The warm, hip but completely unpretentious Latin restaurant Orinoco has been open only since Jan. 9, but it's already got an army of devotees. And thanks to chef Carlos Rodriguez's bursting-with-flavor food, the buzz is growing: Witness the line out the door nearly every evening.

Name after a river in Venezuela, Orinoco exudes character and soul, with an open kitchen, bright colors enlivening the cozy, 830-square-foot space, a hodgepodge of flea market chairs and serving plates, and vibrant South American art on the walls. But what really captures the spirit of the place is the wall of black-and-white photographs of Venezuelan friends of the team that labored for more than a year to make Orinoco a reality.

"I'm fond of saying, 'It took a village to build Orinoco'", says owner Andres Branger, who was born in Valencia and moved to Boston 1979. Branger and his friends have put their hearts and souls in the venture-Branger even sold his condo to raise capital, sleeping on the couch of a friend/Orinoco investor for the past nine months. Peeking through papered windows, South End neighbors have been burning with curiosity since Team Orinoco took over the space in September 2004. Now Branger is rewarding the locals' support: Since business has been so strong ("We ran out food the day we opened!"), he's devised a system for neighbors to get around the no-reservation policy: if a local comes in and there's no room, he'll call them at home when a table frees up.

Rodriguez, who's from Caracas, also keeps the locals in mind: To avoid plumping up his regulars, he cut down on heavier ingredients, re-creating traditional Venezuelan dishes with a lighter, "Boston-friendly" approach. Although many of the restaurant's recipes have been passed down from Rodriguez's and Branger's families, the menu is based on those of taguaritas, the rustic eateries that dot the Venezuelan roadside and specialize in arepas: grilled corn-pocket sandwiches stuffed with all sorts of fresh ingredients. "Arepas are the great equalizer back home-absolutely everyone eats these there, whether they're rich or poor," says Branger. Of Orinoco's eight options, the most popular is the reina Pepiada ($4.75), jam-packed with juicy shredded chicken, avocado and cilantro. Other varieties incorporate creamy Venezuelan cheese, slow-cooked pork and black beans. You'll get silverware, but Rodriguez chuckles, "Only gringos use forks."

Also on the menu are empanadas, soups and a selections of hearty entrees like pabellon criollo: shredded beef and sauce with rice and sweet plantains ($13.25). Open for lunch and dinner; Sunday brunch; closed Mondays

The Improper Bostonian February 8-21 2006