Unfrozen Caveman Food Critic - 4Rivers Smokehouse

A BBQ diamond in the rough?
Lured away from a career in the pharmaceutical industry by the sweet smell of smoked meat, 4Rivers Smokehouse owner and pit-master, John Rivers, now oversees a growing empire devoted to serving up traditional Texas-style "Q".  His flagship location, situated just east of the I-4 corridor in Winter Park Florida, opened in 2009 and brisket-starved Orlandoans quickly began to line up.

Literally, they lined up and waited, sometimes upwards of an hour, in that famous Florida sunshine, for plates piled high with barbecued meats and equally over-the-top sides like "Crispy Cream" bread pudding (made with Krispy Kreme doughnuts) and smoked blue cheese stuffed jalapenos wrapped in bacon.  Having resisted the irresistible pull of a "line-worthy" restaurant for almost two years, my wife and I decided to make a run at 4Rivers this past weekend.

Having read most of the numerous reviews on Urbanspoon.com (4R is rated as the #1 "casual dining" restaurant in Orlando) I expected to park across the street (we did) and to wait outside (yup), but the line moved quickly and misting-fans and a complimentary water service kept us relatively cool.

Watching patrons enter the inner-sanctum (the indoor area where you make your order and pick up your food) evoked that particular feeling of envy twinged with resentment.  I tried to act cool, like I didn't notice the parade of customers, with their plates piled high with meats, but failed miserably.  The doors would swing open, admitting the next lucky person in line, and I would crane my neck to catch a glimpse of what lay inside.   

With a maximum capacity of approximately 10 people, the room was packed with people gazing fixedly towards the menu board.  These chosen few, basking in the aroma of brisket, seemed to be on the verge of something important, a decision that would forever alter the course of their lives. Obviously they were thinking about their orders, planning which two or three sides would be enjoyed along with their smoked meats (depending on whether they ordered a sandwich or a platter) and having the "Should I?  No I shouldn't.  Yes I should!" conversation with themselves as they came upon the dessert selection.  Soon I would be one of them.

The cramped but orderly "Inner Sanctum".
All at once it was our turn to enter and we stepped inside.  I had preemptively decided my order, the brisket was a given, but I was plunged into a panicked state of side-order confusion.  My meal came with a biscuit, but that wouldn't do.  Maybe I could trade for a hunk of corn-bread, but what else? Greens?  Beans?  Blue-cheese stuffed jalapenos wrapped in bacon?

The brutal efficiency of the cafeteria-style food delivery system relentlessly pushed us forward.  Our orders had to be made, so I went first; brisket with no extra sauce, smoked jalapenos, green beans with bacon, baked cheese grits and "Texas-style" corn bread.  My wife went for the pulled pork sandwich, but when she asked if they could hold the sauce, she was informed that it was already mixed in.

Pre-saucing pulled pork, in my mind, is verboten.  Adding sauce after the fact is one thing, but an unwillingness to serve pulled pork plain speaks to underlying issues of dryness and a lack of intrinsic flavor.  It seemed like an amateur move for such an esteemed establishment, but after being assured that they only mixed in "a little" sauce, she decided to go for it.  Rounding out her order she picked up a side of collard greens and some more of the green beans with bacon.

The dessert case was pretty epic.  Besides the aforementioned "Crispy Cream" bread pudding, there were cupcakes (carrot cake, red velvet, Mississippi mud, and "Birthday cake"), regular cakes, and some other assorted tarts and pies.  We took a pass on these items, deciding that it would definitely be overkill.

We paid, a wallet pleasing $21 for our entire order, and hauled our trays out the door.  Seating in the limited space of the outdoor patio area was in short supply as it was a weekend, and the place was bustling.  With nary an empty table in sight, and with trays of food caught in an awkward limbo, we must have looked pretty pathetic.  A kind stranger took pity on us and offered the us seats at their table.

Gentlemen, start your drooling!
Perched on the corner of a picnic bench, we started to dig in. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps my taste-buds were spoiled by a recent trip to North Carolina (see "Going Paleo (and not so Paleo) on the Road") but I found the brisket to be a tad dry and ended up having to apply liberal amounts of sauce. Thankfully, the sauce was quite good. A spicy, tangy, blend that erred on the side of vinegar with a little zip of heat at the end.

The smoked jalapenos were tasty as well, but about 1/2 the size they should be.  Two of the little morsels counts as a "side" which is pretty unacceptable considering that they were literally "bite-sized".  My other sides were a mixed bag.  The green beans were passable, but the cheese grits were appropriately creamy with just the right amount of cheese.

I tasted my wife's collard greens, but found them to be unappealing.  The kitchen's heavy handedness with the sugar rendered them far too sweet for my tastes.  Thankfully, the corn bread was pleasingly moist and there seemed to be pieces of pepper mixed in.  A side of butter would have made it better, but at least our request for some was quickly honored by one of the 4R crew.

Our original impromptu companions had left and were quickly replaced by another crew.  I introduced myself and made some small talk, learning that ordering ahead was, "the way to go," and that for an extra $2.00 you can double your portion of meat.  They had also ordered the fried Oreos, an item that I, thankfully, was unaware even existed. 

As expected, my wife's pulled pork sandwich tasted like sauce.  The assertion that they, "only used a little," was true, but the strong flavor easily overpowered the meat.  While the decision to pre-sauce the pork probably makes good business sense, the meat would be less likely to dry out and a more consistent product could be delivered, but I think that the bottom-line is that it is a cop-out.  Offering the option of plain pulled pork is nonnegotiable if 4Rivers is to truly rise to the level of greatness.

With our meal finished, and our bellies pleasantly full, my wife an I walked hand in hand back across the street to the church parking lot where our car was parked.  We enjoyed our meal at 4Rivers, but left unimpressed.  Their selection of inspired sides slightly missed the mark and the much-touted meats were simply underwhelming.  4R definitely has the "cool" factor going for it, as evidenced by the numerous bumper stickers seen around town, but their "Cue" is just OK.

Cave Score: 
Meatiness - 5 out of 5, Just about any animal you can think of is served.
Value - 4 out of 5, No waiters or waitresses cuts out the need to tip and meals are fairly priced.
Flavor - 3 out of 5, Side dishes steal the show as meats tend toward dry or overwhelmed by mandatory sauce.
Setting - 2 out of 5, Lack of indoor seating and perpetual crowds make it a social experience, but comfortable it is not.
Service - 4 out of 5, The staff was uniformly friendly and efficient. 

Overall Score - 3.6

For more information, check out 4Rivers' website at 4RSmokehouse.com

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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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2 comments:

  1. Hi Tony,
    Your first post just appeared on Urbanspoon! Check it out:
    http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/26/1455362/restaurant/Orlando/4Rivers-Smokehouse-Winter-Park
    I encourage you to claim your blog, which allows you to add a picture and change some settings. The blog photo shows up next to your posts wherever they appear on Urbanspoon. Here's how to claim:
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  2. Thanks for the Review Tony! I have been wanting to go, but haven't made it up there yet. It's sounds like I should still give it a try.

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