There are few places in Northern Virginia that make decent ribs; H. I. Ribster's is one of them. But before you can sit down and enjoy the food you may have to decide how you feel about the atmosphere.
Plenty of people seem to like it, because Ribster's fills up even on a week night. But a few things here bothered us. It's dim and cigarette-smoky, for one thing: the gray smoke sometimes hovers over the tables like smog. Second, even if you don't consider yourself a feminist, you might feel put off by the waitresses' uniforms -- silly, frilly little black dresses that barely cover what they're supposed to.
But the food is pretty good and the prices are extremely reasonable. There aren't many choices on the menu so you can go right to the basics. Start with a "loaf of our famous onion rings," a huge platter of fat rings, speckled with thin, crisp batter; the rings are packed together in the shape of a bread loaf ; they're some of the best onion rings we've had outside the downtown Palm and they cost only $2.75. (Tell the waitress you want them on the browned side, otherwise on a busy night they might come a bit pallid and undercooked.) Also order Wing Dings, another good deal for $2.95 -- a good-sized bowl of meaty chicken wings in a hot sauce that tastes like Tabasco.
The ribs themselves are mercifully simple. They're baby back ribs the kind that look like a xylophone; they're lean, very lean and unadorned, with a faintly smoky taste -- they don't have that awful thick goo that so many restaurants like to paste on ribs.
And these ribs are incredibly tender. They're so unusually tender, in fact, that rib aficionados may debate over them. Daniel likes them that way, but Barbara argues that part of the pleasure of eating ribs is gnawing the meat off the bone, then chewing at the last pesky, resistant scraps; this meat pulls right off the bone like soft pot roast and there's nothing left to work at.
Barbecued chicken is also good here, brushed with a little more sauce than the ribs, but it's moist and the skin is nicely blistered. Ribster's also makes decent, fat hamburgers and a few steak dishes, including "Steak Tid Bits," which we think is a fine bargain: big chunks of steak that taste like sirloin trimmings, simply broiled and served in their own juice, for only $6.75.
We'd never go out of our way to eat fish at a place like this, but if one of your party doesn't eat meat there's a huge flounder filet, lightly fried with a thin crust, for the ridiculously low price of $4.25. All the dinners come with excellent cole slaw and long french fries, cut with their skins. Be sure to send back your fries if they're old and cold; the waitress will cheerfully bring you fresh hot ones.
We have one main complaint about the food at Ribster's and it's a tricky one because unless we go into the kitchen and see for ourselves we won't be able to prove it: most of the main dishes here taste as if they've come to the table with a stopover under a heat lamp or in a microwave oven. This is the kind of food that you want hot and crusty; the food comes hot all right, but it seldom tastes straight from the grill.