LeAnn Mueller, talented photographer and co-owner of the renowned Austin barbecue joint la Barbecue, died early Wednesday morning. She was 51.
I spoke this morning with her wife, Alison Clem, who goes by Ali. She said—as cliche as it sounds—LeAnn was doing what she loved right to the end. The couple were preparing for an event planned for Tuesday evening. “We were cooking, and I was juicing some lemons for her hummus,” Ali said, playing the day back in her memory. LeAnn suffered a sudden medical emergency and was rushed to the hospital. “It happened in seconds,” Ali said, still in shock.
Hailing from a famous barbecue family, LeAnn officially started working for her father, Bobby Mueller, at the hallowed Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor in the sixth grade. According to a 2015 interview, she cleaned tables and trays until graduating to what she called “the middle,” where she readied the sides, sauce, pickles, and onions for every order. “I like to call it the heartbeat of the business. The middle controls the flow. You get people through the line,” she said. Later, she convinced her dad to add jalapeños to the house-made beef sausage. The idea that seemed revolutionary then has stuck around.
In 2000, she left Taylor for California to attend the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. After a brief stop back to Taylor, she moved to New York to begin a photography career. On her way out of town, she delivered a portfolio to former Texas Monthly photo editor Leslie Baldwin, and got her first paid photography gig, shooting at Shiner Brewery, as a result. Countless assignments—including thirteen cover shots—followed.
LeAnn was living in Brooklyn when her parents, Bobby and Patricia, both now deceased, flew to New York to receive the James Beard America’s Classics award for Louie Mueller Barbecue in 2006. It was the first such award for a Texas barbecue joint, which made them all proud—but she had no interest in the barbecue business then. Even when her brother, John Mueller, who passed away just eighteen months ago at the age of 52, asked her to invest in his new barbecue venture in Austin in 2011, she just wanted to be the money person. “I didn’t really want to be involved in barbecue then,” she told me in 2015 regarding JMueller BBQ food truck.
Despite her wishes, she was thrust into the business after firing her brother a year after opening. She, along with her then-girlfriend Ali (they married in 2014) and pitmaster John Lewis, opened la Barbecue in the same truck just a few days later. La Barbecue bounced around Austin’s East Side for years, but LeAnn and Ali finally settled on the restaurant’s “forever home,” on East Cesar Chavez and Clara streets, in 2021. “The way she decorated it and designed it was so art-forward, and it says so much about her,” Ali told me. It was through that artwork they paid tribute to iconic women they respected—like Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton—in a mural on the patio. Next to the counter hangs a photo of LeAnn’s mother, who she counted as her most important influence.
Thriving in an industry dominated by men, their motto became “feminizing barbecue one brisket at a time.” Ali said they were planning a fresh run of the shirts bearing that motto, but said, “They’re a little hard to sell because guys don’t really want to wear them.” But LeAnn never let what other people thought change her irreverent sense of humor. The restaurant’s more popular T-shirt reads “Sausage is my safe word.” In the summers, la Barbecue’s side business is a hot dog cart dubbed the Red Rocket Wiener Wagon, which serves house-made wieners—the color of Twizzlers—doused in brisket chili. Then there’s the neon sign out front of the restaurant displaying an image of the Virgin Mary in technicolor. A passerby might wonder if it’s the entrance to a hipster Catholic church—until they see “Our Lady of Barbecue” printed beneath it.
Ali said people will remember LeAnn for her photography and for the barbecue, but she wanted to share what a great designer she was, of the restaurant and their apartment. She thoughtfully arranged their art collection from their many travels together. Ali assisted LeAnn on most of her photography shoots of celebrities, from LL Cool J and Jay-Z to televangelist Joel Osteen and Texas governor Greg Abbott. Her last assignment was a few weeks ago with drag queen Mistress Isabelle Brooks in Houston for a Rolling Stone story.
LeAnn’s most lasting legacy, which Ali will continue to carry on, is advocating for the respect of women in barbecue. Six days ago, the restaurant posted an American Gothic–style photo taken by John Pingry a few years ago to Instagram. LeAnn hoists a whole smoked brisket pierced by an upturned pitchfork, and Ali holds a six-foot-long rope of smoked sausage. Each of their free hands cradles one of their beloved dogs, Mr. Pickles and Bobby Dingle. The caption celebrating Pride Month read, in part, “we are proud to be the first-ever woman and lesbian-owned BBQ restaurant in all of Texas.” Shortly after the news of LeAnn’s passing spread through the barbecue industry, the three women owners of the recently opened Barbs B Q in Lockhart wrote, “We want to do for the next generation what they have done for us.”
When I spoke to Ali, I could hear the bustling dining room of la Barbecue in the background. The restaurant will not close, even for a day. “I’ve got employees I need to support and families that work here, so we’ve just got to keep rolling, and that’s something we talked about many times over,” Ali said. Besides, she added, “she would absolutely f—ing kill me if I was to close this place down.” She’ll carry on without the restaurant’s creative force. “She did all the recipes; I just did the cooking,” Ali said of LeAnn, but noted she has stacks of recipes written by LeAnn ready to deploy when the time calls.
Early last year, I went to la Barbecue for a celebration of life for John Mueller, LeAnn’s brother. They closed the restaurant down to remember a larger-than-life pitmaster who had left the world far too early. On July 2, Ali will do the same for LeAnn. La Barbecue will end its regular service at 2 p.m. that day, at which time anyone who wants to come share stories—good or bad, but hopefully funny—about LeAnn is welcome to attend.
So go raise a toast—or rather a pickleback brisket shot, a speciality of la Barbecue—to LeAnn, and to Ali, for opening a great barbecue joint that just happens to be run by women, and for encouraging others to do the same.
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