John Mueller hated the word pitmaster. We used to laugh at how common the usage of the word had become over the last few years. If you can fire up a bag of Kingsford charcoal you’re a pitmaster these days.
I didn’t start regularly eating Texas barbecue until the 80s but back then when we talked about the men who smoked the meat we called them pitbosses.
John didn’t like that word either. “I’m a barbecue cook,” he’d loudly announce when we had been drinking and parsing all the nonsense that started to attach itself to an industry he was born into back the 60s.
Mueller paid his dues in the business of smoked meat the right way and by 1996 he and his daddy Bobby incorporated the family’s long-running Louie Mueller’s Barbecue up in Taylor with John assigned 51 percent of the company. But by 2001 the elder Mueller bought his son out and John decamped to nearby Austin.
I was a latecomer to Mueller’s life having only known him since 2001 when he opened up his first meat joint on Manor Road near my home in French Place.
The building had once housed one Robert Shaw’s grocery store and neighborhood hangout. Shaw was famous as a piano man of some repute who would belt out blues songs whilst accompanying himself on piano.
When I worked down the road at a bar where old UT athletes hung out, the famous golfer Ben Crenshaw would come in from time to time with a grease-stained brown paper poke filled with brisket and sausage from Mueller’s. Ben claimed it was the best in town.
John had two sauces, the classic old Louis Mueller thin, gravy-style and a sweet, thick version that could give a man diabetes. You didn’t need either one.
Back then Austin’s eastside had a well-deserved reputation for being rough and tumble. John was tending to his pit in the middle of the night when a brigand caught him off guard and cold-cocked him with his own shovel. John woke up with a lump on his noggin and all his briskets stolen.
Ever the entrepreneur, John even started bringing in Round Rock donuts and flinging his doors open at 7am in the morning when his briskets were still tough as an old boot. The meat would hit the cutting board at 10am.
After a five year run Mueller shuttered his restaurant but not before making trips to Lockhart or Taylor completely unnecessary for local eaters. It’s hard to imagine now but we used to have to drive 30 or 40 miles to get world-class smoked meat. Austin had a long-running and vigorous barbecue scene but there had never been a place like Mueller’s inside the city limits.
In spring of 2006 John called me out of the blue to tell me he was selling his famous brisket at John Mueller’s Old Town Barbecue, a small joint down in Bastrop near the courthouse. In the blink of an eye – and before I could even head out that way – he quit, grumbling that people out there weren’t willing to pay the money to make the concern a success.
A work opportunity afforded itself on the plains of west Texas and Mueller headed out to the panhandle for some time before returning to Taylor where he did Sunday afternoon barbecue feasts at the legendary roadhouse Cactus Rose. But the big city lights beckoned and John called me one day in 2011 to announce he was back in the game and opening a food trailer down in south Austin with his sister LeAnn Mueller.
JMueller BBQ would do land-office business til 2012 when LeAnn called the law on John and had him unceremoniously booted from the company that bore his name. Financial malfeasance was accused.
A cup of coffee at a smokehouse in Shiner, Texas did not work out either.
Ever resourceful, Mueller jumped back in the game and opened John Mueller Meat Co. behind the old Kellee’s Place in east Austin in 2013. By 2016 the state comptroller came calling and the old pitboss was cast once again to the winds of fortune.
Just a year later, John opened Black Box Barbecue in a food trailer in a residential neighborhood in Georgetown Texas. When we visited we marveled at how a business like this could reside alongside million dollar homes in ritzy Georgetown.
Turns out it couldn’t. By 2019, with the fat cat neighbors ringing the phones off the hooks of the city council and mayor, John Mueller would migrate to Uncle Gary’s Bar in nearby Pflugerville. A vast courtyard off the SH-130 service road would find Mueller once again turning out some of the best brisket in all of Texas.
Ever peripatetic, Mueller bade farewell to Uncle Gary shortly and moved to Granger City Brewing a half hour to the north and east. Barbecue by John Mueller was ensconced in a tiny courtyard behind a small bar in dusty little Granger. John rang me up one afternoon and invited me up to his new spot where we sat around drinking cold beer and eating pork ribs whilst talking about how it didn’t look like the old days were going to be coming back anytime soon.
This was the last time I would ever eat John’s barbecue. Mueller would end up in Jarrell, Texas at a food trailer park before moving to the Dallas Metroplex to go to work at Hutchins BBQ.
“This is off the record,” he’d bark when he felt like really opening up and savaging his peers in the business, his ex-wives, local journalists or his workers. When he got sideways on the bottle or after too many cans of Bud Light his neurons would really start firing and he could be one of the funniest men I ever encountered.
Anytime I put him on speakerphone he’d snarl “quit recording me,” then he’d simmer back down when I explained I was moving around and just needed to have him on the speaker so I could hear him.
20 years goes by quick whether you’re having a good time or not and it seems like just yesterday that I would walk a couple blocks from my French Place bungalow to John’s first restaurant on Manor Road. That old corner store is the Mesopotamia of what would come to be called “craft barbecue” in Austin.
Nobody in Travis County had ever cooked meat the way John did and he knew it. I loved his braggadocio. He was a cocky son of a bitch who routinely referred to one-time employee Aaron Franklin as a “fuckin’ carnie.”
When I wrote a glowing review of Tom Micklethwait’s barbecue trailer John called me out the next time he saw me. “Why do you want to eat my brisket when Tom’s is so much better? he snarled. Then he started carving up some meat and cracking open cans of cold beer til his churlishness evaporated.
It’s 530 miles from my home in New Orleans to Hutchins BBQ. It was a trip I’d planned on making in the spring to check in on John and see if I could rile him up by strolling in wearing my old Ruby’s Barbecue t-shirt.
That’s a trip I will no longer be making.