Two words sum up Orinoco, the newest restaurant to make the South End its home. It glows. From the Victorian-meets-rustic decor that we stood happily basking in while sipping good wine and tropical juices (otherwise known as waiting 40 minutes for a table) to the charming wait staff that later served us nearly flawless foods, everything at this Venezuelan restaurant seemed golden.
The cute cubby-hole of a storefront space only seats 20, but it has a big, soothing impact on your mood. Straw masks and old photos adorn mustardy-gold tin walls. Playfully mismatched old chairs add fun; the brown-flecked tin ceiling gives it vintage flair; and warm lighting unites it all in a toasty hue. Meanwhile, staff members are busy in the partly open kitchen patting out arepas. These fresh-made, hot-off-the-grill cornbread sandwiches are what inspired Andrés Branger to open Orinoco, named for the South American river. The palm-sized, pillowy breads are split open, stuffed with all manner of fare, and eaten any time, anywhere, by everybody in Branger's native country -- but they're hard to find here. For two decades, Branger threw arepa parties for his Boston friends and dreamed of opening a "taguarita" (a casual Venezuelan eatery) here.
Fortunately, he waited until he met a fellow Venezuelan, Carlos Walter Rodriguez, who was then sous chef at the Miami hotspot Ola Miami. Together the two took the taguarita concept and refined it to fit their worldly tastes. So you can (and should) try classic comfort foods at Orinoco like the pernil arepa ($4.75) -- stuffed with juicy chunks of sherry-and-herb-marinated slow-roasted pork -- or the hot-cold treat reina pepiada ($4.75), which is overflowing with cool avocado-chicken salad atop the warm arepa bun. And for anyone who enjoys the simplicity of fresh mozzarella, the guayanesa arepa ($4.95), which simply squishes mild white guayanés farmer's cheese onto the bread, will likely be a newfound joy.
But advance just one step on the menu, and you'll find the dishes where Rodriguez really starts to have fun. Rather than the usual big, heavy empanada turnovers, he stuffs his with traditional sweet shredded beef ($6.95), but shrinks them to bite size and serves them with salad. You get all the deep-fried tastiness, but the overall dish remains light. Instead of jumping straight to the usual starch-and-meat combos, he offers three superb salads. None is overdressed; none is over-tweaked with extras; and none fails to deliver a surprise. The palmito ($6.50), for one, tosses heart of palm and greens with crumbles of Cabrales blue cheese in a zingy vinaigrette, and adds a garnish of bacon-wrapped dates. These "datiles" grew so popular so fast they became a menu item all by themselves ($6.35).
And don't miss the daily ceviche. Rodriguez learned how to make this citrus-cured fish from his mentor, Douglas Rodriguez -- author of "The Great Ceviche Book" and celebrity chef/owner of Ola Miami -- and it shows. Our little wooden raft of tuna ($7.25) in blood orange, lime, and passion fruit, topped by avocado foam and curls of red onion, was so tender and flavorful it could lead a girl to abandon sushi.
Tuna turns up again on the entrée menu, though not as successfully. Rodriquez's secret adobo rub, made with 10 spices, was very tasty, but it overpowered the delicate fish in the atún ($13.65). We suspect the rub is better on the adobo chicken ($12). Other entrees showcase the Venezuelan penchant for mixing savory and sweet. Both the pollo polvoroso (a flaky, out-of-the-pan sort of chicken pot pie) and the shredded beef pabellón criollo hit every part of the tongue at once in a rush of delightful and unusual flavors that run from sweet fruit and raw sugar to salty olives. Portions are petite here, so it's best to also order sides. With options like crispy, fried potato-like yuca with lime-cilantro mojo sauce ($4.25) or the nicely seasoned rice and black beans ($3.75), ordering sides isn't really much of a problem.
Or you can just save room for dessert. Both the rice pudding ($4) and flan ($4) are fine examples of the creamy dessert species. But the molten chocolate cake ($4.75) occupies a kingdom of its own. Rodriguez uses bitter, 75 percent Venezuelan chocolate, and he lets it dominate this hot-served cake oozing in the middle with chocolate lava. The light powdered sugar baked into it is just a means to an end a wonderful, golden end.