Chain Reactions: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

This is a review that is years overdue.  Ever since the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse (https://www.4rsmokehouse.com/) location opened in Winter Park, Florida, in 2009 (where the wonderful Hunger Street Tacos now stands), my wife and I have been huge fans.  As John Rivers expanded his barbecue empire, we became regulars, and I introduced many friends to it, both locals and out-of-towners.  It was some of the best barbecue we had ever eaten, and still is.  Even as talented newcomers have exploded onto the Orlando barbecue scene, like Git-N-Messy BBQ (RIP, Chef Chuck Cobb) and Smokemade Meats + Eats, 4 Rivers remains a homegrown favorite that remains pretty consistent, even with 13 locations throughout Florida.

If you’re reading a food blog (even this food blog, you dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!), you probably know that there are different regional barbecue styles: smoked brisket crusted with dark, peppery bark in Texas, pulled pork and ribs in Memphis, ribs with a sticky, sweet, tomatoey sauce in Kansas City, and in North Carolina your pork may come with a mustard-based sauce or a thin, vinegary sauce, depending where you are in the state.  Florida has never had its own barbecue style, but we’re already such a mishmash of cultures and cuisines from around the country and the world, it makes sense that John Rivers would take it upon himself to travel the country, try all the best stuff, and start his own restaurant to “de-regionalize” barbecue, as the 4 Rivers website explains.  It’s a great way to sample different barbecue styles, and if you don’t know the difference, then it doesn’t matter, and it’s just a great place to eat.

But even though my wife and I were regulars at the Longwood location for the longest time, we hadn’t been back to 4 Rivers in a few years, at least not since I started this blog in the summer of 2018.  The menu grew over time, and then shrank back, paring down to the essentials as the Winter Park location grew into a mighty local chain.  My wife’s favorite meats, the smoked prime rib and tri-tip steak (a California barbecue specialty) disappeared from the menu, and so did her favorite dessert, the brownie-like Texas sheet cake.  Plus, I was always on the lookout for new entrants into Orlando’s barbecue biz, trying to expand my palate and report back on the latest and greatest.

But then I saw that 4 Rivers brought back their smoked prime rib as a sandwich, just as a special for the month of December, and I knew we had to go back for it!  Even if you’ve been there before to enjoy the brisket, pork, chicken, ribs, and burnt ends, you must try the prime rib sandwich ($13.99) while you can.  It comes with thick slices of tender, medium-rare aged ribeye steak, first smoked and then finished on the grill, served on a grilled bun (like a potato bun) with melted provolone cheese, crispy onions, and creamy horseradish sauce.  It’s a masterful sandwich with a very generous portion of meat.  I got one with the works, and I got one for my wife with no cheese or onions and horseradish sauce on the side.  Here’s a cross-section of mine:

My wife and I both love ribs, and she occasionally asks me to bring home ribs from Sonny’s Real Pit Barbecue, because it’s so convenient.  But I think we had both forgotten how far superior the ribs from 4 Rivers are, because this 1/2 rack platter of St. Louis-style ribs ($20.27) was magnificent.  The meat is juicy and tender, and it easily separates from the bone.  The pork spare ribs are seasoned with 4 Rivers’ all-purpose rub (which you can buy), then smoked, then lightly brushed with a honey barbecue sauce that finishes them with a lightly sticky, shiny glaze.  They are awesome.  And even though the half-rack just comes with six ribs, each one is a good size, and we had more than enough food to get three or four meals out of everything.

Ordering the 1/2-rack rib platter on the 4 Rivers website,  it gave me the option to add additional meats for a small upcharge.  It had been so long since we had been there, I decided to add on some brisket for the very nominal price of $3.84, for a more complete review that would include another one of my old favorites.  It came with four decent slices of lean, smoky beef brisket.   I definitely prefer moister, fattier brisket, but that’s on me for not specifying my preference when placing the order.  It was still good, though. 

But that’s not all!  The platter is an amazing bargain because it comes with three sides you can choose.  At any barbecue joint, the sides should ideally be given as much care and quality as the meats, but they are too often treated as afterthoughts.  Not so at 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  I chose three of our old favorite sides: some of the best barbecue baked beans ever (made with pork and brisket!), my favorite collard greens (simmered with ham, onions, and garlic), and smokehouse corn (sautéed with smoked tomatoes, onions, and garlic and served with chopped cilantro; well worth a 50-cent upcharge).  You can always order sides separately if you don’t get a platter; the beans and collards are $2.89 each and the corn is $3.39, or you can add them onto sandwich orders for $1.75 and $2.25, respectively. But the platter is a gift that keeps on giving, because you can also choose between Texas jalapeño cornbread or  a dinner roll.  Of course I chose the cornbread, and of course I forgot to photograph it, but you can imagine what a square of cornbread looks like, especially if you’re reading a review of a barbecue restaurant on a food blog.

I remember when 4 Rivers Smokehouse was all the rage throughout Orlando — a beloved homegrown institution that always got recommended whenever locals or tourists wanted to know the best places to eat.  As it became more successful, it opened more locations and became more familiar, and I think people started to sleep on it, or worse yet, dismiss it as a monstrous chain that might sacrifice quality or authenticity as it expanded.  It was game-changing in 2009, but Orlando has grown so much as a culinary city since then, and now we have even more good locally owned and operated restaurants in the city, including some other great places for barbecue.  But just because 4 Rivers might not be Orlando’s hottest barbecue joint anymore doesn’t mean it has fallen by the wayside or rested on its laurels.  The food is still solid, and even if they took some of our old standards off the menu, the classics are still sticking around, and you can pay attention to the monthly specials for new or returning favorites.  We should not have stayed away this long, but 4 Rivers isn’t going anywhere, and now we aren’t either.  Just be aware that all 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are closed on Sunday, so plan accordingly!

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