The name Tampa is not synonymous with barbecue. No one is leading a great debate on whether Tampa’s barbecue is the best because there is no such thing as “Tampa-style barbecue.” Think of Tampa, or the entire Bay Area for that matter. You probably aren’t conjuring up images of smoked brisket or pulled pork. The epicurean or foodie may focus on citrus-centric dishes like lemon-flavored fish or orange-vinaigrette-dressed salads, light, refreshing fare to eat bay or beach-side.
The barbecue capitals like Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Missouri get all the glory and invoke the most passionate debates on which city’s barbecue is best. Yet, some of the best smoked and BBQ-sauce-smothered meat in the US come from places least expected. 4Rivers Smokehouse is such a place.
Situated on the corner of a busy intersection at MacDill Ave and Swann Ave in South Tampa, the newest 4Rivers Smokehouse is hard to miss. Its white-painted brick and cinderblock sides stand out among its blush-colored neighbors and the green wall of trees opposite patio onlookers on the south side of Swann Ave. Black accents and tinted, ultra-reflective windows contrast with the white, giving the building a sleek, modern vibe that, at first glance, may seem discordant with the usual ambiance of a barbecue joint. However, on the south side of the building, distressed wood covers a significant portion of the wall and comprises the bare frame of a patio that is reminiscent of a backyard patio in the South.
Driving southward on MacDill or westward on Swann, the indiscriminating eye might only notice “SMOKEHOUSE” painted on the east side of the building in bold, black letters arranged vertically, and remain unaware that the building is a 4Rivers restaurant. The black 4Rivers logo hardly contrasts with the dark, wood paneling upon which it is mounted. The logo does not stand out like “SMOKEHOUSE” branded on both walls. However, the name does not matter, so much as what it is. It’s a humble joint. The restaurant presents barbecue, not a brand.
4Rivers Smokehouse founder John Rivers did not intend to start a restaurant, according to the information on the 4Rivers website. On the website’s “About” page, he describes the “humble beginnings” of the restaurant, which is reflected in the building itself. Now with ten locations throughout Florida, 4Rivers has remained true to its beginnings.
Walking into the restaurant, you see no pretension. Cafeteria-style seating gives a welcoming feel. To get your food, you walk up to the counter, where a glass barrier separates you from the food, and you choose your main dish and sides. The menu offers “smokehouse sandwiches,” which come with two “home style” sides. The “classic dinner plates” come with three sides and a biscuit. Other menu offerings include foods “from the smoker,” “signature stackers,” sides, salads, and kids’ meals. While the workers prepare your tray, you pay at the register—that is, if after moving along the line to the register, you don’t take a glance at the dessert counter, and realize that you have no choice but to get one of the mouth-watering desserts on the menu to complement your barbecue.
The Signature Angus Brisket pairs well with the 4Rivers “Signature sauce,” which South Tampa 4Rivers’ General Manager Nick West describes as a combination of the Carolinas and Southwest regions’ signatures barbecue sauces.
For the novice barbecue fan, let’s do a quick lesson on barbecue by region. Most barbecue sauces incorporate some combination of the following four ingredients: ketchup/tomatoes, mustard, vinegar, and molasses/brown sugar. The base of the sauce and quantities of each ingredient in the sauce vary by region.
East North Carolina barbecue sauce is traditionally vinegar- and ketchup-based while West North Carolina is more ketchup-based than its eastern counterpart and is usually made sweeter with the addition of brown sugar. South Carolina sauces are typically mustard- and/or vinegar-based. Memphis sauce is tomato- and vinegar-based. Kansas-city barbecue sauce is molasses- and tomato-based, so that it is characteristically sweet. Texas-style barbecue varies by region. Central Texas barbecue is light on the sauce, letting the meat stand alone.
The signature sauce at 4Rivers combines the barbecue styles of various regions to create a sauce that is, simultaneously, both unique and familiar to the barbecue lover. The brisket is the perfect vessel for the sauce, as it is brisket that is the star of the 4Rivers menu. 4Rivers hickory smokes its brisket overnight in one of its two smokers. According to West’s estimates, the South Tampa location goes through about 3500 lbs of brisket per week, selling an average of 900 lbs on Friday alone.
The brisket is a big seller rightly so. Its fatty cut gives a melts-in-your sensation. Add the signature sauce, and its tanginess will nicely counterbalance and complement the fattiness of the meat. The prime rib and tri-tip steak are both so juicy and tender that sauce is unnecessary.
Beef isn’t the only delicious meat 4Rivers is serving. Its smoked sliced pork is only one component of its top-seller, the Smokehouse Cuban. The Southern Pulled Pork, appropriately named, has the sweet taste of Southern-style barbecue after, like the brisket, it is hickory smoked overnight. The pulled pork is also mixed in with brisket to create the burnt ends, which are not traditional burnt-ends, but one of the best dishes nonetheless. The St. Louis Style Ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender. 4Rivers also offers pulled chicken, which pairs well with its mustard sauce, and smoked turkey, which is brined for two days in a house-made brine.
4Rivers makes every item on the menu in-house, including all its sides, except its Mac & Cheese. Furthermore, most of the savory sides incorporate the smokehouse meats, ensuring that no piece of meat goes uneaten. 4Rivers renders its baked beans with brisket, which gives them a hearty flavor. The sauce is both thick and sweet. 4Rivers also cooks its green beans with ham hocks and its collard greens with smoked ham. Other savory sides include John’s Potato Salad, which contains freshly chopped herbs that provide a refreshing respite for the palate from the dish’s creaminess, and the smoked jalapenos, which are a best-seller. The jalapenos are freshly cored, filled with cream cheese, and then wrapped in bacon before hitting the smoker. Spicy-food lovers should delight in this dish. Because it is freshly cored, the jalapenos usually still contain some seeds, which give jalapenos their spicy kick. The corn is another savory side dish that has a slightly sweet and smoky flavor.
Sweet sides include sweet potato casserole, Krispy Kreme bread pudding, and challah-based bananas foster. If you think that the bread pudding and bananas foster should strictly fall under the dessert category, then you have not tried the other delectable treats that are on the dessert menu. The chocolate cupcake with chocolate icing is a chocolate-lover’s dream. The chocolate chunk brownie is fudge-like and moist. For the foodie who prefers cookies to chocolate, the Reese’s cookie is sure to please. Tampa-style and, more generally, Florida-style barbecue may not be featured on Food Network or the Thrillist as the nation’s best barbecue hotspots, but 4Rivers Smokehouse is definitely making a case for it.
You can dine at the South Tampa location of 4Rivers Smokehouse Monday thru Thursday from 11 am to 8pm and Friday thru Saturday from 11 am to 9 pm. It is located at 623 South MacDill Avenue, Tampa, FL 33609.