The smoke in the air would catch your attention on Crenshaw Boulevard and pull you right down Slauson Avenue to Woody Phillips’ barbecue joint, a place of plastic menus, friendly faces and steaming plates of rib tips, chicken links and brisket, all with a brick-red barbecue sauce on the side.
Residents in Los Angeles might quibble over which of the barbecue houses in the neighborhood were best -- and there were and still are an abundance — but Woody’s Bar-B-Que was always in the conversation.
“You could smell it from blocks away,” said journalist and author Lynell George, who grew up near Phillips’ place. “It was how you knew you were almost home.”
Never far from the kitchen where the ribs crackled over oak logs, Phillips died Dec. 31. He was 78 and had been in poor health since a stroke a decade earlier. Still, friends and family said, he remained a fixture at his restaurant on Slauson, as well as two other locations in L.A.
It many ways, Woody’s was part of the cement that held together a neighborhood that was left battered by the 1992 riots, when black-owned restaurants had trouble hanging on as longtime customers steered clear of the area.
For regulars there was a family warmth to the place. When the Raiders were still in town, fans would gather at Woody’s before the game. After church on Sunday, it would fill up with well-dressed families. And when the electricity flickered out during the riots, Phillips lit candles and fired up the oak logs, serving meals in the dim light.
“He was a survivor, and he helped other people survive too,” said his son Roderick Phillips, who operates the family barbecue pit in Inglewood.
Woodrow “Woody” Phillips Jr. was born Dec. 29, 1941, in Keatchie, La., a town of several hundred south of Shreveport, where farming was the only way to make a living. The youngest of eight kids, Phillips was a self-starter from the beginning and found himself at home in the kitchen, where he cooked chops, greens and cornbread for his family.
After high school he moved to Houston and then Los Angeles, arriving in 1961. He went to work for McDonnell Douglas, working on instrument panels for the DC-10. Bored, he launched a gardening business and then a painting crew. Still bored, he recalled the competitive fun of dodging his older sisters in the kitchen as a child, certain that his recipes were superior.
“I wanted to be able to explode, to go as far as I thought I could go, rather than as far as someone else suggested,” he told The Times in 1993.
So he set his sights on a barbecue place on Slauson he’d heard was in deep trouble. From a doughnut stand across the street, he kept track of the number of customers who came and went and then made the proprietor an offer -- $3,500 for the lease and the business. Woody’s was born.
Phillips was still trying to get the kinks out of his barbecue sauce the night before his rib joint opened in 1975. For months he’d been tinkering with the brew, adding and subtracting ingredients, keeping notes on what worked and what didn’t. Finally, after 3½ hours of nursing the sauce along, he took a spoonful. Perfection, he thought.
He simmered every vat of sauce for exactly 3½ hours the rest of his life.
“It exudes from your pores for hours; it seems less like a condiment than like a way of life,” wrote the late L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold in 1992. “It makes you breathe hard, if not precisely to speak in tongues.”
Gold was as effusive about the barbecue itself.
“Crusty pork ribs spurting with juice; thick, blackened hot link sausages with the chaw of good jerky; meaty little rib tips; giant beef ribs; charred, only occasionally stewey-tasty slices of well-done barbecued beef brisket that even Texans condescend to like,” he wrote, adding that customers should likely have their own teeth.
Other locations opened. One in Inglewood, another on Florence Avenue and, for a while, one in Las Vegas and still another in Encino, directly across the street from a Tony Roma’s. A cousin, Foster Phillips, also opened a pair of of rib houses, both named Phillips Barbecue.
But the original on Slauson remained the mother ship.
“Those places really did bond people,” George said of the cluster of barbecue stands along Slauson, Crenshaw and other thoroughfares. “Everyone had a favorite. You’d branch out sometimes and try other places, but you always drifted back to your favorite.”
Roderick Phillips said his father was a generous man who took great joy in helping others. He started a youth ministry which reached out to at-risk adolescents, particularly young gang members. He said his father was so giving he was even willing to disclose the ingredients of his signature sauce.
“He’d give you the ingredients, sure,” his son said, “but just not the amounts.”
Phillips is survived by his wife Jenetha; children Greg, Tracy and Tyreke in addition to Roderick; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.