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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Jr Tropical Ice Cream

I think by now, we have established that I’m the “food guy” at work.  I’ve never been a fan of the word “foodie,” or anything else that sounds like baby talk, but I’ve embraced my role as the food guy, quick to make restaurant recommendations, show up with delicious snacks to share, or try to wrangle people to go out to lunch somewhere new and different.

My colleagues don’t always take my advice, especially when it comes to picking a place to go out to lunch, but today they did.  I drove three of them to a great, relatively new restaurant that none of us had been to before, but I had been reading good things about, that I had been wanting to try for a while.  That review is coming soon, but when we were almost back to work, someone mentioned ice cream, I mentioned I had heard about a new ice cream place that sounded good, and then they all demanded I keep driving and take them there next.

So we ended up at Jr Tropical Ice Cream (https://www.facebook.com/JrTropicalicecream), a small establishment on Goldenrod Road, in a little shopping plaza just south of East Colonial Drive.  I had driven by this place a couple of times, but never had a chance to stop and explore.  I saw in the window that Jr Tropical serves a bunch of unique flavors of ice cream, including several tropical fruits (my favorite, Miami boy that I am) and some Puerto Rican and other Latin flavors.  I was so excited my co-workers were on board, trusting me even though I hadn’t even been here yet myself.

Jr Tropical Ice Cream instantly reminded me of my favorite ice cream parlor I’ve ever been to, Azucar Ice Cream Company in Miami, which offers a lot of unique flavors based on tropical fruits and Cuban desserts.  I hope to make it back to Azucar some day to write a proper review, but in the meantime, I am thrilled that we have Jr Tropical Ice Cream here in Orlando.

Well, everyone loved it, I’m pleased to report.  It’s a delightful little place with a huge variety of ice cream flavors, all made in-house.  The young man and woman who worked there were extremely friendly and welcoming, and you could tell they took a lot of pride in their ice cream.  Not only do they have so many interesting flavors, but the prices are definitely right.

Everyone except me ordered a small, for a very reasonable $2.99.  You can try up to two different flavors in a small.  Me being me, I asked how many flavors you could try in a medium for $4.50, expecting three, but you can get *four*.  They had me at four! 

You can also upgrade to a small waffle cone for $3.75, a large waffle cone for $4.90, a waffle bowl for $5.60, or get a banana split for $5.57.  What isn’t listed on these TV menus is that you can also get ice cream in half of a fresh coconut, which they cut in half right then and there.   I don’t even know why I didn’t get my ice cream in half of a coconut.  Even though we all knew we had to go back to work, I would have totally felt like I was on vacation.  Next time!

So the next four slides are my less-than-perfect photos of all the flavors of the day.  I’ll type them out to make it easier:
Tamarindo/tamarind
Acerola/West Indian cherry
Parcha/passion fruit
Guayaba/guava
Almendra/almond
Mango piña/mango pineapple

Piña/pineapple
Guanabana/soursop
Arroz con dulces/rice pudding
Guava piña/guava pineapple
Maiz/corn
Piña colada/pineapple coconut

Fresa/strawberry
Vainilla/vanilla
Birthday cake
Panky (we asked about this one, and Panky is a popular Puerto Rican wafer cookie, so this is chocolate ice cream with crumbled chocolate Panky wafers mixed into it)
Chocolate
Anis/anise (the flavor of black licorice)

Coco/coconut
Ron con pasas/rum raisin
Tres leches (literally “three milks,” a traditional Latin American dessert that is one of the richest, creamiest, most decadent and delicious desserts ever, made from a sponge cake swimming in a combination of sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream)
Nutella
Cookies and cream
Chocolate chip

And here are all the toppings and syrups that are available.  None of us opted to get any toppings or syrups on our maiden voyage, but when I return, I may add some sweetened condensed milk to whichever ice cream flavors I choose.  It’s so good, a lot of the time I’d rather just spoon or pour some condensed milk out of a can than eat a conventional dessert like cookies, cake, or a lesser ice cream.

But these were not lesser ice creams, constant readers!  They all had a thick, rich texture with a nice “mouth feel” — no gritty iciness from freezer burn, no weird mouth-coating fattiness like you notice from some cheaper, low-quality ice creams.  We lingered to enjoy them inside the shop because it was so hot outside, and I appreciated nobody asking if we could eat them in my car on the short drive back to work.  That’s how you get ants!

One colleague sampled the West Indian cherry and thought it was a little sour.  He ended up getting a small with the parcha (passion fruit) and the rum raisin, and he raved about how terrific the rum raisin was.  That’s an underrated ice cream flavor, if you ask me.  Rum Raisin isn’t flashy or sexy, it doesn’t have half of a candy store mixed into it, kids would probably think it is gross, but it’s kind of sophisticated and adult, and you could pretend you were on vacation trying it, or at least pretend your workday was already over.

And what about my four flavors?  I started with the passion fruit myself, then asked for guava, then mango piña, and topped it all off with the corn flavor.  I’ve had a sweet corn ice cream before at Wondermade in Sanford (another fantastic local ice cream shop), so I wanted to try this one.  It tastes a lot like sweet corn, but it was a uniform consistency with no kernels or anything.  It was good, but the fruit flavors were the real draw.  I loved them all, but I am obsessed with pineapple, mango, guava, and passion fruit and anything with those flavors.  I was an easy mark, but they didn’t disappoint at all.

Another colleague got the tres leches and let me sample a taste of it.  It was so good, I preferred it to my top layer of maiz ice cream.  It definitely had cinnamon in it, so it reminded me almost more of horchata, that sweet Mexican rice milk flavored with cinnamon, than tres leches.  But unlike most of the other ice creams that were a uniform consistency without chunks, this one had the texture of little pieces of chewy cake.  It was great.

When I return to Jr Tropical Ice Cream, I will try some new flavors.  Even growing up in Miami and developing a taste for tropical fruits, I don’t think I’ve ever had guanabana, the fruit also known as soursop, despite being a popular juice and milkshake flavor at Cuban restaurants.  Next time I’ll try that, and also the straight-up pineapple and coconut flavors… and also the rum raisin my co-worker raved about so much.

This is a great little place that everyone should stop into and support.  And if the location on Goldenrod, just south of Colonial, isn’t convenient, there is a second location of Jr Tropical Ice Cream down in Kissimmee.  It might be September now, but we all know it’s going to be hot and humid up until Thanksgiving here in Orlando.  I hate the heat and humidity, but say what you will about it, it remains perfect weather to cool down and treat yourself with some ice cream.

If you feel like ice cream is too much of an indulgence and too “dangerous” or “naughty” to keep around, then don’t buy it at the supermarket to fill your freezer — just go out and treat yourself here once in a while!  A trip out to an ice cream parlor, especially a locally owned one like Jr Tropical Ice Cream with so many unique flavors, will make it seem so much more special than going through a pint (or a gallon) of mass-produced, corporate ice cream without even thinking about it, while binge-watching your favorite shows at night.

And when you go, remember to ask for your ice cream in the coconut, for the truest tropical experience.  Learn from my mistake, a mistake I will not be making a second time!