It’s still dark, not even a smudge of light on the horizon, but John Mueller likes the solitude of those early hours. By 3:30am he is starting his fires, seasoning and laying down his famed meat to smoke.
An hour later, he takes the meat off to wrap it. Then, he makes his side dishes.
The other employees don’t show up until 9am but by then, John’s work day is nearly done. He grabs a drink at the nearby bar and hunkers down to oversee his business before calling it a night at 5pm and repeating the entire process the next day.
This is the intense work ethic of a man who grew up next to a smoke pit and has never known anything else. John Mueller was born into a BBQ family from Taylor, Texas and he was one of the first pit masters (though he hates to be call anything else but a cook) to bring BBQ into its current popularity. You only have to look up “John Mueller BBQ” to get a litany of articles about the “Dark Prince” of BBQ. Widely known not only for his amazing product but as a curmudgeon who only wears black Under Armor clothing, like some kind of meat smoking rockstar, John Mueller is at the epicenter of American BBQ culture.
Despite he undisputed skill, John has been an unlucky man.
He closed his first, highly successful BBQ joint after six years when his marriage fell apart, he was tossed out of his second enterprise by his sister (now known as La Barbeque and still one of the most popular stops in Texas) and most recently, his John Mueller Meat Co. business was seized by the government for non-payment of taxes.
So, an unlucky man.
Yet, one of the most resilient men in a business that more often than not, chews and spits people out so mercilessly that they never recover to live another food dream day.
Between 2006 and the opening of his South 1st Street location, John still barbequed but he did it as Jo Jackson, the enigmatic man who went around the minor baseball leagues selling his famous smoked meat. He’d been burned, and badly, by the fires of business but his passion for barbeque still drove him to the pit each day.
Most recently, after the closure of John Mueller Meat Co, he buckled up his bootstraps and once more forged into the fray, this time with his Georgetown, Texas BBQ joint, Black Box Barbeque, co-owned with Justin Bohls and John’s half brother, Gary Brown.
“Y’all think I’m done…” John tweeted on April 5th, 2017, “…not even close.”
We have the feeling that John Mueller will never be done with BBQ (and the world is a better, yummier and more meaty place because of it).
This is a man who does everything himself because everything means something to him. His father was a pit master and his father before him. “My dad coulda been a garbage man and that’s what I would have done,” he told us. So, it is unsurprising that for John, family and barbeque are wrapped up together. His best friend owned the bar beside his John Mueller Meat Co restaurant and now another one has gone into his new business venture with him. His son worked the cash register because John wanted him close even as he lamented that he wanted a better, easier life for his son than a 100 hour work week and three divorces because barbeque is a 24/7 commitment. This intensity about his profession is exactly why John Mueller is a bit of rockstar in the barbeque community and it is why he is incredibly hands on with all aspects of his BBQ joints.
For example, despite having employees, he does all his own smoking and his own sides.
“Because they are good,” John says with his idiosyncratic bluntness and strangely charming arrogance.
And they are.
Belle and I ate everything on the menu at his old place, John Mueller Meat Co.
I kid you not.
We had this enormous platter of meat and his most popular sides, including cheesier than cheesy Mac n’ Cheese and a heaping mound of tangy slaw. His meat was glorious. This is because John respects the meat. Everything, from his enormous beef ribs to his brisket, is smoked beautifully and the one and only sauce he serves tastes, in his own words, “like meat” because isn’t that the point?
Yes, we discovered, that is exactly the point.
We were out to find the best barbeque in the southern United States, hitting up some of the most illustrious institutions including Black’s Barbeque, Franklin’s Barbeque, and Killen’s Barbeque. We found what we were looking for in John Mueller’s meat, hereafter known by The Travelling Table as the Best BBQ in the USA.