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Legendary Texas barbecue pitmaster John Mueller dies at 52

Matthew Odam
Austin 360

John Mueller, the legendary barbecue maverick and scion of one of Texas’ great barbecue families, died this week at his home in Frisco. He was 52. Mueller's family did not disclose the cause of death but attributed it to a "medical issue."

Mueller grew up working for his father, the late Bobby Mueller, at family patriarch Louie Mueller’s barbecue restaurant in Taylor, busing tables from the age of 8, according to his sister and La Barbecue owner, LeAnn Mueller, and eventually learning how to smoke and slice meat at his father’s side.

The barbecue master, who attended Texas Tech University before permanently getting into the business that made his family a household name in Central Texas, opened his first Austin restaurant, John Mueller BBQ, on Manor Road in 2001.

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John Mueller, a Texas barbecue legend whose personality could at times smolder like his off-set smoker, died this week at age 52.

Mueller built his reputation on sturdy but supple brisket cooked hot and fast, gargantuan beef ribs with a soft side that belied their imposing stature, and a mercurial personality that often burned with the same intensity as his off-set smoker. 

Franklin Barbecue owner Aaron Franklin worked briefly for Mueller in 2006, cutting onions and helping with other prep work, and says the Taylor native had a talent that could not be taught. 

“He spent all those years hanging out in Taylor learning from his dad. The guy really just had such a natural gift for cooking barbecue,” Franklin said. “I’d be surprised if there was anyone else in the world who has cooked more briskets than that guy.”

Barbecue was in Mueller’s blood, according to Franklin, who said Mueller had an innate feel for making exceptional briskets and always did things his own way, even if it seemed like the hard way. 

“I feel like he probably had to think about it less than the rest of us,” Franklin said. “He went hotter and faster than almost anyone. He really did everything by feel. I doubt that guy ever owned a thermometer.”

Dai Due chef-owner Jesse Griffiths moved to Manor Road from Denton a couple of years before Mueller opened his restaurant down the street, and the then-line cook at Vespaio became a devoted customer. Griffiths said he’d never eaten barbecue that he’d even enjoyed, but Mueller’s cooking opened his eyes to the possibility of what barbecue could be. 

“I went down there and got some one day, and I will never forget how good it was. I would think, ‘Oh, this is the potential barbecue has!’ I still think about it years later," Griffiths said. "And you see where we’re at now. I think he really defined barbecue in this region. He set the crusty beef bark standard. He really defined it. He kind of kickstarted it all. He’s a legend. He deserves recognition.”

Griffiths said that while Mueller might have boasted an almost comically cantankerous reputation, the son of Taylor always sought Griffiths out at events or when he would come to one of his barbecue joints and treated him with a kindness that stood in warm contrast to his sometimes icy hot public-facing demeanor.

“He was an artist, and a lot of time our artists suffer,” Griffiths said.

Mueller would play up the caricature of “the dark prince of Texas barbecue,” a moniker bestowed on him by Texas Monthly, later in life, blending barbs with banter that made him an unpredictable if entertaining presence at his businesses. 

John Mueller works at Louie Mueller's BBQ in Taylor in 1999.

But despite his love for giving people grief and straddling the line between famous and infamous, Mueller at his heart was a classic Central Texas barbecue man who took the lessons from his father and then burned his own path through the barbecue scene.

“John learned from dad. It was John’s heart that went into everything. He loved doing it. He had a talent,” said LeAnn Mueller, who confirmed her brother’s death, which was first reported by Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly. “He was really hot and fast. I think what made John’s barbecue so good is that he learned from Bobby. And he loved Grandpa more than anything.”

Of the lessons he learned from his father, Mueller told the American-Statesman in 2012, was, "You did what you were supposed to do, when you were supposed to do it, and you did it well." 

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Mueller left Austin for several years after closing his Manor Road restaurant in 2006, and after several dark years of wandering, by his own account, returned in fine form in 2011 to open his J. Mueller BBQ trailer on South First Street.

John Lewis worked briefly for Mueller at his South First trailer before going to serve as pit boss at La Barbecue. Lewis, who now runs the lauded Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, S.C., said that despite his reputation as an ornery cuss, Mueller could be an affable guy who loved to share a laugh. 

“He was a really, really kind guy. He had a huge heart, and I didn’t really get to know that until we worked side by side,” Lewis said. “He would act really tough but the next second he is goofing on you. He had a great sense of humor.”

The trailer served some of the best barbecue in the state and put the barbecue world on notice that the irascible Mueller was back on top of his game. His work at the trailer helped usher in a new era in Austin barbecue, as lovers of smoked meats started realizing they didn’t need to wander from the state capital to find excellent barbecue.

John Mueller sells Round Rock Donuts in 2004 at his restaurant,  John Mueller BBQ, on Manor Road in East Austin.

Mueller's work even drew the attention of culinary raconteur-journalist Anthony Bourdain, who stopped by J. Mueller BBQ in 2012 while filming an episode of his "No Reservations" TV program and unofficially anointed Mueller.  

But Mueller would always be a bit of a moving target. The run on South First Street ended after a couple of years, and Mueller decamped for East Austin, where he ran the John Mueller Meat Co. Mueller bounced around over the last half-dozen years or so, with brief stints at Black Box Barbecue in Georgetown, Granger City Brewing in Granger and the Granary in Jarrell

The final chapter of Patricia and Bobby Mueller’s eldest child took the barbecue master to the Dallas-Fort Worth area earlier this year, where he worked over the last six months for Hutchins Barbeque, a member of Texas Monthly’s august Top 50. LeAnn Mueller said she thought her older brother had found his footing and was shocked to learn of his death. 

“I think the older he got, the more he mellowed out. This was really supposed to be his swan song. They brought him and took care of him. He was doing really well,” LeAnn Mueller said, adding that her brother “should be remembered the way he wanted to be remembered, as a barbecue legend, and I think he should be respected as that.”

John Mueller also is survived by his sons, Robert, Johnson and Andrew Mueller.