Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Miller's Smokehouse in Belton might be the best BBQ north of Austin

Brisket sits on the pit at Miller's Smokehouse

Every now and then you hit the motherlode on the Texas BBQ trail. For every 20 mediocre BBQ joints, there's one good one. For every 50 good ones, there's one great one. You can add Miller's Smokehouse in Belton to the list of great ones.

We first caught wind of Miller's last week during BBQ Snob Daniel Vaughn's trip to south Texas. Miller's has been overshadowed in Belton by the better known Schoepf's BBQ, which I have always heard is average fare.

Daniel, who is knee deep in his book project on the journey of BBQ, always tweets from the BBQ trail about the good and bad he finds out there. He has almost 3,300 Twitter followers who look to him to find the next great joint.

That day Daniel tweeted, "I found a reason to drive right on past Scheopf's in Belton. Take a right on Penelope and go to Miller's Smokehouse. Nothing bad here." In another tweet he described their fatty brisket as "luscious."

We started planning a quick trip to Belton shortly thereafter.

Posse pitmaster Marshall Cooper checks out the pits on the way into Miller's.
Pitmaster Robert Reid, left, and owner Dirk Miller prepare an order of brisket.

The drive from Dallas took a little under two hours. The little joint nestled in downtown Belton was easy to find and parking was ample. As soon as we opened the door of the truck we were engulfed by the sweet smell of post oak and smoked meats. We knew this was going to be good.

We met owner Dirk Miller shortly after arriving at the counter. Since I have the habit of starting to take photos as soon as we hit the ground at a joint, we often attract the attention of the boss pretty quickly. He realized we were serious about BBQ and pulled a fresh brisket off the pit after we ordered.

Our standard order is always brisket and ribs when we first visit a place. However, Miller's only has ribs on Fridays so we subbed puled pork for the ribs. Dirk also insisted we sample three kinds of sausage, which he grinds at his meat processing facility around the corner.

We got to know Dirk during the visit, quizzing him on all things barbecue as usual. He opened Miller's Smokehouse five years ago after several other career incarnations. Besides being a pitmaster, he's a taxidermist, butcher and meat processor. During last season alone, they processed almost 900 deer. He plans to have all his businesses in one place sometime in the future.

The counter and menu at Miller's.
Customers wait for their orders in the front dining room at Miller's.

The meats were nothing short of sensational. The brisket not only looked great, but it was cooked perfectly. We sampled both fatty and lean brisket, both were moist and full of flavor. I would describe the smoke level as flawless and the pepper/garlic salt rub was not overpowering, but well proportioned. The pulled pork wasn't quite as flavorful, but was cooked perfectly as well.

We tried three types of Miller's homemade sausage: regular, hot link and jalapeno cheese. All three had exemplary texture, snap, consistency and taste. I was drawn to the jalapeno cheese though. I've had numerous versions of the sausage around the state, but this is as good as any I've ever had.

Miller's also sells fresh sausage you can take home and cook, as well as other custom meats. We tried the jalapeno cheese summer sausage and the snack sticks, kind of like a homemade Slim Jim. Both products were excellent.

A brisket burnt end sits amid pulled pork.
Sliced Jalapeno sausage and pulled pork. Miller's grinds three types of their own fresh sausage. 

Last but not least, we finished lunch with a couple of home baked deserts. The blueberry-cherry cobbler and coconut carmel cake were from the kitchen of Dirk's wife Lisa. They were a great finish to a perfect lunch. As Daniel had tweeted, everything is good here. We can't wait to try the ribs on a Friday coming up soon.

The other thing we noticed was the sense of community in Miller's. Dirk and his crew seemed to know everyone who came for lunch, greeting customers by name and with handshakes. Not what you usually see in the big city.

As we were out by the smokers, one of the customers and his wife stopped to chat. He was none other than Jerry Grote, former catcher for the New York Mets in the 1960s and 70s. Grote was regarded as one of the best defensive catchers of his era and a master of handling young pitchers, including a wild Texan with a 100 mph fastball named Nolan Ryan.

Jerry and his wife told us they come here to eat every week. "It just keeps getting better and better," they said.

Miller's Smokehouse, 208 N Penelope, Belton, 254-939-5500. Open Tues-Thurs 10:30am-6:30pm, Fri & Sat 10:30am-9pm or until the meat runs out.

Former major leaguer Jerry Grote and his wife visit with Dirk Miller. They eat here every week.
The thermometer on Miller's brisket pit.
Owner Dirk Miller, left, and Posse pitmaster Marshall Cooper swap pit stories after lunch.
Dirk pulls a pork butt out of the smoker for inspection.

Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Is reality TV stardom in Aaron Franklin's future? BBQ Pitmasters season 3 update

BBQ Pitmasters season 3 will begin filming tomorrow at the Don’t Be Cruel BBQ Duel competition in Tupelo, Mississippi.

The big news for Texas BBQ followers is that Austin BBQ pitmaster/owner Aaron Franklin will be joining the upcoming season of BBQ Pitmasters as a judge. BBQ entrepreneur and author Myron Mixon, of Jack's Old South BBQ, has already anounced he will be back as a judge on the show.

Championship pitmaster Tuffy Stone will also be joining the judging team. He was a major player on season one of BBQ Pitmasters and has great respect in competition circles. He also owns Q Barbeque, which has three locations in southern Virginia.

BBQ Pitmasters executive producer John Markus teased fans of the show with a tweet last Sunday as follows, "I am so excited about these two new Pitmaster judges. HINT: the most successful two BBQ restauranteurs working today!"

Having stood in line for one or two hours at Franklin BBQ on several occasions, I can vouch for John's tweet. I can only imagine that Tuffy's east-coast joints totally rock as well.

Adding Aaron and Tuffy should really help the chemistry and barbecue IQ of the show. Outside of Mixon, last year's judging team including former football player Warren Sapp and chef Art Smith left a lot to be desired. But so did the challenges to cook appetizers, rattlesnakes, frogs and alligators.

Playing Myron's deep south, old school BBQ personality against Aaron's hipster, young gun persona could be golden for the series. Tuffy is somewhere in the middle. It could also make the lines even longer at Franklin BBQ.

We can't wait to see the format when this season debuts around Memorial Day. Season one was must-see TV for backyard pitmasters around the country.

The last question we need answered is what channel the show will be on. I've seen rumors of "Discovery Destination" channel, but have never heard of that channel and don't get any Google hits on it either.

We'll update as we hear more details on BBQ Pitmasters season three.

Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cooking backyard BBQ with John Mueller & John Lewis

Last Sunday I hauled my Jambo pit to Austin. The first stop was John Lewis' house. Both Lewis and I had been invited to a backyard BBQ with John Mueller the next day.

John Lewis is a pitmaster (I call him The BBQ Genius, food critics call him the BBQ savant) who works at Franklin BBQ in Austin for Aaron Franklin. Franklin's has been named the best BBQ joint in America. That also means best in the world, says John Mueller, because no place else cooks real BBQ except Texas.

I help John Lewis on national KCBS BBQ competitions. John's cook team is named Porky's Revenge, and includes his fiancé Maureen Williams, Daniel Rugg Webb & Raymond Carreon. In its short time competing, Porky's Revenge has attracted the attention of top competitors like Tuffy Stone and Jamie Geer, the Jambo pit builder. Stone and Geer were featured in the first season of TV's BBQ Pitmasters along with Myron Mixon, Johhny Trigg and others. Later this month, John and I are competing at the upcoming 2012 Academy of Country Music and Mandalay Bay BBQ Throw-down competition in Las Vegas, NV.

John Mueller, who learned how to cook from his father, Bobby, of the legendary Taylor barbecue family, runs JMueller BBQ in Austin. He was intrigued by Lewis' competition BBQ skills and hinted at joining us at an event.

Early Monday morning with our pits in tow we headed over to Mueller's joint, which was closed for the day. Mueller had already fired his pit and loaded a couple of briskets and a bunch of beef ribs. When I saw that, I trimmed and rubbed a brisket and had it on my pit in no time. I ran my Jambo pit hotter than hell to try and keep up with Mueller's briskets since he obviously gotten a jump. He had told us the day before "no need to show early!" Lewis fired his pit a few hours later to cook a suckling pig after he completed final preparations.

So, while the meats cooked, everyone sat around the pits smelling the sweet burning post oak, throwing back a few beers and talking some serious BBQ. Mueller's wife Debi, daughter Erika, sister LeAnn, good friend Ali Form (cuts the meats at JMueller) and Wes were all there. Several other Mueller friends stopped by later as well.

The first round of meats came off Mueller's pit. We all devoured his handmade beef sausage - best sausage I've ever had. We all ate lots of it with cheddar cheese and Mueller's spicy hot sauce on fresh saltine crackers. It was damned good! Then Mueller pulled a few racks of his beef ribs off his pit. These were to die for. There is nothing better than eating properly prepped and cooked smoked meats straight off the pit. A while later, Mueller pulled a couple of briskets, which also rocked.

After a few more hours and a few more beers, Lewis pulled off the suckling pig. It stole the show. Lewis had stuffed it with herbs, seasonings, pounds of sausage and pork tenderloin and other secret stuff. Everyone at the cook off loved it. It was by far the best anyone there had ever had. And coming from the Muellers, that's very high praise.

Then I pulled the brisket off my pit and let it rest a while. Mueller pitched it on his block and cut it for us. They all told me it was excellent, which was sweet music to my ears coming from Lewis, the Muellers and their close friends.

Later, LeAnn Mueller, well known photographer and the sister of John, mentioned that John Lewis reminded her of her father, Bobby. John Mueller readily agreed. This is absolutely the highest complement any pitmaster could receive. Lewis just smiled, blushed a little and changed the subject.

John Lewis, left, and John Mueller pose for a portrait.
Photos ©Marshall Cooper/Texas BBQ Posse

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

John Mueller challenges Aaron Franklin to one-on-one cookoff

UPDATE: I phoned Aaron Franklin earlier today and he quickly agreed to do the showdown with the only hesitation being his busy upcoming agenda. We planned to talk again soon about the details and coordinate a date that works for everyone.

We talked how the showdown will be a very positive spirited thing, something that would be really be cool and fun to do, with proceeds donated to charity.

Afterwards John Mueller replied via text, "it sounds cool and think it would be best to wait til summer because thru June there is something every week".

We are planning on firming up the cook-off date which could be later this summer.....

Original post

Monday was a great day.

I spent it cooking, backyard-style, with two of the best pitmasters in the state: John Mueller of JMueller BBQ and John Lewis, who works for legendary Aaron Franklin at Franklin BBQ.

More about that in a later post.

But first, let's get to the real news. During the day Mueller, who was recently featured with Franklin on the cover of Texas Monthly magazine, said he would like to have a one-on-one brisket cook-off against Franklin.

It could be an event and the proceeds could go to charity, Mueller suggested.

I e-mailed Franklin for  a response and have not yet heard back from him. Will update when he does.

Within the Posse, we've had some heated debates about who produces the best brisket, Franklin or Mueller. Both are damn good. If there's a volunteer judges list, put us on it.

Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse

Monday, March 5, 2012

See the photos - Mama & Papa B's Bar-B-Q in Waco

Here's another great set of photos from my Dallas Morning News colleague Guy Reynolds. Guy is a photojournalist and photo editor at the News, as well as an early member of the Posse.

Whenever Guy shoots a barbecue joint for the Posse blog, I always really look forward to seeing the images. He's an artist with a camera and has been exhibited in numerous galleries over the past years. I have several of his BBQ photos framed and hanging on the walls of my house.

Last week Guy was looking for a place to eat in Waco. I steered him toward Mama & Papa B's Bar-B-Q, a small joint near downtown. I was pretty sure the food would be average or maybe a little above average, but it looked like a great place to shoot photos. If there's a really good place to eat BBQ in Waco, we have yet to hear about it.

Here's Guy's report:

I went to Mama & Papa B's in Waco. Great little place. Pretty good cue. Unfortunately, they doused it with sauce before I could stop him and that does make it a bit tougher to judge, especially by a novice like me.

But it was all good, brisket, ribs and sausage. Nothing really special but very tasty. And Mama B is a hoot. really, really friendly older lady.

Here are Guy's photos from his visit, enjoy!

Mama & Pappa B's Bar-B-Q, 525 South 8th Street, Waco, 254-754-8001. Open Mon-Thur 11 am-8 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-10 pm.

Photos ©Guy Reynolds

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sad BBQ news from Marlin - The Que Shack closes

Jim Mitchell shows off his smoker, now located across the street at his other business.
We were really excited to check out a new BBQ joint as we approached Marlin today. Our destination was The Que Shop, which got a 4-star review by BBQ Snob Daniel Vaughn earlier this year.

Marshall Cooper and I were hitting a couple of joints in the area and had high hopes. This looked like the kind of down home joint we really enjoy. We wheeled in the parking lot and immediately noticed the smoker was missing out back. Not a good sign.

There was an "open" banner on the side of the building but things didn't look right. We peeked in the front window and saw the chairs were stacked up. No a sign of recent activity inside either.

As we snooped around, a guy crossed the street and asked if he could help us. It was Jim Mitchell, owner and pitmaster of the Que Shack. He also runs bail bond, check cashing, used car and car repair businesses directly across Williams Street.

Jim told us that he had to shut the place down about four weeks ago.

"I just wasn't making any money," he said, adding that labor costs were a big problem.

He has no immediate plans to reopen but plans to continue doing some catering.

"I'd love to just cook BBQ and golf one of these days," Jim said with a smile.

And the Posse would love to try some of that cue one of these days too.....

Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse