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A taste of the tropics: Go ahead – have a mai tai … and try the food, too

Alysa Rincon shows off dishes of Shaking Beef and Tropical Cobb Salad at the Jinja Bar & Bistro just off Coors NW. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Alysa Rincon shows off dishes of Shaking Beef and Tropical Cobb Salad at the Jinja Bar & Bistro just off Coors NW. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New local restaurant ventures that burst onto the scene with talk of franchising plans and “dozens of locations soon!” leave me suspicious, especially in an industry so delicate and prone to failure.

In this sense, Jinja Bar & Bistro is the epitome of restrained growth – its three founders began with decades of corporate chain restaurant experience yet only opened three locations over the course of six years. The last, a west side spot just off Coors, was overdue for my recent visit.

The muted décor is still tiki-esque, cozy booths inside or Sandias-gazing patio outside, with cocktails both vibrant and diverse, if a bit sweet. Happy hour specials run until 7 p.m. daily (all day on Sunday), and that means discounted appetizers and $3 off pretty much any cocktail or wine in the house. Go with the island feel by ordering a potent Mai Tai or Zombie ($9.25) and appetizers might change in perception from “that sounds tasty” to “I gotta have that.”

Skip the lettuce wraps in favor of nicely seasoned seafood: the Spice Crusted Sashimi Tuna ($10.99) or Yin Yang Shrimp ($9.99), perfectly sized first courses for gobbling up before your companion can raise a fork.

There’s no fault in ordering a salad as your entree when you choose the Tropical Cobb Salad ($13.99), a pile-up of shrimp, bacon, hard-boiled egg, blue cheese, and pineapple salsa tossed in a citrus vinaigrette dressing. I have yet to find a local restaurant that tops their salads with such huge chunks of seriously tangy blue cheese – kudos to Jinja for keeping my blue cheese funky.

Many of Jinja’s entrees can be ordered in small or large plate sizes – a practice more restaurants should offer for their customers fed up with portions that require a doggy bag every single time they dine out. The famous Shaking Beef ($11.29 or $17.99) is still delicious after more than a decade on the roster, but it has competition in the tender curry-doused Thai Red Curry Beef ($11.29 or $17.99).

With no preconceived notions about the Rice Paper Salmon ($12.29 or $16.99), it left me disappointed by being under-seasoned and cooked just shy of being inedibly dry. The plate’s high points were sides of sweet cucumber pickles and savory fried rice.

Our meal ended on an elevated note with the Macadamia Coconut Tart ($7.29), an item of crunchy-sweet beauty both visually and on the tongue. Earlier impressions I had of the Jinja experience were merely average — the tiki atmosphere seemed forced and awkward service was rampant.

Luckily, things have improved, and Jinja should be seen in its proper context in the local dining scene: not for challenging dishes but for a tasty place to deposit local dollars when you’re ready to ditch the major chains for good.