Rib Rack

8113 Richmond Highway

Alexandria

780-RACK, 780-7849

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

Prices: Appetizers $2.25 to $3.95. Sandwiches and entrees $3.75 to $10.95.

Cards: MasterCard, Visa, Diners Club.

Nonsmoking section available.

Barbecue is all the rage in Washington. Mention a good rib place and everyone stops to listen, except, perhaps, transplanted North Carolinians. For them, barbecue means not ribs but pulled pork splashed with a spicy vinegar.

Around here, you can find a number of regional styles and, before opening the Rib Rack, Jim Abrams claims to have sampled them all. But, he concluded, they all paled compared with the barbecue in his wife's home town of Memphis. For years he had the smokey, meaty slabs of pork ribs imported from the Delta City via Federal Express or courtesy of some obliging airplane pilot friends.

Almost five months ago, Abrams decided to stop daydreaming and open his own pit barbecue restaurant.

Generally, the barbecue is pretty good at the Rib Rack.

The menu features a variety of meats -- hefty pork ribs, beef brisket, pork shoulder and chicken -- cooked in the stainless steel drum-like "pit" with rotating shelves.

Slow-cooking produces a firm, yet tender texture and the amount of hickory smoke does not overwhelm the flavor of the different meats. What is missing here -- although some health-conscious diners may see this as a plus -- is the fat. The beef and pork are unusually lean, making them drier than is typically the case. This is particularly noticeable with the pulled pork.

To compensate, you can moisten the meats with a terrific barbecue sauce -- tangy with vinegar, spices, and a touch of tomato paste but not too sweet -- imported from the Public Eye restaurant in Memphis.

My barbecue preference here would be the brisket, which, like the pork, comes on platters or in sandwiches. As for the ribs, they appear to be of good quality, but on recent visits they were slightly over-charred on one occasion and not very flavorful on another.

If you're hungry, the best value is the buffet, especially the $5.95 lunch ($8.95 at dinner). I enjoyed the pulled pork and the chicken drumsticks, and at night there are also good chicken breasts, and occasionally, brisket. Side dishes to look for include the finely chopped, spritely cole slaw, homey red potato salad, crisp garlic toast and sliced fresh fruit. The other choices, such as the spaghetti with meat sauce and the spicey baked beans, were so-so.

With all this hearty food, you don't need an appetizer, but it's hard to pass up the lightly battered onion rings in a whole or half loaf ($3.95 and $2.25 respectively). Skip the chili, which resembled bean dip.

For dessert, while the fruit pies are rather ordinary, the fudgy brownie pie, fluffy peanut butter pie and pecan pie are worth the calories.