BBQ Tell All

John Mueller returns: Texas BBQ's prodigal son gets a second chance

John Mueller returns: Texas BBQ's prodigal son gets a second chance

Austin Photo Set: News_Adam Sparks_John Mueller BBQ_jan 2012_john2
John Mueller Photo by Adam Sparks
Austin Photo Set: News_Adam Sparks_John Mueller BBQ_jan 2012_trailer
JMueller BBQ trailer Courtesy of JMueller BBQ
Austin Photo Set: News_Adam Sparks_John Mueller BBQ_jan 2012_john2
Austin Photo Set: News_Adam Sparks_John Mueller BBQ_jan 2012_john
Austin Photo Set: News_Adam Sparks_John Mueller BBQ_jan 2012_trailer

Dynasties in Texas barbecue are rightfully revered, perhaps none more so than the Mueller name. So when John Mueller, son of Bobby Mueller and grandson of Louie Mueller, whose world-famous Taylor, TX smokehouse bears the family's name, first came to Austin in 2001, it marked the first instance of true 'cue credibility within city limits. 

Whisky and inner demons cut the success short, and John Mueller retreated back to Taylor with nothing to his name. But when a former employee, 29-year-old Aaron Franklin, bought Mueller's former pit and started making lights-out barbecue, it soon became clear that the supply and demand of meat in Austin (that is, perfectly smoked, quality meat) was heavily off balance.

After months of Twitter whispers and rumors, John Mueller parked a trailer and a barrel smoker on a dusty lot on South 1st and gave Austin what it wanted: More undeniably good meat.  

Austinites seem to love it. After precariously navigating into the parking lot of JMueller BBQ at just 2:00 p.m. recently, the smiling lady at the counter let me know there was only a little turkey left. (By little, she meant about two slices.) While Franklin generally sells out before opening at 11 a.m., you get about an extra hour at JMueller before the good stuff starts running out. 

 After months of Twitter whispers and rumors, John Mueller parked a trailer and a barrel smoker on a dusty lot on South 1st and gave Austin what it wanted: More undeniably good meat.  

Having been tending fires since 3:30 that morning, John marched out of his truck to take a seat at one of the picnic tables scattered along the yard and talk with me. His hands were black with soot, but he was surprisingly energetic after about twelve straight hours on the job. He may have messed up his last opportunity in Austin, but he wasn't going to let this one slip away.

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What's changed since you opened your first barbecue joint on Manor Rd. back in 2001?

Social media. It's helped every little restaurant out. It's huge, we didn't have that back then. When I sold [my first Austin restaurant] in 2006 we didn't have it then either. I always think what it would have been had we of had it in 2001 [when the restaurant opened] and 2006 [when it closed]. That would have been pretty huge. Either that, or everybody would have known what an ass I was at the time.  

What do you think about what has happened to the Austin food scene in the last ten years?

I think it's incredible, it's very exciting. You just can't get by anymore and that's good.  

You grew up barbecuing in Taylor. Why did you chose Austin?

Because the guy who started me out had a building on Manor Road, that's why Austin. And I wasn't going to barbecue in the same county where my parents were. We agreed that they couldn't barbecue in Travis County and I wouldn't barbecue in Williamson county.

I think at the time [on Manor Road] it was Hoover, and me, Mi Madre's and East Side Cafe, and then we all started growing there, and then Manor Road became a pretty good little restaurant row. And then Vivo came in, which Rodger did. That guy who owns that, he doesn't seem very smart, but he's smart. I love Vivo.

If you met the guy...  I kept saying, "Rodger, you're such a dumbass, you're going to be in business six months." Cause I couldn't see the theme!  He's got these big-tittied women painted on the walls and all this, and I was thinking, "Rodger, it's not going to work." And he said, "John, I don't want to be a family restaurant." And I said, "OK, you got it."

Now Manor Road is all owned by the El Chile people. Do you know them?

Oh yeah, they're the ones that bought my building and evicted me. My business partner owned the building, they bought it from him; next day they came and told me to go.  

Did you know that was going to happen when he sold the building?

No, no, I sure didn't. You didn't read that in the Texas Monthly story, did you? Yeah, they came in, I guess it was like, a Tuesday, 8:30 or so, and they said, "John, we have something to tell you." And I was like, "Oh God, what?" "We bought the building, you've got to go today." 

And I had been through so, so much then, and I said, well I've got food to get me through Saturday. You know, I could have fought an eviction for months and found a place to go and all that, but I saidm I've got food to last me to Saturday, and they said, OK, you can have it 'til then.   

What time do you wake up in the mornings?

About 2:30. I usually get to the trailer around 3:15, 3:30.

 "You don't have to worry about a foodie if you're good at what you do and you take pride in what you're doing and you hold yourself to the same standard that they're holding you to."


And what goes on the pit first?

The brisket.

Where do you get your meat from?

O'Brien Meat Company in Taylor.

The same place where Louis Mueller gets their meat?

Right.

What have you done differently from how you grew up barbecuing? Did you make changes once you got your own place?

Oh, let me think. No, everything's basically the same. I mean I do add a little here and a little there. But it's still the same principle what my dad taught me.  

What do you think about the foodie movement?

If they say something nice about me, I love them.  [Laughs] No, I think it's a good thing, everybody should be held accountable for what they're doing. You don't have to worry about a foodie if you're good at what you do and you take pride in what you're doing and you hold yourself to the same standard that they're holding you to.

Now, I don't like that some jackass can get on Yelp and, just because your line may have been too long, he can, you know, deduct his stars for that — that's kind of asinine. But I think it's good for business, because it's great feedback. I like it.

Where do you like to eat around town?

Well, I like Vivo. I like Perla's on South Congress. Hopdoddy I really like. Places like that.

You remember Aaron Franklin from when he was working for you?

Oh yeah, I sure do.

So what did you first think when you heard about his cult-like following?

Oh, I was happy for him. You know, that was sort of what made me think about coming back and where I fit in. Yeah, I was happy for him. I was in no position at the time, you know, to really...  I knew that if he could do it, then that was great, and I'm glad that him having that pit and working for me worked out well for him. And it wasn't long, he didn't need that at all. He's just flat out good at what he does. 

 "When we were in Taylor, there's five barbecue places within two blocks of one another. And it's like Lockhart, there's all those place stacked one on top of another. You're known as a barbecue town, and people flock there and they eat at all of them. It doesn't hurt anything."

Did he cook for you ever?

No.  I did all my own cooking.  

Now, Lance Kirkpatrick [former pitmaster at Louie Mueller, who now works at the recently opened Stiles Switch BBQ on North Lamar] was in charge of smoking...

That's a Louie Mueller question, and I have no idea.  

OK, so are you friends with him?

Well I know him, yeah, and went and ate at his place a couple of times. Aaron and I both together went and ate at his place the other day. I thought it was very good.  

So you've never cooked alongside Kirkpatrick?

No. Lance is who came in after I left. He replaced me.  

I think it's the kind of thing, though, where there's enough excitement about barbecue to go around. I think that's what Franklin did, it created a lot of excitement. Adding two new barbecue restaurants in a couple of months doesn't detract, it just adds.

Oh for sure. Of course it does. Aaron is going to have his people, and I've seen 90% of the people I used to see on Manor Road. I got my customer base back right away, and then we just add to it. Aaron's going to have his, and when Aaron sells out early, he sends them straight down here, which means an hour later I'm going to sell out. 

So it works out good. It doesn't detract anything. When we were in Taylor, there's five barbecue places within two blocks of one another. And it's like Lockhart, there's all those place stacked one on top of another. You're known as a barbecue town, and people flock there and they eat at all of them. It doesn't hurt anything. And it wouldn't bother me to go on 11th Street and open right next door to [Franklin]. It's not going to hurt my business, it's not going to hurt his business; it's just going to feed both of our businesses.  

For clarification's sake, is your name pronounced Mew-ler or Miller?

Mehler. So there's no "I," no "U." An "E." Mehler.

What are your plans for this site? Is this where you are going to build? Are you going to build?

Oh yeah, we can't run out of a trailer forever. This was just a way to get open the fastest. We'll see after SXSW. We'll be packed for that; we have a lot of plans. And then if I can get a building around here, I'll jump right away. If not, then we'll start looking at what we can do with this building here [a giant metal building in the back of the lot]. That'd take a ton of cash though to turn into a restaurant. There's no electricity or anything in it. 

What has been people's response to the Texas Monthly story?

People tell me that I have courage. It's funny, you fuck up for five years and then all of a sudden you have courage. But that interview was tough, reliving all those memories, talking about my dad. I don't know when I've cried like that. But I'm done with that. I'm going to save it for the Lifetime movie.

Well I'm glad this is working out for you. Everyone loves it, and you're getting all sorts of good buzz.

Yeah, I'm lucky. I got a second chance.  

And you plan to be here long term?

Oh yeah.  I'll be here 'til I die. What else am I going to do?