SMOKED CHURRACSO: Flash-smoked and stacked like Lincoln Logs - unusual but enticing.
I don’t stand in lines. It’s bad for my digestion. Obviously, this becomes a problem when I review restaurants that don’t take reservations. Because of its popularity, I had to visit Toro on a Super Bowl Sunday. I still haven’t worked out how to review Orinoco in the South End, because there’s nowhere in the immediate vicinity to go if you can’t get a table. I figured the new Brookline Village branch of Orinoco might work since it’s a little larger, closer to where I live, and perhaps wouldn’t be discovered immediately. Wrong. Our first visit, at 10 pm, required a 30-minute wait. It seems that putting the new place between Pomodoro and Matt Murphy’s, two other fine restaurants that don’t take reservations, provides enough spillover to overfill Orinoco, with or without the reputation of the South End branch. At least we were able to sit down right away at 5:30 one night, and reservations are taken for lunch.
|Orinoco | 617.232.9505 | 22 Harvard Street, Brookline | Open Sun, 11:30 am–3 pm and 5:30–9:30 pm; Tues and Wed, 11:30 am–2:30 pm and 5:30–10 pm; and Thurs–Sat, 11:30 am–2:30 pm and 5:30–11 pm | DI, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access|
So what’s all the excitement about? Well, part of it is cheap, tasty Venezuelan street food. Another is moderately priced Nuevo Latino cuisine, from South Beach. There’s also the thrill of a small, happening place; some neat décor; enthusiastic service; and a full bar with excellent mojitos.
You must, of course, order arepas ($4.75–$5.95). These are the classic corn patties — fatter and creamier inside than Mexican tortillas — overstuffed with fillings. At Orinoco, they come with a salty garlic sauce that you’ll want for all the other dishes on the menu. If you aren’t having an arepa as an appetizer, you should order one as a side dish. The one to have is the “domino” ($5.75), which combines smoky black beans with melty white cheese. Salads are very good here, especially the palmito ($7.50), which adds shredded hearts of palm to a mix of greens, tomatoes, white cheese, and a sweet dressing. It also features three dates wrapped in bacon ($5.75 as a small plate) that are fried to produce something as rich as liver or similarly wrapped scallops.
The empanada mechada ($7.95) is a couple of arepas wrapped into pasties with shredded meat and vegetables, and arranged around quite a lot of salad (minus hearts of palm and dates). The empanada verde ($7.95) has a shell of plantain dough, which sounds enticing, but fries up greasy and overwhelms the more interesting stuffing of mushrooms and vegetables.
Entrées are large and filling, but don’t always hit their mark. Our favorites were two specials: pollo verde with malanga gnocchi ($17.95) and smoked churrasco ($18.95). With these you see what Nuevo Latino cuisine is supposed to be about. The churrasco is a marinated steak, cooked rare, flash-smoked, sliced in to inch-long sticks and stacked like Lincoln Logs on a vertical dish, with a nearly vertical arugula salad (and the same slightly sweet dressing and white cheese). The sauce includes panela (raw sugar), so the flavor is unusual but enticing. If you don’t have an arepa handy, order a side dish of tostones ($4.25), twice-fried starchy plantains served with a sweet garlic sauce. As tostones go, these are among the thinnest and crispest available. The chicken is marinated and coated in a peppery adobo, nicely grilled, and then plated with a wild-mushroom cream sauce and gnocchi made from Malaga yams, an even purer starch than potatoes. As a result, the gnocchi are slightly heavier than the Italian ones, but similarly soft and starchy — a fine foil for sauce. The chicken is a Statler breast, boned with the first wing section sticking up.
You can get the same chicken served adobo-style ($13.75) with some extra grilled skin and a grilled scallion on top. We had a special side dish of grilled asparagus ($5) that was very precisely cooked and served with a kind of garlic butter. On the traditional side, there’s the pabellón criollo ($12.95), a mixed plate of shredded, overcooked beef; a lot of those smoky black beans; chunks of fried, sweet plantain; and oily Caribbean-style rice.
Orinoco features imported Latin American beers, fruit drinks, and — only at the Brookline location — mixed drinks, starting with a classic mojito ($8.50) loaded with crushed mint. It wasn’t as sweet as they make them in Cuba, but interestingly dry with white rum. Wines by the glass are mostly South American, but didn’t show well, either because the bottles had been opened earlier, or because of small glasses filled nearly to the top. I preferred the 2005 Santa Ema carmenere ($7.50/glass; $25/bottle), which was merlot-like, but thin and a little hot with alcohol. The 2006 Alamos malbec ($8/$31) was even thinner and hotter at our meal. When chilled, it’s usually a pretty drinkable malbec.