San Antonio’s sausage makers keep a venerable — and delicious — tradition alive

click to enlarge The Farmer’s Butcher carries a variety of house-made sausages, including a killer smoked bratwurst. - Ron Bechtol
Ron Bechtol
The Farmer’s Butcher carries a variety of house-made sausages, including a killer smoked bratwurst.

Sausage looms large in the San Antonio area's lore and legend.

The Germans, the Alsatians and the Poles all had a hand in creating and fostering the long-lived sausage-making tradition, with the Cajuns and Mexicans not far behind. Given our demographics, it should come as little surprise the hearty delicacy features in at least two local festivals — Wurstfest in New Braunfels and St. Louis Day in Castroville.

My first introduction to San Antonio's love affair with links came at Schilo's (424 E. Commerce St., schilos.com) the city's standard-bearer for German food since 1917 — and it was appropriate that the sausage of choice was a classic bratwurst. Over the years, I've enjoyed the sausage accompanied by Schilo's German potato salad, red cabbage and sauerkraut, all of which made perfect accompaniments.

Typical brats, whether of pork alone or mixed with veal, are fine-grained and subtly seasoned. They're also usually cooked before any optional grilling. For those wanting courser grind, Schilo's offers Polska kielbasa, "kielbasa" being the Polish word for sausage. Sometimes mixed with beef, and usually seasoned with garlic, this is a lustier link — especially after the customary smoking. Rounding out the list at Schilo's is a summer sausage — think salami — spiked with jalapeño in a nod to South Texas tastes.

Jalapeño and various types of cheese have become common sausage components in San Antonio, a reflection of how German and Polish traditions adapted to a new environment over time. One of the best places to get a feel for this hybrid creation is at 2M Smokehouse (2731 S. WW White Road, 2msmokehouse.com), where the house-made pork link with serrano peppers and Oaxaca cheese is one of many must-haves.

But rather than running all over town in search of sausage satisfaction on a plate, I recently made just a few stops for the primary product and prepared my wurst for friends in a mini sausage fest — of the culinary kind, mind you. I cooked all links, where required, on a cast-iron grill pan and served them with German potato salad, sauerkraut and red cabbage. We sourced a locally brewed German-style Black Kolsch, the newly released Lettie, from Highwheel Brewing.

Here's the not-so skinny on the sausages we sampled:

The modest butcher shop of Mertz Sausage Co. (619 Cupples Road, mertzsausage.com) belies its connection to retail giants such as Walmart, which carry its products. Polish sausage is the mainstay, followed by Italian, German on Thursdays and Mexican chorizo in bulk. I began with the fat, fine-grained and ready-to-eat summer sausage, a genre I frankly hadn't thought much about. Mild and with a pleasingly uniform texture, it was a worthy appetizer. The smaller Polish-style link was of a finer grind than many and boasted a good snap once grilled. Still, I'd pick the variety labeled "Garlic" for the flavor boost it yields.

The Farmer's Butcher (1602 E. Houston St., thefarmersbutcher.com) touts its direct links — as it were — to local suppliers. Usually, its retail outlet near Black Laboratory Brewing and Truth Pizzeria only offers a few of its many variations at one time. For our tasting, we tried the Farmer's Butcher's air-dried summer sausage. Studded with chunks of cheddar and chile, it was a more robust rendition than the one at Mertz. Less assertive, though likely on-target traditionally, were the Cajun-inspired boudin links with a base of pork and rice. But the bomb of the evening came in the form of the establishment's house-smoked bratwurst. It was burly, smoky, moist, grainy, herbal — in short, a sausage I'd snag whenever it popped up.

Wiatrek's Meat Market (8517 Blanco Road, wiatreksmeatmarket.com) is based in Poth, but the outlet here is impressive for its array of traditional butcher shop offerings. The dried sausage, a typical 50-50 blend of pork and beef, is smoked 48 hours over post oak, rendering it just smoky and dense enough. The shop's coiled smoked sausage gets far less time over wood, a technique that supports its basic meat flavors and peppery seasoning.

The website of the Smoke Shack Meat Market (3710 Broadway, smokeshackmeatmarket.com) lists 23 sausage options, though far fewer are on display daily. Of the four we tried, the house link, a 50-50 blend of beef and pork, was a winner, as was the subtly sudsy beer brat, infused with Shiner Bock. The Cubano was less convincing in its evocation of the traditional sandwich. However, a chile-and-cheese option with smoked poblanos made yet another good case for the evolution of a tradition. I won't rush to try the market's supreme pizza-inspired sausage, but its Thai green curry variety is on the radar.

Even after all that sausage sampling, we agreed that another one was in order. After all, we still hadn't tasted wild game from Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, traditional links from the West Side's Kiolbassa Smoked Meats, sausages from Pruski's Market in Adkins, a couple of sources in New Braunfels and another in Castroville. You haven't heard the end of this.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.