In 2004, 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park, FL started out as a commissary arm of his ministry to help struggling parents pay for their children’s medical care. By 2009, the initial Fairbanks Ave location near Interstate 4 turned into a restaurant. While the ministry mission of 4 Rivers remains central to the company’s mission, it has since expanded into a new and larger Fairbanks location with additional locations in East Orlando, Winter Garden, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Longwood, Orange Park, Tallahassee, and Tampa, FL.
4 Rivers Smokehouse – Winter Park, FL
The atmosphere of the 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park is inviting, comfortable, and set up to feed the masses. Though take out style BBQ is offered, the seating area adjacent to the ordering area is huge, with a large indoor table and benches configuration and additional seating outdoors. There’s also a large-scale cake/cupcake and ice cream area called The Sweet Shop filled with some impressive offerings.
Being a die-hard researcher, I snaked through the winding wait line dividers and asked the kid at the counter for a sampling of their fatty and lean beef brisket, one dinosaur bone beef rib, and some of the smoked sausage. I figured since we don’t find too many places here in Florida offering Texas Style BBQ, I’d do my best “What Would Daniel Vaughn Do?” take on this review… hence the full sampler. (Check out Daniel’s stuff over at Texas BBQ Monthly.)
For the brisket, I asked for and received both lean and fatty cuts. The beef rib came out of the kitchen area behind the ordering station wrapped in plastic wrap. It was about 2 pm, so I wasn’t expecting fresh off the rack ribs. The rib itself looked like it was from the end of a rack, but it was a good-sized portion nonetheless – with great bark and good coloring on the cut meat side. The sausage had great color and was cut into bite size slices. For sides, I selected the greens, baked beans, and bread pudding — each offered in separate Styrofoam cups.
My thoughts on how the meats tasted…
The brisket was great, I really enjoyed it. As a competition BBQ judge, it’s really different from what we see in turn in boxes. This brisket had good smoke flavor accented with salt, pepper, and maybe a little garlic, and that’s about it. The fatty portions presented a fat that had a great beefy, and slightly salty flavor, well-rendered so that it dissolves when you eat it. The leaner portions retained ample moisture and had good flavor as well.
I must confess that this was the first smoked beef rib I’ve ever eaten. I know, but again – Florida boy here. We raise tons of cattle in this state, yet pig meat ribs reign supreme. My first impression? The rib was good. Eating a beef rib is a lot different from enjoying a pork spare or baby back. I used a knife and fork on this bad boy. The bark on the outside was great – a little salt, pepper, and a deep but not overpowering smokiness – like what I tasted on the brisket. The meat was perhaps a little dry, but still moist enough to be enjoyed without needing sauce. In fact, I only used sauce on the very last pieces of the rib I ate just to say I tasted it.
The beef sausage was also enjoyable. Very juicy with great seasoning and enough of a fatty content to create a moist, enjoyable chew.
All in all, I’d rank the 3 meats I tried in order of most enjoyable as brisket, beef rib, then sausage. But I’d surely order all three again. Nothing I had was below a 4.5 if using a scale of 1-5 for taste or tenderness.
Some tasting notes on the sides…
The greens were great, with a hint of smoke and what seemed to be a tiny bit of back twang and heat – perhaps from a pepper vinegar sauce. There were a few cubed beef pieces mixed into the greens. I suppose they might add to the overall flavor if cooked along with the greens, but they were dry and forgettable overall. I skipped them and enjoyed the greens themselves very much.
The baked beans are served in a deep, rich and smoky BBQ sauce with some beef mixed in. The bread pudding was also pleasing – not too sweet and with raisins that added a nice tangy pop once in a while to break up the sweet taste of the pudding itself. I didn’t order anything from the Sweet Shop, but most likely will try out one of their cupcakes on the next visit.
Visually, the ordering process at 4 Rivers is a lot like what you see at Chipotle, as it all runs left to right pretty much in assembly line fashion with about 4 people working as a team to move your tray from stage to stage. The kitchen sits behind the ordering station area and hosts a couple of mammoth propane fired Southern Pride rotisserie style smokers.
If you’re in the Orlando area, or visiting any of the other areas where 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are situated, definitely stop in. I can only go on the experience I had at the Winter Park, FL location – which was enjoyable enough to warrant a return visit. Those who know me know that I’m pretty hard on chain BBQ restaurants, as they’re pretty awful on the whole. On this visit, 4 Rivers proved that it is possible for a multi-location BBQ joint serving massive crowds to raise the bar a bit. I hope they continue to do so.