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Jinja Bistro offers creative blend of Asian, Polynesian cuisine

The shaking beef at Jinja Bistro in the Northeast Heights is just memorable enough to help you forget about the restaurant’s minor shortcomings.

“Shortcomings” might be too strong a word. “Annoyances” is probably better.

This fancy Asian joint with two locations in Albuquerque and one in Santa Fe fuses Asian and Polynesian cuisine, but it generally sticks to the familiarity of a Chinese menu, with a few creative exceptions.

The kung pao chicken at Jinja Bistro. (Jason K. Watkins/For The Journal)

The shaking beef is a bit of a crossover sensation, part Asian and part Hawaiian but not entirely exotic. Chunks of beef tenderloin are marinated in lime and chile, then seared in a wok and cooked to order. The beef is prime, and the preparation couldn’t be better. The meat explodes with flavor.

The minor annoyance is that, at $13.49 for the small portion, you get about 6 total ounces of steak.

Still, lime as a meat marinade is a wholly underrated idea, and the shaking beef was, well, quivering with flavor. Sweet, citrusy, a little bit spicy.

Fresh white rice flavored with jasmine is served on the side, along with fresh spinach and onions sautéed to a golden brown. The plate packs some great flavor, but the smaller portion might leave you hungry for more.

The Hong Kong chicken, $12.99 for the small portion, is Jinja’s equivalent of sweet and sour chicken, and it was good. It didn’t bear much similarity to traditional sweet and sour chicken, and, again, the actual portion of meat isn’t exactly dazzling, but the dish was definitely fresh and tasty.

It was also original. It’s this fusion of pan-Pacific flavors that makes Jinja a special spot in Albuquerque, with some dishes available nowhere else in town. The homemade Malay coconut soup, for instance, was phenomenal, flavored with little shrimp and tom yum, and it pairs well with any dish. At $7.99 for a small cup (there are shrimp in it), the steep price but delicious, delicate flavor make it a toss-up: I could have taken it or left it.

The atmosphere is another feather in Jinja’s cap, with a classy, dark-wood-lined interior and comfortable booths with throw pillows. The service is good, parking is plentiful, and the place is clean and serene.

But not everything on the menu will leave you satisfied: the Vietnamese spring rolls, four tiny tubes of vegetables and chicken deep-fried to a crispy, golden brown, were good but certainly not worth the $10 price tag. The “Vietnamese” in the name referred to the garnish of fresh mint and lettuce; these are standard egg rolls, only smaller, and I could not determine whether they were made to order or had been frozen.

Regardless, $9.49 is several dollars too many to charge for four small egg rolls, even if they did come with fresh aromatic herbs and a light, vinegary dipping sauce, the origin of which I had trouble determining.

The flavors are right. Nothing is too bland or too over-the-top (except maybe the obnoxiously large tropical drinks that kept emerging from the bar) and the menu has respectable range but also brevity. But this might be more of a special-occasion kind of place than a regular haunt.

Which is fine.

Jinja is creative and reliable – and that’s not nothing, for a restaurant, especially – but, at the end of the day, the prices and the portions might leave you feeling slightly shortchanged.

2 stars