BBQ City Limits: Cafe Mueller at H-E-B

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Cafe Mueller at H-E-B
1801 E. 51st St. 512-474-2199,
Hours: 10am-10pm daily
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.17.13
This is the second time in this series I’ve written about grocery-store barbecue. The first time was Whole Foods, which was good enough to crack the last round of the Top 10 and inspired a troll’s declaration that I had the “palate of a billy goat.” But you have to go where the barbecue takes you, and if that place is the fast-casual cafe inside the newest H-E-B in Central Texas, so be it.
Now don’t get me wrong. The “Mueller” in Cafe Mueller has everything to do with the old airport and nothing to do with the barbecue barons of Taylor and Austin. The grocery store itself is fashioned after a hangar, with a sailing wing right out of da Vinci’s sketchbooks. And lest you forget the connection, even the bathroom semaphores beckon you to fly the porcelain skies. The cafe itself has coach-class seating indoors, leading out to a shaded flight deck with chairs of brushed steel, a sit-down beer-and-wine bar with six Texas taps and a candy-colored waterfall wall.
Cafe Mueller dedicates a section of its menu to “True Texas BBQ,” selling brisket, pork ribs, chicken and ring sausage by the pound and plate, starting at $7 for a meat and two sides, going to a reasonable $12 for three meats. Brisket and ribs are $13.80 a pound, beef sausage goes for $4.50 a ring, and half a chicken is $5.70, though a quarter-chicken can be subbed for one of your meats on a combo plate.
You know the New ‘Cue movement has gone mainstream when even the grocery store of record offers brisket “lean or moist.” Not the big fatcap, messy moist of the frontiers, but a trimmer verson, with a thin, spidery line of fat through the center and just enough fatty crown left on top to render and caramelize for a journeyman’s knobby crust with a shadow of black pepper and sweetness. The meat plays hide-and-seek with windowpanes of fat, letting only reluctant rays of smoke filter through.
The compact symmetry of St. Louis pork ribs here seems like a mass-market concession. I like the tips and tails of full-on spare ribs. But these are ribs as finger food, with a textbook reddish-brown glaze that goes overboard with sugary sweetness, lying over meat that falls in step and falls off the bone, a descriptor that hasn’t felt like a compliment since I was a kid. Your kids will like these.
When it comes to chicken, particularly barbecue chicken, there’s always a question of rotisserie versus true pit. Rotisserie gives the roaster the upper hand for moistness and consistency. The pit has the edge for the intangible gifts of wood and smoke. Rubbing barbecue spice and glaze on a rotisserie chicken doesn’t make it barbecued chicken, and that’s what this one tastes and feels like, regardless of its provenance. Whatever the case, it’s good, and I can’t say that I’ve eaten a lot of barbecued chicken worth writing about.
I’ve had a weak spot for ring sausage ever since my first trip to Lockhart, where it’s like an engagement bangle for overfed carnivores. It’s charming here, with a snap case over dense stuffing unafraid to show off its fat. But mine was barely cooked, much less thoroughly smoked, like a proposal reconsidered in mid knee-bend. I’ll say “yes,” maybe, but only after it’s matured a little bit.
On the side: A plate with two sides usually means a scoop of beans and potato salad in the shallow wells of a styrofoam clamshell. Here, the sides are half-pint cups filled with chunky and fresh potato salad and outstanding brisket beans packed with tomato and cracked pepper.
Dessert: Give credit to H-E-B for embracing the Latino marketplace long ago. Then give in to tres leches with sweet cream running through honeycombs of yellow cake ($3.29). Every day’s your birthday with tres leches.
Sauce: Too sweet, too spicy, served warm. As thick as ketchup dried to the bottom of the cap. Let the meats stand or fall according to their own gifts.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP: “True Texas BBQ” from Cafe Mueller at the new H-E-B near the old airport. Clockwise from top left: Tres leches cake, brisket, sauce, pork ribs, beef sausage, chicken, potato salad and brisket beans. INSET: The cafe’s patio aims for a red brick new-vintage divey look, accentuated by six Texas craft beers on draft. The architecture of the H-E-B grocery store that houses the cafe pays homage to its airport stomping grounds. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)