On June 14, LeAnn Mueller, co-owner of one of Austin’s most iconic restaurants, La Barbecue, died suddenly at the age of 51. Mueller, an out-lesbian pitmaster, gained respect and acclaim for her work in the highly competitive, cis male-dominated world of barbecue, where legacies hinge not just on personality or fancy atmosphere but on the commitment to tradition, quality, and consistency of the brisket on the tray. But in LeAnn fashion, she went above and beyond to create and foster barbecue, a space, and a community that was innovative, fun, and welcoming to everyone, all with pickleback shots at hand.
Mueller was truly a groundbreaker, throughout her personal life and within the Texas barbecue landscape. Mueller was a descendant of barbecue royalty. A member of the famous Mueller barbecue family — the ones behind Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor — she grew up steeped in the family business alongside her late brother, John Mueller. However, LeAnn very much set her own career path creatively and in the world of smoked meats.
LeAnn Mueller was first and foremost a photographer. She studied in Los Angeles and relocated to New York in 2006. But in 2008, when her father, Bobby Mueller, died, she came back to Texas and ended up helping her brother John open a barbecue truck in 2011. LeAnn and John were known as much for their culinary prowess as their public feuds, which led, notably, to John’s ouster from the business in 2012.
LeAnn Mueller, now immersed in the Austin barbecue scene, decided to change the name of the truck to La Barbecue. Partnering with then-girlfriend Ali Clem and pitmaster John Lewis, Mueller sealed La Barbecue’s fate as one of the best barbecue restaurants in Texas. The truck moved around to different locations through the years, during which time Mueller and Clem got married, and Lewis left for South Carolina. In 2017, it landed its first physical location within a market on East Cesar Chavez. In 2021, the restaurant moved just down the block into its very own standalone space.
All the while, Mueller proudly wore her identity in the barbecue world on her sleeve. A few days before LeAnn’s death, during Pride Month, she and her wife posted a photo of themselves posing with their dog and sausage links, accompanied by a caption reading: “We are proud to be the *first-ever woman AND lesbian-owned BBQ restaurant in all of Texas*!” And it’s true.
The greater barbecue and restaurant communities and her friends held LeAnn in the highest regard. Fellow female and queer pitmasters recognized her as an inspiration who proved that their goals were possible, too. Friends looked to her for acceptance and deep companionship through thick and thin. Restaurant and bar professionals saw her as someone who lent her help in any way she could, whether through advice or support, whether they knew her intimately or not.
Eater Austin reached out to colleagues and friends of LeAnn Mueller to share their remembrances. The restaurant is hosting a celebration of her life from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday, July 2.
“LeAnn was such an inspiration and we were privileged to talk about our collective struggles in barbecue. I remember the last thing I said to her as we hugged goodbye at Nickel City a few weeks ago was that [LeAnn and Ali] walked so that we could run. They faced so many battles starting La Barbecue. I hope that we can honor her and be what she was to us for the next generation of women in barbecue, and continue to pave the way for others.”
— Haley Conlin, Chuck Charnichart, and Alexis Tovías Morales, co-owners of new Lockhart barbecue restaurant Barbs B Q
“There was always room at LeAnn’s table. I meant the conversation would not only be more interesting, but ordering the whole menu was expected and often happened times two. Her curiosity about people connected with her passion for food and photography. She was interested in the whole story, where you came from, and why you are who you are, whether artist or chef, person or dish. She asked questions, she cared, and to me, that made her approachable.
“Now, I know that she had a formidable presence and that her fearlessness could be challenging, but I was never scared of her until now, now that she’s gone. I am scared of what I will do without her. We met when I was a server. We forged our friendships as artists and we became family over dinners that I thought would last forever. She photographed my transition, and in my most vulnerable moments, I still felt at ease; there was an effortless courage that she exudes, even now. Where some may be intimidated, I felt inspired to ask more questions, make more art, and eat things that I didn’t realize were food. I will miss everything about her, even her temper tantrums in airports over luggage, her fondness for sad country played way too loud, and long monologues about ghosts, aliens, and other government cover-ups. I would do it all again endlessly just to have more late nights with LeAnn.”
— Xavier Schipani, friend and artist
“At the end of last year, we moved out of our food truck and into the Upscale Market kitchen, [which was] previously a Quickie Pickie and the former home of La Barbecue, before they moved into their current brick-and-mortar. When we moved in, LeAnn came by to welcome us to the neighborhood. She was very supportive of us and expressed how she was proud of us for making the move out of the food truck and into a brick-and-mortar. She told us how she thought this was a great move for us and wished us well. She really showed us great community spirit and support. She was a real trailblazer for women in barbecue and will continue to be an inspiration long after her passing. As a woman in an industry that is heavily male-dominated, I am happy to have existed in the same timeline as such an amazing and inspirational woman.”
— Sarah Lambert, co-pitmaster of Holly barbecue restaurant JNL Barbecue
“Hearing about LeAnn’s passing was terrible, shocking news. I can’t imagine what Ali, La Barbecrew, and their close friends/family are going through. It’s truly heartbreaking. I really think LeAnn had a huge heart and lots of soul. It’s hard to think about Austin and barbecue without her here.”
— Tom Micklethwait, owner and pitmaster of Austin barbecue truck Micklethwait Craft Meats
“The first time I met LeAnn was on set for Tribeza. It was 2015 and our team had this idea for a shoot and LeAnn agreed to shoot it. As a collaborator, she was incredibly generous. She would take your vision and turn it into something beautiful. We became friends and I learned that her generosity extended into all aspects of her life. A few years ago, LeAnn and Ali came over for a casual backyard hang — a cheap beers-and-snacks kind of night. When I woke up the next morning, they had left my fridge stocked with Champagne and huge tubs of sides from La Barbecue. That’s just the kind of friends they are — they take care of you even after they’re gone.
“The collective grief we’re feeling across the city is very much indicative of the impact LeAnn Mueller had. Sure, she was born into barbecue royalty, but she made it her own. The Muellers are gods in a state where barbecue is religion, but LeAnn was loud and queer and unapologetic and was determined to do it her way. She touched an entire generation of restaurateurs and creatives and her death feels like the closing of a very specific chapter in our city’s history. I will miss her very much.”
— Katie Friel, friend and former editor of Tribeza and CultureMap Austin/San Antonio
“We are shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden loss of our friend and colleague, LeAnn Mueller. LeAnn and Ali were early and ardent supporters of the Cavalier and of our family.
“Often boisterous and sometimes rowdy, LeAnn’s laughter filled the room with her larger-than-life presence. The Cavalier was honored to host LeAnn and Ali’s Red Rocket Wiener Wagon pop-up. They both have been generous to share their own popularity to help buoy our business’s notoriety.
“LeAnn was a longtime regular of Chadwick [Leger]’s when he worked at Shangri-La. The two of them followed him to the Cavalier and were generous and early supporters of our small business. They both were so kind to our little baby, who was born only two months after we opened. LeAnn was always full of life and laughter, filling our small bar room with ebullience.”
— Rachelle Fox and Chadwick Leger, co-owners of Austin bar the Cavalier
“We are among so many people in the community who are grieving her loss and celebrating her life, who did not know her personally. But we sure knew her food and her legend, and as a woman co-owned food trailer, LeAnn’s brand of barbecue inspired, pushed, and challenged us by setting such a high bar. While there isn’t much out there more competitive than barbecue in Texas, we are all one big family when we lose one of our own. We are forever grateful to LeAnn for the barbecue food trailer parking lots that she paved for the rest of us to follow.”
— Jamie Dickens, owner of Dripping Springs barbecue truck Crimson Creek Smokehouse
“LeAnn and Ali have both been a huge part of the Low Down family from the very beginning. They were some of our first customers when we were just selling frozen drinks out the front door during the pandemic. Then, when we were finally allowed to open but had to have food, they provided us with chopped beef sandwiches to help us stay afloat. We’ve celebrated birthdays with them, mourned losses with them, and basically been a family with them. There’s a huge hole in the East Side right now with LeAnn’s passing. Not only did she always bring a spark to every party, but she was also one of the kindest and most genuinely helpful people I’ve ever known. She will be very missed.”
— Allen Demling, owner of Austin bar Low Down Lounge
“What always amazed me about LeAnn, with Ali always by her side, was what big lives they led. LeAnn already had a career big enough for Texas, and then she got into barbecue, maybe to spite her family or to honor them or to simply say, ‘I belong in this world too.’ In a society that so often tells women what they can and can’t do, they didn’t need anyone’s permission to do whatever the hell they wanted. They traveled and hosted huge parties. They knew everybody in town and made everybody feel like they were in on the job. I never knew how she had the energy to keep it up, but LeAnn’s passion for making a mark is something I’ll never forget. It was proof that you can do whatever you want in this life because it’s your life and yours alone.”
— Addie Broyles, former Statesman food columnist
“She and partner Ali Clem have supported us since our early days. I remember getting giddy the first time I got to write her name on a cheese tray she ordered for the holidays. We thought that if such a food maven was willing to support us, then we must’ve been doing something right. I’ve always loved and found a kinship in her mix of high- and lowbrow foods, like caviar and chips. Throughout our years, LeAnn, Ali, and La Barbecue have continued that support. When we hosted a holiday team party during the pandemic and sourced their barbecue, they refused to let us pay, despite the restaurant industry being hit hardest. And they’ve come to us for wholesale needs throughout the years; most recently a couple of weeks ago, we met in the shop and tasted cheeses and meats together for over an hour. Little did I know, that’s the last I’d get to play with food with her. And I’m grateful for it and will hold onto that. Thanks for paving the path in so many ways. And for making some dang good food.”
— Kendall Antonelli, co-owner of Austin market Antonelli’s Cheese Shop
“LeAnn was an early supporter of Interstellar. She showed up to our Austin Monthly dinner when we were chosen as ‘best new restaurant’ with kind words and shared some barbecue wisdom with me; we hoped to have half the success of La Barbecue. LeAnn will be sorely missed by us and all who knew her. Our hearts are with her family, the La Barbecue crew, and our community.”
— John Bates, pitmaster and owner of Austin barbecue restaurant Interstellar BBQ
“My favorite memory of LeAnn Mueller was from 2018. John Mueller, her late brother, organized an event in Georgetown when he was still running Black Box BBQ. He had brought together a bunch of pitmasters for a barbecue potluck. LeAnn was there with Ali cooking a massive pan of shrimp and searing off some smoked pork chops. John was cooking a forequarter of a steer over an open fire. It wasn’t going well. John’s beef had caught on fire, the flames were taller than him, and he flipped the whole thing over with a shovel. It was black and charred, and smoke was filling the air. LeAnn walked over. I didn’t hear everything she said, but she was pointing and directing him, and he was moving the beef and the coals below it. From my perspective, the whole thing was a lost cause. It was never going to get done and was already burnt, but they worked together to make the best of it. Needless to say, I left long before the beef was edible, if it ever was. Thankfully, I drove home with a belly full of LeAnn’s shrimp and pork chops.”
— Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly
“LeAnn was loud, opinionated, fun, a leader, and so much more. From the moment she and Ali would enter the doors, I always knew there was a good conversation to be had. LeAnn’s contribution to the culinary scene and Austin generated an impact that we will undoubtedly carry forward after her passing. Though she’s now gone, we are lucky to have known her and will continue to celebrate her life and all of the memories we had together.”
— Matt Cisneros, partner at Austin restaurant Cisco’s
“LeAnn bridged the gap between generations of barbecue cooks. She learned from her father, who was a James Beard legacy recipient, opened her own joint to huge acclaim, and then employed a dozen or so current Top 50 cooks. Her mark on the barbecue world won’t be forgotten and will live on in the food at La Barbecue and in everyone she taught.”
— Evan LeRoy, chef, pitmaster, and co-owner of barbecue truck LeRoy & Lewis
“LeAnn was a lady with a beautiful and lovely soul. She was very caring, and endearing, and always made my day better when she was in the restaurant. I’ll miss her dearly.”
— Norma Chavez, waitress at Austin restaurant Cisco’s
These blurbs have been edited and condensed for clarity.