When Greg Mueller talks about barbecue, something changes within him. It's not a personality shift: Rather, Mueller gives the impression that he is receiving some sort of divine intercession from the barbecue gods, relaying knowledge with a religious fervor of everything from the relationship between smoke color and the rate of combustion to the nuances of Missouri white oak and hickory to the beauty of pure wood smoke. It's not a dissertation; it's a revelation — one that he shares with anyone who shows an interest and one that is on full display at Fourth City Barbecue (2635 Cherokee Street, 314-669-6505), the food counter and smokehouse he runs with his wife, Erica McKinley, out of Fortune Teller Bar on Cherokee Street.
To see Mueller become enraptured by the virtues of all-wood barbecue is to see a man in his element — which is why it's so funny to hear that, before Fourth City, he had a soul-sucking job working as a financial analyst for a major international corporation. It was a job he got into because he thought it was what he was supposed to do. After graduating from college, he found himself in Boeing's supply-chain division and eventually transitioned to the company's finance side, got his MBA and became a senior financial analyst, where he jokes that there was a hole at the bottom of his chair slowly draining his life force.
Mueller began smoking meat as an escape after being inspired by his now-father-in-law and McKinley, who are excellent with the grill and in the kitchen, respectively. Though Mueller started out on a gas grill in the backyard, he began experimenting with all wood after McKinley gifted him a Weber kettle grill for Christmas.
After a couple of years in Seattle, they returned to St. Louis, and Mueller decided to throw himself into Fourth City full time. He quit his job at Boeing and got one with Mac's Local Eats so he could get some cooking experience while honing his barbecue skills on his own time. Though they knew they weren't ready to open a full-fledged restaurant, Mueller and McKinley (a full-time taxonomist) began offering pre-cooked, heat-and-serve barbecue boxes through Instagram after seeing the success of local brands such as Nicky Slices and Big Bear Pizza. Their boxes were a hit, but after feeling like they'd hit a plateau with their customer base, the duo decided they were ready to take the next step.
That opportunity came when they were offered the kitchen space at Fortune Teller Bar by its new owners. In July, Mueller quit his other restaurant job, and the pair set up shop in the Cherokee Street gathering place, eager to welcome in a new crop of guests.
Fourth City's brisket is equally extraordinary. Prepared Texas-style, so there's a nice bark on the thick, almost crumbly slices, the beef is impossibly tender and accented with mouthwatering rendered fat. For brisket purists, it's one of the city's most extraordinary examples of the form thanks to Mueller's painstaking, 24-hour process, which involves personally tending to the fire for 12 hours, then letting it rest in a holding chamber for another 12. You can taste Mueller's dedication in every bite.
The pair puts as much care into their vegan brisket. Mueller makes his own seitan, seasons it with his barbecue rub, smokes it separately from the other meats and even throws it on the coals to give it a deep, earthy flavor and charred texture. It's a truly flavorful option for plant-based eaters.
Though often associated with overly sauced pork nuggets, the rib tips at Fourth City are a masterclass in what this oft-thrownaway piece of spare rib should be. The hunks of meat are dipped in Mueller's slightly sweet rub, smoked, then tossed directly onto the coals, so they get a gloriously earthy, charred flavor. Served bone-in, the tips are like combining a rib's pork flavor with the primal satisfaction of eating an extra-meaty chicken wing.
As serious as Mueller and McKinley are about their barbecue, they show a playful side with their rotating specials; on one visit, they were serving a Thicc Rib sandwich, a fun riff on a McRib's guilty pleasure. Mueller intentionally overcooks spare ribs so that he can slide the bones out, leaving the meat intact. He cuts it into a square, dunks it in a tangy, sweet glaze, tops it with housemade pickles and sliced white onions and places it between a pillow-soft, sesame-seed bun. The McDonald's version may have a cult following, but Mueller's masterpiece is enough to convert even the most fervid believer.
Sides at Fourth City balance the traditional with the unexpected. Instead of saucy pit beans, Mueller and McKinley offer snappy savory beans that have a similarly deep, warm-spiced flavor profile as Cincinnati chili. The pair also draw upon their passion for Asian cuisine — which they fell in love with in Seattle — with dishes such as a wonderful Hawaiian-style macaroni salad and a sesame-oil-slicked vegan broccoli salad. A side of gently sweet, cake-like cornbread — offered with hot-honey butter — is as good as if it had come out of Grandma's oven.
Using that cornbread to sop up the rendered, rub-seasoned fat and meaty bits from the pulled pork that pool at the bottom of Fourth City's serving tray, you don't simply understand Mueller's passion for all-wood smoked meat; you feel it to your very core. It's enough to make you a regular customer of this outstanding smokehouse — and more than enough to make you a true believer.
Open Wed.-Sat. 5-9 p.m. (Closed Sun. to Tues.)
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