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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Searching For Good BBQ in San Diego


People can get religiously fanatic when they talk about BBQ.  There's the sweet, smokey tenderness found in Kansas City.  There's the spiced rub dry style of the Carolinas with its simple tangy vinegar sauce.  There's the sauce-less beefy ribs of Texas - don't ask for sauce or they will kill you.  Whether it's pork spareribs, giant beef ribs, or a tender brisket, BBQ has one thing in common - it's cooked low and slow over the sweet smokiness of hickory or fruit tree wood.

Of course, this is San Diego and this is Phil's BBQ, the"as seen on FoodTV" BBQ joint that's often called the best in San Diego.  But could it stand up to the ribs I've been lucky enough to sample across the country, or will it fail like a fish taco in Memphis?  Let's get in line and see.

Here's the drill.  You line up outside and wait like this is Disneyland on a holiday weekend.  The hostess doesn't show you to the table, she points at a cash register where you order and pay and then hunt for an open spot.  Those in the know know that you can grab a place at the bar to the left and skip the line, and those coming during rush hour know that you can call in an order and skip to the front to get your food to go.  BBQ at the beach?  BBQ in the car?  Why not, especially if you're on vacation and it's a rental!

Now I told you I've been lucky enough to sample some great ribs across this country.  Kansas City style is what most people think of when they think ribs - meat smothered with sauce.  Now purists argue with that, but purists will be taken aback by something else here at Phil's, and that's that they don't use smokers.

Say What?

That's right, unlike just about every other BBQ joint in the US, Phil's grills their ribs over mesquite wood instead of tossing them into a smoker for hours.  That could be a problem as ribs are inherently tough and need the low and slow cooking time to get tender.  But Phil's solves that problem by using Baby Backs for their pork, a more tender cut and easier to get right on the grill.

You can get a half rack for around $13 or a full rack for $5 more, and really, there's no good reason to ever get a half rack.  The sides were solid, fries hot and crispy, beans slightly sweet. The onion rings, however, had a bit too much dough on them for me but the guys ate them like it was their last meal before going on a diet.  The ribs were tender, cooked just right, and if the mesquite left a slightly harsh undertone the sauce had enough zing to carry them through. 

You can also get a combo of 4 ribs and chicken, but I see no point in this.  Not enough ribs, and let's face it, chicken is filler when there are ribs around.  It might be good filler, but you don't go to a rib place to get chicken.  But the guy who got it loved it and loved the potato salad and pretty much ate everything except for the paper on the bottom (and that's debatable) so what do I know?

One of the best things to get at Jacks Stack in Kansas City are the Crown Ribs, big, juicy fatty beef ribs cut off a prime rib. To get beef ribs right, you need lots of time in the smoker, and then some more time wrapped in foil to get them soft and tender.  But as I said, Phil's doesn't use smokers, they grill.  But they pulled it off with the baby backs, can they do it with the giant beef ribs?

Alas, no.  These ribs were tough.  Too big to pick up, too saucy to touch, too tough to cut with a knife, these were epic failures in the land of BBQ.  But people around me were gnawing on them like the Donner Party and seemed to be enjoying them, but to a rib guy these were disasters. In the end I was the only guy taking home ribs.  The rest of the guys were loving it and pretty much cleaned their plates.

Well, pretty much.  Ribs, gone. Veggies? Hmmm, did you even try them?  Don't make this same mistake.  Trying to eat healthy while going out for ribs is like trying to avoid sand while at the beach.  You just have to dive in and forget the doctor's orders.  Ahhh, and to think those veggies could have been an order of fries.

So what's the verdict?  Can San Diego BBQ?  Tough question.  I've heard Phil's called "San Diego Style BBQ" and maybe that's a good way to put it.  It won't stand up to traditional BBQ, it would be out of business in Kansas City, but in a town more famous for fish tacos it's as good as anything your neighbor might do on his backyard grill.  That's not a put down, it's hard to get it right without a smoker and Phil's does a good enough job to please all but the purists.


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