Jinja peachy

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den I For The New Mex­i­can

• The Short Or­der

Since the Asian-in­spired Jinja Bar and Bistro opened in 2002, it has been serv­ing con­sis­tently bet­ter-than-av­er­age meals in a com­fort­able set­ting with a cool, retro mood. The lengthy cock­tail menu in­cludes trop­i­cal drinks, clas­sics (side­cars, Saz­er­acs, and vari­a­tions on the mar­tini and mo­jito), mar­gar­i­tas, and sake flights. Sev­eral cul­tures — Ja­panese, Thai, Chi­nese, and Viet­namese — are rep­re­sented in the lunch and din­ner of­fer­ings, which likely will sat­isfy even the culi­nar­ily cau­tious. Rec­om­mended: cala­mari, co­conut soup, ribs, chow fun, spinachtofu salad, Singapore noo­dles, Man­darin-blos­som

cos­mopoli­tan, and choco­late silk cake.

Call it an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard: over the last month or so, I’ve had a good run of sub­stan­dard meals. That’s why, when I got the as­sign­ment to re­view Jinja Bar and Bistro, I heaved a sigh of re­lief. Since the “Asian-in­spired bistro” opened in 2002, it has been serv­ing re­li­ably de­cent food. I didn’t ex­pect to be blown away — and I wasn’t — but I took heart in the fact that my fu­ture held some bet­ter-than-av­er­age meals to be en­joyed in a con­sis­tently com­fort­able set­ting.

Jinja is tucked into a strip mall just up the hill from DeVargas Cen­ter. The dimly lit din­ing room’s well­con­sid­ered dé­cor put me in mind of an up­scale tiki bar, a Poly­ne­sian night­club, or some­place Hawk­eye Pierce would have had din­ner and one too many mai tais while on R & R. Sur­faces of deeply stained wood, jazz stan­dards piped in at just the right vol­ume, and vin­tage posters from the Pa­cific Rim fur­ther the cool, retro mood. Many of the booths have raised backs that fos­ter pri­vacy and col­or­ful throw pil­lows that make lin­ger­ing just a lit­tle more cozy.

In ad­di­tion to the de rigueur beer and wine ros­ter, Jinja fea­tures a lengthy cock­tail menu that in­cludes trop­i­cal drinks (mai tais, zom­bies, piña co­ladas, and Singapore slings) and clas­sics (side­cars, Saz­er­acs, and vari­a­tions on the mar­tini and mo­jito). This be­ing Santa Fe, the res­tau­rant can’t es­cape of­fer­ing a se­lec­tion of mar­gar­i­tas. If you’re a fan of sake, try one of the bar’s color-coded flights. Only the brave should ven­ture into the land of “party bowls,” which are served with mul­ti­ple straws.

The food at Jinja could be clas­si­fied as pan-Asian or fu­sion — there’s a lit­tle bit from sev­eral cul­tures here, and some­thing that will prob­a­bly sat­isfy even the culi­nar­ily cau­tious. Ap­pe­tiz­ers in­clude sta­ples like su­per­crispy but greasy spring rolls, let­tuce wraps, ac­cept­able pork-and-veg­etable pot stick­ers, and tem­pura.

Slid­ers of juicy-rich Amer­i­can Kobe beef are served with sweet-potato fries. The full-fla­vored Malay co­conut soup, a sat­is­fy­ing play on tra­di­tional tom yum, in­cludes con­trast­ing crunchy bean sprouts and ten­der udon. Once you get past the fin­ger-lick­ing good­ness of the spicy-sweet rib sauce, the meat falls off the bone. The pip­ing-hot cala­mari crunches in your mouth, and then the bright lime-mint dip­ping “sauce” gives the palate a quick cleanse, mak­ing way for the chewy meat of rings and ten­ta­cles.

The tur­bocharged Singapore noo­dles — bar­be­cued pork ten­der­loin, green onion, egg, ci­lantro, sprouts, and thin rice noo­dles — de­liver a rich, smoky heat. The dish is sur­pris­ingly dry, maybe be­cause the noo­dles ab­sorb ev­ery drop of the sauce. Jinja’s pad Thai is ac­cept­able, though it lacks that dish’s char­ac­ter­is­tic spicy zing and hot-wok smok­i­ness. It’ll do in a pinch, but if you want noo­dles with bona fides, you’re bet­ter off din­ing else­where. The same could be said of the green curry.

The menu’s veg­e­tar­ian op­tions are sur­pris­ingly limited but good. The chow fun is so loaded with vi­brant spinach and red pep­pers that you might ini­tially mis­take it for a salad or veg­etable stir-fry. I could only eat half of the spinach and tofu salad’s hefty heap of greens, gi­ant cubes of seared tofu, crisp bean sprouts, and thin carrot rib­bons, all in a bright gin­ger-soy dress­ing. On the car­ni­vore’s end of the spec­trum are pop­u­lar dishes like mu shu pork, kung pao chicken, and shak­ing beef. The mari­nade of the Ten Tigers — lovely large shrimp, skew­ered and grilled — is im­pres­sively del­i­cate, high­light­ing but not com­pet­ing with the fla­vor of the seafood. The mound of fried rice was for­get­table, but the other ac­com­pa­ni­ments — a cool­ing cu­cum­ber salad, a zingy pineap­ple salsa, and a ci­lantro-mint vinai­grette — were a dif­fer­ent, more en­joy­able mat­ter.

Jinja’s dessert menu seems short and unin­spired. Nev­er­the­less, I’d rec­om­mend you con­sider the rich choco­late silk cake served with cof­fee ice cream and tof­fee sauce. It’s a far cry from the Asian tra­di­tions that in­flu­ence the rest of the menu, but when it comes to dessert, why be a stick­ler?

Jinja is a pop­u­lar spot, es­pe­cially on week­ends, so if you’re mak­ing plans for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion or din­ner with a group, make a reser­va­tion. One Satur­day night, our party of 10 dis­cov­ered that an inat­ten­tive staff mem­ber had in­ad­ver­tently can­celed our reser­va­tion. Luck­ily, we were in a fes­tive mood and had flex­i­ble sched­ules, so we en­joyed some cock­tails and the man­ager’s mea culpa, de­liv­ered via com­pli­men­tary (and ea­gerly de­voured) grilled sashimi tuna. If it’s not al­ready your prac­tice, af­ter you make a reser­va­tion, be sure to call back to con­firm. ◀

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