In the restaurant-rich South End, Shawmut Avenue isn't on the radar screen of most non-neighborhood foodies. While many Bostonians and suborbanites are well aware of the culinary treasures of Tremont Street, Columbus Avenue and, especially recently, Washington Street, Shawmut Avenue's Joe V's and Franklin Café are relatively unknown to auslanders. The fact that Shawmut Avenue is difficult to reach from downtown-you have to drive out Tremont or Washington and double back on Shawmut, which is one-way for several blocks-may have something to do with it, and the lack of parking spaces available to nonresidents compounds the problem, making the street practically terra incognita to all but the locals.

Enter Orinoco, a tiny, engaging Venezuelan eatery tucked into a storefront on the corner of Shawmut and West Concord Street. Named for a major South American river that begins near the Venezuelan-Brazilian border and flows north through Venezuela forming part of its frontier with Colombia, this "taguarita" serves some of the most authentic, unpretentious but delicious ethnic food in the city at pocketbook-friendly prices. Its location of the beaten path serves its neighborhood constituency well, since it is very hard to score one of the 30 seats in the evening unless you arrive at 6pm sharp, when the restaurant opens its doors for dinner.

The restaurant is furnished with wood-paneled banquettes painted a mellow green, sturdy oak tables, and colourful, whimsically mismatched chairs. More wooden paneling covers the walls beneath a high wainscoting, with clay-tile veneer above. The pressed tin ceiling resembles the upper wall paneling in its dappled clay colors. Wood-framed, black-and-white photographs festoon the stretch of wall above the booths, while a small collection of Venezuelan artifacts, including three brightly painted papier-mache masks mounted on the back wall next to the tiny open kitchen, add color. Black metal-framed lantern light fixtures hanging from the ceiling provide illumination, while recorded Latin music enlivens the warm, hospitable atmosphere of this cozy space.

Orinoco's menu offers arepas (grilled corn-pocket sandwiches resembling oversizedEnglish muffins), sopas (soups), empanadas (traditional Latin American meat and vegetable patties), salads, Antojitos (appetizers), main courses, side dishes and desserts. The arepas deliver the warm, sweet flavor and substantial texture of corn to whatever filling they contained. The arepas pernil ($5.95), stuffed with slow-cooked slices of pork leg with moji (a vibrant sauce of garlic, cilantro, oregano and lime juice) and tomato slices, proved tender, moist and flavorful. The arepas Mechada ($5.95) substituted shredded beef for the pork. The coarse, pleasantly stringy texture of the beef, resembling pieces pulled from a well-done brisket, had a savory, slightly sweet and mellow flavor that was complemented by the piquant mojo.

Orinoco offered some particularly toothsome salads, the most memorable of which was remolacha con cabra ($6.75), roasted beets toseed in a sherry vinaigrette with mixed greens, slender slices of shallots rendered pink from the beet juice, fresh goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, white grapes and pine nuts. A colorful variegated mélange of light, delicate and pleasantly flavored greens, the salad was at once refreshing and satisfying. A less complex salad accompanied the empanadas ($6.95), and our waitress accommodated us by serving the salad on a separate plate rather than underneath the empanadas, to avoid making them soggy. The empanadas themselves, two turnovers made with ground plantain dough and filled with wild mushrooms, Manchego cheese, green chili sauce and piquillo (chopped, fire-roasted red peppers), were moist despite being fried to a dark brown. The salad acoompaniment consisted variegated greens and purple lettuce in a well-balanced vinaigrette. Datiles ($5.25), four almond-stuffed dates wrapped with bacon that had been fried just short of crisp, made a splendid appetizer, combining sweet, smoky and salty flavors with luscious, soft fruits and crunchy almonds. I noticed that menu includes the dates in the Palmito salad, which consists of endives, hearts of palm and a variety of greens.

The principales (main courses) included a rack of lamb special ($17). Four small rib chops, served with mint mojo, cooked rare as ordered and topped with a complex breading of chopped pistachio nuts, green plantain chips, panela (raw sugar cane), paprika and cilantro, proved tender, delicate and mild in flavor. I learned in a subsequent phone call to the chef, Carlos Rodriguez, that Orinoco uses New Zealand lamb, unless a dish calls for a more mature and stronger, gamier tasting meat, in which case Australian lamb is substituted. In fact, in this dish the mint mojo, Orinoco's signature cilantro sauce augmented with lime juice, peppermint, parsley and oregano, could've stood to the gamiest of meats. The garnish, alarge watercress salad, came dressed with a deliciously assertive vinaigrette that combined blue goat cheese, dried mushrooms, and balsamic vinegar, which almost caused me to overlook my usual aversion to tough-stemmed watercress. Regular main course adobo chicken ($13) and pabellon criollo ($12.95) merited their status as daily offerings. The chicken turned out to be and entire half of a samall bird, marinated in oregano, cilantro, vinegar, onion and garlic and then roasted at a very high temperature to seal in the complex . herb-infused flavor and tender, succulent texture. It emerged with an engaging, remarkably delicious, slightly caramelized character. The pabellon criollo, traditional Venezuelan shredded-beef stew, replicated the pulled beef that had filled the arepas Mechada. Served with white rice, black beans and fried sweet plantains, the beef had the same inviting, mellow sweetness that distinguished the earlier dish, and each component of the ensemble fit into place, from the dark, protein-rich beans to the white rice, in which distinct aldente kernels delighted with their texture and flavor. Unfortunately, the dish arrived cold at table, diminishing my enjoyment of it. Orinoco's al lado (side) dishes included fried yucca, the ubiquitous South American root vegetable, here rendered incredibly light and delicate by steaming and frying it in the manner of tempura, delivered hot and fresh from the kitchen, with the restaurant's signature mojo for dipping.

Orinoco's postres (desserts) included Quesillo ($4.25), Venezuelan flan with a wonderful smooth texture and full flavor. Thicker and more substantial than most custards, it profited from the layer of dark brown caramelized sugar on top that lent the treat a mellow sweetness. Arroz con leche ($4.25), rice pudding, did not measure up to the flan, but its mellow sweetness and ample sprinkling of cinnamon made it refreshing. Best among the desserts, the torta fluida ($4.95) brought a diminutive confection made from Venezuelan dark chocolate. Deep, intensely chocolate but not bitter, its thick, buttery texture constituted a sufficient fix for the most rabid of chocoholics. Its service in a small aluminum foil cup contributed a note of authenticity at the expense of style. Unfortunately, both the flan and chocolate cakes came in portions so small that they were gone far too soon. For beverages, Orinoco offered selections of bottled beers, including the popular Mexican brew Dos Equis, and the Brazilian Brahma ($4.25 each), as well as a number of wines, including a full-bodied, well-balanced Pascual Toso cabernet sauvignon ($7.50 a glass) with robust fruit, sound structure and good acidity.

Best of all, this amiable little eatery was fun, with the host and staff-and the chef when I spoke to him by phone-evidencing an infectious enthusiasm for the pleasure they were giving patrons who had persevered to win a seat in the tiny venue. The servers in both of my visits performed admirably despite the eatery's fully occupied status. I recall with particular delight my waitress on the second night, a young woman from Mexico's Sinaloa province, which borders the Pacific, whose slightly accented English and upbeat demeanor embodied the soul of Latin hospitality. All I could think of was the classic greeting, "Mi casa es su casa."

THE IMPROPER BOSTONIAN MAY 17 - 30, 2006