cue: Phil’s BBQ. (3750 Sports Arena Boulevard)

Phil’s needs little introduction. The restaurant’s website runs a webcam so that would-be customers can gauge the often-ridiculous wait times. It’s popular enough that the empire has expanded to five restaurants, even opening a branch of Phil’s inside the airport, of all the ridiculous spots to sling ribs. At this point, Phil Pace (the restaurant’s founder) could dress in a black cloak and a breathing machine for Halloween, grilling ribs by lightsaber and nobody would bat an eye.

Pulled pork sandwich, loaded with cole slaw and not enough sauce.

Pulled pork sandwich, loaded with cole slaw and not enough sauce.

San Diego Magazine readers saw fit to dub Phil’s the “best” barbecue restau for 2013. They got that one wrong. (Not as wrong as the “critic’s pick” of Yakitori Yakudori, an admittedly excellent Japanese restaurant -- there’s just no world in which charcoal grilled chicken parts, tiny fishes, quail eggs, and other skewered bits of animal constitute barbecue.) At least the readers picked something that’s almost legitimate BBQ. Phil’s took the “slow cook and grill” method to new heights, streamlining and homogenizing the process to a spectacular degree in order to satisfy the overwhelming demand. In all fairness, the food there tastes OK, but not as good as the lines and accolades suggest.

Lonely beef rib, almost a meal in itself.

Lonely beef rib, almost a meal in itself.

If anything, Phil’s food has too much flavor. The taste of liquid smoke (from the super duper secret Phil’s methodology that circumvents big smoky barbecue pits) is way stronger than the smoke flavor that an actual fire could ever accomplish. Phil’s sauce, which falls into no camp in particular, is somehow sweeter, sticker, more acidic, and saltier than it should be. It overwhelms the senses.

While those things aren’t strictly bad, Phil’s BBQ has all the subtlety and nuance of a hard left hand from Johny Hendricks.

Secret hint: mix these four together in the right ratios (equal parts vinegar and mustard, spices to taste) and end up with a passable Carolina mustard sauce!

Secret hint: mix these four together in the right ratios (equal parts vinegar and mustard, spices to taste) and end up with a passable Carolina mustard sauce!

What the restaurant ultimately achieves, without using any of traditional barbecue’s methodologies, is an exaggerated expression of barbecue. Imagine trying to describe the taste of good barbecue to someone completely unfamiliar with the cuisine. Reduce barbecue to its basic elements of smoky-salty-sweetness, magnify them tenfold, and you might end up with something like Phil’s. That effect is probably a big part of the restaurant’s popularity. Everybody loves a good caricature. It’s the reason we laugh at Ron Burgundy, but would anyone really want to go around saying Anchorman is the best movie?

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Comments

Dave Rice Dec. 14, 2013 @ 12:22 a.m.

I'd honestly never even heard of Phil's until I got a job managing back-office operations at a bank and learned that I could bribe a solid two months' worth of positive attitudes from staff by catering a lunch from the place. While I always found the sauce passable (though you've nailed the stickiness factor), the dryness of the meats and okay-ness of the sides were always kind of turn-offs...one time I actually went and picked up a $200 lunch for the crew from Sports Arena and then stopped at Abbey's on the way back to get myself a brisket plate with beans and cornbread.

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Ian Pike Dec. 16, 2013 @ 8:39 a.m.

I think people often make the false assumption that "most popular" equates with "best." Not the case. There are probably about a million topical examples to support that.

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