John Mueller, a barbecue phenom who spent his life tending pits, died on Thursday after a long illness. He was 52.
Mueller bounced between fame and infamy; mercurial, infuriating, hilarious, and generous would all accurately describe him. Through it all, he remained memorable.
The barbecue education began at an early age. As a small boy, he cleaned out the barbecue pit at his family’s joint, Louie Mueller Barbecue, from the inside. His father Bobby passed on his method for “low and slow” barbecue, cooked for a long time in low temperatures. But when John left the business and could cook however he wanted, he opted for high heat, as if in defiance of his barbecue past. Still, he always spoke of his late father with reverence. “He was the ultimate pitmaster,” John Mueller once told me. “He was consistently good every single day,” he explained, which is why he never used the term pitmaster to describe himself. “Master means you’re really good at everything every day, and I can screw it up any day.”
John Mueller opened his first barbecue joint on Manor Road in Austin in 2001, years before Austin gained a reputation as a barbecue destination. John Mueller’s BBQ was widely heralded in a city that had until then been a jumping-off point for barbecue trips to Lockhart, Luling, Llano, and Taylor, where John learned to cook from his father, the late Bobby Mueller, at Louie Mueller Barbecue. Two years after it opened, Mueller’s new place won a spot on our 2003 Top 50 list. Joe Nick Patoski wrote that it “quickly [rose] to the top of the local ’cue heap.”
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 opening, that the honor must have felt like vindication after his not-so-amicable split with his father just a few years earlier. His response was priceless: “Hell, no. I was pissed off. I wasn’t in the top four or five. I was so mad.”
It was one of many occasions when I laughed with Mueller. He had a sharp wit that could be self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing. But after he closed John Mueller’s BBQ five years after it opened, he went silent. That would prove to be his longest-lasting restaurant, but the next is the one that truly made him famous.
Mueller sent me a cryptic message in 2010, in the third person. “I have information about John Mueller coming back to Austin. Please contact me,” he wrote. The following year he opened JMueller BBQ with his sister LeAnn. His peppery beef ribs, juicy sausages, and famous cheesy squash made a splash in the Austin barbecue scene, but Mueller wasn’t alone this time. Aaron Franklin, who had once worked at Mueller’s previous joint, was running Franklin Barbecue on the north side of town. Folks like myself were calling Franklin’s meat some of the best barbecue anywhere. Mueller took it as a challenge. “My goal is to put out some of the best barbecue in the state of Texas,” he told the New York Times in a story previewing what the paper called “Texas’s newest barbecue war.”
The Franklin-Mueller conflict never really came to pass, but the competition between the two made Austin one of the country’s top destinations for barbecue. Mueller and Franklin graced the cover of Texas Monthly’s February 2012 issue, and Anthony Bourdain noticed when he filmed No Reservations in Austin a month later. Bourdain featured both barbecue men in the episode, and said of Mueller’s beef ribs, “Don’t even try to tell me anybody does that s— better.”
The fire glowed brightly at JMueller BBQ, but it lasted only a year. LeAnn famously fired her brother, renamed the business La Barbecue, and turned it into an Austin staple. The siblings made up years later. “I’m glad we forgave each other,” LeAnn said yesterday.
This time, Mueller wasn’t away from barbecue for long. John Mueller Meat Co. opened in Austin early the next year, and those beef ribs were as good as ever. I praised one rib in particular after cleaning the meat completely from the bone. Mueller took a Sharpie and signed it, and the faded signature is still on that bone displayed at my home. The joint once made our Top 50 list, in 2013. We dubbed him “the dark prince of barbecue,” a nickname he enjoyed, thanks to his ever-present black hat and glasses and penchant for harassing his own customers. The stories abound. Once, a customer stepped up to his window in a Franklin Barbecue shirt. In response, Mueller took off his own John Mueller Meat Co. shirt and demanded the customer trade with him before being allowed to order. You don’t often leave a barbecue meal with a memory like that.
Like the Mueller barbecue ventures that followed, that one didn’t last long. Three years later he left Austin and bounced around 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 closed, I 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 wow with his smoked beef.
Mueller’s final business venture was at the Granary in Jarrell, which is still operating under the watchful eye of longtime, on-again-off-again Mueller employee Jeff Ancira. 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 end. Then he recovered. For one last time, John Mueller was back. Tracy and Tim Hutchins gave him a job at their Hutchins BBQ restaurant in Frisco, and Mueller was building fires once again. “He was in a happy spot,” Tim Hutchins says.
Mueller and I had our arguments, many of them in public on social media. We hadn’t spoken in a while when he reached out about the new job at Hutchins. He told me his starting date, which came just after the death of his mother, Patricia Mueller. I came by on his first day back in July to offer condolences and welcome him to North Texas. We talked and laughed about 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 blueberry sausage specials that he announced on his ever-entertaining Twitter account.
I have a favorite video of Mueller, though I can’t find it online anymore. In an interview with Zagat, he was asked how he fit into the Austin barbecue scene. “I made the Austin barbecue scene,” Mueller responded, leaning against his steel pit. You could almost see the twinkle in his eye 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 leave his imprint on Texas barbecue.
Correction: A previous version of this story included Mueller’s recounting of an anecdote that has since been disputed. That section has been removed and the article has been updated.