Open a barbecue joint and the world will beat a path to your door.
And in the case of Four Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park, they’ll line up outside the door and wait up to 20 minutes to be served.
Owner John Rivers had a much longer wait to see his barbecue joint open to the public. Rivers started producing barbecue in 2005 as part of a fundraising effort to help a local family with high medical bills. A business producing barbecue sauces and such resulted, and Rivers started catering.
(By the way, John Rivers is not be be confused with Johnny Rivers, who also has a smokehouse. Read about that — and how I missed my flight to New York — here.)
A restaurant, or at least a retail outlet where people could eat his ‘cue whenever they wanted, seemed like the next logical step. But as with so many other first-time restaurant owners, Rivers learned the path to getting a restaurant open is loaded with pitfalls. Licensing, permitting and code inspections delayed the opening of Four Rivers for the better part of a year. First references to an imminent opening were in June; I reported in August that September would see the new smokehouse open.
It finally started serving customers on November 11.
Four Rivers is on the corner of West Fairbanks Avenue and Formosa Avenue. It’s a pretty good sized building — perhaps at one time a filling station with service bays? — but there is no inside dining space. Customers queue up to an inside counter and, as was the case when I visited recently, snake around and back out the door and alongside the building.
You place your order with the first fellow, who slices the meats and piles them onto a tray. Unless you order your food to go, it’s plopped onto a paper-lined tray instead of a paper or foam plate. It surely cuts down on trash, although side items are served in small foam cups — a scoop of baked beans on a tray isn’t very appealing. (Neither is a plop of pulled pork when you really get down to it, but, hey, we’re talking about barbecue here, so unstylish is considered chic.)
I had plenty of time standing in line to consider my options, but I was still mulling them over by the time my turn came to give my order. I wanted to try the signature item, angus brisket. But I also wanted the pulled pork. But I also like ribs, and for some reason I haven’t been able to find any decent ones in town lately.
I decided to go with the pulled pork dinner, which would get me three side dishes. And for another two bucks I could add a second meat (as long as it wasn’t ribs, dammit), so I requested the brisket. Then I figured, what the heck. I also got a half-rack of St. Louis style ribs.
But then I had to whittle my side dishes down. The smoked jalapenos looked interesting, so I chose them along with baked beans — another measure of a serious bbq joint — and a smoky corn relish that still had strands of corn silk in it.
With my tray piled high, I headed to the covered patio out back, next to the gravel parking lot, and sat myself at one of the big picnic tables.
The brisket was very good, and its innate fattiness leant a rich mouthfeel. I also liked the ribs, which although not finished to fall-off-the-bone status were tender nonetheless. The only problem with the ribs, and to a smaller extent with the brisket, was the spice rub, which was overly salty.
That wasn’t an issue with the pulled pork, which was moister than most versions but still full of good, chewy chunks. Ordering it as a dinner does not get you a bun, just a rather skimpy biscuit. However, this pulled pork would have made a pretty good sandwich.
The sauce is a one-size-fits-all variety that was neither sweet nor especially spicy. There is a very pleasant afterburn in the mouth but not something I would classify as very hot. Fans of liquid fire may be disappointed, but there are bottles of hot sauce on the tables for them.
The smoked jalapenos were filled with creamy cheese and wrapped with bacon — what’s not to like about that? They were, however, kind of smallish, but just because you’re eating in a barbecue joint doesn’t mean you should be piggy. The baked beans had more meat in them, always a good thing. (Well, unless you’re a vegetarian, and then what the heck are you doing here anyway? Just asking.) The corn relish was good, and the silk provided flossing. (Not really, but what a great concept — self-flossing food.)
Four Rivers Smokehouse appears to have been worth the wait — both for it to open and to order food.
Four Rivers is at 2103 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices range from about $5 to $15. The phone number is 407-474-8377. This link will take you to 4rsmokehouse.com.