Last month’s Jetport Food and Wine Party was even better than the year before, a sensory overload of wonderful food served by a star-studded array of chefs. Upon entering the Kissimmee airport hangar, which had been transformed into a gigantic nightclub for the evening, attendees were greeted by celebrity chefs Tomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se) on one side and Daniel Boulud (Daniel, DB Bistro) on the other, each handing samplings of their foods to the surprised and delighted guests. Also in attendance were Scott Boswell of New Orleans’ Stella! and Stanley as well as some of Central Florida’s best chefs, including Brandon McGlamery of Luma, Kevin Fonzo of K, Greg Richie of Emeril’s Tchoup Chop, Bruno Vrignon and Jerome Bocuse of Les Chefs de France and about a dozen others.
And this is one of the best things I tasted that night: a smoked beef short rib over a black-eyed pea puree with collard infused cheese grits, smoked jalapeno and a cabernet demiglace. All prepared and served by John Rivers of 4Rivers Smokehouse. That’s right, the barbecue cook trumped the celebrity chefs. And please understand, that isn’t to say that the other chefs’ dishes weren’t wonderful, they were. I’m just saying that what Rivers was serving was exceptional.
I was reminded of the Jetport experience recently when I visited the newest 4Rivers Smokehouse in
Winter Garden. The original, of course, on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park is known for the long lines that snake out of the freestanding building, a former gas station. Some time ago Rivers had told me that the long line was something he built into the design. With little space inside, and only one cash register, there was almost always a line visible from the road. And the funny thing about lines is that even while most people complain about them, many will feel the need to go stand in one to find out what the attraction is.
When I arrived at the new 4Rivers, which occupies the former Taco Tico building on the corner of U.S. Highway 50 and Dillard Street, I smiled knowingly at the line that trailed out the front door. But once inside, I saw that there was a long line inside, too -- the space is much more ample here -- and two cash registers helping to move people along faster. So the line here isn’t an orchestrated one, it’s the result of the reputation that Rivers has earned by serving high quality barbecue.
That tradition continues here. Brisket is still the house speciality, both the lean end and the fattier version, depending on your preference. But there are also delicious ribs with tender meat that leaves the bone without coaxing. And sliced pork and Texas sausage and tri-tip steak sandwiches or prime rib with a smoky note. All wonderful. And the side dishes aren’t given short shrift. There are collard greens with bits of ham and a bit of sweetness to cut the astringency; lettuce salad with crumbled cornbread; macaroni and cheese; smokehouse corn; baked beans; sweet potato casserole; and baked cheese grits (you really must try those!).
The Winter Park location has no indoor seating, only a small covered slab in back with some picnic tables next to a too small gravel parking lot. The Winter Garden location has ample indoor seating at booths and communal tall tables, all in air-conditioned comfort. But surprisingly, most people seem to choose to sit outside here, too. Maybe it’s just part of the barbecue experience. It should be noted that instead of a small, gravel lot, this patio overlooks the large, ample parking lot of the strip mall that 4Rivers is officially part of. (In Winter Park the residential neighbors complain because hungry customers park on the side streets; Rivers told me that the Winter Garden landlord has started to get complaints from other strip mall tenants, apparently envious that the Smokehouse customers are parking in front of their businesses.)
This new location also features a drive-up window, but only for orders that were phoned in. There also is a separate counter indoors for takeout orders, something to consider if you’re not one of those people who like to stand in lines.
Another neat feature of the design here is a smoker grill behind the counter. Rivers uses it for “finishing off” the meats just before slicing. Some sausages hang over it, too, soaking up the smoke. The tall ceiling is finished with tin-type tiles. All very attactive, very comfortable and clean. (Maybe too clean for some barbecue aficionados, but then those people would never use a word like aficionado, either.)
What’s next? Work is already underway for the third 4Rivers Smokehouse in Longwood, which I first told you about in a flog exclusive in February. Rivers has dropped the idea to present a charcuterie aspect in the next store -- too time consuming and expensive -- but still plans to feature a bakery. He hopes to have the Longwood Smokehouse open by the end of the year.
And what about a different type of restaurant, one where he could showcase the creative talent that he demonstrated at Jetport? When I ask him, he just smiles and says that would be nice. Someday. But for now he has a full plate. As I looked around the dining room at the people finishing their trays of barbecue, I saw that he wasn't the only one.
4Rivers Smokehouse is at 1047 S. Dillard St., Winter Garden. The original location is 2103 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park. Phone for both is 407-474-8377 and both are open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Here's a link to 4Rivers Smokehouse website. Click here to download a copy of the menu .