Legendary BBQ in the Longhorn State

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As I journey around the country to find the best, most soul-driven food, I came across a place that not only fed me to the gills but inspired me beyond my greatest expectations.

Over and over I have heard about this BBQ place Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor, Texas. Diners gather from all over the world for their famous Smoked Short Rib and the locals consider this some of the finest ever.

I had to go see what it was all about.

I had the pleasure of spending time cooking in their kitchen with Wayne Mueller, a third generation Pit Master and truly one-of-a kind individual. Wayne walked me through the history of the restaurant and Texas BBQ.

I learned how his grandfather had the smoker built during the depression from an old naval ship due to the high prices and scarcity of metals at the time. That same smoker is center stage, still being used daily for the restaurant operations… more than 90 years since it was built. As his grandfather’s business continued to grow, they built a horizontal smoker for briskets with a brick firebox that takes up about half of the kitchen. Eventually even more smokers were added in the back to keep up with the hundreds of people that come through their doors daily.

No crazy technology or innovations to keep up with the demand, just pure BBQ and hard work. The Mueller family has a strong belief that Texas BBQ is for everyone and they should do their best to make sure they have enough on hand.

Now this restaurant is far from fancy. The walls are tinted brown from the years of smoke. The floors are still coated in the original wood, with sheet metal patches his grandfather installed over broken areas. Even the tables and chairs are from the early days, but Wayne prefers to fix them instead of replacing them, marking the repaired pieces in dedication of his father and grandfather.

But the coolest thing this place has is their wall of business cards. Wayne told me how it originally started like a neighborhood corkboard. If you needed a plumber, repairman, or anything else, there was a card there. The wall is full of original and new business cards, some that have been there so long they have changed from their original white color to a dark, smoke stained brown. Whenever a card falls off, they save it in a case with all of the other fallen cards.

There is so much heart and history in this place that you can’t help but feel special.

As I spent more time with Wayne, he explained to me why he does what he does. He grew up standing on a Coke crate at the prep table linking sausage and doing various jobs around the restaurant, but he didn’t stay in the family business. He went on to have a successful career in sports marketing (hence why they have such creative marketing around their brand), but the roaring Texas fires pulled him back. He was looking at the business cards one day and realized how far people traveled and the amount of time people gave to come enjoy what his family created. He wanted to give back to these people the way they gave to his family.

Wayne believes their restaurant is not just a restaurant, but a place of gratitude, and he is the steward, steering the ship from his father to the next generation. Wayne explained to me how the personal connections made there are far greater than any one individual or job… people don’t normally talk like that.

His heart and his family’s years of dedication shine through the mastery of their craft.

Now let’s talk about the food! 

Brisket, short ribs, sausage, pork: all top notch. Slow smoked using local wood with a moisture content less than 20%. This was my first true Texas BBQ experience, and it blew my expectations awa

The short rib portion was between 1.5-2 pounds and pulled apart like cotton candy. The bone slid out of the beef rib plate without any resistance. The simple salt and pepper seasoning allowed the beef and smoke flavors to be the stars of the show. Not a drip of sauce was needed for the short rib or any of the food.

The brisket was succulent, tender and had the perfect Texas bend. Cooking two separate muscles on one piece of meat is no easy task, but both the point and the flat were both cooked to perfection. The briskets are basted with a beef stock a few times while cooking, but otherwise it is just salt, pepper and smoke. The Louie Mueller way of resting the brisket was a slightly different approach than I have seen and paid off big time in the end results.

The sausage was surprising and next level! It is made 100% from the brisket trimmings and stuffed into a natural hog casing. It is then smoked in their original smoker, giving it an amazing snap and juicy inside. The balance of seasoning was perfect with just enough heat. Not a single bite was overwhelmed by spice or smoke.

The ribs were perfect. Just enough pull from the bone and extremely juicy with a great smoke ring. I liked them a lot, but the sauce Wayne came up with a few years ago to accompany the pork had me spinning in circles. The Honey Jalapeno BBQ sauce was so good I could have drunk it! It had this amazing balance of heat and sweet that allowed the full flavor of the jalapeno to come through, not just the capsicum. I have never experienced that kind of balance in BBQ.

Wayne and his family have inspired some of the greatest BBQ champions in the world, and it is obvious why. While they are extremely decorated with accolades like James Beard Awards and BBQ awards, they don’t do it for trophies or competitions. They do it because they are grateful for the support and love their customers have shown them. Their dedication and mastery of Texas BBQ has touched the lives of people from all around the world and is a treasure of the Longhorn State.


A Brief Reinvention

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As chefs, we often become comfortable in our styles. We know how to push the limits within said style, however, we may not always be willing to step out on a ledge and try something drastically different.

I would define my style as simple and respectful. I appreciate the beauty of a raw apple or the aroma of rubbed tarragon picked right from the garden. I buy or grow the finest ingredients I could get my hands on because I love and respect what I serve. Although I am classically Italian trained, my cooking beliefs have transformed over the years into something completely different. Into something that I consider to be true and honest.

So why am I saying this? Why am I talking about how I cook and what my culinary norm is? Because I had the pleasure of being challenged a short while ago to execute a dinner of extreme elegance. I was asked to give a Michelin dining experience to small group. The wheels started turning immediately and I began to work on a menu.

I am a very classic cook when it comes to technique. Along with my purist mentality on ingredients, I also cherish and prefer simple cooking methods. A good sear on a protein, hardwood grilling, braising, open fire slow roasting, these are some of my favorite techniques. While they are beautiful- they were not enough to pull off this type of dinner.

Now, I knew how to execute every item on the menu deliciously, but it wasn’t the best it could be. I began to dissect each dish, piece by piece, bite by bite. I wanted to take both myself and my diners on a culinary adventure to somewhere neither of us have been, but to do that, I had to learn a few new tricks.

I dug through my library of cookbooks and endless amounts of cooking sites and I began to pull inspiration from them. I looked at different ways to make purees, compose sauces and cook vegetables. I discovered a great deal of things that I never thought of before. It was so simple and I felt like I was 20 again learning about classic French cooking techniques for the first time.

The biggest thing for me was working with sous vide cooking for more than just proteins. I was already cooking several items sous vide… mostly pork bellies, briskets, short ribs, other tough cuts of meat that I want to cook at a controlled temperature and maximize yields. But the more I started to dive into the possibilities, the more I was excited to take on this new style of cooking. So, what was the menu I ended up serving?

As the dinner was in early September, I wanted to create a menu that brought my diners from the end of summer into early autumn. I focused on bringing a different experience in both flavor and texture to each course so the meal would stay exciting. I started in my garden, as produce is the greatest expression of the seasons, tasting and picking vegetables to see what I wanted to use. Once I had that guideline, I chose my proteins. This may not be the traditional way most chefs write their menus, as many look at the protein and build the flavors around it.

Peaches and nectarines were in their prime- two of my favorite fruits. I immediately built the amuse and first course with those. Then, I stated to look at mushrooms. A farmer I know told me he had some beautiful chanterelles;  course two identified. After that, I chose sunchokes, sunflower seeds and black garlic for the third course. A great follow up to the mushrooms and a good preface for the fourth course. I felt at this point the diners would be ready to start tasting fall, so I brought in the root vegetables. This was a great progression from where the dinner started.

Finally, I created the last course with pears. Nothing says fall to me like pears, and I had some beauties growing that were ready to pick. So now that I had my flavor profiles, it was time to build my menu!

AmuseRich, sweet and zesty. A good start to ignite the palate for courses to come.
Foie Gras, Peach Mostarda, Fennel Puree

First Course Chilled, refreshing and lightly spicy. Brighten the mouth for a rich following course.
Hawaiian White Tuna, Compressed Nectarine, Cucumber, Icicle Radish, Micro Basil, Fresno Chili Oil

Second CourseEarthy, gelatinous, and full bodied. Overload the palate with richness as the mid-course.
Suckling Pig, Carrot Puree, Buckwheat Corzetti, Suckling Pig Jus, Chantarelle Mushrooms

Third CourseSmokey, sweet and acidic. A bright recovery from the pork and a bridge to the steak.
Pheasant, Smoked Sunchoke, Heirloom Tomatoes, Sunflower Seed, Black Garlic, Mache

Fourth CourseTangy, earthy and creamy. A full balanced entrée with the textures and experiences to complete the savory part of the meal.
Dry Aged Rib Eye, Celery Root Puree, Beets, Brussels Sprouts, Parsnips, Pommes Anna, Rosemary Jus

Fifth CourseRich, salty and lightly spiced. A subtle ending to a variety of experiences.
Poached Pear, Mascarpone Semi Freddo, Marcona Almond Shortbread, California Cinnamon

The meal was a success! My team and I dug deep into our culinary repertoire and took every step to give pure elegance. We peeled the tomatoes, strained the sauces through coffee filters, hand-picked every leaf, and did every other obsessive step to give the best we could.

This really was a fantastic experience for me as it reminded me of how much more beauty there is in the culinary world. As I always say, if you put your whole heart into cooking and take your time, you can truly create something beautiful and memorable.

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The Feast of the Seven Fishes

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Christmas Eve Dinner. My favorite meal of the year.

Like any good Catholic Italian-American family, we celebrated The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Every year, my family would gather in my Uncle’s basement for a giant seafood dinner.  My Nana would make her homemade fettucine with Baccalà Sauce– we would feast on fish salad, mussels, shrimp and so on. The kids who didn’t eat fish would enjoy homemade focaccia and buttered noodles.  

We ate all night.  We drank all night.

While there was no shortage of wine, meat was something we NEVER had on Christmas Eve.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a longtime Italian Christmas Eve tradition.  It started with the Roman Catholic belief of abstaining from meat from Christmas Eve until the grand feast on Christmas day.  The symbolism that goes into this meal is something worth knowing.  

Not all people do seven.  Some do eight, twelve, or in my family’s case, thirteen!  But where do these numbers come from?

There are many different thoughts on why the number seven is so popular for this.  Some say it is because “On the seventh day God rested,” others say it aligns with the number seven in the bible, which is the most repeated number throughout the book.  Because so many family traditions have developed throughout the years, there is no clear or absolute reason why the number is seven.

Like I said, my family does thirteen, one for each Apostle and one for Jesus.  

The meal can be a combination of any types of fish you like.  The most traditional are octopus, shrimp, clams, anchovies and Baccalà.  A great Zuppa di Pesce can satisfy most of the requirements by having calamari, shrimp, fish, mussels and clams in it.  Other classics are baked clams or a chilled octopus salad.  The key is to have one to represent each of the seven different fishes, but not every dish needs to be seafood.

Much like any tradition, it is what you make of it.  

We’ve made a variety of side dishes including creamy polenta topped with a mushroom ragu, vegetable arancini, eggplant parmigiana, and roasted Brussels sprouts.  (A good Caesar or Greek salad counts too because there are usually anchovies in the dressing)

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an incredible tradition for bringing families together. Opening clams, boiling octopus, and cutting calamari with family always guarantees a memorable experience.

Some of my favorite holiday memories were made during The Feast of the Seven Fishes, partially because it’s not every day an eel will escape your grip and chase you and your cousins around the kitchen.

Whatever your family’s traditions may be– no matter what you believe– I would definitely recommend adding a hearty fish stew or clam pasta to your Christmas Eve dinner!   

Who knows, you may end up starting your own tradition.

Buon Natale!

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