Hot Plate

Meat Matters
If life were fair, the grub at Pete's Fine Meats & Deli would be terrific.
There's that poetic name, for one thing, and the nostalgia factor of a genuine Texas meat market that serves barbecue and burgers on the side. Not to mention the sentimental edge conferred by yellowed how-to-carve-up-a-cow wallpaper and the fact that Pete's is one of the few remaining real places on the Richmond party strip, where reality is an increasingly scarce commodity.

Then, too, there is the chance that former governor Mark White might offer you a taste of his chili. That's what happened to me last week; why would I lie? White eats at Pete's about once a week -- he's done so for years -- and on this particular afternoon his face grew redder and redder as he worked his way through the bowl. Occasionally, he would pause to mop his brow or dab behind his ears with a white handkerchief.

Having sampled the stuff, I can see why the guv was sweating. Pete's chili is a purist's brew, just ground-up beef in a brick-brown bath with a mysteriously dusky undertone and a heat that builds. And builds. And builds some more. Saltines help; White consumed a good number of them.

Unfortunately, that chili, which Pete's concocts in cold weather only, is about as exciting as things get. The burgers are pretty good in a countrified way, but a place that grinds its own meat should be able to construct a patty that's less compacted, less rigid. The barbecued beef and pork ribs are resolutely plain -- not so much as a drop of sauce or baste disturbs their essential meatiness, though you rather wish it would. (Kreuz Market this ain't.) If you want the requisite slice of white bread to go along, it will cost you seven cents. There are sausages on a stick, too, poking straight up under the warming lights in a rather, um, dramatic display.

The deli salads, many of them mayonnaise-based, tend to look a little weary around the edges. Mustardy potato salad's fine; sweet-sour slaw showered with poppy seeds is so steeped in dressing it loses its crunch. I had high hopes for the giant steak taco, but while I like its eccentricity -- which springs from lots of mayo, thinly sliced tomatoes and a hunk of white cheese -- its salt overload eventually made me holler uncle.

So what is it that makes me soft on this place? Maybe Pete's curbside Hinds Sides Hamburgers sign has turned my head, or the 99-cent chopped beef sandwiches that slumber under the heat lamp in their foil coats; they may be minced to a consistency just short of baby food, but they're the cheapest acceptable carryout lunch I know of. Mainly Pete's just feels right, as both governors and grease monkeys understand, which gives those crusty, mayo-driven, onion-dripping, too-too solid cheeseburgers their je ne sais quoi. Pass that bottle of hot sauce.

-- Alison Cook

Pete's Fine Meats & Deli, 5509 Richmond Avenue, 782-3470.

Pete's Fine Meats:

chili (cold weather only), $2.50;
cheeseburger, $2.59

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