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Exotic Jinja has a flair for combining complex flavors in delicious dishes

Gigi Griffo and her daughters Rebecca Griffo, 7, and Meryan Pachir, 18, have lunch at Jinja in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Gigi Griffo and her daughters Rebecca Griffo, 7, and Meryan Pachir, 18, have lunch at Jinja in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Jinja, unpromisingly located on the northwest rim of De Vargas Mall, offers a melange of South Asian flavors in an unexpectedly exotic setting. The food is unusual, by Santa Fe standards, and the ambiance qualifies Jinja as a place for a mildly celebratory night out.

Some might quibble about culinary bowdlerization, but I say, who cares? The food here tastes good. And where else in Santa Fe might you nibble lettuce wraps or green curry while fantasizing about colonial wives, expatriate spies and the Raffles Hotel?

A couple of friends are Jinja regulars, so I left the selection to them the evening we dined. Good idea! They praised Jinja’s lettuce wraps, so we started with a small order of this appetizer ($10.49 for four). Small chunks of chicken with a touch of pork and scallions arrived tucked in lettuce-leaf cups and topped with crunchy bean threads. The accompanying sauce was on the sweet side, but nicely fired by Thai red chillies.

One of my guests especially liked Jinja’s version of sashimi tuna – a hybridized preparation. We ordered a large plate ($18.69); nearly all Jinja’s dishes are available in large and small portions. A generous tuna steak arrived seared on the outside and dark red on the inside, sliced up and perfect for those not up to all-raw, Japanese-style sashimi.

The accompanying pineapple salsa and pickled ginger added sweet and pungently sharp notes to the blander fish, served on a bed of fresh spinach. We had to ask for wasabi horseradish, an oversight on the part of the waitress. Likewise, she overlooked soy sauce for dipping.

Green curry, which Jinja serves with shrimp, was my other guest’s choice ($13.99 for the small portion). It was perfectly prepared, too. The shrimp were just cooked and tender, the snap peas plump and still crunchy, and the bits of carrot and sweet red pepper softly al dente. We ordered it prepared with very fine rice noodles, although Jinja usually serves it with rice. (The waitress overlooked serving spoons for this and the other dishes we were sharing, but produced them promptly when asked.)

The sauce packed a little heat and, since this is a Thai dish, some sweetness, too. Thai curries, unlike most Indian versions, depend on coconut milk for their silky, creamy appearance and texture. Basil and green chillies contribute heat, flavor and, of course, color, and the rest depends on mixtures of spices common to other curries, including garlic, cumin and coriander. Although by no means an expert on South Asian cooking, I found Jinja’s green curry among the best – meaning complexly flavored – that I’ve eaten locally.

We rounded out dinner with a small portion of shaking beef ($11.99). Chunks of steak had been stir-fried with onion and a fairly subdued lime-chilli sauce. Fresh spinach underpinned the serving. Again, there was plenty to share, even in the small version, and the hefty beef and unobtrusive seasonings in this dish provided a nice contrast to our other choices.

We finished off our meal with a coconut macadamia tart ($7.29). It was enough for three people to sample and tasty, too – a hint of coconut, lots of rich macadamia nuts, a crisp crust and a dollop of ice cream.

Some effort has clearly gone into transforming Jinja’s interior and we appreciated it. We were seated in a comfortable booth, surrounded by vintage travel posters (chubby prop planes, lots of tropical flowers and beaches). Singapore? The Philippines? Mandalay?

We weren’t sophisticated enough travelers to guess, but we got the idea well enough. Vintage black-and-white photos of other Asian locations, plus lots of rattan screening and dark wood wainscoting added to the effect, at once comfortable and exotic, of colonial Asia between the World Wars.

Jinja is a busy and popular place. The lobby was three deep with waiting diners at 7:30 the Friday evening we visited, so reservations are in order, at least on the weekends. In addition to the Santa Fe restaurant, Jinja has two Albuquerque locations, at 8900 Holly Ave. NE in the Heights and on the West Side, at 5400 Sevilla Ave., off Coors south of the Montaño bridge.