Orinoco

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I don’t have much in terms of rigid criteria when it comes to choosing places to write about for this blog. I operate under a few basic guidelines. First, the subject of my review has to have a physical bar that I’d be willing to sit at for an evening of nothing more than drinks. After all, this is Boston BarHopper, not Boston RestaurantReviewer. Second, I prefer to avoid anything resembling a chain; the way I see it, the more locations a bar or restaurant has, the more its overall character diminishes. Of course, there will always be exceptions.

Harvard Square’s Orinoco does not have a bar. It also has two other locations, in the South End and Brookline. But when you invite me to a complimentary party on a picture-perfect evening in September with a roasted pig, mouthwatering Venezuelan hors d’oeuvres, and lots of sangria and beer…well, I suppose I can relax my standards.

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Bringing the culture and cuisine of Latin America – specifically, Venezuela – to Cambridge, Orinoco opened its Harvard Square restaurant in January 2012. After eight months, they decided it was time to host a bonche (party!) for their customers and neighbors on their back patio. The reason? Manager Martha Garcia told me that whenever a new Orinoco opens, the management hosts an open house. “It’s a way to introduce ourselves to the community,” she said.

Quite an introduction.

My friends Mario and Ivys, who always manage to find awesome places like Orinoco and Tres Gatos, had dinner here with Kelly a month or so ago, scored themselves an invitation to the bonche, and passed the offer on to me. Who am I to turn down a party on a weeknight? But this wasn’t any ol’ fiesta. The main attraction? A traditional pig roast.

You know how often I go to pig roasts? About as often as I go to Venezuela. No way I was missing this.

Just approaching Orinoco gives you the feeling that you’re headed to someone’s backyard for a cookout. The restaurant is on JFK Street but is a little set back and out of sight; you walk between a couple of buildings to get there, which gives it kind of a home-y feel. The bonche was held on Orinoco’s gorgeous back patio, which is normally set up with tables for what must be a delightful outdoor dining experience.

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Mario, Ivys, Kelly, Kat, and I arrived around 6 p.m.; the festivities weren’t yet in full swing, but importantly, there was no line at the drink table (yet). The beverage options were ideally suited to a late-summer, Latin American-themed party: mojitos (a treat, since they’re not usually available at Orinoco’s Harvard location), sangria, and a couple of beers – Negra Modelo and Pacifico.

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Even though it was quiet when we arrived, I could sense that a special night of revelry was ahead. Nothing about the atmosphere made me think I was at a bar or restaurant; it truly felt like a casual, well-planned backyard party. The stone floor, lush greenery, a running fountain, and strung lighting gave the patio the look of a grand garden and made me feel like a guest – not a customer.

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As we sipped our drinks, the heavenly smell of charcoal and barbecued pork wafted through the air, equal parts teasing and torture. But good hosts that they are, Orinoco wasn’t going to let us starve, treating us to some of their appetizers.

First up was a spicy ceviche. Even Kelly, who claims to not care for seafood (yet repeatedly gets it while we’re out), could not resist. The ceviche was followed by maracuchitos – queso paisa wrapped in sweet, fried plantains.

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I love plantains on their own. Throw in some cheese? Delicioso.

And it just kept getting better. The non-pork-related highlight of the night was Orinoco’s datiles – bacon-wrapped dates with an almond in the middle. ¡Ay, dios mio!

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Honestly, I’ve never been a huge fan of dates; but the list of things that I won’t eat when wrapped in bacon is very short. (You know what I loathe? Olives. I wonder if I would find bacon-wrapped olives palatable.) The smoky bacon, the nuttiness of the date, the distinctness of the almond…they were packed with flavor and I had to restrain myself from grabbing two handfuls from the serving tray.

The patio began filling up over the next hour or so, with excited guests trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive pig.

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Meanwhile, our hosts kept plying us with apps. Tequenos – guayanes cheese wrapped in a crisp dough, with chipotle ketchup – were like upscale mozzarella sticks. And while I didn’t get the proper Spanish name, chicken salad served on a bread-like cracker was delicious and artfully presented.

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Truth be told, I would have been fine just with the snacks. But that’s not why we were here. No, hors d‘oeuvres alone would not placate the restless masses. The anticipation gradually swelled to a crescendo, and soon a manic chant of “Bring on the pig! Bring on the pig!” broke out (not really).

At last, fashionably late and with great fanfare, the star of the show emerged.

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Look at that bad boy! Has an animal ever looked so happy to be devoured by 200 guests?

El cerdo was greeted with applause, excitement, and a long line. I have to admit – after three weeks of eating and writing about tripe, haggis, and head cheese, it was comforting to be eating a meat that people were actually clamoring for.

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The line stretched throughout the patio, culminating at a table serving yuca, black beans, salad, and of course, the roasted pig. The meat was well worth the wait – tender, juicy, and delicious, and no one could stop talking about how incredibly spiced it was.

By then the sun had gone down, the stars were out, and we had a full-on bonche on our hands. All that was missing from the festive vibe was the steamy South American climate, but I heard no complaints about the perfectly temperate September air. People mingled, chatted, danced to salsa music, talked about how good the food was. I was in no hurry for the night to end, but when it finally did, I felt like I was leaving a big neighborhood party.

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I stopped in on the following night for a quick chat with Martha (who not only remembered me but greeted me like an old friend) and to get a better look at the place. Orinoco’s interior feels small, but it’s actually rather spacious – probably about 20 tables or so. It has an authentic, rustic look, with classic old chairs and family pictures on the wall.

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The dark, candlelit atmosphere could make for an intimate evening of sharing small plates and a bottle of good Spanish wine, but if the previous night was any indication, things could just as easily be festive and lively. And as soon as I walked in, the salsa music that was playing immediately brought back the magic of the bonche.

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Orinoco offers a full, rich menu of traditional Venezuelan cuisine. Several dishes offer the shredded beef and plantains that Venezuelan cuisine is famous for, like Pabellon Criollo, which the menu calls “Venezuela’s most folkloric dish.” I hear the empanadas are a big hit, and there are always some tempting weekend specials.

I opted for a couple of arepas, which are Venezuelan corn pocket sandwiches. “Domino” was made with black beans and Palmizulia cheese, and “Pelua” was made with Edam cheese and that delicious stewed, shredded Venezuelan beef.

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Both were delicious and surprisingly filling. But I have to admit – the accompanying dipping sauce stole the show. Made of cilantro, garlic, parsley, and olive oil, the sauce had a zing that further brought out the flavors of the arepas. I could seriously drink this straight, like out of a shot glass.

Speaking of shots, Orinoco’s alcoholic offerings are limited to beer and wine, though they also serve sangria. (Only the Brookline location has a full liquor license.) Not that I’m complaining – the sangria is full-bodied and refreshing, made with a secret spice (cinnamon?) that gives it a unique character. Aside from that, I never mind a good Negra Modelo, which nicely complemented all the spices in my arepas.

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As if I didn’t already feel like a welcomed guest, Martha generously treated me to quesillo, sort of a Venezuelan version of flan. Topped with strawberries and blackberries, and with hints of coffee, it was sweet conclusion to my meal.

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Last Call

Orinoco seems right at home in an area as rich and diverse as Harvard Square. And what better way to be a good neighbor than to host big, backyard party? The bonche was a swinging success, and a great idea on Orinoco’s part – I’m not sure when or if I would have found the place were it not for their event, but I’ll certainly return.

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I don’t know much about Venezuelan cuisine, so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the food. But all of Orinoco’s locations are run by native Venezuelans, so that’s got to count for something. I certainly enjoyed the appetizers and my arepas. And they sure know how to roast a pig.

Perhaps best of all, Orinoco is surprisingly affordable. Most of the entrees are around $15, but you can make a pretty satisfying meal out of the empanadas (under $9) and antojitos (little cravings). Those irresistible datiles are $7, and the arepas average about $6. A glass of sangria for $7 isn’t bad, and my Negra Modelo was a very reasonable $4.75.

I don’t know whether Orinoco will ever be hosting another bonche of such grandeur, but I feel fortunate to have been there. On their website, Orinoco says their goal is to effect a “neighborhood-focused dining tradition that is casual, lively and fun.” On at least one night in September, they succeeded in grand fashion.

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Address: 56 JFK Street, Cambridge

Website:http://www.orinocokitchen.com/