There’s just something about Central Texas barbecue. To the casual observer, it’s deceptively simple — smoke, beef, salt and pepper, time — but the result is greater than all of those elements combined. “It’s a culinary alchemy of sorts,” said Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue. “People look at you as if you possess this philosopher’s stone, that you really can turn lead to gold.” Marbled slices of brisket so tender they fall apart as you pick them up. The peppered surface of a beef rib: smoky, fatty and subtly sweet. Regionally specific, this form of barbecue has only recently received the recognition it deserves as a true American classic.
“There is an overwhelming sense of pride that goes into what we do, and there is a fierce sense of independence about what we do,” Mueller said. “It does represent our culture, and it does represent who we are as people.” Cooking this style of barbecue is a huge time commitment, and some large briskets take over 18 hours to smoke. The focus on beef differentiates Central Texas barbecue from other regional variants, such as the pork-centric barbecue of the Carolinas. “Beef has traditionally been this small, isolated niche of what the barbecue world is,” Mueller said. “It’s one of those diamonds in the rough that people don’t know about unless they come here to experience it.”
In small towns throughout Central Texas, the traditions of barbecue continue unchanged. The restaurants are functional, serving locals and travelers alike, and cooking processes are unaffected by passing years. In the late nineteenth century, German and Czech immigrants brought their traditions of butchering, sausage making and meat smoking. Though most of the old butcher shops are shuttered, small barbecue joints throughout the region extend the lineage. The establishments are devoid of pomp, and an overwhelming sense of pride is readily apparent in employees. This is a world that doesn’t rely on social media or restaurant reviews, but rather reputations earned over hard-worked decades of service.
Lum’s Bar-B-Que sits on a quiet crosstown street in Junction, two and a half hours west of Austin. Though the city marks the crossroads of Interstate 10, U.S. Route 377 and U.S. Route 83, the majority of Lum’s business is local. When Richard Lumbley cofounded the establishment with his father in 1976, there wasn’t another barbecue restaurant in town. At the time, barbecue was just one of the things Lum’s offered; the business also sold gasoline, groceries, boots and hats, among other things. Over the past four decades, Lum’s has phased out dry goods and gasoline to focus on barbecue, and now Richard’s son Austin has joined the family business.
“Not much changes out in these small towns,” said Austin, who left an insurance job in the city to raise his family in Junction. Interstate 10 brings in some new business, but locals still know that the best meat is available between 10:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. every day. Lum’s has four barbecue pits, utilizing mesquite wood in an offset firebox to smoke an assortment of meats. Brisket and ribs have been a constant since the restaurant’s inception, but in the ‘90s Richard added turkey breast to the menu to appeal to customers wanting a health-conscious option.
Though urban areas in Central Texas have prospered in recent years, Junction hasn’t seen similar growth. “There’s absolutely no workforce,” Richard said. “None of the young kids want to work here anymore.” Despite these economic shortcomings, however, Lum’s carries on. “When we first started out, we just had one pit and would do maybe five or six briskets a day,” he added. “It just gets busier and busier and busier.”
Eighty miles northeast of Junction, Texas State Highway 71 and Texas State Highway 29 share a small stretch of road in the Central Texas town of Llano. “If you’re going north or south in Texas, you’ve got to come through right here, or real close, anyway,” said Jason Wootan, the owner of Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que. Because the restaurant is located on this major thoroughfare, the majority of its business is made up of travelers. Wootan’s father worked for the restaurant’s namesake, Tommy Cooper, who died in a car crash in ‘79. After seven years, the elder Wootan took over the business and aimed to preserve Tommy Cooper’s style of barbecue.
“We use nothing but mesquite, and we do what we call ‘Cowboy Style’ cooking,” Wootan said. “It’s direct heat.” Instead of the using offset smoker pits, like many other Central Texas barbecue establishments, Cooper’s cooks directly over hot coals. Through the cooking process, meat juices drip onto the coals producing smoke, but the final product is far less saturated with smoke than that of other barbecue restaurants. Tommy Cooper learned Cowboy Style from his grandfather, at the first Cooper’s restaurant in the the small town of Mason. Historical precedent aside, the method has the added benefit of taking a fraction of the time to cook meat compared to indirect smoking, which can take the better part of a day. “I think both ways have a very good place in the barbecue world,” Wootan said.
“There’s nothing about Cooper’s barbecue that’s fancy. We try to buy good meat and not mess it up.”
Before entering the restaurant, customers order their meat straight from the pit, picking the pieces they want for their meal. Cooper’s is known not only for its brisket and ribs, but for its two-inch-thick pork chops and racks of goat ribs. Under the younger Wootan’s ownership, Cooper’s has expanded and now has locations in New Braunfels, Ft. Worth and Austin. Though maintaining quality to the standard of the Llano establishment is an ongoing effort, the bottom line is quite simple. “There’s nothing about Cooper’s barbecue that’s fancy,” Wootan said. “We try to buy good meat and not mess it up.”
Cooper’s and Lum’s, though very different in flavor profiles and cooking styles, exemplify the core of Central Texas barbecue: delicious food that fulfills a need in the community, whether on a busy through-road or tucked into a town that the years have forgotten.
Some barbecue restaurants have transcended humble roots, rising from modest pit stops to culinary destinations. Magazines and food critics shone a spotlight on pitmasters and their products, enticing countless food lovers to make smoked-meat pilgrimages. When television’s sway toward food programming featured these remote establishments, customers took note and created celebrities out of cooks, honoring the years of hard labor imbued into every slice of brisket.
A half hour south of Austin, in Lockhart, rows upon rows of post oak logs sit next to a large building with a tall A-frame roof. The cathedral-like Kreuz Market has a sanctuary filled with barbecue pits mindfully tended by pitmaster Roy Perez. “I’m like a father figure here, or like your preacher, or like your bartender,” he said. “I’m all these to these guys.” Perez may be many things to the cooks working under him, but his work ethic speaks for itself. In his 30-year tenure at Kreuz, Perez has not once taken a vacation day or called in sick.
Perez built houses before he took a job at Kreuz; starting out, he would refer to the restaurant’s post oak supply as “lumber.” “I went from working with wood to burning wood,” he said. He climbed up the ranks at the restaurant, working long hours and learning the traditional processes of Central Texas barbecue. “It took me five or six years to maybe learn a third of it,” he said. “And thirty years later, I’m still learning things. It’s just a learning process.” His experiential way of learning a craft stands in stark contrast to the restaurant industry’s growing reliance on science and empirical data. “We don’t use gauges,” he said. “All we use is sight and feel. And we don’t trim nothing, we just get it out of the package and throw it on the barbecue pit. Salt and pepper, a little cayenne, that’s it.”
“All we use is sight and feel. And we don’t trim nothing, we just get it out of the package and throw it on the barbecue pit.”
After decades, the thick-sideburned Perez has become the face of Kreuz, gaining widespread recognition in the barbecue world. “I’m a big Elvis fan and I remember when I was little, I used to pray to God, ‘I want a taste of Elvis,’” he said. “And it’s happened, even though I’m not as big as Elvis. I got a taste of it, so I’m happy.” The majority of Kreuz’s customers come from out of town to taste Perez’s assortment of smoked meats, ranging from brisket and prime rib to sausage and half chickens. It’s all served simply on a slice of butcher paper, without utensils; there is little to distract from the protein centerpiece. Perez’s fame has garnered him many offers to open restaurants in other cities, but he has turned them all down. “I’m loyal,” he said. “It’s not about money.”
A 45-minute drive northeast of Austin will put you in Taylor, a small town and home to Louie Mueller Barbecue, one of the region’s most legendary establishments. It was founded in 1949 as a complement to a fresh meat market but later became a stand-alone restaurant. Mueller’s son Bobby began to work for his father in 1965 and eventually took over the restaurant in 1974. After decades manning the pit, he took the restaurant to new heights in 2006 when Louie Mueller Barbecue was awarded a James Beard Award in the “America’s Classics” category — the first Texan barbecue restaurant to receive the honor.
Bobby’s death two years later only furthered his legacy as Texas’s preeminent pitmaster, a man who gave his life to barbecue. “I only saw him when he was here. I know what he sacrificed,” said Wayne Mueller, Bobby’s son who now heads the restaurant. “I don’t know anyone who could be that dedicated to this sort of ideal where, in your lifetime, you really don’t see the benefits of it.”
Growing up around barbecue, Wayne had no intention of making a career out of it. “When I left, I swore I would never return,” he said. “I was happy that my father gave me an opportunity to learn about myself and find myself outside of this place.” After earning an MBA in marketing, Wayne pursued a career in sports marketing before starting his own ad agency. When his father asked him to return home in 2006, Wayne left his company, but took with him years of experience in the business world. “All my marketing experience is helping me to understand that this is a brand and an institution, not just a mom-and-pop organization,” he said. “This has depths and roots in the state and the culture.”
Fans’ growing interest in the processes behind Central Texas barbecue has framed the tradition within a greater narrative. “It’s the [same] movement towards craft beer and craft whiskey — all of this is about bringing things back local,” Wayne said. “We are sort of that natural conclusion of that ranch-to-table cycle, where we’re taking large cuts of meat, and we’re using natural fuel sources and techniques developed over time to get the absolute most out of them in the simplest, most wholesome way you can do it.”
“I’m doing this for my father, for my grandfather, for the family name, for those things they’ve established.”
The industry has changed drastically since Wayne’s grandfather and father established the Mueller name. “The new generation of guys and girls coming into barbecue isn’t doing it for the same reason my grandfather did,” he said. “He had a fresh meat market and he was just trying to save a penny and not have spoilage.” Though Louie Mueller’s hasn’t changed a lot since ‘49, the interior does reflect the passing years: the original wooden floors are patched with sheet metal and the walls are caked in black smoke. Wayne has made a point to invest in the best-quality meat and continues to honor the recipes and techniques passed down to him. “I’m doing this for my father, for my grandfather, for the family name, for those things they’ve established,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my part. It’s not about me.”
Though Louie Mueller’s is already entrenched in the annals of barbecue history, it is Wayne’s mission to spread the gospel of Louie Mueller Barbecue across the world. “Paul of Tarsus travels from Jerusalem to Rome establishing churches all along the way, all in the hopes of spreading a message, a sort of ideal of salvation, of the purpose of life,” he said. “And I guess in a way I’m sort of doing my version of that.”
In cities, social media has helped foster a burgeoning passion for barbecue, making overnight sensations of those who cook it. A decade ago, Austin had only a handful of restaurants practicing the craft. Now it’s the epicenter of Central Texas barbecue and home to its biggest stars.
On East Cesar Chavez Street in Austin, a convoy of trailers in a gravel parking lot make up La Barbecue, a restaurant owned by LeAnn Mueller, the daughter of Bobby Mueller. After leaving the town of Taylor and pursuing a career as a photographer in New York and LA, LeAnn came back to Austin and started La Barbecue. From the opening day, long lines of customers, lured by social media, became the norm at her trailer. “It reminded me of when I worked with my dad at his place, and the long lines, and people just having such a good time, and just vibing off of the meat,” LeAnn said.
Unlike traditional barbecue establishments, La Barbecue isn’t centered around a single cook. “I think the term ‘pitmaster’ gets abused,” she said. “It’s overused, and it insinuates that there’s only one person. If there was one pitmaster I know, it was my dad. He did everything.” The Austin food scene has allowed LeAnn to grow a team of dedicated cooks, without the decades of training and experience that tradition has historically necessitated, allowing her to continue practicing photography. “We look for people without experience so we can mold them to exactly what we want them to do here,” said Alison Clem, LeAnn’s wife and the co-owner of La Barbecue.
The food at La Barbecue stems from Bobby Mueller’s tradition, but LeAnn has tailored the menu to her own taste and that of her urban clientele. Along with standard Central Texas fare, La Barbecue offers an assortment of sandwiches, and LeAnn hopes to soon feature specials inspired by her travels to Southeast Asia. She keeps an apartment in LA and is currently planning to open a second La Barbecue out west. “I was looking at the barbecue scene out there,” she said. “No disrespect, but when you eat it, it’s not like Central Texas. It’s overthought.” In light of the success of La Barbecue in Austin, she’s confident about opening an out-of-state location. “It’s about putting out consistently good food,” she said. “That’s what should be the focus every day, and if you get anything else, that’s a bonus.”
Though her father totally immersed himself in barbecue, LeAnn never dreamed of opening restaurants of her own. But now that she has, she’s seeing a lot of her father in the way she runs the business. “I pretty much try to run this place exactly like he did,” she said. “Be stern, but absolutely treat your employees with respect, keep a good work ethic and always have pride in what you do.”
While La Barbecue might be Texas barbecue’s most recent breakout, no one — not even Bobby Mueller — has quite reached the fame and notoriety of Aaron Franklin, whose eponymous restaurant has been the recipient of praise and countless accolades. Franklin, who won a James Beard Award in 2015 in the category “Best Chef: Southwest,” is a self-proclaimed tinkerer and loves working with his hands. “The thing that got me into barbecue was the craft of it,” he said. “It can be, on a sliding scale, as elemental as you want it to be or as complex as you want it to be.” After opening a barbecue trailer seven years ago, Franklin has since expanded and now has a brick-and-mortar restaurant on East 11th Street, complete with a smokehouse lined with a row of offset smokers and a large rotisserie smoker.
For Franklin, the path to great barbecue was a complex puzzle waiting to be solved. “You’ve got your constants, which is that there’s a fire somewhere and that there’s meat somewhere. But then everything else is a variable,” he said. “So I think trying to figure that out is kind of what got me into barbecue initially. It’s like a video game you can never win. It just changes on you all the time, which is cool, but that challenge also keeps it exciting.” The key to his success was twofold: sourcing the best possible meat and controlling the cooking process. “Some of the ways I’ve been able to take the variables out are by building our own cookers and having a smokehouse that has a certain static pressure for the airflow,” he said.
“Regionally specific and introduced by immigrants, barbecue is more than a tradition. It’s the story of America.”
Before becoming a celebrity chef, Franklin was deeply rooted in the city. “I’m a very Austin-y dude,” he said. “I’ve lived here for twenty years, and the better part of that twenty years was spent playing rock and roll and drinking Lone Star tall boys. I stopped touring and playing drums because barbecue took over.” The food offered at Franklin’s covers a range of classics from brisket and sausage to ribs and pulled pork. Though the pork isn’t a Texas tradition, it doesn’t bother Aaron. “If there’s something I want to cook, I’ll cook it,” he said. “If I think it’s pretty good, I’ll stick with it.” Without the constraints of a heritage restaurant, Franklin’s is free to play by its own rules. And, for what it’s worth, the recipe for success in this city is deceptively simple. “You don’t even need to advertise for good food — especially barbecue,” he said. “Barbecue has kind of been that scene where people are looking for the next great place. All you need to do is make good food.”
As decades pass and food trends ebb and flow, Central Texas barbecue remains a culinary constant. The art of doing something simple incredibly well will never go out of style, just as the craft of elevating a humble ingredient to a delectable meal will never fade. Now, thanks to cooks like Franklin, people across the country are coming to taste Central Texas barbecue and accepting it as their own. “America doesn’t really have a ton of cultural food identity,” he said. “Everything we have came from somewhere else, including Texas barbecue. It’s all German and Czech — that’s what we do here — but it’s morphed into American food, and specifically, Central Texas food.” Regionally specific and introduced by immigrants, barbecue is more than a tradition. It’s the story of America. And it’s damn good.