BBQ City Limits: JMueller BBQ
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
A trailer at 1502 S. First St. 512-948-8935, www.jmuellerbbq.com.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.14.12
► UPDATE 1: JMueller BBQ has closed. In its place is a trailer run by by John Mueller's sister, Leann, with former Franklin Barbecue cook John Lewis on the smoker. Watch this space for a remix of this list. Read about the new La Barbecue here.
► UPDATE 2: John Mueller is selling barbecue in Austin again, from a new trailer that opened in February. Read about John Mueller Meat Co. here.
John Mueller won’t win Mr. Congeniality at the Barbecue Beauty Pageant, but he’ll make the line move faster. That was how he put it to me last summer when the news broke that Louie Mueller’s grandson would start selling brisket in Austin again. Well, he didn’t say the part about the beauty pageant, but Mueller wasn’t entirely happy being cast as the bad cop in the new buddy picture co-starring Aaron Franklin over at Franklin Barbecue. The fact is, John Mueller just has a lot of mouths to feed, including yours. And he’s not one for small talk. Big talk, right-to-the-point talk, yes. Small talk, no.
Waiting in line at his trailer on South First, your engagement with Mueller will likely be him sawing off the burnt end of a brisket and handing it to you. It’s a calling card, like a gnarled mahogany finial that announces the style of the rest of the building: black pepper bark, a rosy ring of smoke and woodgrained beef. A full piece looks like an ancient stone wall, with blocks cut to fit in precise union and mortared only with veins of fat. The edges of the wall are braced with sturdier timbers of fibered beef. I’ve seen a lot of brisket constructed like gray Soviet-era prefab apartments. But at JMueller, brisket is a monument to a family’s art.
How much did I want that brisket? Enough to eat it under the edge of a tarp in a persistent rainshower. Those shiny spots on the cutting-board? Raindrops to remind us that sometimes you have to follow wherever the food leads you.
You’ll want to try it all once you’re at the trailer, a shiny black rig hitched to a screened-in smoker like an Olympian stovepipe, flanked by picnic tables on crushed orange granite. I had them pile on brisket, beef ribs and pork ribs at $6.99 each for a half-pound, then pork shoulder ($4.99/half-pound) a link of dense beef sausage ($2.25) and a big piece of cheddar cheese for 95 cents, just like they do at the old Cele Store in Manor.
Where the brisket is the stone face of the monument, the pork rib is the stonemason’s filigree. The bone shines like wet marble under the striated meat with a ribboned flourish of red and a crust like crushed onyx. It’s a gathering of pork textures tempered by caramelized sugar: crunchy veneer, smoked meat and silky fat. Dots of cartilage accent the fat end of the rib like side grills on a Corvette. Pure American power.
Pork shoulder is the rib’s less interesting cousin. It’s not ribs or chops or ham, but a solid muscle mass for which barbecue is the best destiny, the only hope for its parallel lines of hard texture and leaner flavor to meet in the distance. JMueller sends it to that place with peppered swagger.
I’m not sure what’s to be done with the beef rib if John Mueller can’t make me love it. It seems like the most primordial of the cuts, stiff and dark and shrunken on the bone, like the first meat man threw into this new thing he called fire. (Read "John Mueller's beef-rib redemption" here.)
Two sides: With meat like this, I didn’t expect chipotle coleslaw or baked squash, or really anything worth writing about for sides. Barbecue tends to be a single-minded, linear thing: wood, smoke, meat, repeat. But if your cabbage is this shade of molten orange, it’s ready to sit beside a tray full of barbecue. It’s just cabbage and black pepper and hot jalapeño mayo, but that’s enough. The squash is mac and cheese for the pastaphobe in taste and texture, with those same black-pepper nuggets that fall like snowflakes over the JMueller menu. Sides are $1.79 each.
Dessert: There’s nothing sweet to speak of, but if Dublin Dr Pepper counts, they still have it in little 8-ounce bottles. At least they did, an unintentional reminder of how badly Dr Pepper screwed up when they pulled the plug on sugar-sweet Dublin DP. How bad is your branding department when you go from icon to pariah in the state where they love you the most? I took the bottle home, and the whole family had a ritual last sip, with a little poured on the ground for the boys in Dublin.
Sauce: Barbecue people go straight to hell for talking too much about sauce, from what I understand. That’s because most of it’s not that good, like a stir job of ketchup, mustard, brown sugar and some overblown secret ingredient. At JMueller, they treat the sauce like Southern-style onion soup with black pepper and tomato-vinegar twang. It’s hard to imagine John Mueller getting up at 3 a.m. to worry over a saucepot, but this stuff tastes simmered, fussed over. Like it matters. And more than anything else, JMueller makes barbecue that matters.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)