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Good ol’ Jinja still among the best for Asian dining

Jinja Bar & Bistro in Santa Fe includes a mural, shown here, by actor Gene Hackman. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Jinja Bar & Bistro in Santa Fe includes a mural, shown here, by actor Gene Hackman. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Jinja, a pleasant, classy spot for cocktails, lunch or dinner, started charming its Santa Fe customers more than 10 years ago, then opened two locations in Albuquerque.

Situated on the north side of town across from the National Cemetery, Jinja has become a Santa Fe mainstay for Asian food. You might have to wait for a table here on a busy night and the quiet, subtly lit bar offers the perfect place to relax while your place is prepared. (People also can eat at the bar or at a booth in the bar room.)

Not hungry enough for a full meal? Why not make a meal out of the appetizers here, as friends and I did recently when we came to celebrate a birthday? There’s much to choose from and everything I’ve sampled is good or even better than that.

The Imperial Lettuce Wraps, for example, deserve the adjective. The crisp, cool cups of iceberg lettuce are laden with a tasty warm mixture of ground chicken, a bit of ham, minced mushrooms and other ingredients. Make this finger food even better with a bit of the sweet and spicy dipping sauce served with it.

We also loved the tempura avocado, wedges of soft, ripe avocado coated in a light batter and fried until crisp. The contrast between the batter and what’s inside was great.

We shared and savored the Vietnamese spring rolls. This version differs from the traditional Chinese egg rolls in several delicious respects. The rolls themselves, served crisp and hot, are small, about the size and color of a cigar.

They come with a pile of fresh lettuce leaves and dipping sauce. To eat, wrap the roll in the lettuce and then dip in the sauce. Very tasty.

Jinja’s calamari is excellent, some of the best in Santa Fe. The heaping plate of rings and tentacles, lightly breaded and fresh from the kitchen, comes with a yummy citrus and mint dipping sauce, slightly sweet, slightly tangy and definitely worth eating.

I also recommend the potstickers – small, pork-filled dumplings served with their own dipping sauce. They make a good starter for those who want to move on to the entrees.

My favorite way to eat at Jinja is to graze on the appetizers and then perhaps share a bowl of the Malay coconut soup with its tender shrimp or the chicken soup with big udon noodles and plenty of vegetables.

Although included on the appetizer menu, the ahi tempura roll could be meal in itself for a person who doesn’t want to share.

Although all the dishes here looked good, the roll was especially well presented. I loved the pink of the tuna inside the rice and black sesame seed coating.

This, by the way, is the closest Jinja gets to sushi. If you crave raw fish, you will have to go elsewhere. But that’s about the only category of food that isn’t represented in this pan-Asian restaurant.

Many entrees are available in small or large portions. The large is sharable size; the small a good meal for one.

I especially like the Shaking Beef, thin slices of tenderloin stir fried with fresh spinach. The menu features a couple of curries, pad Thai, Teriyaki chicken and Chinese options, such as sweet and sour, kung pao and orange peel presentations. You have the option of four noodle-based dishes.

I’ve heard criticism that Jinja is Americanized Asian food but, in my mind, that’s not a bad thing. The dishes are delicious, freshly made and beautifully served. I can’t think of anything to complain about.

As dessert, I recommend the chocolate silk cake, served warm with a molten chocolate center and a scoop of ice cream. They use good chocolate in this version of the classic lava cake, rich, dark and not too sweet.

The two other things I enjoy about eating at Jinja are the ambiance and the service. The restaurant, decorated mostly in black, red and gold, feels like an elegant version of the Hollywood Asia of the 1950s. Booths allow for private conversations; tables can accommodate larger groups.

The front sunroom is perfect for lunch. I have eaten here off and on for years and never had arrogant or unfriendly service. Some servers are more efficient than others, but all of them know how to make customers feel like guests.