Four Rivers Smokehouse: Southern BBQ is still the best, even when it lacks a soul

By on Dec 29, 2013 in Restaurants

I love barbecue. I love the smell of woodsmoke and cooking meat billowing on a damp day. If you’ve never smelled it, I would make the effort to do so. I love the deep red hue you find on true BBQ, something that can’t be replicated (or at least shouldn’t be). Like a wax seal, its the proof of process used, a sign of confidence.  I love the taste of real barbecue, unadorned with sauces; that mind numbing, heart warming combination of smokey flavor, tenderness, fat and meat.

Most of all, I love the people who make real barbecue. In a culture driven by quantity over quality, real southern BBQ stands as a bastion of artisan food. It isn’t unusual for good BBQ shops to be generational affairs, and many are open from the morning till “they sell out.” Its history, and the people who populate that history, run through the fabric of the American South. Good BBQ tastes amazing, Great BBQ, made by great people, connects you to that legacy, and evokes a sense of time and place that is on par with if not in excess of the finest European delicacies. Don’t believe me? Go to an old school pithouse and talk to the folks tending the fires (or, if you don’t have the time for that, check out this great article from Saveur). France may have bakers, Spain its charcutiers, but in America, we have Pitmasters, and they are worthy of equal praise.

I am not ashamed to admit that my love of BBQ has inspired more than one journey. I use to take it for granted growing up, but now that I live in CT, good BBQ is a precious (dare I say nonexistent) commodity. I will argue to the death that the best yankee BBQ can’t hold a candle to even a middling example from the South (including the best that NYC has to offer, but that is a different post). I am biased here, but I’m also right.  Case and point: Four Rivers BBQ. A chain in Orlando, FL (my hometown).

20121104 4 Rivers

Is it good? Yes, yes it is. In fact, its bloody delicious. The brisket has a wonderful flavor, smokey without losing its beefiness.  The texture is inconsistent from visit to visit, but at its worst is fine and at its best is melt in your mouth excellent. The mouth feel is greasy, but in a slightly pleasant silky sort of way (ie the fat has rendered from slow cooking). I speak of the wet brisket obviously, if you order dry brisket you don’t understand the point of BBQ. It isn’t the best I’ve ever had, probably near the middle of a the distribution (6 out of 10, if you had to put numbers to it). That being said,  its still as good if not better than the best in NYC. To level set, I would consider the brisket at Hill Country on a good night a 5 and the brisket at Mighty Quinn’s a 5/6.

The sausage also deserves a call out. I personally prefer mine spicier, but the 4R version has a good flavor and lovely texture. The pork and chicken are also good, but skippable (Oakwoods out in Lake County does a much better job with or porcine friend).

The sides are a solid compliment to the meat (though not worthy of a journey on their own). Standouts include the succotash (a world class blending of flavors without suffering from the sogginess of lesser preparations), the grits (its more like polenta than grits if I’m honest, but I don’t really care cause they are the same thing and its delicious), and the mashed sweet potatoes (aww yeah). The biscuits: big and fluffy, in the “cats head” style. My guess is they cut the dough with butter (vs lard or shortening) given the cakey interior and rich flavor. Not complaining, just an observation. I wish I could get the recipe and throw in cheddar and some chopped jalapeno.

If you are in the Orlando area and dying for some good brisket, Four Rivers is the place to go, and lucky for you they have a few well placed locations so there should be one near you.

Now, what’s with the title of the post? Seems pretty harsh to call a good (and, to be clear, 4R is good) “soulless.” And yet, I’m at a loss for other words. When I walk in, when I sit down, when I talk to the folks working the counter (yes, you order at the counter cafeteria style), I can’t shake the feeling that, as good as the Q is, its an imitation rather than extension of that Southern fabric I droned on about earlier. The folks behind the counter are all interchangeable, they work there cause its a job, not a passion (though they do a damn good job). I look at the walls and I know, deep down, its all stuff bought at Americasmart during the last 5 years. It all comes together nicely, and the place does manufacture the right ambiance and certainly the right food, but that is the heart of the problem, it all feels manufactured.

BBQ shouldn’t be manufactured; shouldn’t feel manufactured. Sure, flavor and texture are important, but they are the beginning, not the end. It isn’t just about meat, wood, fire and food.  It’s about byways and backroads, faded autographs on the wall, secret recipes, age old rivalries, slow cooking, time, love and care. When you go to a real BBQ place, you get more than sweet, salt, and smoke in each bite, you get soul, and it gets there cause the people working the wood out back put a part of themselves into the craft they love. You can’t bottle that and ship it, and you can’t put it in a plastic lunch box.  Its something you have to go find, because BBQ is an art, and it deserves to be found.