Young and Hungry

Charcuterification: Gourmet Meat Meets Shifting Demographics at Petworth’s Three Little Pigs

Three Little Pigs D.C.: Gentrification Meets Gourmet Meat

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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  • David Sheon

    As a white resident of Petworth, living about 3 blocks from this "far flung" location since 2003, I find Jandos Rothstein's "review" of Three Little Pigs ignorant at least, and offense at most.

    It's less of a restaurant review than it is a side swipe at a proud DC neighborhood that is still recovering from the devastation of the 1968 race riots.

    Prior to 1968, Petworth was a working class neighborhood that thrived, with its mix of Italian, Irish, and Jewish white immigrants living side by side peacefully with African Americans. The old timers here who lived here since before the riots repeatedly tell me there was one butcher, one tailor, one corner store... and no one cared what the ethnicity was of who owned the shop.

    Unless outsiders come and MAKE this a racially divided community, it remains a racially UNDIVIDED community. My neighbors - regardless of their color - welcomed my family here in 2003 and we've never looked back. I have never had better neighbors in any neighborhood then here near the Charcuteria. Our bars in the area are segregated by barstool - the truest expression of Dr. King's dream that anyone who experiences it says they have ever seen.

    Journalists covering demographic trends are best suited to write thoroughly researched articles about how neighborhoods change. But food critics should stick to food. What difference could it possibly make to the quality of the food as to what color the customers are? Who made this website and this author the czar of graceful evolution of our neighborhoods? Frankly, my neighbors of all colors are thrilled with how this corner of the city has evolved. Some can now plan retirements they never dreamed of. The ample housing stock (Petworth I believe is DC's second largest neighborhood) means a huge range in housing costs for single family homes can be found here - which means the neighborhood will be affordable for people REGARDLESS OF RACE for many years to come.

    I too have visited Three Little Pigs. I wish them well. Too me, selling smoked meats based on customs from the 1800s leaves something to be desired. I don't like fat mixed in with my ham. I wish they would sell more every day staples such as Memphis or (bite my toungue) North Carolina style BBQ. They will sink or swim based on their ability to tap into what the community wants. That has less to do with color than it does with preference.

  • Lane

    I live in Columbia Heights, not Petworth, but I can easily imagine reading an article similar to this one written about my neighborhood just a few short years ago. I just want to commend the previous commenter for incisively identifying everything that is wrong and counterproductive about this "review." A review which contains at most four sentences about the food. Well said, Mr. Sheon. Although I do disagree on one point - I like fat mixed in with my ham.

  • Price Points

    I'm curious and will let them find a rhythm before going in but I'll say this: considering in some instances they are charging more than 2x Stachowski prices for a pound of sausage, they better be doing God's work in there to get me back more than once.

  • thom

    Good variety of made in house cooked charcuterie out in Old Town at Society Fair. Pates, pate en croute, liver pate, cooked sausages, smoked head cheese, boudin and a whole bunch of fresh sausage. Even a green sausage.
    Even sold me some cooked pig skin to fry at home for cracklings!

  • David Sheon

    Sorry for my typos. I had a big day ahead of me this morning and the article just really made my blood boil. The CityPaper should remind its food writers to evaluate based on um, food. Not their ignorant (mis)perceptions of the neighborhood.

  • petworth resident

    Good review, Chris. Also, nice use of Census figures. I think it adds to the credibility of your point and makes it hard for folks to refute the fact that the neighborhood is, in fact, changing. The difference is that the change is more subtle than Columbia Heights because socio-economically, everyone is still sort of on the same page (maybe different parts of the page, but the same page nonetheless)

    Also... the poster who thinks food critics should stick to food is a little short sighted. Food is an excellent way to study demography and social nuances of a neighborhood.

  • another petworth resident

    I've lived in Petworth since I moved to DC in 2007. What this article, and many others like it, miss is that Petworth is often the subject of overgeneralization. There are neighborhoods within neighborhoods here. Conditions can change from block to block. I live on a street where everyone gets along, regardless of race or ethnicity. Tensions are higher on other blocks. Crime is rare in some areas, prevalent in others. The point is, you can't paint Petworth with just one brush. Spend some real quality time here and you'll realize that there's more to Petworth than just census tract numbers.

    And by the way, I know that there are some folks who turn up their noses at the idea of riding a city bus, but the next time you write about the "far flung" reaches of Petworth, you may want to note that those disinclined to walk 20 minutes from the Metro station can always hop on the 70 bus.

  • Chris Shott

    Thank you for saying so, Petworth Resident. I think Y&H is most successful when it pushes beyond the traditional review. Certainly not everyone agrees with me...

  • Marianne

    Kudos to the entrepreneurs who have opted to invest in the neighborhood. As a black woman and an avid foodie, I can assure you that there are plenty of us who are overjoyed that the neighborhood is offering diverse food choices.

    Charcuterie is not a new trend or an urban fad. It’s a practical and delicious way to address one of the most basic of human dilemmas: how to extend shelf life and ensure a steady and safe food supply with techniques have been developed over millennia. The woman quoted in the article who complained about "white food in a black neighborhood" needs to be reminded that black people (both here and in Africa)have been processing pork products for thousands of years. Can you imagine the South without smoked ham and cured bacon? And since when are pig’s feet a gourmet item?

    The real issue lies in the limited food choices available in poor urban neighborhoods. The owners of Three Little Pigs could have opened another liquor/convenience store and no one would have batted an eye. Instead, they opted to take a risk that the neighborhood would support locally produced food. I for one can’t wait to get there!

  • Java Master

    Let's hear it for gentrification! Yeah, that's right. Even though I much prefer leaner cuts of meat (when I eat meat at all these days, and pork is not really on my menu), let's get a bunch of new retail shops of all kinds into these neighborhoods to replace those which got burned out, or just plain scared away, from D.C.over the years. Who sez that D.C. "belongs" to any one demographic group (other than fear-mongering politicians and ANC "activists")? You want healthy, economically viable neighborhoods?...then get more middle class folks in there, and the "destination" stores that will cater to them!

  • Melissa

    David you do yourself a disservice by showing you're not reading closely on one if not many basic facts: Shott not Rothstein wrote the article.