In Texas, a place where barbecue is the stuff of legend, John Mueller was legendary.
Joints bearing his name were long considered the best in the state. In the industry, Mueller was as respected a pitmaster as he was known to be “mercurial, infuriating, hilarious and generous,” wrote Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn when Mueller passed away last December after a long illness.
Vaughn recently reported on BBQ at the Granary, the joint in Jarrell that initially opened bearing Mueller’s name, and he told the Texas Standard about how it’s trying to keep Mueller’s spirit alive.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: So this is a place that used to bear Mueller’s own name; now it goes by the Granary, is that right?
Daniel Vaughn: That’s right. It’s the Granary in general. It opened in January of 2021 with John Mueller at the helm, but he was really only able to work there for a few months before he was hospitalized with an illness.
Tell us a little bit more about Mueller’s backstory here. He was one of the biggest names – maybe second only to who, Aaron Franklin? – when it comes to that sort of hierarchy of barbecue pitmasters.
That’s right. Yeah. I mean, he came out of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor that was run by his father. It was a huge moment in Austin barbecue history when he opened John Mueller barbecue there in Austin back in the early 2000s. It made our list of the top 50 barbecue joints and really put Austin barbecue on the map as a real destination for barbecue. You know, now we take that for granted that Austin is like the place to go for barbecue. But back when John Mueller first opened that place, that certainly wasn’t the case.
What was it that Mueller did that that made his barbecue so noteworthy?
Well, you know, these days, so many barbecue joints are just copying what the next place does and basically look into whatever Aaron Franklin does, right? But John was different. Instead of cooking low and slow, he cooked really hot fast. You know, he got in early in the morning and really cranked up those fires, sometimes cooking up to 400 degrees. And it really gave the the briskets and the beef ribs that he was so well-known for a real, you know, hard edge to them. I mean, they had really sort of been lambasted with that fire. And it gave him this great crust and this crunchy fat; along with all the black pepper he put on there, really just provided something unique in the barbecue realm.
Mueller was fairly well-known outside of the barbecue world – he seemed to have a fame that almost transcended barbecue itself.
Yeah, he was that barbecue curmudgeon that some folks would go visit his various barbecue joints or barbecue trailers and try and get a rise out of him and try and get yelled at by John Mueller. It was sort of a badge that you could wear that you got either kicked out of line at John Mueller’s place or yelled at for trying to look too closely at the barbecue pits.
Well, with his passing, where did that leave the last restaurant to bear his name? And what are they doing that’s keeping his legacy alive?
His good friend for many decades, Jeff Ancira, worked with him at all of John Mueller’s stops and certainly picked up plenty of his, you know, barbecue tendencies and lots of his side recipes as well. And Jeff is still heavily involved there at the Granary and still cooking there every week. Well, he can’t quite wrestle the pits when they’re launched at 400 degrees. He’s had to pretty much dial that back to a more reliable 300-degree cooking temperature. But he’s still doing those signature things, like that heavy pepper on the beef chuck short ribs instead of the big plate ribs that are more popular everywhere. And then Mueller became famous for his cheesy squash, which is something that Jeff and Sarah helped to make for decades, and now is also serving it there.
And then there’s the barbecue sauce. You know, we don’t often talk about barbecue sauce or really signature barbecue sauces in Texas, but John had one that was really beefy and peppery, lots of onions, a little bit sweet. And you can still find a very similar sauce that Jeff Ancira still makes at the Granary.