• 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. ◀