Tuesday, January 17, 2012

4Rivers Smokehouse, Winter Park

Non-Quest BBQ No 14 – 4Rivers Smokehouse

Winter Park, Florida

During my occasional travels, I try to sample BBQ at those near and far away places outside the Quest area. I just really, really like that stuff ... 

“Some people heat up some meat, slap some sweet’n’smoky sticky sauce on it and call it BBQ. That ain’t right.”
That quote from one of my buddies, although he is an avid Auburn Tigers fan and thus his judgment should be considered, well, questionable in many areas, hits the nail on the head.
Sure, the sauce is important for BBQ, but it should not be the main ingredient, or even the one aspect which qualifies using those three holy upper case letters.

As I stated repeatedly already, the Orlando, Florida region is not quite a hot bed for good or even real, BBQ. The area is littered with chain restaurants and most of them serve what the average tourist from overseas expects under the moniker of BBQ.
And that is, sadly, some heated up meat with a red sticky sauce, which has this rather uniformly smoky sweet and spicy taste, otherwise also known as “St. Louis style”.
During my numerous endeavors to find a halfway decent BBQ joint in Orlando, I came across just one so far – the subtly named Bubbalou’s Bodacious BBQ.
But then I heard about this fabulous place, 4Rivers Smokehouse, and was practically urged to go there by people who knew about my conundrum.

Spoiler alert – it was not bad, but the sauce …
You can visit a 4Rivers Smokehouse in one of three locations outside of Orlando. I chose the one in Winter Park, a virtual extended suburb of the big city, about fifteen miles to the north.
When I arrived at about six in the evening, the place was already packed and when I left the line of would-be BBQ customers extended outside the building to the curb. It seems that this is a very popular place for the locals. I reckoned that I was the only bloody tourist there, because it is located quite far away from the typical stomping grounds of the Disney crowd. Plus, I heard more Spanish around me than any other language.

The place in Winter Park is predominantly a carry-out affair. They have a covered porch with simple wooden picnic-style furniture, but what is really lacking is enough parking space. The one small parking lot at the main street was packed and the other one, also very small and of the gravel variety, behind the building was also almost full. As I said before, this seems to be a very popular place with the locals.
The main area of the restaurant is the tiny room were orders, preparation and payment of your meal is done. You chose from the quite extensive menu, which is written down all across the wall behind the counter, step to the counter and state your choice. A plastic tray is grabbed by the order guy, who then slaps a piece of thick white paper (or thin white cardboard, if you like …) on the tray and scribbles the initials of your order on one corner of the paper – PPD for Pulled Pork Dinner in my case.
Then the tray behind the counter and you in lockstep in front of the counter, progress to the next station – the meat.
Different from other Texas style BBQ joints, where the use of this assembly-line style system is quite typical, here they do not carve the meat before your very eyes, but some guy just scoops up a few spoons of pulled pork from a metal holding box and slaps it right onto the paper on the tray. Then he spouts a good helping of the signature 4R BBQ sauce on it. Lovely.
But, no time to pout, on it goes to the next station – sides.
Potato salad, slaw and BBQ beans, please. The sides are filled in Styrofoam cups, a biscuit also finds its way on the tray and off you go to meet your dinner plate at the cashier. The whole meal, including a bottle of Red Rock Cola (they have a very nice assortment of gourmet and specialty soda refreshments there …), was mine for about fourteen bucks.

When I stepped outside, to go around the small side of the building to the covered porch, I could not help but wondering how in the world I should eat this heap of saucy meat and the equally wet sides (… more 4R sauce on the beans … mayonnaise on the slaw and the potatoes …) in any form of a civilized manner – nobody had offered me a fork, and I hadn’t seen any inside, either.
The mystery was lifted when I saw the fork, universal spoon, and knife dispenser next to the Coke machine. Nice touch, it works just like a toothpick dispenser.
Thus armed with plastic utensils, I tried to find a piece of meat that was not drenched with this signature 4R BBQ sauce, to find out if they knew how to smoke a pig. No such luck. The color of the meat told me right away that the real taste of the meat would stay shrouded in obscurity. Although it was quite tender and succulent, it was red, like in “after we pull the meat, we drown it in our signature 4R sauce”. Well, that was a bit unfortunate, but I could maybe overlook it if the sauce was something special and exquisite. Not the case. I bet there is chicory in it, because it had a somewhat bitter aftertaste. And at the same time it was sweet, so damn sweet that it actually hurt one of my sensitive molars on the right side of my teeth. Yes, it has some spiciness to it, and at the table they have another variety of this sauce with a bit more kick to it. And I really can’t quite lay my finger on it, but the sauce tasted rather artificial, with too many preservatives and synthetically enhanced flavors in it perhaps.
Their web site states that “The recipe is multi-regional making it a perfect combination of sweet and tangy with a smoky spice finish.”
A multi-regional BBQ sauce. And what regions should that be? The web site does not give an answer, but it was a rhetorical question anyway – I really don’t wanna know.

Too bad that the BBQ beans swam also in this 4R sauce, bottles of it you can buy also directly in the restaurant, of course.
The potato salad’s taste was very good, with a hint of dill and just the right mixture of tangy and fresh. But unfortunately half of the potato pieces were basically raw, so I refrained from tormenting my guts with that indigestible stuff, tasty as it may be.
Actually the best part of the meal was the slaw. Crunchy and fresh, with a light yoghurt sauce that does not smother the flavor of the vegetables, and a creamy overall texture, it was a delight.

So, overall, this experience just fortified my conviction that Texas-style BBQ and I will never become best buddies. It was a big amount of food, and it was certainly eatable. But the taste was, mostly through the overly generous use of the sauce, not what I would call my personal favorite.

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