When I move to a new city, one of the first things I try to seek out is good BBQ. It’s the perfect food-for-all-seasons and I simply can’t get enough. When my family moved back to Orlando after being gone for more than a decade, I started asking my friends about their favorite BBQ joints in town. Time and time again, 4 Rivers Smokehouse was the place they said I had to try.
Opened in 2009 by pitmaster–owner John Rivers, this place truly has a cult following. I’ll say right off the bat that the food at 4 Rivers is just fine. The brisket is actually better than fine, it’s outstanding. As is the dessert selection. But that’s where my love affair with this place ends. I was a bit turned off right upon entering this place. The restaurant’s entry is set up as fast-casual, meaning you order at the register, then pay before taking your tray to your seat. That’s fine, but the majority of what you take to your seat is laid out in front of you cafeteria-/prison chow-style, where you point at this or that and they scoop it into little plastic dishes and add to your tray. I don’t necessarily mind getting the bottom scrapings of the mac-and-cheese, but I certainly don’t like seeing it happen. Once the assembly line is over, you pay then wait for your meat. And wait. And wait. It took a good 10 minutes for our pulled pork to be added to our order, meaning our bottom-of-the-pan dwelling mac-and-cheese, collards, and beans were no longer hot. Once the meat comes they send you to your seat with a parchment paper lined tray, with your meat piled on — which you can then transfer to plastic plates and eat with plastic utensils in the dining area. The place is also very expensive — a recent lunch for two ran upwards of $50 — granted we ordered enough to take some home.
While 4 Rivers remains the go-to brand name in town, here are a few others to test out next time you are in central Florida and craving some BBQ.
Harry and Larry’s Bar-B-Que, Winter Garden: From its quaint location on Plant Street in downtown Winter Garden, to the walk-up window and the décor that lines the shotgun-style dining area in back, this place is right out of the 1950s. Two sisters (Ashlee and Katie Grimes) who had just graduated college took their love of cooking and opened Harry and Larry’s BBQ in 2009 (named for each of the girls’ grandfathers). The menu is simple and that’s why it’s so great. They only have a smoker and a deep fryer, period. No ovens, no microwaves, and no other means of cooking — which is why you won’t see mac-and-cheese on their menu — I asked. I typically come for lunch and get a sandwich platter with two sides and a drink. Standouts include the smoked turkey, chopped brisket, and St. Louis style ribs. Other sides worth trying are the fried okra and pickles but their smoked beans are the best I’ve ever eaten.
Ellie Lou’s Brews & BBQ, Ocoee: Ellie Lou’s is fairly new to the scene, opening its Ocoee location just a few months back. But what they are churning out is mighty fine indeed. I don’t love how they describe the food on their menu referring to it only as pork, turkey, or beef but once you get into the meat of things, what comes out is first-rate BBQ. During my last visit I stuck with the pork platter — generous portions of both chopped and pulled pork that comes with two sides (I’m a sucker for baked beans and collard greens) and garlic toast. The collards are cooked with smoked turkey and could use a little extra punch from chili flake or another form of heat. The beans, while not as good as Harry and Larry’s, are very good with just the right bean-to-meat-to-sauce ratio. The mac-and-cheese is also good, featuring perfectly cooked noodles smothered in a gooey cheese sauce. They also have a nice little craft beer list that includes, among others, Founder’s All Day IPA. Being a Michigan native, I’m always happy when a place nearby carries one of my favorite brewers.
Bubbalou’s Bodacious Bar B Que (several locations): When you want to get in-and-out and have a no-frills attitude about your meal that day, Bubbalou’s is a perfectly acceptable place for BBQ. They don’t do anything particularly great, nor do they make anything that isn’t tasty. I have tried pretty much their entire menu and have found happiness in a simple pulled pork sandwich with a side of baked beans and fries. They also offer a plethora of fried items from chicken gizzards and livers to a catfish sandwich. They aren’t BBQ, but make for great next-day hangover food.