Of Meat and Men
John Mueller was the heir apparent to a legendary barbecue dynasty. Aaron Franklin was an unknown kid with a smoke-filled dream. This is the story of two pitmasters, their devoted fans, and some of the best brisket you’ll ever eat.
They were the first. At nine o’clock on a cool Friday morning last fall, three young men sat on the ground outside Franklin Barbecue, in Austin, though the restaurant wouldn’t open for another two hours. “If I’m not waiting here, I’m waiting at home,” explained Marcus Kellis. In front of him sat Jonathan Nguyen, a poet studying for his MFA at Texas State University. At the head of what would soon be a line of several hundred people was Chris Margrave. He wore a John Deere cap and was casually reading a copy of Ulysses, with only 545 pages to go.
None of the men knew one another, yet they had come to regard the shared experience of salivating anticipation as part of the trip to Franklin’s, a ritual almost as important as the reward itself: the smoky, silky brisket; the ribs with the perfect combination of sweetness and heft; and the robust sausage made, according to the master’s recipe, with just a small amount of beef heart. The wait gave them time to talk about barbecue with the other enthusiasts—a crew drawn, on any given day, from all over the state, all around the country, and even overseas—and they often ended up eating with total strangers, exchanging emails and promising to send postprandial commentaries and photographs.
The line, explained the men, had become an entity unto itself. “The restaurant is closed, so the line is separate,” Kellis said. “The line has its own mores, its own ethics.” There were some, Margrave added, who did not appreciate its connective powers. He had heard of people, for example, who advertised their services as Franklin Barbecue placeholders on Craigslist, requesting their payment in brisket. (“If you got paid in money,” a barbecue aficionado later told me, “you’d just be a barbecue gigolo.”) In other cases, Margrave said, “I have seen people holding a place in the line for a Suburban with about ten people in it who will pile out to take one spot.” He pitied them. “They are missing out on the experience,” he said.
By 10:58, the line had grown to about 250 people. From the front door of the low-slung, turquoise-and-white concrete-block building on East Eleventh Street, it snaked down a wheelchair ramp and around the back of the parking lot. Suddenly, Aaron Franklin emerged from somewhere behind the building. A 34-year-old of medium build with black hair, he was wearing his usual attire: a white Hanes V-neck T-shirt and cutoff dress slacks. A murmur arose as he made his way around the string of customers. “That’s the proprietor,” Kellis whispered. The “line manager,” a restaurant employee tasked with ascertaining the exact place in line at which the meat would run out, came outside and began taking preorders from the hopefuls, warning those standing beyond a certain point that they could be wasting their time. Two minutes later, Aaron went inside and swung open the front door. “Let’s get this party started,” he announced. A sign on the door read “Sold Out.”
Fanatical enthusiasm is not unusual for devotees of Texas barbecue, who are known to be demanding, well informed, and capable of consuming very large piles of meat. By the seventies, this loose assembly of eaters had reached an agreement as to the most outstanding joints, a small and accepted canon: Kreuz Market, in Lockhart; Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor; and City Market, in Luling. Enthusiasts traveled to these Central Texas outposts as if to sites of pilgrimage, waiting for that moment in a smoke-filled pit room when the most tender brisket in the world would be sliced before their eyes.
In the decades since, there have been slight adjustments to the canon. People flocked to Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, in Llano, and then began talking about Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q, in Mason. In 1999 the heirs of Kreuz Market split, leading to two restaurants—one at a new site with the original name (Kreuz Market) and one with a new name at the original site (Smitty’s Market)—half a mile apart from each other, both reverently attended. Almost a decade later, a little shack in Lexington called Snow’s BBQ flared into the spotlight and quickly developed a following of its own (a process helped along by this magazine’s naming of Snow’s as the state’s best barbecue restaurant in 2008). These new barbecue joints had managed to crack the smoked ceiling and join the uppermost tier, a rare occurrence.
Then an amazing thing happened. In 2009 a trailer appeared on the side of Interstate 35 in Austin and began producing a brisket that nobody could believe. Word spread on social media sites, blogs, and message boards. Everything about this joint was unlikely. To begin with, truly great Texas barbecue traditionally appears only in rural areas. This place was about two miles from the Capitol, behind a coffee-roasting shop on the frontage road. And the owner did not look like a traditional pitmaster. He was young, with trim sideburns and black-rimmed glasses. His trailer was painted a modish aqua color, and though his meats were served on traditional butcher paper, he offered a sauce spiked with espresso. The barbecue world was skeptical. Surely this was just another trendy Austin development—a fun place to go before a football game perhaps, but nothing to challenge the established order.
Yet word of the pitmaster’s mystical accomplishments continued to spread, and the skepticism was quickly overcome. The line began to grow, and increasingly people who knew what they were talking about were proclaiming the youngster’s meat to be as good as the old masters’ and maybe (heresy!) better. It was as if a high school freshman had walked on at Cowboys training camp and, by the start of the season, replaced Tony Romo. In time, the non-Texas media picked up the story, and excited reviews began to appear around the country, leading to more visitors and a longer line. In the history of barbecue—a tradition in which cooks take years to establish the quality of their product and their customer base—a meteoric rise like this was unheard of.
For fans, the mystery was as delicious as the meat. Where did this barbecue savant come from? How had he perfected the highly complex art of smoking in such a short amount of time? Aaron Franklin’s past was scoured for clues, and among the most often cited was that he had previously worked for John Mueller, a descendant of the legendary Mueller barbecue clan of Taylor. John had operated a well-regarded joint on Austin’s East Side from 2001 to 2006 before flaming out, plagued by personal demons and money troubles. At which point Aaron had purchased his pit. Perhaps, the barbecue cognoscenti mused, there was something in that pit. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Aaron for several years, and we have a handful of mutual friends. Also, John catered my wedding rehearsal dinner.)
Throughout the first half of 2010, as the buzz built around Franklin Barbecue, John remained a ghostly presence, a name on the lips of traditionalists waiting in line by I-35 (“Well, you know, he’s got John Mueller’s pit back there”). He’d been an irascible presence in his old joint, and after it shut down, stories had proliferated. According to one, he had run off to Mexico. Another had it that he’d been shot and was recuperating. A third claimed that he’d succumbed to cancer and died. Then rumors began to fly that John was returning to claim his crown as the best in town. A Twitter account for @JMuellerBBQ appeared, with a tweet in May 2011 declaring, “This is happening.” When it finally did, in October, a large crowd was waiting in the rain in front of John’s new joint, a small trailer in South Austin. The first customer in line, who arrived an hour and a half early, had already been to Snow’s and Franklin’s that morning and had brought along some leftovers for a head-to-head comparison. All the meat was sold out within two hours.
For hundreds of years, barbecue or something like it has been produced all over Texas according to a variety of methods, from Mexican barbacoa to the sauce-heavy, pork-friendly style inherited from the Deep South. But what most people in the state consider the quintessential form was created in Central Texas meat markets and grocery stores owned by German and Czech immigrants. During the 1800’s, these pioneers made their way into settlements that formed a belt from Galveston and Houston to Kerrville and Hondo, bringing with them a style of meat-smoking from the old country that involved salt, pepper, meat, and wood. Whatever fresh meat they couldn’t sell, they would smoke and sell as “barbecue.” (The term likely originated as a Caribbean word, “barbacoa,” and made its way onto American plantations via slave ships; according to Houston food writer Robb Walsh, blacks were then hired to run Texas meat-market pits during cotton- harvest season.) As demand grew, the markets evolved into barbecue joints, though the style of service didn’t change much. The meat was still sliced in front of the customer in line and served on butcher paper. Sauce generally wasn’t offered. “Sides” consisted of a tomato, an onion, a slice of cheese, an avocado, or some crackers.
The small railroad town of Taylor is located smack-dab in this barbecue country, and it was here that a stout young man from Illinois named Louie Mueller moved in 1936. Louie was an entrepreneur with a square jaw and a strong work ethic. He’d been hired to manage the city’s first Safeway, and by 1946 he had done well enough to open the Louie Mueller Complete Food Store. Like all good grocery outfits, he supplied fresh meat, but not having refrigeration, he hired two locals to slow-cook leftovers in the alleyway. One day they quit, and Louie was in a fix. He had no time or desire to cook the meat himself; he was a businessman. Looking around, he quickly promoted one of his stock boys, a man named Fred Fountaine.
Fred was another Texas transplant, a Canadian by way of Rhode Island who had moved on doctor’s orders to get out of the cold. With no cooking experience, he found himself staring at the setup the previous employees had arranged. No directions were given to him. (Historically, it turns out, few directions have been given to any pitmaster.) But he fiddled with the pit, the meat, and the fire, and in time Fred’s food became so popular that the barbecue operation outgrew the grocery store. In 1959 Louie moved the outfit across the street to a former gymnasium—a cavernous red-brick building where Louie Mueller Barbecue remains to this day—and in 1974 his son, Bobby, who had developed a reputation around town for his artistry as a butcher at the grocery store, took over, eventually developing his own barbecue style and working alongside Fred until Fred’s retirement, in 1987.
In the belief that barbecue was a family affair, Bobby’s three children, Wayne, John, and LeAnn, were put to work cleaning the restaurant when they were so small they had to walk around the edges of the tables to effectively wipe off the grease. Gradually, John worked his way up. He learned, at age ten, to dish out beans and potato salad. At fourteen, he was cutting brisket and portioning it out to customers, never neglecting to pass out little sampler nuggets while they waited. He also learned to make his father’s sausage, a beef concoction with a crackling natural casing, using a hand-crank machine dating back to the early 1900’s. By high school, he was preparing the day’s potato salad each morning, chopping the celery and eggs and mixing the batches in large plastic tubs. After studying kinesiology at Texas Tech University (his parents insisted that all their children receive a college education), he immediately returned to work in the kitchen.
But it wasn’t until 1993, when John was 25, that his father finally let him tend the massive indoor pit. This was the highest honor in the business. It required dedication, intense focus, and an almost preternatural intuition for how the meat was cooking. Teaching only by example, Bobby demonstrated how to smoke the meat with post oak wood in the rectangular white-brick pit with hinged metal tops. John learned to rub the meat with salt and coarse pepper to create a thick bark on the briskets’ exterior. His father told him he needn’t worry about temperature gauges; there were none. “Calm down,” his dad would tell him. “Feed your fire and quit liftin’ the lid.”
Growing up, John did everything his father instructed. He never broke curfew and didn’t drink. He played football and track, as his dad had. Like his siblings, he called Bobby “sir” and kissed him on the cheek anytime he said goodbye. He knew what he wanted to do with his life from the time he was a little kid in work boots and a red apron: he wanted to be just like his dad and barbecue at Louie Mueller’s.
Bobby had incredibly high standards. Good barbecue was not enough. It had to be amazing barbecue, especially the brisket. This cut had only grown popular in the sixties, but it had quickly become the sine qua non of any high-quality Central Texas joint. (Fred told a newspaper that he introduced it after a customer scribbled, “Fred, this is high-priced bone!” on a serving paper. “We switched to brisket,” Fred told the reporter, “and tripled our business.”) The meat and the perfectly rendered melt-in-your-mouth fat had to provide a real woodsmoke flavor that expanded into the eater’s sinuses, sending a tingling, relaxing warmth through the body. A slice, held up from one end and tapped with a spoon, had to fall apart. Once disassembled, it had to be soft enough to be eaten easily by even the young or the toothless. Every single brisket at Louie Mueller’s was required to meet these criteria, and now, on Bobby’s days off, the responsibility for maintaining the quality fell to John. “He burned up some briskets,” recalls his sister, LeAnn. (LeAnn is a photographer who has worked for TEXAS MONTHLY.) “But that’s just the nature of the beast. After a while, it was as good as my dad’s.”
In 1996 John incorporated with his father. He felt that he had achieved the ideal life. He took pride in his work and considered his father his best friend. When John got married, in 1991, he made Bobby his best man, and when the first of John’s three sons was born, he and his wife named him Robert Louis Mueller II. Every night, after working for fifteen hours, from three in the morning to six in the evening, John would head to his dad’s house for a beer. On Sundays—their only day off—the pair would meet at the restaurant, where the dark teal walls are stained with a smoky patina. They’d sit down at one of the square wood tables and eat crackers, sausage, and cheese. On most of these Sundays they’d just nod and say “Good morning.” Then they’d pass the hours in silence, reading the newspaper while two big box fans rumbled overhead and a sunbeam reflection swept its way across the dark wood floor.
But around 1999, for reasons John still can’t quite explain, some defiant part of him began to emerge, some rebellion he’d never expressed before. He had spent most of his life striving for approval, and now he felt a teenage-like urge to revolt. His marriage, which had been unraveling, ended in divorce, and a few months later, John started dating an employee. One weekend, he drove to San Antonio with her and got married. He knew that not inviting his family—or even telling them beforehand—was hurtful, but he did it anyway. “Congratulations,” Bobby mumbled to his son the following Monday. “Thank you,” John muttered back.
He’d never done anything to challenge his family before. It felt strange, and every day as he walked into work, he was acutely aware of the wedge he was driving between his kin and himself. He could hear it in the way they’d ask the simplest questions—they didn’t trust him anymore—and his defensiveness increased. Over time, the tension grew unbearable. “You know, I was asinine and arrogant,” John now says. “It was me against the world.” In January 2000 he sold his portion of the business back to the family and quit. (His brother, Wayne, would eventually return from a Houston ad agency and take over in 2008.) On John’s last day of work, Bobby was standing at the prep table as John headed toward the back door.
“John, you don’t have to do this,” Bobby said.
“Yeah,” John replied. “I do.”
John told himself that he would not work with meat. It was not part of the new John Mueller. He scoured the classifieds and soon got a job selling for Alliant Foodservice, then he and his wife moved to Georgetown. He tried to settle into this new life he had created for himself, but it was an awkward fit; even though he had broken away from his family, he couldn’t shake his devotion to barbecue. So when a potential business partner told John of a property across the interstate from the University of Texas football stadium, he hardly needed coaxing.
In 2001 he moved to Austin and opened up a place called John Muellers B-B-Q. It wasn’t the cathedral that Louie Mueller Barbecue was, but it had potential. To add about forty years of ambience to the building, which had been a soul food restaurant with pink walls, John painted the interior dark green and the floor black. Then he ripped out the ceiling to expose the timber above, paid $1,500 for a pit he found by the side of the road in Bastrop, set up his stations, and waited for business.
The place was not initially a raging success. Only twenty customers would stop by in the course of an entire day. One Saturday, John and his brother-in-law were so bored they found time to play football in the parking lot during operating hours. Eventually, however, word spread that John’s brisket was moist and tender and smoky, and that the meat of the forearm-size beef ribs fell right off the bone. By Christmas 2001, the weekday lunch line was running about forty deep with UT football players, businessmen, state workers, and college kids. John limited his meat supply each day to ensure nothing would go to waste, and on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays he was so busy he began running out of food. Soon John was back to a pattern he knew well. He woke up at three-thirty to light the fires and pat the briskets with salt and pepper. He made the sides. He ran automatically through the routine he’d lived every day at Louie Mueller Barbecue. And as he did, he thought about his dad, forty miles away, who was probably tending his fires too.
Business was good enough that by 2004, John had five employees working for him. Among them was an energetic, friendly guy named Aaron Franklin, who had moved from College Station to Austin in 1996 at age eighteen. John did not conduct an extensive interview process. Aaron had visited the restaurant repeatedly, and one day, when he asked for a job, John simply told him, “You’re hired.” He put Aaron to work chopping onions.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar task. Like John, Aaron had grown up around Texas barbecue. But unlike John, whose heritage lay in the smoky halls of the rarified greats, Aaron had been raised in the kind of simple mom-and-pop joint common to most small and medium-sized towns in Texas. Ben’s Bar-Be-Que, in Bryan, was already an established spot when Aaron’s parents bought it, and the former owner gave his father, who had a background in restaurants, a few tips on how to cook the meat. Aaron, for his part, cut lemons and onions starting at age twelve. While some kids might have balked at the mundane routine, Aaron loved it. He tried to talk his folks into homeschooling him so he could hang out at the restaurant more often, where he would sit in a chair next to the indoor brick pit, poking at the wood as the embers glowed. He liked the old concrete floors and the stalactites of ash that hung from the ceiling over the pit. His mom, who worked the tables and cash register, and his dad, who cut the meat, hustled during the lunch rush, but the rest of the time they moseyed along at a leisurely pace, chatting with customers. It was bliss for Aaron.
Unfortunately, his parents found it less idyllic. His dad worked from five in the morning to six at night Monday through Saturday, and his mother worked almost as much. The hours were brutal, and three years after opening, they were forced to sell the restaurant when it proved too much work for two adults and one enthusiastic preteen.
But the short time that his family had owned a barbecue restaurant left Aaron with an idealized image of the business, and for years he dreamed of doing it himself. He would open a place all his own, he thought—one with a pit, not a gas or electric smoker. He imagined lazy afternoons playing dominoes with customers while the comforting smell of burning post oak filled the air. As he got older, he began to take this fantasy more seriously. He conducted research all over Central Texas, traveling at least once a month to some out-of-the-way spot for his typical order: a two-meat plate composed of half a pound of moist brisket and ribs, with a side of potato salad (plus sausage if it was made in-house and the end cut off the lean side of a brisket when available). It was on one of these trips, in 2002, that he experienced a kind of epiphany at Louie Mueller Barbecue. As he bit into the brisket sample that all patrons receive while their meat is being cut, he was overcome with emotion. “I think I might have cried a little bit,” Aaron remembers. “I maybe squeezed out a tear.” He went back to Austin and applied at every barbecue joint he could find that used a real pit, but nobody would hire him. Finally, he ended up at John Mueller’s.
At the time, it was rapidly becoming clear that John was rising in the ranks of the state’s barbecue giants. Some people even told him his food was better than his father’s—flattery that infuriated him. “I knew the food wasn’t as good as Dad’s,” he says. “No way.” He still revered his father. The two hadn’t spoken for eight months after John had moved to Austin. When Bobby finally visited the new restaurant, John was a bundle of nerves. “I walked him through and showed him the pit, the rooms, the stuff on the walls,” he says. “I was nervous. He was pretty quiet.” The rift haunted him. When his dad finally ate a meal and complimented the food, John couldn’t shake the feeling that his solo work wasn’t legitimate. Deep inside he wanted approval, but even when Bobby responded to developments at the restaurant in his typical way—“Well, that sounds good”—John was convinced he didn’t measure up.
So John did what many before him have done to deal with disappointment: he started drinking whiskey. He began working irregular hours, ignoring his usual three-thirty alarm clock for an hour or two before lighting the fire in the pit. Sometimes he left work during the lunch rush so he could watch Dr. Phil with a drink in his hand. His relationship with his wife became tumultuous, and eventually the couple divorced. He also began struggling financially, and by 2005, he was so broke he’d have to drive to Fiesta Mart with the previous day’s till money to buy meat, potatoes, and little bags of cabbage for each day’s operations. He could not afford to take a day off. “We had to keep open every day just to keep the thing flowing,” he says. “If I closed one day, I wasn’t ever going to open again.”
As the quality of his meat became erratic and John grew increasingly cantankerous, his reputation suffered. Some people began referring to him as “the barbecue Nazi.” When customers complained about the great distance they’d traveled to find him sold out, he wouldn’t explain or apologize but rather reply, “Everybody has to come from somewhere.” Such was his notoriety that film director Robert Rodriguez even studied John for a dyspeptic character he planned for his 2007 movie Grindhouse. John sneered at customers, and his demeanor wasn’t always that much friendlier toward the staff. John remembers one particular exchange when Aaron told him, “You know, my parents used to have a barbecue place in Bryan.”
“They used to?” John responded. He understood family pride and was well aware of the dagger he was about to throw. “You mean they’re closed?”
“Yeah,” Aaron said.
“Well, why’d you tell me about it then?” he snarled.
In January 2006 John was preparing side dishes around eight-thirty in the morning when the building’s two new owners, who had bought the place from John’s business partner, walked into the restaurant. “We have something to tell you,” they said sourly. John braced himself. He had until the following Saturday to move everything out.
“By then I knew what was happening,” he says in retrospect. “I knew it was going away. I just couldn’t take it. I wanted success, but for some reason, I didn’t want the success there. I wanted to go home.”
He stayed in his house for a week or two until the electric company shut his lights off for nonpayment. When he was down to his last dollar, he did the only thing he could think of: he went back to live with his parents. They did not reprimand him. “Not one time,” John says.
But John didn’t stay in Taylor long. Desperate for work, he accepted a management job at Sirloin Stockade. The steak franchise asked him to go to Amarillo, to work with a sister operation called Montana Mike’s. John welcomed the opportunity to get away. Feeling he was a disgrace to his profession and his family, John Mueller left town pledging never to barbecue again.
Left in the wake of John’s departure from Austin was Aaron Franklin, who quit when he suspected he might not be getting any more paychecks. For a while, he worked part-time at a coffee shop and picked up handyman jobs. But the whole time he was driven by an unspoken goal, one that felt almost impossible. “Everything I did was working toward a barbecue place,” he says. For years he had been toying around with a New Braunfels–brand smoker that fit two small briskets, and in early 2003 he had called his dad, assuming he could share some expertise. “Hey, Dad, how do I cook a brisket?” he asked, but the man was at a loss for instructions. “Just cook it till it’s done,” he replied. Aaron searched the Internet for “how to cook a brisket,” but the directions, and the brisket that resulted from his first attempts, were terrible.
The ideal, he knew, was to create the barbecue of the Central Texas canon, but his cooking was erratic and his efforts experimental. Even after he became confident enough to barbecue for large groups in his backyard, the number of variables weighing on an outdoor pit was undeniable. “Consistency is absolutely the hardest thing. The weather fluctuates, the wood fluctuates,” Aaron says. “If it’s pouring down rain, it’s hard to keep a fire going, or it takes forever to cook because there’s too much moisture in the air.” Austin building codes made the cost of an indoor pit prohibitive. But a good outdoor pit with natural convection ran thousands of dollars. He scoured eBay and Craigslist, formulating ways to fix up a giant smoker. He considered unorthodox structures, “even an old bathtub,” he says. Used refrigerators weren’t out of the question.
Right as Aaron was contemplating his next move, he received a call from the owners of the John Muellers B-B-Q building. When John left town, the proprietors told him, he hadn’t just left a void in the barbecue landscape—he had also left his pit. Now they were desperate to sell the 1,400-pound behemoth that was sitting in the property’s backyard. In pristine condition, it would have cost a few grand. It was a solid workhorse, after all, with a seasoned interior. “The guy called and said, ‘I have this pit,’ ” Aaron remembers. “I was like, ‘Heck yeah, I want it!’ ” Aaron, who had just been paid the day before for a house project, offered $1,000. “It was a ton of money for me,” he says.
As he well knew, though, the pit was in bad shape. After he towed it to his house, he got to work cleaning out the grease that had practically turned into concrete inside the body. Crawling on his stomach, with safety goggles over his glasses, he mined his way through the pit, chipping away for two weeks with putty knives and other hand tools. He learned to weld so he could make some modifications to the firebox, smokestack, and doors, and when the adjustments were completed to his satisfaction, he rubbed the inside with a gallon of vegetable oil, filled the firebox with wood, and let the heat cure the new configuration like a chef would to temper a cast-iron skillet.
The crowd size for his backyard barbecues increased after word spread that he had acquired John Mueller’s pit. He could accommodate more brisket and had been refining his technique. “I think the first ‘aha’ moment I had was when I cooked a brisket way longer than I thought you needed to cook a brisket, and it finally got tender,” Aaron says. His friends took notice, and when the gatherings had grown to more than one hundred people, Aaron knew his time had come. He fixed up a dilapidated, $300 sixties-model trailer; set up shop in the parking lot behind a friend’s coffee-roasting operation; and in December 2009 placed a used marquee sign just off the frontage road of I-35. It read “Franklin BBQ Open.”
On the first day of business, temperatures dipped down to 47 degrees. A colleague and I, who had attended a few of Aaron’s backyard barbecues, had received an email from him telling us about his new spot. We parked just off the highway and approached the tiny white-and-aqua-colored trailer, made festive with a string of red, orange, and white lantern lights, and waved at Aaron, who was standing behind the trailer’s open sliding glass window. No one else was around.
He was gregarious and chatty, and as he talked, it became clear that he was a nervous wreck. He apologized for the quality of the meat and told us not to judge him, since he was still experimenting with meat providers and working out kinks in the smoker. He offered us lean and fatty brisket, ribs, sausage, pulled pork, the usual sides, and two types of sauce: a sweet blend and a special espresso concoction. We took a couple of two-meat plates of fatty brisket and ribs to go and drove back to the office, where we each took a bite of our food. Then, staring at each other in wonder, we began to laugh. The cut of marbled brisket fell apart under a beautiful exterior of peppery bark, and the smoke flavor permeated the whole thick slice. The pork ribs were tender and meaty. It was Aaron’s first day, and already he was serving some of the best brisket we’d ever had.
For the first few weeks, Franklin Barbecue was the city’s secret; the setting and the pitmaster were so unlike those of classic barbecue temples that it was almost inconceivable that the product could measure up. But customers told their friends, and before long, word had spread on Facebook, Twitter, Chowhound, Shaggy Bevo, Yelp, Urbanspoon, and blogs dedicated to barbecue. A rave review on the website Full Custom Gospel BBQ described how each slice had “a great crust, a beautiful smokering, and a nice morsel of buttery fat clinging to the meat.” (Daniel Vaughn, who writes the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog, contributes to texasmonthly .com.) A blog post on Man Up Texas BBQ declared, “I can say with zero hesitation that the brisket was quite possibly the best I’ve ever had.” The attention gave Aaron an immediate bump. (“From two to eight people,” he says, with a half smile, “so it was easy to tell.”) Soon, the wait at the trailer had grown to half an hour.
But as successful as his work was, Aaron considered this first run a simple stroke of good luck. To remain top-notch, he needed to master an infinite number of cooking variables. Some required the methodical approach of a scientist, such as the effect of barometric pressure on cooking. Other aspects were simply trial and error. He learned that when it was windy, for example, he needed to shut the pit’s firebox door. When it was cold, he needed to use more wood. When it was humid, he needed a hotter fire. Other intuitions could be gained only by daily experience. In time, he could pick up a piece of wood and know how it would burn. He could poke a piece of brisket and know when it was done.
Most important, perhaps, he learned about beef. He’d always wanted to use all-natural meat, for ethical reasons, but initially he couldn’t pay for it. When he finally saved enough to buy a few all-natural briskets and played around with them, he realized that they cooked better. The fat in typical hormone-fed cow meat didn’t render as well at high heat, and little chewy nodules sometimes remained around the edges like tiny bits of bubblegum; if he cooked the meat low and slow, too much fat remained behind. The twice-as-expensive all-natural brisket required a longer cooking time of eighteen hours, at a low heat (285 to 300 degrees) to prevent gamey flavors. The effort was greater. The profit was less. But the results made an already enthusiastic line go absolutely berserk.
By the spring, as newspapers began making note of the trailer, the line wrapped around the corner and continued down the access road. “That’s when I realized, whoa, I’m going to need another smoker,” Aaron says. By the end of the following winter, the wait was longer than an hour—even on the coldest day of the year. (I know. I stood in it.) Aaron was finally able to scrape enough money together so that he and his wife, Stacy—who had started working with him to keep up with demand—felt they could expand. “We were bursting at the seams,” he says. “We couldn’t handle more smokers on that property.”
They started looking at spaces around town, and when a barbecue joint went out of business nearby, Aaron leaped at the chance. When he closed the trailer and reopened on Eleventh Street in the spring of 2011, devotees who wanted to be the first in line slept on the ground overnight. Then, to add to the insanity, in July 2011 Bon Appétit declared, to its international audience of 6.6 million readers, that Franklin Barbecue served “the best BBQ in Texas, if not America.” The effect was immediate. “Business quadrupled overnight,” Aaron says. “We were not ready for that.” Aaron, a thirtysomething who had been operating for barely a year and a half and never advertised, had created a consistent two-hour wait five days a week, the likes of which had never been seen in any restaurant in Texas history.
While most of the success was due to Aaron’s God-given ability to smoke meat, he also had the good fortune to open during a boom in barbecue connoisseurship, a growing movement spurred by the nationwide emergence of the modern foodie. For those in the habit of fetishizing foodstuffs—other recent objects of fancy have included the cupcake and the macaron—Texas barbecue represented an incomparable thing of beauty. It was authentic, geographically unique, and exquisitely simple, yet inscrutably difficult to cook well. Aaron’s fans were not simply more enthusiastic than in years past, they were more knowledgeable. “It used to be a small group of people who were super-nerdy,” Aaron told me recently. “Now everybody’s a super-nerd.”
And these fans were connected: on Twitter, on Facebook, on Foursquare. The barbecue super-nerds took endless pictures of their food and sent the images into the blogosphere. They discussed cooking techniques both online and in line. They argued about sauce usage. They took road trips for barbecue, read barbecue blogs, and learned a specific vocabulary. Full Custom Gospel BBQ, for example, listed the importance of a brisket’s rendering (“the process of cooking fat until it literally melts into the meat”), smoke line (“red line around the outside edge of sliced brisket”), and sugar cookie (“fat that turns to a slightly sweet and crispy flavorful nugget”). The Southern BBQ Trail website churned out fascinating oral histories from legendary spots. Twitter accounts like @Quest4Que (“I love BBQ and have made it my goal to go to every BBQ joint in the country”) and [email protected] (“We are a group of BBQ-loving Texans who are in search of the greatest smoked meats in the greatest state in the union”) narrated personal quests. A parody Twitter account even surfaced to entertain the increasing number of barbecue insiders: after a couple of Austin barbecue joints were ensnared in an undercover sting last July for using stolen meat (police named the action Operation Meat Locker), @ATXMeatBandits emerged pretending to be the suppliers of the pillaged food. Tweets included “HEB is too hot right now. Need to lie low for a while. Been hearing some good things about Randall’s . . .” and “Any cabrito fans? Just stole some goats in Brady, TX!!!”
By 2011, the same people who might have once complained about sold-out product and long lines had evolved in their understanding of the process. They had an appreciation for limited meat. They encouraged quality control over increased quantity. They gossiped about who was cutting corners and who was doing a thorough job. If a brisket was precooked 80 percent, wrapped in butcher paper, and thrown into a walk-in refrigerator to be finished on a busy day when the pit capacity was tight, these barbecue enthusiasts could taste that difference, and they’d crane their necks from their chairs in search of evidence of procedural sins.
Around the state, the fervor had encouraged others to try their own hand at quality barbecue. Whereas the legendary spots of yore had been primarily rural, now the widespread hunger for sublimely smoked meat, coupled with the boon of instantaneous buzz and feedback, made it possible for urban upstarts to enter the scene. Places like Pecan Lodge, Lockhart Smokehouse, and Off the Bone Barbecue, in Dallas; Gatlin’s Barbecue, in Houston; Smokeys Barbecue, in Fort Worth; and Two Bros. BBQ Market, in San Antonio, dotted the fertile landscape. Former Louie Mueller Barbecue pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick—whom Bobby had hired soon after John left—opened Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew in Austin. It was fast becoming a golden age for Texas barbecue in the least traditional locations.
Meanwhile, the enthusiasts were feeding Aaron Franklin, and Franklin was feeding the enthusiasts, figuratively and literally. The line grew steadily longer, the frenzy grew bigger, and soon Aaron was struggling to keep up with the demand. Though he was working at the restaurant from 3:15 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon, then going home to tinker with new pit ideas, there were only so many hours in a day. He believed in quality control, but he didn’t want to sell out after serving just fifty or one hundred customers. Even after he hired a second pitmaster and built an additional smoker out of a five- hundred-gallon propane tank, his supply was insufficient. Individual patrons were ordering twenty pounds of meat for wedding parties, bachelor parties, and anniversaries. How was he supposed to keep up?
In the line, the finite quantities meant the mood sometimes grew tense. Aaron found himself talking people down from thirty pounds of meat. When one guy in line said, “I’m gonna start buying meat and selling it in the parking lot,” another customer within earshot warned, “Man, we will beat the shit out of you if you do something like that.” Aaron explained later, “That’s the line! It’s like Mad Max out there.”
The mania sometimes puzzled him. He and Stacy, who had become the restaurant manager, tasked an employee with calculating the total preorder estimate every day and assessing where in line the various offerings would begin to run out. They believed the line would tolerate this effort, maybe even appreciate it, and they were right—in fact, after a while, this aspect of the line gained notoriety as part of the authentic barbecue experience. One day, when the line manager gave the final lucky customer a piece of butcher paper that read “Last Man Standing,” another customer paid her $20 for the souvenir.
One Monday last winter when he was closed for business, I sat with Aaron on the porch of the restaurant to talk, but our conversation was interrupted repeatedly as he apologized to hopeful passersby for being closed. “Oh my God, it’s so stressful,” he said, slurping an espresso to stay alert. “The pressure is immeasurable. I mean, I’ll look out the window and see the line down the parking lot, starting to go up the street. You know those people are going to wait three hours. You can’t serve them crappy or even something below—well, it’s got to be the best thing ever.”
Back in Amarillo, John Mueller was officially depressed. Beyond his co-workers at Montana Mike’s, his only acquaintances were the patrons of the Cactus Bar. His mood hadn’t lightened even five hundred miles from home. Once, when a district manager criticized him, John snapped, “You’d better shut up, or I’m gonna walk across that street and open up a barbecue and whip your butt every day in sales.” But if his past sometimes emboldened him, it was also the source of pain. “Aren’t you John Mueller?” the occasional customer would ask, recognizing him. “Yeah, that’s me,” he’d reply. He dreaded the inevitable follow-up question. What are you doing here?
John missed his boys, who were then nine, ten, and fourteen. And he wasn’t cut out to run a steakhouse, where the profit margins were totally different from those of a barbecue business. (When a steakhouse customer orders a prime rib, he receives the whole slice of meat; in barbecue, where meat is sold by weight and much of the fat gets lost in cooking and trimming, there is more waste and less profit.) By the end of 2006 he’d moved back to Taylor, but he soon found that living in his hometown again wasn’t easy either. Though people smiled to his face, he knew what they said behind his back: “That’s John, Bobby’s son who quit Louie Mueller’s and moved away.” With no job, he was so broke he couldn’t afford an apartment, and he was too embarrassed to beg his family for more favors. “I lived on the street for a little while, I slept on friends’ couches,” he remembers. “It was horrible.” Even when he was able to scrounge up the occasional catering job, he couldn’t save enough to get ahead. He didn’t think his luck could get any worse.
On September 6, 2008, he got a phone call from his mother. “Daddy’s dead,” she told him. John was so surprised he hung up on her. He called back, infuriated. “Why would you call me and tell me that?” he demanded. “You’re cruel.”
“I needed to tell you,” she said. John fell to his knees.
Robert Louis Mueller died in his sleep at age 69. His wife found him in bed. He had not been sick. The Austin American-Statesman obituary said that he had worked roughly 160,000 hours at the restaurant. That is what it took to be a legend, and the community and fans mourned his loss. Bobby had won the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award in 2006; everyone made sure to mention that. “He loved what he did,” John says, “and he was tenacious with it and took great pride in it.” John’s brother, Wayne, was quoted in the obituary saying, “In my estimation, he was the strongest man I ever knew.”
At the funeral, John was a mess. He was barely able to pull himself together to get to the funeral home chapel. His beard was only half-shaved, and he got drunk before the memorial service. “I was disgusted with myself,” he says, looking back. Probably to the annoyance of those around him, he could not quit laughing. The emotions were too overwhelming.
Now how would he ever show his dad that he was good enough? He was wearing an ankle monitor from two drunk-driving arrests he’d racked up. He was basically homeless. He’d had some bizarre desire to prove to himself that he was a failure, and here he was, bearing his ruin like a scar to anyone who cared to look in his direction. John thought often about his dad’s disappointment. “I think my dad and I have the same work ethic,” he says, “but my dad had great integrity. He would have never put himself in my situation.”
A few weeks after the service, John quit drinking whiskey. He also started working in earnest. He moved in with his old high school friend Debbie (now his wife), a straight-and-narrow hairdresser who saw his potential, and with her encouragement, he picked up more and more catering work. He began calling himself Shoeless Joe Jackson, a reference to the early-twentieth-century baseball player who was accused—some say wrongly—of throwing the 1919 World Series. John told a blogger that, like Jackson, he had been forced out of the game at the height of his powers. To cook the meat for the jobs he landed, he used a little pit that Debbie had in her backyard. “Every once in a while, people would call, and I couldn’t tell them I wasn’t in business,” he says. “If I had a spare forty bucks in my pocket, I’d buy a brisket and do the job, because I knew it would help me one day.”
When he was not working, John became obsessed with the Internet. (In December 2009 he started tweeting under the name @ShoelessJoeJaxn.) He saw that since he’d quit the business, people had become total barbecue snobs. They wrote about terminology he’d never encountered. “I don’t say ‘pitmaster,’ I say that I ‘cook,’ ” he says, shaking his head. “There are so many terms I’ve never heard of, I swear. I read them on the Internet. I don’t know what the ‘point’ or the ‘slab’ is; I just know there’s a lean end and a moist end. I just laugh at it. I read some of these articles, and they have all these little sayings, and I’m like, ‘God dang, where do y’all come up with this stuff?’ ”
That wasn’t all he noticed. He saw that others were wearing the crown that was once meant for him. People waited in line at Snow’s BBQ beginning at eight in the morning, and the line was increasing daily at Franklin Barbecue. He often reflected on his lost opportunities and burned bridges, as well as the pit he had once prized and mistreated. “I was happy for Aaron; he’s very nice,” John says. “But it was humiliating.”
Having seen how his former employee had created a storm, John wondered about his own relevance. If those in his old line hadn’t forgotten him, he thought, he could dovetail with the barbecue craze and try to make a comeback. This was a little scary—he considered that some disgruntled former customers might be waiting to pound him with baseball bats as soon as he opened—but it would be better than waking up at three-thirty every morning and realizing he had no place to go. On a whim, in late 2009, he began telling people that he was coming back. His phone started ringing off the hook.
Three months after the opening of John’s trailer, it is difficult to say whether his and Aaron’s competing businesses truly represent a barbecue rivalry. The two remain friendly. “It’s not like Aaron and I hate each other,” John says. “We like each other. We saw each other one day and talked for about twenty minutes. I said, ‘What are you going to do when all this starts?’ He said, ‘I’m not even thinking about it,’ because we knew what was about to happen, with the comparisons. The—what do you call it?—old lion against the new lion.”
The line is adjusting. One day this winter, some thirty customers stood patiently during the lunch hour at JMueller BBQ, a trailer in a dirt lot just south of Lady Bird Lake. An Asian man waiting in front of me introduced himself and mentioned that he’d shipped a smoker from Texas to China to see if the food could be replicated for a restaurant in his home country. A woman standing near him began professing her love for barbecue and her particular affection for John. “We were all fans of the old location,” she said. “Then he left us!” When she got to the trailer window, she received the last piece of brisket. “This is it!” she shouted to those of us close by. “The very end!” The Asian restaurateur offered some of his sample to a man standing near me, resulting in an awkward tug. “Shoot,” the man whispered to me. “I tried to get the whole thing, but he wouldn’t let it go.”
Over at Franklin Barbecue a few days later, I stood in front of a man who had been to the restaurant more than one hundred times and a newbie who had flown in from Los Angeles and knew nothing about Austin except Franklin Barbecue. “It was worth the trip,” the first-timer later told me. “Standing in line alone was worth the trip.” In the months to come, there would be chatter in the line about John’s and Aaron’s history; a few patrons might take sides. The pair’s stories would likely get discussed in the same way that people might tell a newcomer about the controversy over sauce usage or where they could find a brisket with a gold-standard sugar cookie. Customers would remark on the ball-busting hard work it took to enter the canon. And the personal obstacles, well, they’d dissect those too.
But early in the mornings, the line is nowhere to be seen. Aaron begins his day at 3:15. He makes an espresso, then heads to the smoker to check on the meat that another employee has been watching overnight. By 3:30 he’s lining up the ribs and poking at the fire, the sparks popping as the embers whir inside the box. Until the restaurant opens, he does maintenance projects, like fixing sinks or constructing shelves. (He has built two smokers, bringing the total at the restaurant to three: two are cylindrical, and one is a rectangular Kreuz-style pit. Another cylindrical pit is in progress, and when it is finished, he plans to build one identical to it to replace the rectangular model.) By 11:00, when the line is snaking to the back of the lot, he has already put in almost eight hours, and the most hectic part—serving the customers—hasn’t even begun.
A few miles across town, John runs through his routine too. He gets up at 2:45, walks down his dark driveway, and hops into his pickup. He drives along the empty highways from Taylor to his trailer, where he lights the fire, unlocks the trailer door, turns on the little fluorescent interior light, and starts rubbing the refrigerated briskets down with salt and pepper. For all the rhapsodizing on Twitter, the work of a barbecue master is a bleary-eyed grind well-known to all the cooks who have come before: Aaron’s dad, Bobby Mueller, Fred Fountaine, and, before them, all the nameless pioneers of the pit. While the enthusiasts are still asleep and the cicadas sing a chorus of white noise, John and Aaron and every other pitmaster in Texas are hard at work. John is making beans and potato salad in the same type of plastic tub he used for mixing when he was a kid. He puts the ribs on at 7:00, sets the sausage in at 9:30. Then, like his father told him, he tries to remain calm, feed his fire, and quit liftin’ the lid.