BBQ City Limits: John Mueller Meat Co.
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
John Mueller Meat Co.
2500 E. Sixth St. at Pedernales. www.johnmuellermeatco.com.
Hours (update 3/14): 10:30am-6pm or until sold out Tue-Thu. Closed Wed.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.07.13
There’s no getting around the cosmic timing of Feb. 23, the day John Mueller undid the chain at Sixth and Pedernales and let the first paying customers through the gate at his new John Mueller Meat Co. trailer. It was his first day selling barbecue in Austin since his sister fired him from JMueller BBQ on South First, renamed the trailer La Barbecue and hired a new cook. The family feud spilled into social media, with brother Wayne taking his pound of flesh from 40 miles away in Taylor, where he runs Louie Mueller Barbecue.
So Feb. 23 was John Mueller’s first day back. It was also the day a fire flared at the Taylor shop, destroying the pit that helped the family build its reputation one brick at a time. People tried to connect the dots between the two, looking for signs of fate, coincidence, even reconciliation. Whatever wood fuels that family’s fire, the smoke it generates is thick enough now to support three Muellers in the Central Texas barbecue business.
After the first run of my BBQ City Limits series, I ranked JMueller BBQ at the top, edging out Franklin Barbecue, Stiles Switch and 35 others within our borders. Brisket had the most to do with that, with a thick, peppered bark reminiscent of the split oak from which it drew breath. The question at the new John Mueller Meat Co. is whether he can re-create the magic in the barrel smoker a supporter in Amarillo gave him to get things going again. The new lot is a neat rectangle behind an old daytime-drinkers’ bar called Kellee’s Place where East Sixth runs out of road. A chain-link fence shrouded in green shields the smoker, a black-and-white trailer and eight brand-new picnic tables from the tangle of construction around it, creating an oasis of calm for the cook, who stomps the yard slapping backs and shaking hands like a man who doesn’t like the spotlight but can’t stay away from it, either.
My first trip there, on the trailer’s third day of business, couldn’t keep pace with Mueller when he was in full stride on South First, but expectations come high and fast at this level. The brisket bark was still there, in fits and starts, riding over smoke that didn’t dig as deep, somewhere in the no-man’s land between roast and barbecue. But the fat was right, blurring the line between liquid and solid to awaken our inner animal, even on the lean cuts. A second visit found Mueller’s brisket back in fighting form, with a luminescent heart of pure fat, radiating out through floes of lean and glossy amber all the way to a full bark this time, a bark with bite.
Even as the brisket shakes off the rust of a shakedown cruise, Mueller’s beef ribs are the staves that hold the ship together, complicated beams of fiber and ruddy crust on the outside, a marbled motherlode on the inside, with the bone just starting to recede at the edges for an ideal tension.
That bone-in tension hit the sweet spot for pork ribs, too, although like the brisket, they weren’t last year’s bearers of primordial shag. Less blushy red and smoky inside, less sweet mahogany shale on the outside. On the second trip, the peppered shag was back at half-speed, but the color and smoke returned in full throttle, and I asked Mueller about it. He said he’d adjusted the glazing technique, that the bark had grown too rowdy for the rib’s own good. But not for my own good, because that armor made the difference between a good rib and a rib nobody on the list could touch.
There have been days when I didn’t know which version of John Mueller’s hand-cased beef sausage would show up. One day fat, juicy and perfect. The next day hiding from the light like it had stayed out too late. This time, it was in-between on the first visit, right on the money the second time, a rowdy link of pepper and spice. The meats are priced by the half-pound, with brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs and turkey at $6.99 and sausage at $9.98 for a full pound. I also ordered pork shoulder ($4.99/half-pound), but it behaved more like kitchen roast, included on the cutting board just for show.
The atmosphere at the new lot loosened up as the line stretched out. Barbecue breeds familiarity, and I met two fans of the old trailer who’d followed the smoke trails to the new place. A young neighbor stopped by the table to ask if we drove a white dune buggy. It was blocking his driveway, and I thought what a drag it must be to live next door to a phenomenon. Toward the end of lunch, the speakers in the trees drifted to a Robert Earl Keane song about coming back to town and wondering how people would react. “A neon sign was flashin' ‘Welcome come on in;’ it feels so good feelin' good again.” That sounds about right for the John Mueller Meat Co.
On the side: Mueller’s baked squash is one of those unexpected sides that makes an argument for their existence in the first place, all thick with cheese and squeaky as only yellow squash can be. Honey-mustard cole slaw tries hard, backed up by lots of black pepper, but I wish the pinto beans had more than onion and jalapeño to back them up. They’re $1.99 each.
Dessert: You could wait for the palatero to walk past with his clown horn and Dora the Explorer ice cream bars. But the big galvanized tub up front carries cola and orange cream soda from Austin’s Barton Springs Soda Co., and that will do to wash it down. You might fish out a free can of Lone Star.
Sauce: Besides that brisket bark, this might be what I’ve missed most from Mueller. It’s like the meat itself, all agitated red and bristling with black pepper, left to stew deep in its own thoughts. Leave it to sit for a minute and it will sheen over with liquid fat, floating on the vinegar and onions like a preservative coat. One of the few sauces that can match the meat it serves.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP: Clockwise from top left: beef rib, pork ribs, pork shoulder, beef sausage, beans, baked squash and coleslaw. Fatty and lean brisket in the center. FIRST INSET: John Mueller working the rig given to him by a supporter in Amarillo; the Texas barbecue trinity, plus one: Lone Star, hand-cased beef sausage, fatty brisket and a pork rib. SECOND INSET: Glazed pork ribs, the new trailer and a beef short rib. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)