“Life-changing” is an overused adjective, especially when it comes to food. Though there are some restaurants where the experience can truly alter one’s professional trajectory. Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor was that place for me, and for many others. A bite of brisket there in 2006 changed my perspective on how good barbecue could be.

It was the same year that Louie Mueller received the America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation, making it the second Texas barbecue joint to earn the distinction (the Original Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas was honored in 2000). This year’s James Beard awards are littered with a half dozen pitmaster semifinalists, none of whom had restaurants when Louie Mueller was awarded. That bodes well for the future of barbecue, but I wanted to go back and gather stories from people who were forever changed after walking into what has been dubbed the Cathedral of Smoke.

“If I hadn’t walked in that day, it’s very unlikely that I would have ever cooked barbecue professionally,” Billy Durney, owner of New York–based Hometown Bar-B-Que, said of his 2007 visit. Back then, personal security was Durney’s profession, and he was in the Austin area on an assignment. He went to several of the Lockhart joints to review their layouts in advance of his client’s visit. While at Kreuz Market he overheard a customer say Louie Mueller was a necessary stop on any Texas barbecue tour, so he rented a car the next day to go on his own. 

Durney saw a line of people wrapped around the side of the building when he arrived around noon on a hot day. He said, “the New York pessimist in me was like, ‘Can it really be like that?’ ” After taking his place in line, his emotions went from excitement to impatience to anticipation as he saw the trays of barbecue around the dining room. A customer just ahead of him ordered the famous beef rib, which Durney didn’t know existed. He had to have one, and once he got to his table, that was his first bite. “It was sweet and salty and fatty and I couldn’t believe all those flavors came together,” Durney said. When he got back home to Brooklyn, he remembers telling his wife, “I think one day I want to make barbecue for a living.” Durney now owns three locations of Hometown Bar-B-Que in New York and Miami, and a Texas-style beef short rib is the signature item.

Danielle “Diva Q” Bennett estimates that she has taught 27,000 students in her barbecue classes. She’s an author, television personality, and pitmaster based in Florida, but she was at a crossroads fifteen years ago. Her backyard barbecue skills were maturing beyond those of a mere hobbyist when she took a trip from her then home of Toronto to Austin for a barbecue convention. “I was kind of on the fence wondering, ‘Can I make a career out of this, or is this going to remain a hobby?’ ” she recalled. Then she walked into Louie Mueller with some friends on a self-guided barbecue tour. “I remember looking up and seeing the smoke everywhere, permeating the walls and the ceiling,” Bennett said. “I just knew I was on the right path, and I knew I was going to barbecue for the rest of my life.” And that was before she even took a bite.

John Markus had a similar experience in 2012. As the creator of the BBQ Pitmasters competition show, he was no smoked-meat rookie, but he hadn’t tried the best of what Texas had to offer until pitmaster Aaron Franklin and photographer Wyatt McSpadden took him on a tour of Central Texas. They enjoyed meals at Prause Meat Market (RIP) in La Grange and City Meat Market in Giddings, but it was the third stop at Louie Mueller that left a lasting impression. Markus remembers the patina of the interior, with its massive brick smokestack piercing the soaring roof. “There’s the history of flavor, and the history of smoke. Not just the aroma,” he remembered, joking that the soot on the walls seemed structural. The ambiance was memorable enough but, Markus said, “when the food is good, it’s like bowling a strike.”

A photo from 2012 at Louie Mueller Barbecue with pitmaster Wayne Mueller, second from right. Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

McSpadden and Franklin may have subconsciously been trying to recreate their own epiphany moments through Markus’s eyes. McSpadden, a prolific photographer who has published two books on Texas barbecue, and has captured dozens of barbecue images for Texas Monthly, called a trip four decades ago to Louie Mueller “a game changer.” He was living in Amarillo at the time, and was in Central Texas on a photo assignment for a seed company. He ordered a chopped beef sandwich from then-pitmaster Fred Fontaine because that’s what he commonly ordered at Doug’s Bar-B-Q in Amarillo. “I was out of my element,” he admitted, but after a few bites he realized he was having his first taste of great barbecue. The building, which he described as “an ancient wooden space,” garnered even more attention than the food. He has returned many times since.

“That’s probably about the first time I remember having a bite of barbecue that I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is so good,’ ” Aaron Franklin, co-owner of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue said of his first visit to Louie Mueller. He was touring the area with a band, and a band member suggested they stop. Franklin said he remembers Bobby Mueller, who passed away in 2008, cutting an end piece of brisket and plopping it down on the counter for him and his friend to share while they waited for their order. Franklin’s future boss, and Bobby’s son, the late John Mueller was also working that day. Franklin said he hadn’t yet produced a tender smoked brisket, but after that bite, he thought, “Now I know there’s a way to make this good.”

Many others who became successful in the barbecue business point back to Louie Mueller as the turning point in their barbecue journeys. Until Cody Sperry visited, he said, “I had no idea what [barbecue] could be.” Three years later, he opened Hoodoo Brown Barbeque, serving Texas-style barbecue in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Blake Stoker, of Blake’s at Southern Milling in Martin, Tennessee, called his 2015 meal at Louie Mueller “a completely religious barbecue experience.” Without any prior experience, Stoker was serving smoked brisket to pork-loving Tennesseans at pop-ups within six months of his visit.

Shortly after Nick Pencis purchased Stanley’s Famous Pit Barbecue in Tyler, he took a Central Texas barbecue tour to see how the best were doing it. He was humbled at Louie Mueller, saying, “I just remember sitting there and being like, ‘We need to up our f—ing game.’ ” Michael Fulmer, cofounder of the Houston BBQ Festival, compared his introduction to Louie Mueller with the first time he saw Picasso’s Guernica. His mother took him to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see the painting when he was nine years old. “I remember seeing people standing next to it crying, and I never knew art could do that,” he said, “so my experience [at Louie Mueller] was that I never knew barbecue could be that.”

Erin Smith Feges, who owns Feges BBQ in Houston with her husband Patrick, said barbecue advice from current owner Wayne Mueller was valuable. They use Oyler rotisserie smokers that don’t require as much attention as offset smokers because Mueller warned them against spending all their time tending fires. She said, “His advice is so funny, because it’s usually ‘Don’t do it the way we’re doing it.’ ” Just before they opened a second location of Feges BBQ, they brought the whole staff to Taylor for an excursion. “It helped mold that crew into a barbecue crew instead of a regular restaurant crew,” Erin said.

Austin gallery owner Stephen Clark’s history with Louie Mueller predates all these stories. There wasn’t great barbecue in Austin when he moved there in 1975. He opened Waterloo Ice House in 1976, and made his first pilgrimage to Taylor that same year. He said, “That first bite was, ‘Wow!’ ” That bite, like the one Franklin enjoyed, was a complimentary taste of brisket given to every customer at the counter. “What a genteel thing to do,” Clark said of the gesture. Clark befriended famed Austin-based photographer and University of Texas professor Russell Lee. They would celebrate Lee’s birthday, July 21, at Louie Mueller Barbecue every year. Even after Lee’s passing, Clark honors his memory with a note on the front door of the Stephen L. Clark Gallery (which he opened in Austin in 1994) that reads, “We’re at Louie Mueller’s celebrating Russ’s birthday. Anyone who wants to join us can, but we’re not open.”

These days, you won’t get the complimentary bite of brisket. Wayne Mueller ended the practice during the pandemic. “That exchange just couldn’t happen,” he said. Mueller also noted the elevated cost of brisket. On a busy day, they were giving away eight to ten pounds of brisket as an amuse-bouche. Mueller said he’s sad it had to end. “It’s one of those traditions that couldn’t hang on,” he said. I asked him if he had heard the many stories of people having their barbecue epiphanies at the restaurant his grandfather founded. He said he’s not cynical, but as the owner, he takes such compliments with a grain of salt. But he did share a story about how the beef rib became a literal life-saver for a local boxer.

In 2008, D.J. Dominguez was training to be a fighter at age seventeen. He had just moved to Round Rock, but had spent many of his early years in Taylor. Dominguez said in hindsight he was overdoing his training, and wasn’t eating or sleeping well at the time. He said one day, while walking up to the front door of his house, “I just felt something break inside.” He described an out-of-body experience, and he felt like he was dying. At the hospital, the doctor couldn’t find his heartbeat on the EKG. “It was beating so slowly the machine wasn’t picking it up,” Dominguez said. He had ruptured a hole in the left ventricle of his heart. Surgery could have been more harmful, so they opted to let it heal while he rested. One doctor told him it might take four years.

Dominguez wore a heart monitor. He wasn’t allowed to climb stairs or go for a walk, let along train for boxing. Of the things he could still do that he loved, eating barbecue stood out. He and his 117-pound frame at the time didn’t have much of an appetite, so his father suggested a Saturday visit to Louie Mueller Barbecue. Dominguez had eaten brisket and sausage there, but on this trip he ordered his first beef rib. “It became a ritual,” he said, and they continued those weekly trips, which gave him something to look forward to through the week. “I made it to the end of this week, so I get to have another rib,” he said. The beef rib was a reward for surviving.

Eighteen months after that first beef rib, Dominguez had his first boxing match after follow-up visits with the doctor, who called his recovery a miracle. Dominguez credits the weekly beef rib for both his mental and physical repair. He still goes to the restaurant once a week, but now on Thursdays, to fellowship with Wayne Mueller and to get a beef rib. “It’s almost like a spiritual check-in now,” Dominguez said. He has continued his path as a boxer, and is currently healing from a shoulder injury, which seems far less daunting than a hole in the heart. Wayne said of Dominguez’s recovery, “Never in your wildest dreams do you think something you do will have a life-changing impact on somebody.”

The legacy that Louie built, that Bobby fostered, and that is now in the able hands of Wayne may have literally saved just that one life, but it has shifted the lives of so many in the barbecue community. Without the epiphany I experienced on those hallowed grounds, I probably wouldn’t be writing this today.