John Mueller, a barbecue freak who spent his life tending wells, died Thursday after a long illness. He was 52 years old.
Mueller bounced between fame and infamy; fickle, infuriating, hilarious and generous it would all accurately describe it. Regardless, it remained memorable.
Education about barbecue began at an early age. As a child, he would inside-clean the barbecue pit at his family’s place, Louie Mueller Barbecue. His father Bobby passed on to him his “low and slow” method of barbecue, cooked for a long time at low temperatures. But when John left the business and was able to cook however he wanted, he opted for high heat, as if in defiance of his barbecue past. Still, she always spoke of her late father with reverence. “He was the ultimate pit master,” John Mueller once told me. “It was consistently good every day,” he explained, which is why he never used the term pit master to describe himself. “Master means you are really good at everything every day, and I can screw it up any day.”
John Mueller opened his first barbecue on Manor Road in Austin in 2001, years before Austin gained a reputation as a barbecue destination. John Mueller’s barbecue was widely advertised in a town that had until then been a starting point for barbecue trips to Lockhart, Luling, Llano and Taylor, where John learned to cook from his father, the late Bobby Mueller, in Louie. Mueller Barbecue. . Two years after opening, Mueller’s new place earned a spot on our 2003 Top 50 list. Joe Nick Patoski wrote that “quickly [rose] to the top of the local “clue pile”.
In 2015, during my favorite interview I’ve ever done, I suggested to Mueller that he was probably proud to make that list so soon after the opening, that the honor must have felt like vindication after his not-so-friendly split from his father. just a few years before. His response was invaluable: “Hell no. I was angry. It wasn’t in the top four or five. I was so angry. “
It was one of the many times I laughed with Mueller. He had a sharp wit that could be self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing. But after John Mueller’s barbecue closed five years after it opened, he fell silent. That would turn out to be his longest running restaurant, but the next one is the one that really made him famous.
Mueller sent me a cryptic message in 2010, in the third person. “I have information on John Mueller’s return to Austin. Please contact me, ”he wrote. The following year he opened JMueller BBQ with his sister LeAnn. His spicy beef short ribs, juicy hot dogs and famous cheesy pumpkin made a splash in Austin’s barbecue scene, but Mueller wasn’t alone this time. Aaron Franklin, who had once worked at the previous Mueller location, ran the Franklin Barbecue on the north side of town. People like me said that Franklin’s meat was one of the best barbecues in the world. Mueller took it as a challenge. “My goal is to prepare some of the best barbecues in the state of Texas,” he told the New York Times in a story showing what the newspaper called “Texas’s newest barbecue war.”
The Franklin-Mueller conflict never happened, but the competition between the two made Austin one of the nation’s top barbecue destinations. Mueller and Franklin were featured on the cover of Texas Monthly February 2012 issue, and Anthony Bourdain figured it out when he filmed No reservations in Austin a month later. Bourdain introduced the two barbecue men in the episode and said of Mueller’s beef ribs, “Don’t even try to tell me someone does that … better.”
The fire blazed brightly at JMueller BBQ, but it lasted only a year. LeAnn fired his brother, renamed the business La Barbecue, and made it an Austin staple. The brothers reconciled years later. “I’m glad we forgiven each other,” LeAnn said yesterday.
This time, Mueller wasn’t far from the barbecue for long. John Mueller Meat Co. opened in Austin early the following year, and those ribs were as good as ever. I praised one rib in particular after cleaning the meat completely off the bone. Mueller took a Sharpie and signed it, and the faded signature is still on that bone that’s on display at my house. The joint once made our top 50 list, in 2013. We nicknamed him “the dark prince of barbecue,” a nickname he enjoyed, thanks to his black hat and ever-present glasses and penchant for stalking his own. customers. Stories abound. A customer once walked up to his window in a Franklin Barbecue shirt. In response, Mueller removed his own John Mueller Meat Co. shirt and required the customer to trade with him before he was allowed to place an order. It’s not often that you leave a barbecue meal with such a memory.
Like the Mueller barbecue ventures that followed, that one didn’t last long. Three years later, he left Austin and toured central Texas trying to reestablish himself. Along the way, he burned bridges with former business partners, food vendors and the Texas comptroller’s office. Every time one of his joints was closed, he thought it would be the end of the barbecue life for John Mueller. But he knew no other life. Mueller always found another audience to surprise with his smoked meat.
Mueller’s last business venture was at the Granary in Jarrell, which is still operating under the watchful eye of Jeff Ancira, a longtime intermittent Mueller employee. Ancira took the reins after Mueller was hospitalized earlier this year. Mueller spent weeks in the hospital and the family let me know that they were preparing for the finale. Then he recovered. For the last time, John Mueller was back. Tracy and Tim Hutchins gave him a job at their Hutchins BBQ restaurant in Frisco, and Mueller was lighting fires once more. “I was in a happy situation,” says Tim Hutchins.
Mueller and I had our arguments, many of them in public on social media. We hadn’t spoken in a while when he spoke about the new job at Hutchins. He told me his start date, which came right after the death of his mother, Patricia Mueller. I came your first day in July to offer my condolences and welcome you to North Texas. We talked and laughed at him taking orders from his new bosses. “I don’t take orders,” he told me with a wink. He spent his short time at Hutchins creating specialty menu items, right down to last weekend’s tomahawk pork chops, pico de gallo sausage, and special blueberry sausages that he advertised in his always entertaining Twitter account.
I have a favorite Mueller video, although I can’t find it online anymore. In an interview with Zagat, he was asked how he fit into Austin’s barbecue scene. “I did the Austin barbecue scene,” Mueller replied, leaning on his steel well. You could almost see the gleam in his eyes behind the dark sunglasses. Some called him arrogant, and he was, but he was also right. Many barbecue cooks in Austin owe their existence to what Mueller started. He changed the game and will forever make his mark on Texas BBQ.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included Mueller’s account of an anecdote that has since been disputed. That section has been removed and the article has been updated.