IF YOU ASK persons who live north of Wilmington, Del., about barbecued ribs they immediately speak of those little charred black things that come with the flaming poo-poo platter at a Polynesian restaurant; or maybe that boney cage of meat smothered in catsup hot sauce papa makes on the charcoal grill Memorial Day weekend.
But don't talk to a good ole boy (person) about those ribs. Southerners may not agree about what makes a great hog rib sing, but they know it sure ain't dipped in duck sauce and hot mustard. In South Carolina alone there are regional preferences for vinegar, tomato and mustard-based sauces: Some like it hot or sweet, stewed or dry grilled, fatty or lean. Only one thing remains standard all over the South. Green hickory wood (occasionally mixed with oak) must be used to fuel the fires that make the smoke that season the meat.
In our search for the best Southern-style spare ribs in the Washington area we were too often met with mediocrity and careless preparation -- the meat unevenly roasted or left to steam into an unrecognizable mush; the seasoning foreign, faint or overpowering.
One thing was certain. If you want rib meat with no bones between two slices of bread, do not order the rib sandwich. Order a barbecue pork sandwich. Rib sandwich means bones and meat squished between ersatz spongy white bread. You can't bite into it like a sandwich so what is the point.
Below are listed the results of our tour of Washington's barbecue palaces: Prime Ribs
O'Brien's Pit Barbecue, 1314 Gude Dr., Rockville, Md. (340-8596): When Ken O'Brien bought the sauce recipe from Red Bryan's Dallas Barbecue House for a princely sum, he may have made the wisest investment of his life.The meat is impregnated with a deep mahogany-colored, tart, lemony sauce; evenly cooked and smoked. The baked beans and chili are also classic.
The Rib Pit, 2117 Rhode Island Ave. NE (832-3536) and 3903 14th St. NW (829-9747): Real get-down-and-pork-out ribs. Cords of hickory stacked in front of the shop obstruct the view of the white brick oven which produces racks of succulent smokey ribs doused in a rich, spicy sauce. Pigs should be grateful for such treatment.
Scott's Bar-B-Que Pit, 3066 Mount Pleasant St. NW (332-1145): These ribs are placed in this category with hesitation. The vinegar-laden sauces, mild and hot, are neither unique nor impressive. The ribs, however, were of the best we tasted -- strong hickory-smoke flavor, lean and small boned but meaty. This is a good place to buy the ribs and use your own sauce. Rib Tickling
The Deli On the Strand, 2111 The Strand, Alexandria, Va. (548-7222): These trim, meaty ribs are hickory smoked on the premises. The sauce is sweet and tomato paste thick, but it complements the ribs. Slabs of ribs are served so you can pick the portion you prefer.
The Rib, 128 Rollins Ave., Rockville, Md. (881-1970). Definately the prettiest ribs -- just like an edible xylophone. But the meat was unevenly cooked and covered with a thin, watery concoction with a chemical after-taste.
Hickory Plantation, 6669 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria, Va. (256-0340): The meat is dry, sticks too closely to the bone, but there is a slight hickory scent. Four thin vinegar-based sauces are offered: Dixie, a mild sweet and sour sauce; Tex, not exciting, but thicker than the others; Dixie Pig, still heavy on the vinegar, but hotter than Tex; Tex-Mex, distilled Jalapeno peppers that disguises hickory flavor. (The hot peacan pie is superb.)
The Rustler Steak House, (several locations in the Washington area): It is such an amazement to find decent fare in a fast food joint -- basic Kraft-type barbecue sauce, tough meat, but not bad.
The Barn Que, 707 14th St. NW (347-9608): The person behind the counter pulls the ribs out of a steam drawer, indelicately slaps them on the table and hacks away. But no harm to the ribs; the meat is tender, evenly cooked and easily gnawed off the bone. The sauce is plainly catsup-based, but spicy and pungent.
Foggy Bottom Cafe, 924 25th St. NW (388-8707): Although advertised as southern barbecued spare ribs, they belong in the Oriental or fantasy rib category. The meat was undercooked and pink, not smoked but grilled. The curry seasoned sauce was an interesting variation, but unacceptable in this tasting.
Faces, 5626 Georgia Ave. NW (291-6085): Well prepared, but whatever chance the sauce has is masked by too much green pepper. The meat should have been trimmed of some fat. Spare Me These Ribs
Kaus Barbecue Restaurant, 700 North St. Asaph St., Alexandria, Va. (548-4121): Oily stewed beef ribs that splinter into bland slivers of meat and a thin sauce made from leftover pepper tomato soup, can give barbecue a bad name.
Crazy Horse Bar-B-Q ranch, 652 Riggs Rd., Hyattsville, Md. (559-8558): If Roy Rodgers hadn't been sucked into the pit of commercialism, he would have designed his restaurant with the charm and character of Al Berkman's friendly place. You get plastic western and silent screen comedian memorabilia, orange walls and black gingham curtains. The juke box is weird -- "Celery Stalks at Midnight," and on the flip side "Bet Me Daddy," by Will Bradley, and other cowboy favorites. Oh yes, the ribs. Fatty meat, heavy on the vinegar and hot sauce and mealy. Eat something else. It is worth the trip.
Dixie Pig Carryout, 2818 Becon Hill Rd., Alexandria, Va. (768-4395): The sauce is colored a very unappetizing puce and heavily seasoned with Louisiana hot sauce. The ribs have been smothered, stewed, are greasy and show no sign of being smoked.
Florida Avenue Grill, 11th St. and Florida Ave. NW (no telephone): The last of one of the truely great neighborhood restaurants, but unfortunately not for the ribs -- unless you like them sticky sweet, stewed past recognition and greasy. This rendition of soul food or Southern cooking, is not for someone looking for a great hickory smoked, chewy suculent rib.
Arbaugh's Restaurant, 2606 Connecticut Ave. NW (234-8980): This restaurant sports one of the most impressive neon signs in Washington, but it flashes to some of the most uniformed palates. The portions are hefty (8 to 10 inch racks per serving) but the pork and hickory flavors are lost in careless over-cooking. The sauce provides only an unsatisfying vinegar douse. The cole slaw accompaniment, is well dressed but pulverized to pablum.
Garbini's Barbecue, 5613 Georgia Ave. NW (723-6741): The paucity of meat surrendered is parboiled into obscurity. There is no sauce (unless you count low-grade Louisiana hot sauce), and it is served with steamed white bread you wouldn't feed to a pigeon.
Linda C. Bigelow of Reston, Va., sent in the following recipe. She writes: "Several years ago in the West African country of Upper Volta the late Tom 'Sarge' Johnson prepared delicious American-style spareribs for 40 hungry Voltaique boxers. The feast, held in our back yard in the capital city of Quagadougou, topped off weeks of training given by Sarge and three other American boxers. Known and loved for his generous spirit, Sarge did not mind at all as I alternated handing him ingredients with note-taking. I feel sure that Sarge would not have minded my sharing these notes with you. SARGE'S BARBEQUE SAUCE (For 15 sides of spareribs or 2 halved baby pigs weighing about 40 pounds) 4 cans tomato paste 2 tablespoons A-1 sauce 1/2 bottle plus 1/2 cup red wine 2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 teaspoons Maggi seasoning 3 tablespoons vinegar 1 bottle French dressing 1/2 pound butter 1 bottle plus 1 teaspoon Tobasco 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper 2 tablespoons salt 2 handsful brown sugar 4 cloves garlic 1/3 to 1/2 cup lemon juice 1/2 cup chopped onion
Add enough water to tomato paste until it is the consistency of catsup. Mix with remaining ingredients. Cook ribs very slowly over grill, basting occasionally with sauce.