At Louis Mueller's Barbecue in Taylor the legend continues into the third generation. "My grandfather built the business," says John Mueller, "and my father made it famous. Now it's up to me to make it grow."
The thirtysomething heir to one of the most enduring barbecue dynasties in Texas has been very judicious about the changes that he's made during his first three years of running the business. After all, his father Bobby Mueller is still around to offer advice and help.
Not much has changed at the familiar smoky cavern since Grandpa Mueller was running the show. The stained walls and ceiling are still illuminated by colorful neon beer signs and flourescent bulbs that give the dark interior the haunting look of history. Most importantly, the food is just as good as it has been for the last 40 years. The thick black pepper rub on the outside of the brisket locks in the savory juices for a slice of meat that nearly melts in your mouth. The drinks are cold and the links are spicy. All of the essential ingredients remain in place.
Keep in mind that this is the kind of place that has a dusty jukebox that hasn't worked in decades shoved into a corner. Things change slowly here. The emphasis has always been on making the best smoked meats. The biggest tip of the gimme cap to city restaurant etiquette is a plastic tray under the white butcher-paper china. The genuine barbecue joint atmosphere won't make bad barbecue good, but it sure adds something to great barbecue.
That doesn't mean that even legends can't be improved upon. John has slowly been expanding the business that he grew up around. This summer he added a screened-in porch on the side of the building. The addition more than doubled the dining space. Open and airy, the area was built from materials salvaged from Bergstrom Air Force Base. The sliding walls painted to look like a Texas flag were once airplane hangar doors. Hanging above the tables is the refurbished neon sign from his grandfather's grocery store.
John has also expanded the service into the supper hours and on weekends. "I'm usually here anyway," he says. "If I cooked 45 briskets and went home, I'd have left at 12:45 today." The clock was nearing 5pm and the supper rush of grateful carnivores. Being a barbecue king is a 60- to 70-hour-a-week job.
The younger Mueller has even added the company to the World Wide Web. "I think my grandfather would get a real kick out of seeing our name on the Internet," John says. "He always liked such things." Louis Mueller moved to Taylor in the 1940s, when cotton was filling the town's coffers and the railroad yard a couple of blocks south was full of hungry workers.
Louis was the manager of Taylor's first Safeway food store until he opened his own grocery store. The barbecue business started as a way to sell leftover meat from the butcher shop. By 1959, Louis moved the business into the 100-year-old building. The world has been beating a path to his door ever since.
"My grandfather and father had a lot of pride in ownership," John says. It was this family pride that convinced John to leave college short of a degree. "I wanted to be a part of that tradition."
John's parents had encouraged him to get his teaching certificate, "but Grandpa kept putting the bug in my ear," he says. "My grandfather was the greatest man who ever lived as far as I'm concerned. He was kind but stern, giving and generous. I've tried to live my life like him and my father."
Still, being a barbecue legend doesn't put shoes on the babies and the work is hot in the summer and smoky in the winter. The first briskets are put on the fire before the sun rises and the lights don't flicker off until after the sun sets. "In the 1980s a lesser man than my dad would have said 'that's it,'" John says. "When the economy went bad, we were one of the first to get hit hard." It's a true sign of how bad the Texas economy was when a trip to Mueller's was considered a luxury.
Taylor is about 40 minutes east of Austin on TX 79 and Mueller's Barbecue is at 206 W. Second. The menu covers an array of beef and pork tenderloin, brisket, ribs, and a sausage they make themselves. Chicken is offered on Saturdays only. The side dishes include potato salad, coleslaw, and beans made from John's mother's secret recipes. The water-tomato-onion-and-red-pepper sauce isn't your usual fare, but adds a flavorful coating to anything dunked in it. John is adding a meat market to the back of the new screen porch.
Louis Mueller's is open Mon.-Sat. 9am-8pm, 512/352-6206 or 800/580-6687. The smoked meats can be ordered off the Internet at http://www.texasbbq.com.
Coming up this weekend ...
Empty Bowl Project at Sunset Canyon Pottery on US 290 toward Dripping Springs sells beautiful handmade bowls and fills them with a hearty soup. Proceeds benefit Helping Hands, Oct. 3, 11am-5pm. 894-0938.
Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg brings out Oma and Ompa for the oompah music and German sausages, Oct. 1-3. 830/997-4810.
Frontier Days in Round Rock remembers Sam Bass with a party of food and art, Oct. 1-2. 512/255-0007.
Ladies Chili Bust in Luckenbach continues the tradition begun by Hondo Crouch, giving the ladies a chance to show off their chili skills and more, Oct. 2. 830/997-2334.
Cajun Fest in Smithville mixes Cajun cookin' with zydeco music in Riverbend Park, Oct. 2. 512/303-3548.
Coming up ...
Island Jazz Fest in Galveston features local and national groups, Oct. 8-9. 409/763-6564.
Smith Point Hawk Watch sponsored by the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory of Lake Jackson offers a weekend of learning to identify hawks during the peak season of the birds' migration with accommodations in an old hunting lodge. Single-day packages are available. 409/480-0999 or http://www.nol.net/~criley.
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