John Mueller's beef-rib redemption

JMueller BBQ
A trailer at 1502 S. First St. 512-948-8935,
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 05.19.12
 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.
“I wasn’t going to sell you that rib. But then I said to hell with it. It’s barbecue, and that’s the way it came out today.” It’s John Mueller on the phone. And if you give a damn about barbecue, you take that call.
The call had something to do with what I wrote about the JMueller BBQ trailer on South First for my BBQ City Limits series, a report that read like a valentine to brisket for the most part. But you hear what you hear, and what Mueller heard the loudest was this:
“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."
The beef rib’s hard to get right no matter who's cooking it. The rack’s built like an overfed redneck: no butt, all gut. It starts with a few short ribs at the bottom and builds to bones the size of a night watchman’s flashlight. Cook the rack long enough to get the long bones right and you risk turning the short bones into charcoal briquettes. Of the 38 places I hit for BBQ City Limits, only nine places even bothered with beef ribs: JMueller, Texas Rib Kings, Stiles Switch, Bert’s, the County Line, Iron Works, Mann’s, Donn’s and the late Artz Rib House.

John Mueller, the third generation of barbecue men from the Louie Mueller line in Taylor, has a reputation for getting things right. His old-man-style brisket will make you a believer again, with gnarled bark and amber waves of fat. He’s closed two days of the week. Mondays are for cleaning, but Tuesdays are reserved for making loose-grained black pepper beef sausage — the city’s best cheap lunch at $2.25 a link. The side grills of cartilage on Mueller’s pork ribs hide their true identity as land sharks in a marketplace full of fat kids on floaties.
He also has another reputation, and if you jump in Mueller’s pit, you’d best be ready for the pitbull. Talk a little trash and your phone might ring with a challenge to try those beef ribs again, the ones that were good enough for Anthony Bourdain’s crew, the ones that deserve better than a toss-off into the flames of prehistory.
I went back on a random Friday with my uncle from Minnesota, because I wanted to show him real Texas barbecue and it was his turn to buy. Our beef ribs had less to do with briquettes and everything to do with bricks. In sheer size, for starters. Probably a third of our $54 lunch tab was tied up in ribs a bricklayer could appreciate, blocks of beef on the bone framed in an angry blush of red like they’d been fired in a kiln. The heat from that kiln made a knobby glaze from the rendered fat and Mueller’s cracked-pepper rub with crystal glimmers of salt.
The meat inside rippled with muscle and fat like a televised arm-wrestling tournament on Wide World of Sports, with the character of a highly specialized discipline practiced by men with little discipline of their own. Don’t call it steak, don’t call it brisket-on-the-bone, and for God’s sake don’t call it roast beef. Rib meat is its own thing, the highest and lowest of all the cuts in one package.
The beef rib’s most compelling feature was also its most delicate. Right at the point where the ring of fire met the crust lay delicate threads of caramelized meat like pulled floss, bright with an alloy of sugar, fat and smoke. Barbecue’s answer to cotton candy, complete with a handle.
That first report from JMueller BBQ? Even John Mueller knew it wasn’t his best work. But this new verse of the ballad of the beef rib is a redemption song, brought on by a call from a man who knows something about second chances.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits