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It’s 10 minutes until the posted 7 p.m. closing time, but business shows no sign of stopping on Friday night at Three Little Pigs, D.C.’s newest gourmet meat market.
Six patrons are standing in line to order at the deli case. Another six are waiting on their orders, many with arms folded. In a small shop like this, a crowd of a dozen makes for a packed house.
Standing near back of the slow-budging line, I have little to do but ponder the colorful chalk drawing of hog heads on the wall. One pig is baring its fangs somewhat menacingly. Another appears quite scholarly, with a monocle over one eye and pipe in its mouth. The third is sporting what appears to be a bamboo peasant hat.
The anthropomorphic whimsy stands in stark contrast to the illustration underfoot, where the stenciled outline of a pig’s body is scrawled into the dusty-looking wood. It makes the otherwise homey charcuterie and salami shop feel like a crime scene. Which, depending on your perspective, it kind of is—a point that’s clearly not lost on the trio of twenty-somethings who soon join the back of the queue. They’re making jokes and laughing about how the operators should air the sounds of a pig slaughter as background music.
On this night, though, the lethal language applies to more than just swine.
“We’ve just gotten killed every day since we opened,” says weary-looking proprietor Jason Story, who runs the shop alongside his fiancée, Carolina Gomez.
By the time I reach the counter, Story has dished out the last two portions of smoked ribs. I’ve been waiting roughly 26 minutes. The glass case is now virtually depleted of meats, save for a few slabs of bacon, a pair of jowls, and a lone pig’s foot.
The only ready-to-eat option still available is a slice of chewy baguette spread with rich pork rillettes and topped with sweet pickled onions for $9. I order it along with the last of the marinated olives and a refreshingly tart honey-lemon soda.
“The first day really set the tone,” says Story, referring to the tiny pork-centric mom-and-pop shop’s March 13 opening, when more than 100 customers showed up. The early crowds—a total of 864 customers over the first week, according to the store’s Facebook page—had Story already thinking about closing on Tuesdays (in addition to Mondays) in order to stay open an extra hour during the rest of the week. Looking back at the folks still in line behind me, I tell him he’ll probably be working until 8 p.m., anyway.
It’s a much calmer scene when I return for lunch a few days later. I enjoy the razor-thin slivers of chewy country ham and thicker, fatty salmon, beautifully presented on black slate with an array of pickled veggies. But the tender chunks of smoky, peppery tasso best define the $11 plate. Even more delectable: sticky, sweet pulled pork served on a doughy jalapeno-cheddar roll—a rich ’wich with a kick—for $9.
Beyond the grub, though, the more interesting thing about the District’s newest fancy smoked meats shop has little to do with its vast selection of sausage, prosciutto, beef jerky and leaf lard, its state-of-art in-house smoking equipment, or its declared dedication to locally sourcing whole animals and practicing old-world craftsmanship. It’s the location: Three Little Pigs is situated along Georgia Avenue NW, near the northern fringe of the District’s gentrifying Petworth neighborhood.
To call the shop a destination is an understatement. It’s a schlep for anyone without a car. A brisk walk from the Petworth Metro station still takes more than 20 minutes. Along the way, you encounter contrasting signs of new and old, including a decrepit Safeway and a modish Yes! Organic Grocery.
For the operators, selecting the site was mostly a matter of convenience. “My family already owned the building,” says Gomez, who grew up a few miles away in Shepherd Park. But she’s hoping the shop will help revitalize the strip. “This neighborhood needs a push,” she says. “A place that says we’re confident enough in the area that we don’t put bars on our windows.”
Census figures show the neighborhood’s demographics shifting dramatically over the past two decades. The census tract immediately surrounding the Metro stop has seen its overwhelming African-American proportion of the population drop by more than half between 1990 and 2010, from 85 percent to 41 percent. The percentage of non-Hispanic white residents has increased from 2.1 to 14 percent. Over the same period, the poverty rate has dropped from 19 to 7 percent while average household incomes have spiked by 39 percent. The median sales price of a home, meanwhile, surged from $188,000 to $518,000.
The overall uptick in economics has ushered in a new era in retail and restaurants along the Georgia Avenue corridor and its adjacent tributaries. Beginning with the introduction of the Eastern European-themed Domku in 2005, the neighborhood has added a wood-fired pizzeria (Moroni & Brothers), a modern Indian-American hybrid (Fusion), a hipster dive bar (Looking Glass Lounge), a gourmet coffee shop (Qualia), and even a clubby Southeast Asian joint (Sala Thai).
In perhaps the most telling sign yet of the area’s increasing yuppiefication, prolific restaurateurs Eric and Ian Hilton will soon open a boozy French bistro called Chez Billy within close stumbling distance of the Metro. Another new venue nearby, DC Reynolds, was expected to begin serving gourmet-inflected comfort foods, including homemade mac and cheese and kimchi-flavored popcorn, this week.
Three Little Pigs brings to the mix one of the city’s hottest food trends (charcuterie, smoked meats) and pushes the boundaries of Petworth’s fledgling foodie renaissance to new extremes. The far-flung location, about 13 blocks north of the Hiltons’ latest hangout, is part of an altogether less yuppie-infiltrated area, socioeconomically speaking. The latest census figures show that the percentage of white residents actually dropped from 7.9 to 4.9 between 2005 to 2009 and 2010. The average family income slipped by two percent since 2000 and the median home price fell from a high of $438,000 in 2006 to $357,000 in 2010.
On my first visit to Three Little Pigs, there’s exactly one customer of color, an African-American woman in yellow who is last in line to order. “What do you have left?” she asks.
On my second visit, I overhear another woman bluntly warning Gomez that serving white folks’ food in a black neighborhood is a recipe for failure.
But, if you believe that fancy new eateries act as both signifiers and drivers of neighborhood change, as I do, then the presence of Three Little Pigs would suggest that the demographics are bound to shift.
That’s assuming, of course, that the proprietors can crank up production enough to keep up with the demand.
Illustration by Jandos Rothstein
Three Little Pigs, 5111 Georgia Ave. NW, (202) 316-0916
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