In a cluttered back room at Phillips Bar-B-Que in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, the walls are covered with photos of youth sports teams sponsored by the restaurant and honors received by its owner, Foster Phillips. A native of Keatchie, Louisiana, Phillips has operated this barbecue spot ― a takeout-only business ― for 23 years.
The parking lot is perfumed by the plumes from the big, brick-clad smoker. The lines are invariably long, as regulars await taut-skinned links suffused in a chile-fired sauce, or deep, dusky ribs that give only a hint of tug as teeth pull meat from bone.
"My goal is to give customers the same taste in their mouths that they left with the last time they were here," Phillips says. "When they come back, I want them to pick up that same taste, to keep that taste, to hold on to that flavor."
Phillips began barbecuing while in high school. He comes from a family of nine children, and his mother taught household chores to all the kids, boys included. "The only thing I didn't learn well was washing and ironing," admits Phillips.
Barbecue has been an ongoing education for Phillips. "Before I opened, I went to every walk-in barbecue joint I could find and studied meat in every way that I could," he says. "I still go around too, maybe bring in food from three or four places and share it with my employees, to let them see what's going on.
"I've always wanted to be best at whatever I do," Phillips says, "whether it paid big or small. It's hard for me to believe that anyone works harder than me to keep it right. It's just hard to believe."
Barbecue is indeed hard work ― so time-consuming, in fact, that its true believers contend that the effort alone acts as a disincentive to practicing the traditional method. Proper smoking can take 15 hours, and staff must be carefully trained in the way of the barbecue master.
"It has to be nursed and prodded, watched and tended," says Dan Darroch Sr., owner of Hap's Pit Barbecue in Phoenix. "To really have a good rib, the time, temperature, and smoke draft all have to be right. So do the rubs. You're dealing with a thin piece of meat between two bones. More is not better, and less is not better. It's about doing it right. For me, there were thousands of pounds of trial and error."
That said, Darroch will take the hard work of barbecue over the hard work of his former occupation, running a used-car lot, any day.
With a father from Virginia and a grandfather from Texas, Darroch was never a stranger to the verities of barbecue. He barbecued as a hobby and began experimenting with smokers. He eventually spent 18 months or so creating a smoker that he mounted on an old Chevy pickup chassis.
In 1994 he set up a few card tables and began selling barbecue at his used-car lot near Sky Harbor International Airport. Darroch sold so many sandwiches that first Saturday, he began to rethink his future. He opened his two restaurants in 2001 and now employs nine members of his family.
"You sell cars with the right intentions, but they do break down. And, believe it or not, a lot of people don't make their payments, and as a result you have to go pick up their car," he says.
"So I was never sent a Christmas card by anyone I had to repo. But barbecue? Everyone is happy and excited and thanks you afterward. And it's a consumable product. They're always back the next week ― or the next day ― for more."