ORLANDO, FL — God bless the folks at Killarney Baptist Church in Winter Park. Because it’s by their gracious provision (or savvy business acumen, I’m not sure which) that you can find a parking space for Four River’s Smokehouse. A legal parking space, that is. You can try the residential streets behind the restaurant, but do so at your own risk. The “neighbors” have posted conspicuous signs warning barbecue lover’s to stay away.
Instead, park at Killarney Baptist just across the street and down the block a bit on Fairbanks. And do bring umbrella to keep the midsummer heat off your head as you stand in the long line awaiting admittance into the savory paradise that is Four Rivers.
It’s a scientific fact that anticipation makes food taste better. You may want to stew on this fact as you wait in line. In fact, you’ll probably have time to read a full chapter or two from Mindless Eating by Dr. Brian Wansink, who describes the phenomenon with gusto. (Entertaining hint: Even if dinner is already prepared, make your guests wait a while in the dining room while you bang around in the kitchen for 20 minutes. It will make your food taste better.)
During two recent pilgrimages to Four Rivers, we found ourselves in the delightful misery of anticipation for about a half an hour in mid-afternoon. On the second visit, suffering through 95 degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity — so hot that the heat seems to rain down from the sky and radiate up from the asphalt — we were nevertheless ministered to by cheerful BBQ angels who provided free ice water and savory samples of the “burnt ends.” (But as C.S. Lewis says, don’t let the delightful inns along the way tempt you to waver from the joy in reaching the destination!)
The destination here is a small deli counter staffed by cheerful hipsters proffering a menu that might be heaven’s banquet if West Texas Baptists were in charge of the thing. (No beer, of course!) But imagine you’ve stumbled across a potluck somewhere in the Hill Country outside San Antonio: You’ve got that mouth watering bouquet of sage and mesquite smoke. Each side dish might be the prideful offering of some hill country church lady: crisp fried pickles, cornbread salad (yes, cornbread salad!), baked cheese grits, sweet potato casserole, collards, even smoked jalapenos.
There’s also a romaine salad, but I’m guessing it’s there for profiling purposes, like jazz on the Juke Box in Talledega nights. I wouldn’t risk it myself. But cornbread salad? Now that’s more like it. How about crumbled cornbread served with sweet tomato dressing over chopped romaine and bacon? Yessiree, Bob!
Now, for the main event. For my first outing, I tried the Texas Destroyer. The menu says it’s smoked brisket topped with onion rings, melted provolone and smothered with 4R sauce. I’m no restaurant critic, so I’ll leave the fancy food writing to others. All I can say is it’s the best dang barbecue sandwich I’ve had in my life.
Best barbecue in Orlando? Honestly, I can’t guarantee that, which is why I put a question mark in the title. All I know is, I’ve eaten a fair bit of barbecue in my day, and this sandwich transported me to a scene of rocky hills shaded by gnarled live oaks and blanketed by a sea of blue bonnets. My wife comes from San Antonio, and she pretty much agrees. It out Texas’ed most BBQ I’ve had in Texas.
And honestly, rather than try more Orlando barbecue to compare it with, I just came back a week later for seconds. This time I tried the Santa Maria Tri-Tip Steak sandwich, a Southern California style barbecue sandwich that brought me back to my own homeland. Replace that signature barbecue sauce with a smoked tomato chimichurri sauce, and I might as well be enjoying the sandwich on the cliffs overlooking Malibu at sunset. Oh yeah, baby.
There’s plenty more to say about this place: Stacker sandwiches that are simply mountains of meat. Something called the Messy Pig, which is giant piles of pulled pork between layers of slaw, pickles and jalapenos. Homemade ice cream, churned on site. We even saw some attractive young ladies scarfing down fried Oreos. Wonders never cease.