Chris Conger knew he wanted to be in the restaurant industry ever since 2003, when he worked one of his first jobs at a mom-and-pop bakery in Oxford, Mississippi.
“Just the close-knit group of the staff, it’s like you’re your own little family,” Conger said. “I’ve always loved the feeling of the restaurant industry and always wanted to have my own.”
Fast-forward more than fifteen years, and Conger has a business empire in San Antonio that brings together his favorite things: family, food, friends, and music.
Conger’s Smoke Shack BBQ started eight years ago with a food truck, which, to this day, is known in San Antonio for its regular location at the corner of Interstate 410 and Nacogdoches. Smoke Shack BBQ + Southern Kitchen, Conger’s restaurant, is at Broadway and Pershing Avenue. He also operates a neighborhood bar, the Pigpen, behind the restaurant, and just last year, he opened a meat market next door.
“When we came to San Antonio, most barbeque joints were kind of doing the same ol’ thing,” Conger said, who is originally from Dallas. “Not many people were even serving pulled pork, and me coming from Mississippi, I was like, ‘Man, you guys are missing out on the rest of the nation’s flavors.’ I took ideas from different restaurants.” He incorporated those ideas into Smoke Shack, which locals voted the best barbeque in San Antonio.
“The brisket grilled cheese is kind of what we’re known for,” Conger said. “Being in Texas, brisket is always going to be number one,” Conger added that on the weekends, Smoke Shack typically cooks 60 to 70 briskets per day. “Even our sides aren’t your regular ol’ potato salad and slaw. It’s loaded baked potato salad and coleslaw with feta. It’s just taking the flavors that I like and incorporating them and hoping people like them. I think you’ve got to be very imaginative because you don’t want to do the same thing everybody else is doing.”
Smoke Shack Food Truck offers all the meats and most of the side dishes that the restaurant does. The restaurant’s menu includes fried Southern comfort food like chicken tenders, fries, and okra. Other dishes include Fritos topped with brisket, pinto beans, cheddar, and barbecue sauce; meats like pulled pork, sausage, turkey, and ribs; sandwiches such as the Big Dog, a hoagie loaded with a sausage link, brisket, pulled pork, and topped with two barbecue sauces and vinegar slaw.
Conger subscribes to the low-and-slow method of cooking barbeque. His flavor profile, he said, results from a blend of influences. “Living in Mississippi, I took a lot of the sweet flavors,” Conger said. “Typically, Mississippi is a sweeter barbecue, and with it being so close to Memphis, there’s some of that (style, too). We do have a mustard-based sauce, which is like a Carolina style, and people love that; it’s one of our popular sauces.”
More food options are available at Smoke Shack Meat Market, which offers prepared meals, tamales, carne guisada, brisket tamales, and locally-sourced raw meats. Conger plans to offer shipping in the coming months. “Most of our meat comes from Poth, Texas, from Dean & Peeler Ranch,” he said. “Ninety percent of what we have in our store is local, everything except for the wine and some canned goods from Spain and France. One of our good friends makes a chile pequin jelly called Brushfire Farms. We do our own charcuterie, and we also make our own beef jerky, salsa, and sausage. We have Wagyu brisket; it’s a local brisket, and it’s hands down the best brisket you can get.”
The Pigpen is just behind the Smoke Shack BBQ + Southern Kitchen. The bar is designed to be family friendly, with a playground so that parents can enjoy a drink as their children play. “We’ve got food back there,” Conger said. “Inside we’ve got a stage for live music. It’s just a place to relax. We wanted it to resemble having people over to your own house and that kind of comfort.”
The bar’s Sunday brunch is its busiest day of the week. “We usually have a couple hundred people there for brunch, and it’s a huge buffet,” Conger said. “It’s $16, $17 bucks all you can eat, and it’s a damn good deal. It’s everything from brisket to fried catfish to collard greens, pancakes, and eggs; there’s like twenty items on the menu for the buffet.” Guests can also enjoy live music during brunch.
In October 2018, Food Network’s Guy Fieri (and his signature cherry red 1967 Camaro convertible) made a stop at the Smoke Shack for an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The episode aired the day after Thanksgiving 2018. “I met Guy a couple of years ago, and we hit it off,” Conger said. “I’ve talked to him a couple of times since then. He’s a great guy; we had a lot of fun and (the show) helped our business out tremendously.”
But Conger admitted that it was after he opened the Pigpen when he was most satisfied with his culinary accomplishments. “We built up our own little corner there,” he said proudly of the restaurant, bar, and meat market. “But you’re never (completely) satisfied. You go a year, and you want to do something (more). My brain’s always going, and I’m always thinking of other stuff. Sometimes you gotta sit back and focus on what you’ve got. But I’ve been happy with it since the day I opened it, so no regrets.”
And while Bottletree Bakery in Mississippi gave Conger his first taste of the camaraderie innate in the restaurant business, Dallas chef Tim Byres taught him how to cook in a fast-paced environment. “The kitchen life isn’t for everybody, but if that’s your thing, it can be so much fun,” Conger said. “Tim was a great mentor.”
Conger has come a long way since the days he and his wife, Kate, then students at the University of Mississippi, sold barbeque and burgers from their catering company to local fraternity houses. One constant, however, is the couple’s teamwork and reliance on each other. “I seriously could not do it without her,” Conger said. “She’s a major part of why this is successful. Everyone loves the gratification you get when people are smiling and enjoying your food. It was a thing on the side for us that really turned into something big. I’m glad we did it.”
Smoke Shack Food Truck is located at 2347 Nacogdoches Road. It is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Smoke Shack BBQ + Southern Kitchen, at 3714 Broadway Street, is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and closed Sundays.