Saturday, July 21, 2012
AUSTIN: JMueller BBQ
1502 S 1st St
Austin, TX 78704
Open W-Sat 10:30-til it's gone
Update: This joint is CLOSED. Pitmaster John Mueller was unceremoniously relieved of his duties by his sister LeAnn Mueller who owns the place. She has reopened with the new name LA Barbecue. I'll give the new joint a try next time I'm in Austin.
2012: After several visits and bringing a dining companion by the name of Anthony Bourdain and his camera crew with me for a meat fest at John Mueller's place a few months back, let's just say that John knows me. We have each other's cell phone number, and he sent me a Christmas ham which I promptly enjoyed with impressed dinner guests. I preface all of this to tell you just how pleased I was when during a surprise visit where I was hoping to sneak in unnoticed, I was able to pull it off. My wife and I were headed to an event in Wimberley when I decided to do a drive-by of the JMueller BBQ trailer on our way through Austin. At 12:45, there wasn't the normal string of folks waiting to order, so I made a beeline for the trailer where I found meat carver and pit protege Ali working the front counter instead of John. My tray was soon full of beautiful smoked meats as I rounded the corner of the trailer to pay and say hello to John who was sitting with a couple friends drinking a cold one. We both laughed, and I retreated to a picnic table for my generous snack.
When the brisket above is sitting on the counter as you walk up, you know you're in for a good meal. A couple thick slices of the fatty beef had a soft interior of smoky meat and tender fat while the thick bark on the exterior was stout and even a bit crispy. On a previous visit I was more enamored with the lean beef, but on this day the moist brisket was easily its equal. One item that had improved considerably was the homemade sausage. The chewy casing and greasy filling had given way to a taut casing with a great snap and a well seasoned and cohesive filling. The beef rib had little room for improvement, and it was as always one of the best beef ribs anywhere in the state. It may be the most consistent cut of meat here, and rarely fails to impress.
Since my last visit, the recipe for the pork ribs has been adjusted. Gone are the chewy ribs overwhelmed by just pepper. They have been replaced with well smoked spare ribs with exemplary juiciness and tenderness. Another addition is a sweet glaze similar to the one you'll find at Smitty's in Lockhart. It doesn't overshadow the meat like a candy coating, but instead adds a pleasing counterpoint to the heavy black pepper rub. I could have eaten a full rack.
When I return to a five star joint to see if they have earned the sixth, what I'm looking for is a repeat performance of the previous experience. Consistency is more important than being able to wow someone beyond expectations every once in a while. John insists that his real desire is to please that regular customer who comes by once a week and expects the same great meal he had the week previous rather trying to please the food critics like myself that swoop in now and again.I can't speak to John's weekly performance, but I can say without a doubt that the barbecue here improves with every visit I've taken. At this rate, I've got to wonder where the ceiling is.
2011: John Mueller's history in Austin is well documented. He stormed onto the scene in Austin in 2001, made Texas Monthly's top 50 in 2003, and flamed out just two years later. Then, just after New Year's in
2010 he told the BBQ world to get ready for his return. Excitement turned to doubt after more than a year of inactivity from Mr. Mueller, but news of a new joint spread like wildfire this summer. The hype machine even produced a New York Times article about the joint a full four months before the doors were open. This same article sowed the seeds of rivalry between John and his former employee, Aaron Franklin, the current king of Austin's BBQ scene. Neither man took the bait in separate conversations, but one thing's for sure - Austin now has two barbecue joints worth waiting in line for.
The line was short at opening time on a beautiful Saturday morning. I dined with a group of friends who had gathered in Austin for the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival. An invitation to this event requires that your joint be featured in the latest Top 50 BBQ list in Texas Monthly magazine, and this year they'd also chosen a newcomer (Franklin Barbecue) based on their quality smoked meats. I wanted to get a good taste of a joint that hadn't been invited to the event, and see if they had what it takes for next year's roster.
A trailer sits beside what will become the permanent building to house the joint in the future. After receiving the order at the trailer window, we made our way to one of several shaded picnic tables for the coming feast. I had a little of each menu item, and on this day the menu included prime rib. Smoked prime rib always sounds like a good idea, but I've yet to truly enjoy it anywhere that it's served. The table had both a thick interior cut that was cooked medium, but was still tough with chewy fat and little smoke flavor, and an outside cut that had great seasoning and was more enjoyable even at medium well. At $20/lb, I just can't find a reason not to get my beefy fix on the brisket. Available in fatty and lean, the brisket ain't cheap either at $14/lb. The connoisseur generally goes for the fatty stuff, but I wanted some from the lean end too. Lean brisket was just on the verge of dry, but still held just enough moisture. The lusciously rendered fat cap atop the thick slice added plenty of its own moisture along with a ridiculous amounts of flavor from the black pepper & salt rub and the oak smoke. This end produced some of the finest bites of brisket I've had anywhere. On the other hand, fatty brisket needed more time on the smoker. White bits of fat in need of rendering were still visible, and the thick slices could have been easier to pull apart. Without the smoke-encapsulating qualities of the thick fat cap to help, the smokiness on this cut was fleeting, but the flavor was still enjoyable. Talking with John later I learned the struggles he's having with getting the point end cooked before the flat starts to dry out. Some of the problem comes from the high fat content in the certified Angus briskets, and the rest of the blame is probably in the higher cooking heat (325 and higher) that John employs in the huge smoker housed in its own trailer.
Sausage is something they take pride in here. The spicy links are hand made from Mr. Mueller's recipe using natural casings. On this day they were well seasoned, but overly fatty with uncomfortably chewy casings. This could certainly be remedied by a bit more time in that smoker, or a more accommodating hog. Pork chops on the other hand were perfectly cooked. Generously seasoned, the thick cut chop was ridiculously juicy with a beautiful color and excellent flavor. Like the chop, turkey breast is a lean cut that can dry out easily, but here the meat was perfectly moist, tender and smoky. A dip in the thin tomatoey sauce flecked with black pepper and cayenne made it even better.
Much thought has been put into the sides. Squash casserole is a rich mix of yellow summer squash, butter and cheese. It was one decadent vegetable. Potato salad was also pleasing with mashed and chunked potatoes, celery seed and a hint of mustard. Less successful was the chipotle slaw that was interesting for a bite or two, but the spice was too out of place for a full serving.
Ribs in a couple of forms can be had, and they are both great. Some of my dining companions were hoping for a more tender pork spare rib, but I liked the toothsome texture. The well seasoned meat came cleanly from the bone, but the tips were admittedly on the chewy side. I was getting full at this point, but the coup de grace was next. Back at the ordering window I spotted a fresh rack of the beef short ribs. I requested the end cut that weighed in at just under a pound and a half. The edges were crispy from melted fat, smoky meat and thick black pepper. Rivaled only by the beef ribs at Louie Mueller Barbecue where John learned his craft, this rib was amazing. Rarely is the fat so perfectly rendered out of this tough cut that requires very patient smoking, and the generous seasonings would only work with a cut this thick. I had several barbecue meals ahead of me on this day so I tried to show restraint, but it was hard to stop eating this beef rib.
Being critical comes naturally, and I went into this visit wanting to identify any flaws I could find in the work of a revered pitmaster. Certainly there were a few things that can be improved upon, but placing this visit in context with others over the summer at the temples of Central Texas smoked meat left me with no choice but to place it among the top places in the state. Just three weeks in, the comparisons to Franklin Barbecue on the other side of town are as unfair as they are inevitable. This joint isn't quite to that level yet (for the record, nobody is) but it's one of the few where I've witnessed the bona fide potential.
Posted by BBQ Snob at 7:58 AM
Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.
-THE PROPHETS OF SMOKED MEAT
-THE PROPHETS OF SMOKED MEAT