It’s been ten months since barbecue legend John Mueller passed away. He was working for Hutchins BBQ in Frisco at the time, but the last barbecue joint that bore his name was in Jarrell, about forty minutes north of Austin. John Mueller Joint Barbecue at the Granary opened in January 2021. Owner Lynn Springfield had planned a grand opening in April to celebrate the storied cook, but Mueller began a lengthly hospital stay that March. “We had our grand opening without him,” Springfield said, adding that it was “heartbreaking.”
In the meantime, Springfield turned to Mueller’s good friend Jeff Ancira, who, since 1997, had cooked with Mueller in some capacity. “Every stop he’s made, I’ve worked with him,” Ancira said. That includes the old days at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor and the original John Mueller’s BBQ in Austin. Mueller’s former wife was Ancira’s sister-in-law, and Ancira considered Mueller his best friend. Ancira was there from the beginning at the Granary, where he remains the weekend pitmaster at the joint that now carries the more succinct name of BBQ at the Granary.
“I felt bad,” Ancira said of the decision to keep cooking without Mueller, so he reached out to John’s sister, LeAnn Mueller, and her wife, Ali Clem, of Austin’s La Barbecue for their blessing to continue. They offered it while watching over Mueller in the hospital. “When he got sick, there was no plan B, and I guess I became plan B,” Ancira added. Springfield hoped Mueller would be able to return, but after the hospital stay, he was in no shape to run a pit room and moved to Frisco instead.
Ancira designs electrical equipment during the week, so he couldn’t take on the full-time pit duties at the restaurant. He and Springfield brought in Rylan Mikeska. He worked most recently for his father at Cyclone Corral BBQ, which serves family-style barbecue in Burlington. Mikeska likes to get creative, so they let him set the Thursday evening menu at the Granary, which includes such diverse options as brisket tamales, boudin-stuffed pork loin wrapped in bacon, and the Hillbilly Philly sandwich with smoked beef chuck and queso.
Friday through Sunday’s menu is closer to what you would have found when Mueller was cooking. “I try to keep it as close as possible to what he was doing,” Ancira said. He cooks every Sunday, Mikeska every Friday, and they share the duties on Saturday. Mikeska smoked all the meat the Saturday I visited. They run post oak wood in a five-hundred-gallon smoker that Primitive Pits gave to Mueller back when he was serving barbecue in Granger. Springfield said demand has picked up enough that they’re looking to purchase a thousand-gallon smoker.
The structure at the center of the site also serves as the bar, and it’s surrounded by food trucks, picnic tables, and a grain silo you can see from Interstate 35. BBQ at the Granary doesn’t have combo plates on the menu, and it requires a minimum half-pound purchase of any meat, which can be unfortunate if you’re looking for a lot of variety. Brisket is $24 per pound, and beef ribs are $20 apiece. That may sound like a huge bargain, but remember that Ancira, like Mueller, prefers to cook the smaller chuck short ribs rather than the monster plate ribs. The peppery rub on the ribs brought back memories, but they didn’t have that same aggressive bark and charred fat that was a Mueller signature, and they needed more time on the smoker. Ancira said he and the others tried cooking at 400 degrees like Mueller, but everything came out burnt. They scaled it back to 300 degrees instead.
Slices of lean brisket were juicy, and each had a line of pepper-flecked fat cap that was meltingly tender and glistened in the sun. I tore off a piece and dunked it into the barbecue sauce that shimmered thanks to the lavish amount of butter. I always loved Mueller’s sauce because of the chunks of sautéed onions and the generous use of coarsely ground black pepper. I dredged up some onion chunks with my brisket and savored a bite. It was sweeter than I remembered, and Ancira explained he uses twice the ketchup to thicken it up a bit.
The pork ribs had a nice bark and a simple rub. They were a nice departure from the sweet pork ribs that are nearly ubiquitous in Central Texas now. Another unexpected find on the menu was the smoked boudin. The joint gets it from a purveyor in Houston, but it has great snap and just a hint of smoke.
I tried a few sides to see how they compared to Mueller’s. The slaw was a departure from the spicy, mayo-based chipotle slaw from Mueller’s previous stops. This recipe from Mikeska was more refreshing, with a vinegar tang and the crunch of cabbage that had been recently dressed. The potato salad was similar, but it uses skin-on red potatoes instead of skinned russets. Ancira helped make thousands of batches of Mueller’s signature cheesy squash, and in this version, he added sautéed onions to the mix and didn’t cook the squash to the point of disintegration. The chunks still have some integrity, which can fool you into thinking this butter-and-cheese-laden side dish is healthy.
Ancira’s recounting of his history with Mueller was audibly painful. It was obvious he missed his friend and cooking partner, whom he fruitlessly encouraged to seek help during the first few months of the Granary’s existence. “He had been sick the whole time we were there,” Ancira said of Mueller. He hoped for another chapter with Mueller, but it never came. “He is why I’m doing this now,” Ancira said. Though he can’t harness the power of a screaming-hot pit like Mueller could, Ancira and the team at the Granary are doing their best to keep the spirit of John Mueller alive in their barbecue.