Restaurant Review: 4 Rivers

Logo property of 4 Rivers Smokehouse
It's about time I started sharing some of my favorite food joints.  I'm a bit late to the 4 River's raving party--4R has been blowing Floridians away for 5 years now--but the food here is of such a high caliber that any mention is warranted.  Of course, I shouldn't really call them local anymore considering that they started in Orlando but have since ventured out into other Florida cities such as Jacksonville, Gainesville, and from what I've heard, Miami is coming soon. Either way, from the perspective of a Memphis girl, this place is Florida's holy grail of barbecue.  It's Texas style, and that homemade sauce really hits the spot.  Since the concept of reviewing my favorite food spots in Orlando has been on my mind for a while, I figured what better place to begin than my good ol' hometown favorite of BBQ?


The story of 4 Rivers is a respectable one.  I read on a flyer in the restaurant once that John Rivers began his barbecue empire to raise funds for a local family whose daughter was fighting cancer (the details are further explained on the 4R website). To earn money for medical expenses, Mr. Rivers began selling homemade barbecue from his garage.  His cooking was immensely popular and grew to a small location in Winter Park, Florida that had a constant line.  Now, I am generally not one for waiting in long lines for food, but 4 Rivers is worth it.  The restaurant has continued to grow, now with several locations across Florida.  My sister-in-law happens to work at one of the newer locations, and says she loves being a part of the business. Plus, Mr. Rivers keeps a close eye on the quality of each venue.

I remember the first time I enjoyed the wonder that is 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  After hearing friends and family rave about the small barbecue place, it was finally time to try it.  My husband and I wandered in and gazed at the menu, trying to decide where to begin in the large collection of southern specialties.  From the main courses of beef brisket, pulled pork and chicken to side dishes including cheese grits and fried okra, there were some decisions to be made.

After a few minutes of browsing, I decided to give pulled chicken a try. He opted for the beef brisket.  I went with fries and macaroni and cheese as sides--I'm a girl who can't say no to mac and cheese.  The great thing is that the sandwiches come with 2 sides.  This is a must since those sides are irresistible!

Let me just start with the chicken, since that was my first pick at the time.  I was impressed with the moistness, as it was cooked until perfectly shredded.  The sauce added this fantastic sweetness, making the chicken a great choice for non-red meat eaters.  A 4 Rivers chicken sandwich is quite satisfying.

But the real star here is the beef brisket, which I have never returned again without ordering.  The chicken is great, but why mess with great when you have phenomenal?  4 Rivers beef brisket itself could be enough to keep me in the state of Florida.  You have the choice of ordering moist or lean meats, with the moist from the fattier portion of the brisket and the lean from the opposite.  I've had both sides of the spectrum and have to say, while the mix of both is ideal, moist comes in at the top.  I can deal with a few chunks of fat for the moist, juicy section of the brisket.  It is utterly perfect.
From the @4riverssmokehouse instagram

The sides are unbeatable as well.  As I mentioned, I'm a macaroni and cheese fanatic.  This is no disappointment to macaroni fans--extra creamy and cheesy makes for a happy stomach.  Since my first visit, I've worked my way though many sides, from the collards to the jalapeƱo cornbread and bread pudding.  Nothing will disappoint.  The baked beans even feature pulled pork to ensure the beans are loaded with flavor.

The sauce is a sweet one, though there is a spicier version with chunks of crushed red pepper.  There is also a less mentioned sauce I love with French fries - the smokehouse mustard.  It's got more flavor than your basic mustard seed and vinegar mix, with a sweetness to it that just rules.

I've heard their pulled pork is out of this world as well, and the burnt ends (a mix of brisket and pork) is supposedly killer.  I am not one for snacking on my piggy friends, so brisket is my guaranteed item of choice.  Since they have a loyalty program where you get a free menu item after 10 meals, 4R works out to be a worth place to invest your brisket bucks.

Ever since my first experience, I have been in love with this barbecue.  I can still appreciate other restaurants, but have not found another that hits the spot for my barbecue craving quite like the 4R.  I've tried just about all of the sides - with the exception of the bacon wrapped jalapenos - and they are all delectable.  My favorites remain macaroni and cheese and fries, though the coleslaw makes my tray on occasion. 

And on another note, the customer service has always been outstanding.  For me, since I come from a customer service background, this is a big deal.  I would much rather support a business that treats customers well, and will avoid those where I receive the opposite kind of service.  I tend to believe that happy employees are such because they are treated well by their employers, as this is a trend I have noticed in the past.  I can't speak to 4R's employee treatment, but I can say that their service has always impressed me.  Once, we had to wait in line an exceeding amount of time because a very large group in front of us kept letting their friends in line.  Rather than start trouble, we did our best to appear patient while waiting to make it up to the front. Once we arrived, I commented on the rudeness of the group in front of us to the server, who apologized for the inconvenience (despite the issue being completely unrelated to 4R itself), and gave us a free cupcake.  Experience improved 100%.  People remember things like that.

It would be a horrible review in general if I left out the Sweet Shop.  This little slice of greatness is a feature of all the 4R locations I've visited, and features a plethora of, yes you guessed it, sweet treats.  From the basic vanilla or red velvet to the crazy orange creamsicle or s'mores (I even recall a Doritos cupcake a while back), you can have all the sugar your heart desires.  AND, you get a free cupcake during the month of your birthday.

From the @4riverssmokehouse instagram


There is also a side restaurant of 4R called The Coop, which is loaded with chicken goodies.  But we'll save that for another day.

I suppose this turned into more of an essay declaring my love for beef brisket and the whole 4R experience than a restaurant review.  This is the product of having an idea for a review and not following through until you've technically reviewed it 50 times!  In all seriousness, the complements are not based on anything but the fact I am truly impressed by this place.

With a touching reason behind their beginning and amazing food to boot, it's no wonder 4 Rivers is doing so well.  My brother was an even bigger foodie than myself, and was obsessed with Memphis style barbecue.  He would have taken a coleslaw smothered pulled pork sandwich over just about anything, and I'm confident in saying that he would have completely approved of 4 Rivers.  Now that says a lot.

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