Joining its sister restaurants in the South End and Brookline Village, Orinoco has opened up another location on JFK Street in Harvard Square, set back off the hurried thoroughfare and down a small outdoor corridor between two buildings.
Inspired by taguaritas, the rustic, often family-run cafés found along Venezuelan roadsides,
Orinoco models their cuisine after traditional Latin American recipes using classic ingredients adapted for the modern palate.
At this new spot, a pleasant patois of languages peppers forth from the kitchen area, located comfortably close to the dining area and contributing to a natural feeling of informality. The styling is lovely, with pale yellow tin paneling above soft green wainscoting, all gently lit by flickering candles on tables and in sconces. Walls are trimmed with old framed photos and colorful knick-knacks, all combining to create a look that is lively without becoming garish. Latin music smoothly trills and thumps along, its volume increasing as the crowd noise takes over.
And take over, it does. When we first arrived at 6:30, we were the second table of patrons. Within an hour or so, Orinoco was filled to swelling, with eager diners standing by the door and peering inquisitively at those lingering too long over their flan.
The layout does its best to take advantage of the space formerly occupied by Small Plates—perhaps a bit to its detriment, as retrieving my dropped napkin required me to alert the stranger to my right that I was about to place my face far too close to her lap. Perhaps one less table here and there would free up a little elbow room.
Orinoco strives to keep the menu affordable with everything under $20. One of their specialties is their selection of arepas (traditional Venezuelan grilled corn pockets) that offer a crispy, dense envelope for stuffing ranging from guayanés cheese to grilled chorizo. We went with the pernil (mojo-marinated pork with fresh tomato), which had a subtle, meaty flavor and was agreeably messy to eat. You can also find hefty empanadas served with a lovely pile of light greens, and datiles (bacon-wrapped, almond-filled dates).
As for the entrees, they range from platos principales like adobo criollo (marinated-halved chicken and shredded Venezuelan beef with beans and rice) to platos de la cocina, Orinoco’s signature dishes. The cordero (pistachio/panela/plantain-crusted New Zealand lamb chops with mint mojo and a watercress blue cheese salad) was a table favorite—well-cooked and juicy. The beef tenderloin churrasquito was a little overdone after its stint under the heat lamp, but was topped with a spicy, tomato-based crab picadillo and a few lemony asparagus spears that were crisply cooked, if a little woody.
Just like the South End location, the Harvard Square Orinoco limits their adult beverage offerings to wine and beer (with plenty of Central and South American choices), and homemade red sangria, which had a jammy, fruit-forward flavor with notes of cinnamon, but didn’t offer much in the way of a buzz.
Hilariously, the licensing board dropped by for an impromptu inspection during our visit, flashing emergency lights and checking exit signs with much hefting of clipboards and clicking of pens.
So when you do make your first visit, you know you’re safe.
56 JFK ST.