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Judging from the line snaking out of the Four Rivers barbecue shack on Fairbanks Avenue, we knew that the joint had to be churning out some damn fine 'cue. So after spending an inordinate amount of time looking for parking [ed. note: this review was written for the original location at 2103 W. Fairbanks; they've since moved to a spot down the street with more parking], we joined the queue, inhaled the smoky air and covetously ogled the piled-high platters of meat being carried by salivating customers to the benches out back. In the meantime, a chirpy server came by with samples of pulled pork to hold us over – a shrewd ploy from a restaurant that already seems to have outgrown its space. Crowd control may not be this smokehouse's strong point, but serving the finest brisket in the region more than makes up for the inefficiency in the ordering process. So long as their food remains worth the wait, folks'll endure the lines and do so in happy anticipation.

When we finally made it to the counter and saw our sublime slab of smoked-to-perfection brisket ($12.99 with three sides) being sliced, gathered and plopped onto a paper-lined tray by the Elvis/Michael Madsen look-alike, we could barely contain ourselves. Then came the selection of heady sides – smokehouse corn relish (an absolute must), Texas corn bread laced with jalapeños, thick, glistening macaroni and cheese – and finally the selection of one of the daily-changing desserts. We couldn't pay quick enough, anxious to dash out to the benches with our food and dig in.

And it didn't disappoint. Rich, juicy and wonderfully smoky, the ample serving of Black Angus brisket was ridiculously good, the thin blackened crust an added bonus. Squeezing spicy barbecue sauce over the meat, while nice, wasn't necessary, and the accompanying lardy biscuit didn't really impress me. The mound of pulled pork ($10.99 with three sides), shredded into tangy submission, worked better as a sandwich ($6.99), while the burnt-ends sandwich ($6.59) offered the best of both worlds – brisket and pulled pork under one hefty bun. The moist half-chicken ($9.99 with three sides) requires a shout to have someone pluck it out of the smoker. (If you opt to splurge a couple of extra bucks to add a second meat to the meal, pass on the lackluster smokehouse prime rib.) The sides, it bears mentioning again, are what sets Four Rivers apart from other barbecue joints in town – sweet and meaty baked beans, salty crinkle fries and Southern green beans are all wonderful. Smoked jalapeños filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon are a truly original, if outright over-the-top, side. In keeping with the over-the-top theme, the towering block of "chocolate awesomeness" dessert ($3.99) is impossible to devour in two sittings, let alone one. I preferred the cup of divine banana dream pudding ($2.25) with coconut and Nilla wafers.

4 Rivers is the brainchild of John Rivers (not to be confused with local barbecue maven Johnny Rivers), who led a successful corporate life before following his backyard passion for Texas-style barbecue. A line of sauces, a catering company and, now, a popular restaurant are all signs that Rivers' business skills are just as sharp as his cooking skills. So, given the long lines and high demand for his product, my sincere hope is that 4 Rivers mimics the bellies of its patrons and expands.

Although we tend to think of "Indian" as one cuisine, there are many cultures within that country, and diets differ dramatically. In general, the food of Southern India is fragrant with curry leaves, coconuts and tamarind. In the North, cream and yogurt are common ingredients and the predominant spice is garam masala, a mixture based on cardamom, clove, black pepper and cumin.

Serving Northern-style cuisine is just what Amit Kumar and partner Joy Kakkanad were after when they opened Aashirwad (meaning "blessing") last November on the south side of Orlando. And although that is not a part of town hungering for an Indian restaurant, the owners wanted to set themselves apart by keeping the cost affordable.

This is certainly the case at lunch, when Aashirwad serves a tasty, if depleted at times, buffet for only $6.95. Every day, the buffet is stocked with favorites such as chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, curry and rice. They also have salad and a rotating array of vegetarian items that make this buffet well worth the price of admission. But it's necessary to exercise patience when eating here – service is slow, and they don't always keep the buffet completely stocked. My second trip to the mother lode was fraught with empty chafing dishes (in one there were three florets of cauliflower) and puddles of spilled curry sauce. Eventually we were waited on, and eventually the buffet was restocked. Even though this wasn't a fast lunch, I would happily recommend it for the frugal and hungry.

The dinner experience at Aashirwad is more suggestive of the basic hospitality background studied by Kumar and Kakkanad in hotel/restaurant management school in India: They keep the lights low, the music medium and the service high. Still, the restaurant is in a strip mall on the corner of International Drive and Kirkman Road, and the dining room itself is nothing special, just a collection of booths and tables and Indian-inspired wall hangings.

We started our meal with aromatic vegetable samosas ($3.50), delicate and flaky pastry snugly enfolding a mixture of potatoes and peas. Most of the vegetables at Aashirwad seemed slightly abused, as if they were overcooked or kept around too long, and the starchy-tasting veggies in the samosas were no exception.

Both the tandoori chicken ($11.95) and the tandoori mixed grill ($15.95) were fabulously flavorful and rich with the characteristic charred smokiness of the signature clay oven. The lamb that comes as part of the mix was succulent and moist, but the morsels of chicken were on the dry side. A nice element of surprise was the addition of grilled paneer (Indian-style cottage cheese); the smooth creaminess of the cheese and the spiciness of the seasonings blended quite beautifully.

I was disappointed with Aashirwad's version of palak paneer ($9.45), creamy spinach with cubes of Indian cheese. The spinach lacked the usual creaminess and tasted flat; the cheese – though very tasty itself – kind of hung in suspension and seemed out of place.

Many things we tasted were good but were shy of being great. The cucumber and yogurt condiment, raita ($1.95), didn't burst with flavor; the chickpea crackers with cumin seeds, pappadam (complimentary), were slightly greasy; the lentils with tomatoes and onions, tadka dal ($8.95), had a watery quality. But the tandoor-baked bread, naan ($1.50) was spectacular: springy and soft in the center, yet crisp and smoky on the outside where it melded with the heat of the clay oven.

I have a feeling this restaurant hasn't quite hit its stride yet. Until then, I'll go back just for the naan.

With stints at Antonio’s La Fiamma in Maitland and Terramia Winebar in Longwood, Adriatico chef Marco Cudazzo has played a significant role in pleasing local palates with a penchant for pasta and rustic dishes from the old country. Now, along with his charming wife Rosetta, Cudazzo brings the flavors of his native Abruzzo, a coastal region shoring the Adriatic, to College Park’s savvy denizens, most of whom are no strangers to authentic Italian cuisine.

Not surprisingly, Adriatico’s menu slants toward the sea, not the Abruzzo’s mountainous interior, where lamb, mutton and diavolicchio peppers typify the Abruzzese style. No, it’s all about the seafood here, and the calamaretti alla Napoletana ($8.50), ringlets and tentacles of small, tender squid sautéed in a spicy tomato sauce, is an antipasto worth diving into. The meat is faultlessly firm and doesn’t suffer from the rubbery texture that results from overcooking, while the sauce is an ideal lure for the complimentary bread.

I took great pleasure in listening to my waiter’s thick, rolling lilt, though I’m sure he felt like driving his giant fist into my skull after I asked him to repeat the evening’s special three times. When I finally understood that the white striped bass ($27.50) was pan-fried with portobello mushrooms, and not pot-bellied monsoons, I couldn’t say no. The enormous platter contained a thick fillet garnished with baby romas, yellow tomatoes and two crunchy jumbo shrimp in addition to the ’shrooms, all slicked in a garlic white wine sauce. The flavors worked well, but I would’ve enjoyed the fish more had it not been served tepid.

Terrestrial items also get a chance to shine, and the indisputable freshness of the creamy tomato soup ($5.50) made it a bowl full of magical slurps, with heavy cream and basil adding texture and pungency to the ruddy orange bisque. Carciofini “mamma mia” ($8.50), baby artichokes sautéed in olive oil, garlic and mint, were tender for the most part though a few stringy stragglers found their way into the garlicky sauce. The astringency of the artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes, unfortunately, overpowered the essence of mint, making the dish a slight disappointment.

 

A comforting main like gnocchi della casa can be enjoyed with a choice of three sauces: marinara ($11.50), meaty Bolognese ($14.50) or gorgonzola cheese ($16.50). No matter the sauce, the potato dumplings were perfectly pillowy, and if you opt for the gorgonzola, the rich sauce is as aromatic as it is fulfilling. Italian-imported lemon sorbetto ($7) bests house-made tiramisu, partly for its refreshing tang and partly for its lemon-peel shell, though
either will ensure your meal ends on a sweet note.

Wine racks, exposed brick walls and the glow of candlelight on fresh linens create an oasis of calm, though the serene ambience also extends outside, where patrons can dine by the light of tiki torches along Edgewater Drive. Service is purposefully friendly and leisured, but can seem a little too leisurely when glasses are left unfilled and when lags create uneven pacing. Nevertheless, the trattoria’s genuine charm ultimately wins over the hearts of diners, and the competent execution of the seafood-leaning menu is sure to make Adriatico a fixture in the neighborhood.

A cool blue interior belies the spicy fare served at this trendy taqueria. With 100 brands on hand, tequila is the aperitif of choice, but all good drinks lead to food, and the Tex-Mex dishes served here are done right. Chunky guacamole, the plato grande (a hungry man's dish of skirt steak, picadillo enchilada and a superb chicken tamale slathered in mole), and the pastel de piña are all recommended, as are reservations.


Teaser: A cool blue interior belies the spicy fare served at this trendy taqueria. With 100 brands on hand, tequila is the aperitif of choice, but all good drinks lead to food, and the Tex-Mex dishes served here are done right. Chunky guacamole, the plato grande (a hungry man's dish of skirt steak, picadillo enchilada and a superb chicken tamale slathered in mole), and the pastel de piña are all recommended, as are reservations.

I've known about Amazonas Latin Grill for quite a while, but their cafeteria-style method of service didn't make me want to rush to visit. Also, I assumed, quite wrongly, that because Amazonas was located in a brutally unappealing strip-mall plaza anchored by a Wal-Mart, the fare would be equally unappealing.

But when a friend extolled the virtues of their Venezuelan-inspired cuisine, I swallowed my pride ' and, ultimately, everything on my plate. Since that initial visit, I've been back scores of times, and their meals have never failed to impress. Most remarkable is how delightfully cheap everything is, which may also explain the long line that forms at noon. In fact, they close relatively early ' 7 p.m. on weeknights and 8 p.m. on weekends. With all the businesses in the Sand Lake Road'John Young Parkway corridor, it's no surprise that it gets busy at the lunching hour. What is surprising is how appetizing the array of dishes in the steam table looks. Owners Enrique and Gabriela Vuolo appear committed to serving quality food ' just take a look at the heaps of glistening yellow rice, perfectly caramelized plantains and saucy shredded meats behind the counter and you'll be convinced.

Amazonas is a place you love taking newcomers to ' particularly those apprehensive about the quality. There's a pleasure in witnessing their conversion after a bite of the tender, chunky shredded pork ($7.99 with two sides), the superbly spiced shredded chicken ($7.99 with two sides) or the salty shredded beef ($7.99 with two sides). Even those who'd rather play it safe will find gratification in an order of grilled chicken ($6.49 for quarter-chicken with two sides) ' moist, tender and nicely seasoned. A rare disappointment: On my last visit, the side of cilantro roasted potatoes wasn't very flavorful.

Sandwiches are another specialty, whether it's a traditional pabellón ($6.99) ' a hoagie filled with shredded beef, french fry sticks, plantains and cilantro mayonnaise ' or the Venezuelan burger ($5.99), a must for diners with a penchant for protein. A fried egg and ham add to the meatiness of the burger, which also includes avocado, white cheese, lettuce and tomato. The churrasco ($8.99 with two sides) is a hefty slab of beef, and a wonderfully tender one at that; the price would lead you to think otherwise, but the steak is one hell of a deal. (Be sure to ask for some chimichurri sauce and a cup of their homemade hot sauce for an added kick.) Smaller items, like doughy ground-beef-filled potato balls ($1.50) and crispy chicken arepas ($4.99), are nice options for those who don't want as filling a meal. I wasn't so impressed with the flan ($2.49), but the tres leches ($2.99) and bienmesabe ($2.99), a spongy, creamy coconut-rum cake, made scrumptious endings. Same goes for the marquesa de chocolate ($2.99), a layered chocolate-cookie cake that's rich, but not too rich.

The fact the joint is always packed at lunch is a testament to the kitchen's prowess in churning out massive quantities of food ' good food ' in so short a period of time. The diverse patronage that patiently waits in line serves as an affirmation for uninitiated diners, and guarantees a return visit.

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