“It always bothered me that we weren’t making our own sausage at Smoke Shack,” Chris Conger, the owner of the San Antonio barbecue joint, told me. He didn’t have the room in his food truck or in the small kitchen of the brick-and-mortar he opened at the corner of Broadway and Pershing in 2014. When they took over the building next door for the Pigpen neighborhood bar a couple of years later, the stresses on the pit room only mounted. Then, in mid-2018, it all changed when Conger added the third component of his mini barbecue empire: the Smoke Shack Meat Market.
Conger admits he took over the lease of the empty building just south of the restaurant for the parking spaces. “We didn’t want to fight with another restaurant for parking,” he told me. But it also gave him the room to offer locally raised meats to folks in San Antonio, cure and smoke his own bacon (a maple espresso version is in the works), and finally make his own sausage for the barbecue joint. To manage the market, Conger hired Johnny Hopkins, who has brought some sausage creativity with him too. Depending on the day, you may find the meat case stocked with Philly cheesesteak sausage, bacon and blue cheese links, or a Thai green curry flavor. The popular beef enchilada and Frito pie sausages are available most days, but you’ve got to cook those yourself.
If you want links that are already smoked, walk next door to the Smoke Shack, where they’ve revamped their sausage program. For the restaurant, Hopkins grinds and stuffs an all-beef hot link, a pork and beef mix for the Smoke Shack signature sausage, and one with jalapeño and cheese as well. He uses what he calls a traditional Czech grind for all the sausages. “We grind it coarse and then mix it so you get a lot of particle separation. You can see all of the ingredients inside the sausage,” he said, proudly. I just love sausage talk.
I also loved the jalapeño cheese sausage on a previous trip, but during my latest visit, I stuck with the signature Smoke Shack sausage. There’s no sausage wrap or even a simple sausage sandwich on the menu, though Conger said he’s selling at least 30 percent more sausage every week than he did when he used a supplier. Skip the Big Dog sandwich, which buries the expertly made link beneath brisket and chopped pork. Order a single link, which is just $3.25, and ask for a slice of white bread. They have only thick slices, meant for Texas toast, but that’s okay. Grab some onions, thick sliced pickles, and pickled jalapeños from the garnish bar and a side cup of the mustard barbecue sauce. It’s a sweet sauce made with whole grain mustard, and it seems designed to pair with the juicy sausages. Now that’s one beautiful sausage wrap.
Just beside Smoke Shack, on the side opposite the Meat Market, is the Pigpen bar. That’s where you’ll find one of the finest hot dogs in Texas, also made at the Meat Market. The meat is ground three times, with each grind getting finer. Hopkins makes it in small batches and mixes the spices in by hand, as he does with all the sausage. The filling is stuffed into lamb casings and smoked in the pits at Smoke Shack. At the Pigpen, the hot dog is either served plain and dry on the kid’s menu, or with a half-dozen toppings, including brisket, bacon, and slaw on the Texas Dog. I wish there were some middle ground, like maybe a kraut and mustard version (or even some pickle de gallo) that really highlights the well-crafted wiener. I requested they leave the brisket off mine (I know, I know), a move I recommend you copy. Four bites later it was gone, and I sat there staring longingly at the empty tray.
Conger was joking when he said he might just turn the meat market into a hot dog stand, but he wasn’t kidding about the wholesale availability of the wieners. Besides Pigpen, Rogers Roundhouse, in Fort Worth, is currently their only hot dog customer, but they’re seeking more. Conger said he’s also happy to work with other restaurants and even barbecue joints to create their own sausage blend, made at the Smoke Shack Market and sold wholesale. “We can customize any link that people want,” he said.
He’ll soon have a new customer base for sausages and all the rest of their barbecue when the San Antonio International Airport location of Smoke Shack opens in April. They’ll serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, so look for blueberry maple links and breakfast tacos stuffed with chile pequin chorizo in the morning, a full selection of smoked meats for lunch and dinner, plus a full bar and live music. I saw the space where it’s going in just on the other side of Terminal A’s TSA checkpoint, so at least you’ll be able to hear a band and smell some barbecue while you trudge through the security line. Just budget enough time in your travel plans for a sausage wrap that’s a true San Antonio original.