Passing through Winter Park on Fairbanks Avenue with the windows down can be dangerous. There it is, the smell of barbecue, causing involuntary turn-signaling and braking. John Rivers, 4 Rivers Smokehouse owner, has been a regional barbecue rock star, opening seven spots in a short number of years. In December that number rose to eight, with the first Tampa location debuting in the 6,000-square-foot space previously occupied by Arigato Japanese Steak House in Carrollwood.
It's an interesting approach: Order at the counter, choosing from a cross-regional selection of barbecue and a wide raft of side options, get your tray and find a spot at the communal wooden picnic tables. Then, once you've wiped your hands and eaten your last fried okra round or spoonful of sweet potato casserole, you wander over to the dessert counter and order all over again. And already the Tampa location is a well-oiled machine, with queues out the door and an assembly line of affable employees serving Texas-style 18-hour smoked Angus brisket, burnt ends, Southern pulled pork and St. Louis-style ribs.
So far, Tampa Bay barbecue stalwarts like Holy Hog or Eli's shouldn't be quaking. I've eaten at the Winter Park location and don't think Tampa's food — either the barbecue or the sides — is yet up to the quality at the flagship store. But there's still much to recommend about this newcomer. First off, the Sweet Shop, which really looks like an old-timey dessert storefront packed with oversized layer cakes, extravagantly decorated cupcakes and homey confections like coconut bombs and pecan bars, is nearly irresistible. (Feeling abstemious in the new year? Try one of the bite-sized red velvet cake balls.)
Some of the most notable menu items are clustered under the heading "Signature Stackers." These are more-is-more sandwiches piled high with brisket, pulled pork, other meats and a whole lot of accessories. There's the Texas Destroyer with brisket, paired with onion rings, jalapenos, melted provolone and a swirl of barbecue sauce ($8.49) — a serious dry-cleaning threat — or a trio of sliders that you can mix and match among brisket, pulled pork, burnt ends and pulled chicken ($8.49). An ample meal by themselves, for another $2.50 you can add a couple of sides.
The best of these might be the buttery, feather-light biscuit (all right, not exactly what you want alongside a sandwich, but this is a really good biscuit) and the sweet-smoky baked beans. Collards are solid, with flavorful pot liquor; fried okra is crisp and greaseless without the creepy okra goo inside; and the Texas corn bread is sweet and tender-crumbed. Coleslaw, shredded very fine, lacked interest, and the warm corn niblet dish was overly dominated by a garlicky, oniony flavor.
Of the meats, the fatty brisket was the star (you can order it either from the fatty side or the lean side), served inelegantly plopped right on your paper-lined tray ($13.99 as a dinner, with three sides and a biscuit).
Every table sports a couple of squeeze bottles of barbecue sauce, neither of them with significant heat, to add extra flavor to the meat. The burnt ends (meat cut from the point half of a smoked brisket; $8.99 in a sandwich), which are stupendous in Winter Park, were nearly black and somewhat mushy in the Tampa outpost.
I'm confident that there will be tinkering, though. Rivers is a dynamo, his barbecue businesses giving back to their respective communities and a number of faith-based organizations. He has a line of sauces and rubs, offers mail-order brisket and turkey, and has a new fast-casual Southern concept in Winter Park called the Coop (think crazy-good fried chicken).
Surely he won't rest until the newest 4 Rivers is flowing smoothly.