By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2003
"I used to live on the Hill."
I've found myself saying that several times lately, in a surprisingly wistful way. Capitol Hill was my first address in Washington, my first brush with the trappings (and the trafficking) of power, and I've never gotten over the pleasure of discovering that, right up against all those public buildings and monuments and even mansions, there were lively, vital neighborhoods where people exchanged "good morning" on the street. And there still are such enclaves of real folk, even though so much of the central area is disfigured by Jersey barriers and planter-bunkers and no-entry signs.
What has put me in mind of those more innocent days is Pete's Diner & Carryout, which, despite the extraordinary change in atmosphere all around it (even that wonderful Chinese laundry, which produced shirt collars of a whiteness and purity never equaled since, has disappeared from the corner), is still the sort of place that makes one feel at home, even if the neighborhood isn't home anymore. Which probably explains all the framed letters on the wall from homesick former Congressional pages who were fed and petted by the Pete's crew.
On Second Street SE just off Pennsylvania Avenue and within eyeshot of the Capitol, the Library of Congress and the House office buildings, Pete's is in a location that could as easily be called witness to history as corner hangout. On weekdays, the construction workers and utility techs grab breakfast in the dark, Hill staffers convene for lunch and by midafternoon the first-shift security guards have made a last-minute run for coffee before beating the rush-hour traffic out.
But on weekends, the residential element comes more to the fore. The plastic tables out front are crowded with exhilarated flag footballers and the "friends" from multiroom rental houses. The young couples from closer-in blocks haul their kids in little red wagons or herd them around on plastic trikes; the still-singles bike in from past Eastern Market; and the dog-walkers drape leashes over poles and stretch their legs out long as reassurance. Pete's doesn't get too many tourists, and that's just fine.
In my day, there was a Pete -- still is, actually, represented by a photo of his younger self on the wall -- but for the past few years the carryout has belonged to Gum Tong, a waist-high Chinese Malay of seemingly inexhaustible cheer. She has assembled a staff of women who, except for the accents and the tendency to slip into Chinese, remind me with a second stab of nostalgia of the beehived waitresses at Nashville's Pancake Pantry, the sort who, when you say after pulling an all-nighter, red-eyed and hoarse, "Just coffee for me, thanks," answer, "Honey, I know jes' how you feel." The ladies at Pete's always sorta know how you feel, keeping a shrewd eye on the ones who need a little lighthearted chivying, whisking away the full-strength pancake syrup and exchanging it for light, bringing two bottles of hot sauce instead of one, and so on. The signs may say breakfast is served until 11, but the waffle ordered at 12:30 comes out in record time. And if I needed any other Southernisms -- you do remember that Washington lies south of the Mason-Dixon line? -- it would be the grits, the biscuits, the scrapple, the country-fried steak, the root beer floats.
It wasn't much cheaper when I lived around there, primarily because it couldn't be much cheaper. Almost nothing at Pete's tops the $5 mark, with the exception of the occasional steak dinner or pot roast or big Reuben sandwich, and they still slip in at under $6. Even the Monday lunch cult favorite of Korean bulgoky, as they spell it, marinated and grilled thin-sliced round steak with tangy but not Prevacid-level kimchi, is a full plate of carryout for a Lincoln. Like any diner worth the name, Pete's papers the walls with specials: lasagna, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken.
What's made Pete's a secret escape for a lot of Hillies is the number of vegetarian dishes. Egg and cheese breakfast burritos with salsa, $3.65 -- including the grits or home fries. A stack of three sweet-potato pancakes, $4. Mushroom and cheese or tofu sandwiches. And the veggie special, which each day is a three- or four-dish assortment over rice that generally includes something like a mixed-veggie stir-fry, sauteed bok choy, a soft-tofu scramble and perhaps a sweet-and-sour tempeh with pineapple and sweet peppers.
It's the market surprises that are really addictive: One day it was julienned yuba (bean curd sheets) with cashews and pineapple, another a roasted beet salad and still another Tong spooned out roasted mixed root veggies. Once she tossed a salad of fresh shiso leaves, a luxurious excess akin to eating caviar out of the jar. (What, don't you?)
This is not to say that Pete's pretends to "cuisine." It doesn't pretend at all. It's just clean, honest, hospitable, fast (if you need it to be) and very, very friendly. Maybe the french fries are a little pale, maybe the grits are a little thin, but the coffee's pretty good and the burgers are hearty. I can't speak to the biscuits, but next time I get really homesick, I'm going back for more coffee. They'll know jes' how I feel.