There are three things you need to know about eating at JMueller BBQ:
So John Mueller. Well, he’s the ornery looking guy on the right.
In fact, that Texas Monthly article tells his tale very well, so I’m not about to try and re-write his rather epic life story. Let me just attempt to break it down:
John hails from the legendary Louie Mueller BBQ family of Taylor, TX. He still lives out there and commutes one hour each way to Austin every day. Anyway, as a third generation BBQ-er John was at the top of his game, having inherited control of the pits from his father, Bobby.
The next portion reads much like an old country song – a woman enters the scene and everything goes a little haywire. John leaves the family business under a dark cloud, opens his own brick and mortar BBQ joint on Manor Rd in Austin, is tormented by personal demons and whiskey, loses the business and winds up homeless for a litte while, then finally makes his return to Austin several years later with his JMueller BBQ trailer. Where, FYI, he was considered one of the top BBQ joints in the country, though he has now moved on from this.
Of course, I’m omitting an incredible amount of detail, emotions and nuances by condensing one man’s entire life journey, but for now I’d rather focus on his BBQ.
What can you expect from BBQ at JMueller? You can expect to be given a moist nugget of brisket with a thick black crust as a taste test sampler as you step up to order. You can expect John himself to hand you a cold Lone Star on the house as you wait in line. You can expect a selection of pork ribs, beef ribs, sliced pork, brisket (moist & lean), turkey and house-made smoked sausage; plus four killer side dishes.
At JMueller BBQ, the working day starts at 3.30am, when the fires are lit in the firebox to the right of the enormous pit, a repurposed propane tank custom built to John’s specifications. The fire is started using the grease-soaked butcher paper from the previous day’s BBQ, and burns with regular ol’ Post Oak wood.
I arrived at 4.30 am (2 minutes late, if you ask John) with my friend Cole who helped capture my experience via some awesome pics. The lot was eerily quiet in the early morning dark, though the bbq sauce was already simmering on the stove and a gentle smokey smell was rising from the pit.
No time to mess about, we had meat that needed seasoning. John uses a pretty basic rub of salt and coarse black pepper, plus one other secret ingredient which I promised to keep a secret (note: secret ingredient was not unicorn farts, much to my disappointment). All of the meats at JMueller get seasoned with this rub, the brisket a little more heavily than the others. The pork ribs also get a special marinade glaze towards the end of cooking. Time to rub em down!
Pro-tip: rubbing down 40 odd brisket and several racks of ribs with large grains of salt leaves you with softest hands ever! I’m seeing an opportunity here for someone to launch a Texas style manicure.
John had already gotten to work on the beef ribs, and had em up in the pit closest to the firebox, aka the hottest part. Each different type of meat had its own place in the pit according to the heat and cooking time required.
Oh, here’s the really crazy part: there is no temperature gauge or thermometer in sight. John cooks by intuition and experience. He knows simply from years of practice how hot each part of the mammoth pit is, and the temperature of the fire just by reading the color of the flame. So if you think I got some great tips on how long to cook something and at what temp, you’re shit outta luck. But watching someone cook by pure instinct was more educational than any recipe could have been.
Right! Time to head into the trailer and prep the sides. The huge pot of BBQ sauce is covered with foil as it gently simmers. JMueller’s BBQ sauce is very different to most you have tried – it’s served warm and isn’t blended together, so you’re served a rich, thin red gravy swimming around chunks of vegetables and other aromatics.
There are four sides on offer, all made fresh daily: chipotle coleslaw, potato salad, pinto beans and baked squash. The baked squash is a signature dish round these parts, a kinda of low-carb mac and cheese. Yellow squash are slow cooked with seasoning and lots of melty gooey cheese until they become a casserole of comfort. My personal favourite of all the sides is the potato salad, mashed fine with lots of mustard and pickles. It’s so good, I recommend upgrading to a pint, rather than a cup.
After the sides are prepped, it’s time to go and check on the meat. You’ve seen those large insulated rubber gloves? Or those super long BBQ tongs? Yeah apparently they’re for pussies. When you’ve been doing this a while, and your hands have grown a natural asbestos coating, you need only reach into a hot metal pit to pick up searing meat with a small rag. Like this man.
Yup – all the meat in the pit is moved around with just the help of that little towel. Badass. The sun had risen and the lot was bathed in that fabulous Texan early morning magic light.
Good news, the beef ribs were just about ready. And they smelled crazy good. I cannot be clear enough about this: JMueller’s beef ribs are my favourite BBQ item of all time (sorry Blacks, you’ve been usurped). So opening the pit and smelling them was completely drool worthy. Look at that crust!
I asked him how he knew the briskets were ready. “You know how you tell?” he said, and then jammed his thumb straight into one. “Dang, that’s hot”, John muttered. “My dad taught me that. If your brisket is ready, you should be able to get your thumb in there with no resistance. If you can’t, it’s not ready. Simple, really”.
Now it was time to hang the sausages in the little smoke box built beneath the smokestack outlet of the pit (clever, right?). It’s my understanding that John is the only BBQ-er within the Austin area who is making his sausage in house, rather than buying them in. It’s a repeating pattern at JMueller – quality above all else.
We had just about enough time to set up the tables with hot sauce and paper towels before the first customers started appearing. So why exactly does John chase people off the lot before 10.30? “I want there to be equality when you come eat my food. If I let people line up for hours beforehand, it’s not fair to the people who don’t have the time to get here at 7am to stand in line. So you get here at 10.30 like everyone else, and it’s first come, first served. That’s fair”, he says.
And so, in I went to the trailer to work as part of the team taking orders for the day.
You won’t see John when you get to the window to order – he rarely does the cutting anymore these days. Though he is notorious for his grumpy attitude (which is largely in jest and is part of his unique brand of customer service), the main reason you won’t see him cutting the meat is that he is too efficient. “If i were up there cutting”, he says, “we’d be sold out by 11am every day. I just get through to line too quickly”. So instead, he busies himself running the meat from the pit up to the trailer as needed.
Finally around 1.30pm, the line was down to a few bodies and most of the meat was sold out. Once the last customer is served, the entire trailer gets cleaned down and packed up, and the work day usually wraps up around 3pm. And in about 12 hours time, John gets to do it all over again.
I went home and barely managed to shower the grease off before I collapsed onto my bed, exhausted. When I eventually woke up, still incredibly groggy, I wondered how many years it took for John to get used to working such long and intense days. I shrugged my shoulders and reheated my dinner in the oven. A beef rib. Reward for a job well done.
So what exactly did I learn from my amazing opportunity? Well, aside from the brisket ready thumb-test and a few secret recipes for sides, I learned that to BBQ for a living, you have to love it. There is no glory in getting up at 2.30am to spend the day sweating and overheating in front of a huge pit. Nor is there a huge monetary reward. Public demand for your product has you working all but 4 days a year. It’s a largely thankless task with few people actually realising the sacrifice and sheer physical work that goes into it.
I was also lucky enough to be thrown a goodbye party, hosted by JMueller BBQ. My friends at Tito’s Vodka (an Austin icon) and Austin Beerworks also came to the party supplying
the fun alcoholic beverages. The only thing better than finally being allowed to cut the brisket myself, was the most excellent Texas flag cake given to me by my gorgeous friend Olivia from Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop.