John Mueller hadn't died. He wasn't in prison. And he definitely wasn't living in Mexico.
Though he might have wished any of these rumors were true.
After Labor Day 2009, as a relentless rain pounded the tent in which he was living and the area around Granger Lake flooded, the man who once served the best barbecue in Austin finally hit bottom.
He found a phone and called Debi Wilson. The besotted barbecue master needed a place to stay. Wilson, a friend of Mueller's since childhood, was out of town but told Mueller where to find the hidden key to her house. And that was that.
That phone call and Wilson's act of generosity laid the first cobblestone of Mueller's steep but short road back to the pinnacle of Central Texas barbecue.
Mueller always knew he could make the call that saved his life, but he wanted to wait until he was completely broken. Exhausted from battling personal demons, two collapsed restaurants and two failed marriages, Mueller didn't want to show up on Wilson's doorstep half-broken and angry.
"I didn't want to do that to someone I knew who would be really good to me," Mueller said recently, tears straining at the corners of his eyes. "We wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for her. I promise."
"This" is J Mueller BBQ, a trailer on South First Street that cranks out arguably some of the best sausage, sides, ribs and brisket in Texas. Mueller and Wilson married in July of last year.
Shift in service
It's raining this May morning, but Mueller's not lost inside a tent. He's applying his alchemical rub to racks of beef ribs, the first step of a long, slow process that will turn a lowly cut of meat into something transcendent. And though he's closed, and the roads are slick, people keep pulling up to the trailer hoping to get a bite.
"We're closed, sir," Mueller tells one soggy man in his 60s. "Wednesday through Sunday."
"We'll see you tomorrow," the customer says with a smile.
The scenario repeats itself with different faces a half-dozen times over the next 90 minutes, as the rain continues to fall. Mueller offers a slight grin and nods humbly each time he has to deliver the bad news.
Friendly customer service. It's not exactly a hallmark of the man who ran John Mueller BBQ on Manor Road from 2001 to '06. Regular customers of Mueller's old location knew the owner as a churlish man of few words. Overheard comparisons between Mueller's Austin restaurant and his grandfather's place in Taylor could warrant a harsh rebuke or, if Mueller was feeling uninhibited enough, an offer for the offending customer to leave his establishment.
He carried a chip on his shoulder the size of one of his famous briskets.
Louie Mueller Barbecue
The grandson of Louie Mueller and son of Bobby grew up in a barbecue dynasty in Taylor. The 43-year-old started bussing tables for his father at the iconic Louie Mueller Barbecue at the age of 6.
With his humble and taciturn father as his guide, John Mueller (pronounced MEL-er) learned discipline and the value of hard work.
"You did what you were supposed to do, when you were supposed to do it, and you did it well," Mueller said.
Mueller applied those lessons to his work at the restaurant and his commitment to high school athletics. After leaving Texas Tech University, Mueller returned home to help his father run the growing restaurant founded by his grandfather, who retired in 1974.
One weekend Bobby came into the kitchen, told John he was taking the day off and gave his unsuspecting son the reins. He was 24 years old and ready to cook the brisket on his own. He would soon become his father's partner. It wouldn't last.
After a decade of working side-by-side with his father, the obedient son who had always feared disappointing his parents finally succumbed to a mounting internal pressure.
When his nine-year marriage ran out of gas, Mueller decided to sell his share of the restaurant back to his father. He unceremoniously quit and eloped to San Antonio with an employee from Louie Mueller Barbecue.
Mueller is vague when he attempts to explain his hasty departure. He shrugs his shoulders and half-jokingly claims he got "possessed by the devil." His cryptic reasoning feels less like obfuscation than the sign of a man who simply gave into the temptations of rebellion.
"I thought I was taking a stand," Mueller said. Against what exactly, he did not know. "A lot of kids in their teens do this rebellious crap. I just did mine at 32. I never stepped out of line as a teenager or in my 20s. It was arrogance. I thought I could do anything. I thought I knew everything."
So Mueller and his new wife fled Taylor, and the impetuous curmudgeon took a job as ... a sales rep.
"The one thing I despise more than anything in the world, I was going to become," Mueller said with a laugh. It would be a short career.
Though he never intended to cook again without his father, Mueller accepted an opportunity in 2001 to open a restaurant on Manor Road in East Austin.
He put out exceptional smoked meats, grimacing the whole time. His second marriage soured early, and the disappointment led Mueller to the bottom of the bottle. His 3 o'clock work mornings became 5 o'clock mornings. Whiskey will do that.
"We opened up, and the inevitable comparisons started. I hated that," Mueller said. "You could tell me I was the best in Austin; I could handle that. But comparing me with my dad, that wasn't fun."
Mueller wrestled with the guilt of having left his father hanging. He had broken his own heart, and it showed. Cooking without his father sapped the joy from what had become second nature to Mueller.
"I think you could read it on me the whole time: that I didn't like that place. I didn't want to be there ... because I wasn't there with my dad," Mueller said. "Even though I knew my barbecue was really, really good, if you're mailing it in and you know you are, it's time to get out."
Road to the bottom
He continued to self-medicate, numbing his self-inflicted wounds. Then in 2006 the call came that would send him out of Austin and on a downward spiral.
The owner of the building on Manor Road had new plans, and Mueller was being forced out in two days. He found the news a relief.
He spent the next few years bouncing around, living off of and enhancing his reputation: a failed three-month stint at an eponymous restaurant in Bastrop that accompanied the end of his marriage, an arrest for driving while intoxicated and a few months drinking whiskey with breakfast while trying to cook steaks in the exile of Amarillo.
He eventually landed back where people do after they fail everywhere else: home. But the return didn't alleviate his problems.
"I had a lot of friends that tried to help me, but I was just a lost cause," Mueller said. "And that's when the homelessness set in, and I wore it like a badge of honor like a dumb-ass."
He was sleeping on friends' couches and in the back of pick-up trucks.
When his dad died suddenly in October 2008, Mueller said he felt like he had been a horrible disappointment. The shame set him on a rocky road to the bottom that would make a sudden U-turn with that call to Wilson.
Forging a comeback
Ironically, a man not known for his social graces returned to the world of barbecue via an unlikely avenue: social media.
Having witnessed the explosion of the Austin food scene — and the sudden popularity of one of his former employees, Aaron Franklin — the old high school athlete thought it was time to get back in the game. He was the one everyone should be talking about.
Mueller realized his name was still out there. He joined Twitter in early 2010 and started dropping hints that a return was in the offing. His handle on Twitter? "Shoeless Joe Jaxn," an homage to the disgraced member of the tainted 1919 Chicago White Sox.
He didn't really know what a comeback would look like. He had little money, but he had a renewed sense of purpose and confidence thanks to the support of his wife and his mother.
"If I could dream it, I could tell you about it," Mueller said. "Surely it was going to happen."
An old friend and customer from the Manor Road days, Russell Becker of Beck-Reit & Sons, contacted Mueller on Twitter with the possibility of starting a trailer. Mueller jumped at the chance.
He spent 2010 cooking briskets on a tiny pit at home, taking the occasional catering gig, entering competitions and building up his nerve.
In October 2011, armed with a pit made from a 1,000-gallon propane tank (Franklin had bought Mueller's old Manor Road pit), J Mueller BBQ opened for business in South Austin.
Old regulars in Austin wondered if it was "the" John Mueller, while those new eager members of the city's exploding food scene did their best to brush up on their Central Texas barbecue history.
‘Failure is not an option'
A mixture of old and new faces populates the crowd at Mueller's, where the food usually runs out before 1:30 p.m. Folks wait in line with beer and sit communally at picnic tables under a tarp. Mueller pops out of his trailer to make the rounds, back-slapping old pals and greeting new customers.
"It's been humbling," Mueller said of the turnout and people's desire to give him a second chance. "It's up to me to take advantage of it and keep it fun. I really thought I could come back, and it wouldn't be that big a deal. I thought they'd just say, ‘Oh, that's that guy from Manor Road.' It made me feel great. It made me scared because I don't seek that attention. I hadn't been in it in so long, I didn't know what the Austin restaurant scene had become first-hand and that you're a pseudo celebrity. It is weird, because we've done this before."
The early stream of visitors included curious members of the media and barbecue bloggers from across the state. Bon vivant and raconteur Anthony Bourdain of the Travel Channel's "No Reservations" visited Mueller in March.
Not much had changed at Mueller's in terms of the food. The tender beef ribs, juicy homemade beef sausage and the brisket with a bite as good as its bark are still smoked to a balanced perfection. The meat may be the same, but the man cooking it seems to have undergone a transformation.
Former longtime University of Texas assistant track coach James Blackwood visited J Mueller's BBQ on a recent Friday afternoon. Blackwood says annual trips to Mueller's on Manor Road were once a Texas Relays tradition for him and his peers. Though he lives in San Antonio now, Blackwood says once the trailer opened he got to South Austin as fast as he could.
"It was great," Blackwood said of the brisket on Manor Road. "It's better now. I've been all over the country, and John's is the best brisket in the world."
Mueller eschews thermometers, relying on his trained eye to judge his constantly maintained fire.
"That fire lives and breathes just like you do, and if you don't pay attention to it it'll jump on you and it'll hurt you," Mueller said.
As for his rub, it's simple. Just salt and pepper. But there is something else going on at Mueller's. Not a secret spice or a spray bottle filled with brown-sugar water or vinegar.
"It's about desperation right now," Mueller said. "Failure is not an option. And you taste that in the food. These are desperate times for me, and I don't mean financially or personally. And you got to keep that sense of urgency at all times."
Local business owner Steve Cortez, a regular, raises an eyebrow at Mueller's description of the simplicity. An amateur chef in his own right, Cortez confesses that, try as he might, he can't figure out the secret to Mueller's unparalleled thick, crusty bark and lean-fat balance.
"I have reverse-engineered many dishes from other restaurants, and sometimes I can improve them," Cortez said. "I've tried 20 times to do Mueller's brisket and I can't touch it."
While Cortez says not much has changed about the food, he has noticed a difference in the mercurial Mueller's attitude.
"He is obviously in a much better place emotionally. He is not surly and rude," Cortez said. "He actually will look you in the eye and ask you what you think of the experience, the wait and the food. He'll shake your hand. He used to just sit back on the slicing block and tell you to hurry up or scoff at you if you ordered chicken or turkey."
But don't be fooled. Mueller can still talk trash with the best of them, a hobby he likes to hone on the message boards of ShaggyBevo.com. But the surliness and sarcasm, drained of the sadness and anger from before, almost seem like sport to him now.
"I'm having a lot more fun than I used to. I'm not quite as intense," Mueller said. "I think I can say stuff now and people just laugh, which makes me laugh. I may mean it, but they don't think I mean it. Then it just becomes a joke. I think if you get it you'll have fun here."
With his business booming, his demons at bay and his domestic life anchoring him, Mueller says he has finally grown up. His immaturity and arrogance behind him, he can focus on his food, his marriage and being a good father.
Mueller has a close relationship with his three sons from his first marriage — Robert, 18; Johnson, 14; and Andrew, 12 — who live in Brenham, and his stepdaughter, Ericka Holman, and stepson, Colin Valerio, both of whom work at the trailer.
Asked what lessons he hopes to pass down to his children, Mueller chokes up a bit as he recalls his darkest days and the exemplary example set by his father and grandfather.
Mueller's blueprint includes a strict work ethic (he's up at 2 a.m. most mornings for the hour drive to Austin from Taylor) and a perfectionism he says is necessary if you want to be the best.
As for his period of lost years, Mueller says they were all worth it. Without them, he wouldn't be where he is today.
"There's a lot to look forward to here," Mueller said. "We're having a lot of fun, and I think the people eating here are having a lot of fun, too. I'm happy out here, happier than I've ever been."
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986