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Restaurant Review: Phil's BBQ

Key:
+ shameful
++ mediocre
+++ delightful
++++ amazing

Phil’s BBQ +++

3750 Sports Arena Blvd.
San Diego 92110
(619) 226-6333

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sundays; until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed on Mondays.

Cuisine: American barbecue

Budget impact: Moderate to high moderate

A sign posted several yards outside the front doors of Phil’s BBQ reads: “21 minutes and 14 seconds.” If you find yourself standing under it amid the torturous aroma of mesquite clouds snaking up your nose, that’s at least how long you will have to wait before eating what you smell. Welcome to the three-ring circus of human German shepherds that belongs exclusively to Phil’s.

Since moving from its original home in Mission Hills a couple years ago, to significantly larger digs on Sports Arena Boulevard, the mania for gaining entry and then competing for a table has swelled to migraine proportions. Yet for owner Phil Pace, the smoky scent of success keeps getting sweeter.

Rumors of new locations keep swirling. And in the past 10 years, Pace claims to have cranked out more than a million pounds of his top-secret barbecue sauce, which sports a thinner consistency compared to most, but harbors an ethereal tanginess that is inarguably addicting. There’s even a “BBQueue cam” accessible from www.philsbbq.net, aimed at the entranceway, so that customers "in the know" can preview the cattle lines in real time, to avoid getting stuck in them.

Consistently, the baby back ribs spark a drool fest. The meat hangs loosely from the bones, and it’s free of membranes and gristle due to high-heat cooking on a flame grill -- not in a smoker as hardcore bbq’ers would demand. A full slab yields about 12 sticks of dreamy, soft tissue.

Chickens are juicy and flavorful right down to the interiors of their breast sections. Available in half or quarter portions, they include a choice of picnic-quality sides: Fleshy fries; creamy coleslaw; straightforward potato salad; so-so macaroni salad; and hit-or-miss corn on the cob, which in my last visit was cooked tenderly rather than to a mealy death. Onion rings are fat and heavily battered, though sweetly tongue-coating and acceptably a little greasy.

Other standouts I recently discovered include the El Toro sandwich made with sliced, char-grilled tri-tip. It’s smothered in barbecue sauce that is perhaps more brown-sugary than what the ribs take on. The half-pound cheeseburger with cheddar is rather terrific, too. If you are combining it with other barbecued items, order it without the sauce. Otherwise it starts tasting like all of the other proteins on your table and you’ll miss out on some pure beefy flavors.

The restaurant seats 250 people. Expectedly, sideswiping is rampant. Shin collisions with baby strollers are common. And the frenzied order takers look as though they could all use an island vacation. If it weren’t for the delectable ribs and other meat items stamped with carcinogenic flavor blasts, my rating for dining inside at Phil’s would tumble to two stars, or possibly plummet to one. Takeout is your best bet.

Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of Secret San Diego (ECW Press), which was published in 2003 and distributed to major bookstores and Web sites throughout the U.S. and Canada. He has written extensively on food and restaurants for Living in Style Magazine, Pacific Magazine, Gay & Lesbian Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, where he worked previously on the city desk and also wrote feature stories for the paper's Food Section.