Juan Carlos Ramirez, co-owner of Orinoco Coffee House in Columbia, knows that magic happens only when good coffee finds a good accompaniment. "You can't have an outstanding cup of coffee and a lousy pastry," he says. Ramirez, 42, whose friends call him J.C., points out that although many coffee houses outsource the food they sell, "about 95 percent of what we offer is made on the premises."
He and his brother Pedro opened Orinoco in October in the Columbia Restaurant Park at McGaw Plaza, ready to put a retail face on Orinoco Coffee and Tea, a wholesale coffee business they started a decade ago in Laurel. The 22-seat shop, with its muted olive walls and modern, coffee-brown tabletops and chairs, isn't far from the family warehouse, which is overseen by another brother, Ricardo. From that space, the company provides private-label gourmet beans to bread-and-butter accounts such as Dean & DeLuca and Balducci's.
The brothers took the name Orinoco from the long, meandering river in their native Venezuela. They included on their menu many of the desserts they remember eating as children.
"We do bread puddings, tres leches and flan, which are more in tune with our heritage," says Pedro, 43, who divides his time between the business and his job as a civil engineer. "We try to cater to everybody's tastes."
One of the coffee house's top sellers is the tres leches cake ($2.99 a slice). Soaked in three milks -- condensed, evaporated and heavy cream -- it gets its kick from the drop or two of brandy or rum that goes in. "It's really famous in Latin America," says Jacqueline Ramirez, J.C.'s wife. "Here, I was only able to find it in a Cuban restaurant." Jacqueline, 24, who is the office manager at the warehouse, says a lot of time goes into recipe testing before a dessert can earn a spot in the display case.
The dessert line offers a symphony of highbrow tastes at street-level prices. The chocolate espresso cake ($2.99 per slice) is an indulgence: rich and moist but not cloying. The flan ($2.99), created by Pedro's wife, Michelle, pulls admirably back on the sweetness. It's safe to say that if you've never been a big flan fan, her version may make you a believer after all.
-- Tony Glaros