If your typical sandwich means lean turkey and Alpine Lace on Pepperidge Farm slices, think of that as a third grader practicing on her first recorder. Arepas at Orinoco are a smoking hot calypso band at Carnival. White bread they are not.
Arepas are unleavened corn flour flatbreads from the northern Andes in South America. At the tiny, 1 1/2-year-old Venezuelan restaurant in the South End, they're slapped together by hand and come out looking like pale yellow English muffins branded with deep, dark grill marks. They're split open and stuffed with stewed meats, sharp cheeses, and spicy slow-cooked black beans. Like most staple foods, arepas are chewy and appealingly bland, but with an unmistakable toasty corn flavor and a subtle smokiness. Orinoco's chef Carlos Rodriguez makes about 100 a day and offers them with 10 different fillings. He says, "Once people have arepas, it's all they want."
Popular in Venezuela and Columbia, arepas are also common in Mexico, where they are stuck with the name gorditas (little fat ones), and in El Salvador, where they are served with pickled cabbage relish and called pupusas. Rodriguez says that Venezuelans eat arepas at most meals. "It's our everyday stuff. Like the French are with their baguettes, we Venezuelans are born with arepas under our arms. Arepas are for any time of year, any time of day, day in and day out, and for anybody - rich or poor or in between. Arepas are the great equalizer."
In Venezuela, after a night out with friends, Rodriguez likes to sit down to half a dozen stuffed arepas washed down with a few pints of beer. "The areperas, arepa stands, are open 24/7," he says. "At 6 a.m. the clubs let out and everybody goes for arepas. Women in dresses and men in tuxedos, drunk bums, everybody. And if you eat arepas - no hangover."
At Orinoco, Rodriguez makes arepas the same way his grandmother did. He starts with corn flour and a pinch of salt. He adds water and works it in gradually with his hands. "I tell my cooks that by working the dough they will achieve a great arepa," he says. "The finished dough feels soft and smooth and not at all sticky - kind of like Play-Doh."
He breaks off balls of dough, slaps them between his hands until they look like puffy hockey pucks, marks them on a hot grill, then throws them into the oven until they thump when tapped. In the old days, arepas were made with corn that had to be soaked, peeled, and ground with a mortar and pestle, but beginning in the early 1960s, Venezuelans began using precooked corn flours. "So much easier," says Rodriguez.
After baking, the cooks scoop out some of the floury insides with blunt knives and then fill the pockets with some combination of beans or meat and cheese. This might be asado negro, overcooked beef eye round; queso de mano, hand cheese that tastes like salty mozzarella; pelua (it means hairy), which is shredded beef; and domino, a smoky black bean mixture with Edam cheese. When the weather turns, Rodriguez will serve griddled arepas with butter, soft cheese, and hot chocolate. The chef laughs when he sees diners at Orinoco eating their arepas with knife and fork. "Arepas are finger food," he says. "The best way is to bite into it like a hamburger."
The little stuffed rounds are served on smooth wooden plates and come with green mojo sauce - a sort of Cuban-style aioli made with cilantro, lime, and tons of garlic - and bottles of Rodriguez's famous hot sauces: hijo el diablo (son of the devil), with a garlic base, and boca-culo (mouth and butt), which starts with vinegar.
Rodriguez, 35, was born in Caracas, went to high school in Minnesota, culinary school in Vermont and Florida, and worked in Miami for Nuevo Latino owner and celebrity chef Douglas Rodriguez (no relation). He now lives with his wife in a converted church in South Boston. The food at Orinoco has Venezuelan roots, he says, but is influenced by what he learned in Miami. "Venezuelan-style nuevo latino is what I cook now. And it's what I will cook forever."
Orinoco, 477 Shawmut Ave., 617-369-7075, orinocokitchen.com