With Austin surrounded by good barbeque, it’s inevitable that despite our own homegrown urban barbeque, our ambitious and justifiably well regarded neighbors would try to colonize us and bring some country barbeque into the big city. After all, there are so many people here and a limited number of truly good barbeque joints, so why not try to cash in on the market?
The most recent barbeque colony in Austin is John Mueller’s barbeque which brings Taylor-style dining into the area near the University of Texas. John Mueller has barbeque in his veins. Which may mean they’re somewhat clogged, but likely very tasty. His grandfather is the legendary Louis Mueller whose barbeque has been for sale at the same location on 2nd Street in Taylor since 1959.
John Mueller’s Barbeque is very much in the Taylor tradition, but he’s clearly made an extra effort to be sure that he outdoes his forebearers in both quality and variety. Variety is often an weak point with barbeque joints, which have an unfortunate tendency to all offer the same selections of meat and sides and hope that their particular version of the standards will win them a following. Mueller’s doesn’t have this problem, as he’s always adding specials to the menu – he’s willing to try barbequing almost anything – and he has a nice selection of sides. The catch is that the specials aren’t always successful and they tend to run out right after the UT Atheletic Department slams through the place at lunchtime.
The location is great, just down Dean Keaton (AKA 26th Street) from Disch-Falk field, within easy walking distance of UT and on the border between the Blacklands neighborhood and French Place. It’s a great area for hearty dining, with Hoover’s Home Cooking across the street and East Side Cafe just down the street. Despite the fact that there was never a barbeque restaurant there in the past, Mueller’s seems to have found an ideal facility, an old brick building which was already grimy, quirky and full of atmosphere, with room out back for some outdoor dining. There’s a great big cutting table behind the checkout so you can see your meat as it’s being prepared and shout out “don’t trim off the fat.” Even better, it means that as he’s cutting the meat the cutter – usually John Mueller himself – brings you an end piece of brisket to sample before you order, an endearing practice and smart marketing since their brisket is truly remarkable.
The meats include the basic standards: brisket, sausage, pork ribs and pork loin. Specials are posted on butcher paper and frequent offerings include turkey, barbequed steaks and pork butt. Standard sides are coleslaw, beans, potato salad and (rather unexpectedly) squash. They usually also have green beans and all sorts of interesting seasonal offerings as well, designed to appeal to the UT crowd who are sometimes not willing to admit they ought to be carnivores. The sides are good, but I’m not a squash fan. Plus, if veggies are what distinguishes a barbeque joint there’s either something wrong with the meat or they have to be really remarkable, so that’s all I’m going to say about the sides. They also have bottled sodas and beer, and a nice big TV to watch while you eat. They take cash, checks and credit cards – when their phone line is working. The only shortcoming is that they close too early at 7 p.m. for those of us who tend to put off dinner while doing other duties.
When it comes to the basic meats, I think that John Mueller’s is arguably the best barbeque in Texas — or at least in the top three. Their rub is excellent, peppery, and adheres to the meats really well, guaranteeing good flavor. Their pork ribs are a bit dry, but very flavorful. Perhaps not the very best I’ve tasted, but at least in the top 20 percent. The pork loin is passable, but like all pork loin it tends to be bland. Interestingly it’s much better than the pork loin at Louis Mueller’s in Taylor, but that’s not saying all that much. The sausage is Taylor-style short links and just excellent. It’s the only restaurant with Taylor-style sausage in Austin and that alone is a big plus. For those not familiar with Central Texas sausage styles, the Taylor link is about 6 inches long, slightly curved with relatively dry and finely ground meat and flavored with a heavy emphasis on cayenne pepper. It’s the best sausage around for wraps and probably the best everyday sausage for eating again and again. I know I have a freezer shelf full of them from the Taylor Meat Company.
So all that stuff is good to excellent, but the real star is the Brisket. Without a doubt John Mueller makes the best brisket in Texas and likely in the world. It’s amazingly tender and flavorful, with a beautiful outer crust which is just loaded with tasty seasoning. I’ve been studying the brisket for months and I think the secret is that he trims it before he cooks it, leaving only about a uniform quarter inch of fat on the meat, so that it gets flavor from the fat, but isn’t insulated from the smoke by it. With a lot of brisket you find that all the flavor ends up in the fat and the meat is dry and bland. Mueller seems to have found a way to integrate the flavor so that the whole brisket tastes fantastic. He does offer customers the choice of fat or lean brisket, and when given that choice you should always take the fat, which isn’t all that fatty but is just a bit tastier. The brisket is so good that along with the rest of the meats being at least good, it raises the overall quality of the meat to the top of the heap.
I should also mention some of the special feature meats. The turkey has been good the times I’ve tried it, but barbequed steaks are a crime against steak. It’s the one cut of meat that really isn’t better when smoked as it ends up tough, dry and flavorless. The highpoint of the featured meats I’ve tried has been the pork butt. Why anyone would barbeque pork loin when butt is cheaper and so much more delicious is an absolute mystery to me. Pork butt is naturally moist and becomes nice and tender when slow cooked. It’s the one thing I’ve had at John Mueller’s that rivals their brisket for pure deliciousness. It’s reminiscent of the soul-food pork butt at Dot’s Place, incredibly tender, rich, and flavorful. I wish they had it every day.
I’m afraid that I have to admit that even though John Mueller’s is a foreign interloper, I think it may be the best barbeque in Austin. Some of the others like Sam’s and Ben’s Longbranch can give it a run for its money, but Mueller’s comes out ahead because of their Taylor sausage and excellent brisket. They’ve taken the best of Taylor barbeque and improved on it, and that’s hard to beat.
Now the bad news. Between the time I originally wrote this article and now when I finally wrote it up in final form, John Mueller’s has closed. Just having great barbeque wasn’t enough to keep them going. Between problems with their Time-Warner digital phone service making them unable to take credit cards or take call in orders and a lack of initial operating capital, they started to run into problems last fall and finally closed up at the end of January. The rumor is that they’re going to reopen in a different location, but there’s no news yet on when or where. You can follow the rumors on the local Longhorn fans message board or keep an eye on Rob Balon’s website for news and developments.