Cafe Reviews

Bones of Contention

H.I. Ribsters is an otherwise likable restaurant with a fatal flaw. It's a limited-menu barbecued rib and chicken emporium that serves really mediocre ribs and chicken. This is barbecue of the blanched and baked-with-liquid-smoke variety, resulting in blah-flavored products that even reasonable tenderness and a decent smoky hot sauce cannot completely disguise.

The astute 'cue connoisseur will realize something is amiss before opening the restaurant door. Because of the use of smoke in its original dry form, great rib houses almost always smell as if they are on fire. With the exception of the aroma from a strategically situated lobby fireplace, H.I. Ribsters doesn't smell a whole lot differently from the Reuben's it has replaced.

This last comparison is not idly made, since the same corporation--the Grace Restaurant Company--owns both of these restaurant chains (along with others, including Baxter's and Coco's). Now I'm not the sort of guy who turns his nose up at a place simply because there's one just like it in Oregon
or Japan (which is where other H.I. Ribsters are, in fact, located). Big corporations bring both capital and management resources to the table, and patrons do benefit in tangible ways.

Design- and decor-wise, for example, H.I. Ribsters is a handsome, comfortable, even interesting establishment. A great deal of the restaurant's square footage is devoted to its lounge, which is sort of a shrine to the American saloon through the last half of the twentieth century. Believe it or not, the big Fifties-style jukebox, the Sixties soul tapes, the Seventies strobe-lighted dance floor and the Eighties TV sports setup cast an eclectic, clubby charm. This is enhanced by the ministrations of enthusiastic cocktail waitresses wearing the appropriate-for-any-decade little white cheerleader costumes.

The main multilevel dining area is brightly lighted, colorfully carpeted and decorated with an interesting array of wall-mounted sports and theatre memorabilia. The visual focal point is an open kitchen, which seems a little odd under the ersatz culinary circumstances, but is attractive nonetheless. Also pleasing is that tables are set far enough apart to ensure comfort and privacy.

Another advantage of a corporate budget is investment in conscientious personnel screening and a sincere staff-training program. I've been griping a lot about service lately, and I must say how tremendously impressed I am with the job being done by H.I. Ribsters' young staff. Not only are they informed, solicitous and cordial, they all seem to be able to think on their feet.

Unfortunately, they're called upon to do this quite a bit in handling the criticisms leveled at the disappointing food. Coupled with the banal barbecue is a menu that is way too short. Limited choice makes sense as a policy for a corporate purchasing department, but lack of menu variety never reflects much regard for patrons.

This situation is not most keenly apparent in the entree listings. Here, if the barbecued baby backs and chicken do not arouse the appetite, a customer can at least order the one daily fresh-fish special, the one entree salad, the fried shrimp or a couple of beef items (the sliced London broil is quite acceptable).

What is surprising is that a restaurant with such a commitment to the heavy-lounge, good-times theme offers only one appetizer. Wing Dings are chicken wings fried in a nice crunchy batter, then laced with hot oil and served with ranch dressing for dipping. They're pretty decent--the chicken is very moist--but they are hardly the sort of item to please everyone.

Surprising again is that the restaurant offers only one a la carte side dish, an onion ring loaf. These crisp, salty and cayenne-laced rings are only served in a loaf pan lined with wax paper, not formed into a loaf as one is led to expect. Dinners do come with bland, squishy bread, a good creamy cole slaw and crisp McDonald's-style French fries, but the latter are irregularly portioned and will seem ungenerous to the person with the short pile.
If the menu is surprising in its brevity to this point, it gets downright amazing when you are ready for some ice cream or fruit cobbler for dessert. You see, H.I. Ribsters offers no, as in zero, desserts. This is not easy for our waitress to explain.

"We're simple," she says. In fact, she says this every time we point out our surprise about the length of the menu. But we don't let up about the total absence of dessert.

Finally she cracks and confesses that H.I. Ribsters doesn't sell desserts because it is attached to a Coco's. It seems the Grace Company has an internal rivalry issue on its hands. The bakery-oriented Coco's does not want to see its business diluted by an upstart sibling. H.I. Ribsters' customers are actually told they should go to Coco's if they are interested in a piece of pie.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steven Weiss