The path to serving barbecue in the tiny town of New Berlin seemed clear to Garrett Rabel. He grew up ten minutes down the road in La Vernia, east of San Antonio, where his father, Greg, sold firewood to a few barbecue joints and pizza operations in the area. Father-son deer-hunting trips would culminate in sausage-making marathons at home that involved the whole family. Greg built a steel smoker to cook the sausage, and he served it with pickled cucumbers he’d grown in his garden.
When Rabel opened a barbecue truck in La Vernia in 2018, he knew those pickles would be a highlight. To run the truck, he enlisted the help of his family, including his wife, Sarah, and his mother, Denise. A restaurant building in New Berlin became available, and Rabel was familiar with the place, having eaten at the old Brietzke Station more times than he could count. “We’d come eat fish and shrimp on Friday nights,” he said, a tradition the family continued when Rabel’s Roadhaus opened in Brietzke Station’s place in early 2020. That was more than a century after the original building was constructed, and Rabel hoped it would be the start of his own family legacy.
The restaurant is one of a long line on this site. Before Brietzke Station served plates of sausage with sauerkraut, the building next door had been the commercial center of the town. Park on the east side of the restaurant and you’ll find the historical marker for the Muelder Store, originally opened in 1898 by Otto Muelder and two business partners. The Muelders’ son, George, helped his widowed mother move the store in 1946 after a fire burned it and their house to the ground. George operated the business until it closed for good in the early nineties.
But when the store was up and running, it was another haven for meat and sausage. George’s daughter, Evelyn, wrote that he ordered beef by the quarter, “the scraps were ground into hamburger with a hand-cranked old-fashioned meat grinder,” and “his thick-sliced bacon became a local legend.” George would also produce the sausage sold at the town’s annual sausage festival, held every September to benefit the local volunteer fire department.
The New Berlin Sausage Festival did miss its sixty-ninth year, in 2020, due to COVID, but thankfully, the Rabels stepped in by selling plates of sausage with sauerkraut, potatoes, and applesauce at the restaurant. They donated the proceeds to the VFW. Given that it opened earlier that year, you’d think Rabel’s Roadhaus would have been struggling to stay afloat, but Rabel recounted the opposite. From the food-truck days, the staff members were already conditioned to packaging orders for takeout, and the bigger kitchen gave them more room to work. The restaurant tripled its business after the pandemic began. “We’ve grown every month,” Rabel said.
The joint’s popularity is driven by the freshly ground brisket burgers and the brisket-and-turkey club sandwich that features house-made bacon. (I’m not sure if Rabel is purposefully walking in George Muelder’s footsteps, but the likeness is striking.) I missed out on both of those items because of poor planning. I was stuffed, and I had already placed two orders at the register with Denise. The first was a barbecue combo with brisket, ribs, and smoked turkey. An Ole Hickory rotisserie is used for those meats, and the bark on both the brisket and ribs suffered because of it, though both were plenty tender.
“If you want a really great bark, you need to do it on an offset,” Rabel told me as I nodded. He had spotted me in the dining room, where I was trying my best to blend in with the crowd. He sought immediate feedback on the barbecue. I liked the smoked turkey best, along with the creamy three-cheese macaroni and the simply seasoned green beans, though I was awaiting my second order, which I’d identified as the potential prize on the menu.
A nicely grilled jalapeño-cheese bun came piled high with thick-sliced jalapeño-cheese sausage studded with black pepper and chunks of cheddar. I layered on those house-made dill pickles and pickled onions and added a drizzle of the house barbecue sauce (the joint also offers a good spicy version and probably the first Alabama white sauce New Berlin has ever tasted). The sandwich was perfect. A soft bun gave way to the crunch of the pickles and onions. Their tangy sweetness melded with the flavors of the spicy sausage and the barbecue sauce to create a sandwich of masterful simplicity paired with some excellent house-made potato chips.
New Berlin isn’t far from San Antonio, and it’s even closer to Seguin, so I’ll have to try that burger next time I pass through. Right after cleaning up a bowl of a throughly satisfying banana pudding, I did get a taste of the bacon, which is available to add to any sandwich at Rabel’s. The restaurant still has Greg Rabel’s old smoker in the smokehouse, reserved for making the bacon. It’s a dry-cured variety, and the flavors of pork, smoke, and black pepper are more pronounced than those of salt and fat. I think George Muelder would be proud, and so would Arthur Schubert, who originally built the restaurant’s structure. Rabel’s has once again given its building new life in New Berlin.
Rabel’s Roadhaus BBQ
9015 FM 775, New Berlin
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 11–8; Sunday, 11–3
Pitmaster: Garrett Rabel
Method: Oak and hickory in a gas-fired rotisserie
Year opened: 2018