Fourth City Serves Extraordinary All-Wood Smoked Meats in Fortune Teller Bar

Owners Greg Mueller and Erica McKinley picked up barbecue as a hobby living in the Pacific Northwest

click to enlarge Fourth City Barbecue’s all-wood smoked meats are different than most barbecued meats on offer in St. Louis.
Mabel Suen
Fourth City Barbecue’s all-wood smoked meats are different than most barbecued meats on offer in St. Louis.

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.

click to enlarge Greg Mueller and Erica McKinley are the co-owners of Fourth City.
Mabel Suen
Greg Mueller and Erica McKinley are the co-owners of Fourth City.
Mueller's hobby picked up steam while he and McKinley lived in Seattle. Though they loved the Pacific Northwest, they lamented the lack of community feeling and occupied their time by learning all they could about the craft of barbecue. The pair began an Instagram account under the name Fourth City Barbecue (after St. Louis' former status as the fourth largest city by population in the country), knowing that they wanted to do something bigger with smoked meat but not sure exactly where their path would lead them.

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.

click to enlarge Fourth City’s one-meat sandwich with pulled pork, pictured here with jalapeño-cheddar sausage and broccoli salad.
Mabel Suen
Fourth City’s one-meat sandwich with pulled pork, pictured here with jalapeño-cheddar sausage and broccoli salad.
Though Mueller and McKinley acknowledge the outstanding barbecue scene that already exists in St. Louis, they feel that diners will be excited to experience the unique joy of all-wood smoked meats — a style difficult to find in the area. It's a difference you understand the moment you tuck into a plate of Fourth City's outstanding pulled pork and are overwhelmed with the concentrated taste of the meat, kissed with a gentle backbeat of sweet smoke, as opposed to the more smoke-forward product that gas produces. Here, there's a subtle sweetness from the rub, some caramelized bits and pure, succulent pork that feels like a dictionary entry on what smoked pig should taste like.

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.

click to enlarge Greg Mueller left Boeing for barbecue.
Mabel Suen
Greg Mueller left Boeing for barbecue.
Mueller and McKinley offer a variety of excellent smoked sausages, which Mueller grinds, seasons, puts in casings and smokes on site. The jalapeño-cheddar version has a subtle, smokey heat that is countered by shockingly creamy cheese. The Red Hot RipLink, a play on Red Hot Riplets, is similar to a Texas-style hot link with a warm, sweet, bright heat that builds with every bite. A classic German-style bratwurst, it hits classic mace, porky notes — though its rustic texture is a lovely distinction — while the half-beef, half-pork Polish sausage (my personal favorite) delivers a sweet, garlicky, subtly smoky flavor that is pure meaty joy.

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.

click to enlarge Sides include a broccoli salad.
Mabel Suen
Sides include a broccoli salad.

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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About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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