Texas loves two things: barbecue and rebels. John Mueller has the market cornered on both. It's the second comeback saga for John Mueller, marked by the sell-out grand opening of John Mueller Meat Co. on Saturday, February 23.
As the mercurial barbecue scion of the Louie Mueller BBQ clan from Taylor, Texas, Mueller first came to Austin in the current Salty Sow space in 2001. After a good few years, Mueller's building (which he was renting) was sold. He smoked all the meat he had left and closed up shop at the end of the week. Down on his luck, Mueller disappeared from the barbecue scene and found refuge in alcohol. That easily could have been the end of the story.
In 2009, a young man named Aaron Franklin, one of Mueller's cash register operators, bought his pit with the intent to set up his own trailer. Within a couple of years, Franklin BBQ was national news. Add the advent of foodie-ism and the resurgence in carnivorism, and the stage was set for a barbecue revival. In the fall of 2011, Mueller set up shop on South First Street, smoking brisket, ribs and sausage like he learned from the family business. Franklin would sell out at 11:30 a.m., Mueller at 12:30 p.m.
It was the classic American comeback story. Even better, Mueller had always been a volatile personality, and each pound of brisket came with a mouthful of lip — it was a perfect combination. Texas Monthly stuck him on the cover, and he told of his familial falling outs, his descent into alcoholism. The problems were all in the past tense. Mueller's trailer was a hot commodity and Austin barbecue was entering a golden age.
But things didn't proceed smoothly. It's almost as if Mueller wasn't made for happy endings. His sister, a partner in the venture, kicked him out of the trailer that bore his name. And she did so as publicly as possible. He left Austin again in the fall of 2012.
Mueller wound up in Shiner, Texas, and it wasn't long before he was cooking again. He made a deal with an amateur barbecue enthusiast in Amarillo to borrow his smoker, who traded him free use of the commercial grade smoker in exchange for shipping briskets up to Amarillo as requested. Not a bad deal for either party.
Four months later, Mueller is back in Austin, smoker in tow. He's kept mum about the family affair, eschewing tell-all interviews and keeping his cards close to his chest. His only comment on the ordeal came subtly — and beautifully — in the form of a Davy Crocket paraphrase, written on the back of his new John Mueller Meat Co. shirt: "You may all go to hell. I shall go to 6th & Pedernales." (Shirts are on sale for $15.)
10:30 a.m. Saturday marked the opening of his new John Mueller Meat Co trailer, with a line 30 yards down Pedernales. For those arriving at opening time (like myself), it would be a good two hours before hitting the front of the line.
John Mueller is officially back. His beard has added an inch and gained a conspicuous patch of gray for all his recent troubles. His skin has continued its transformation of moving one step closer to the texture of worn boot leather. And his mouth still runs like a well oiled machine.
Mueller's element is not throwing briskets on the pit at 3:30 a.m. or tending fires with a plug of Copenhagen in his lip. No, he seems happiest when handing out free beers to the folks in the back of line. And on a warm February day with the smell of meat in the air, it was much appreciated.
Three beers later (and after a few hours of conversation with hungry strangers about the differences between Texas and Tennessee barbecue), we made it to the front of the line. When the waiting line is so pleasant (and supplemented with beer), the barbecue itself can almost feel like an afterthought.
That is, until we began to eat. If you haven't eaten Mueller's barbecue, you may think the whole saga is little more than Kardashian fare: a lot of hype, a little substance. But Texas has all too many whiskey loving outlaws, and Mueller has earned his reputation based on skill. His barbecue is phenomenal. It's easily some of the best in the country. The brisket falls apart in your hands, and Anthony Bourdain is convinced of Mueller's mastery of the beef short ribs: "Don't even try and tell me that anyone does that shit better... Absolutely freaking awesome."
Some things never change. Mueller's barbecue hasn't missed a step — it's a homerun rivaled by very few in the state. His personality doesn't seem to have changed a drop either. But here's hoping that it has, at least in some small way: Mueller needs to be smoking meat, and triple comebacks are officially not part of the great American redemption story.
John Mueller Meat Co. is the third barbecue joint in Austin to bear his name in the past decade, but this one seems destined to stick. Maybe it's the giant Texas flag draped over the proceedings. Maybe it's the beat up East Side confines and backyard party nature of his new digs. Or maybe it's the fact that Austin loves Mueller's barbecue too much to ever let him cool down his pit again.
Mueller is the cowboy in black, and he's earned his status as a barbecue legend. Here's hoping it can last.