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Jinja’s flexible menu offers a decent tour of Asia

SANTA FE, N.M. — For sophisticated connoisseurs of Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian cuisines, Jinja probably will not appeal. But for the rest of us, habituated to conventional choices among those three very different sets of flavors, Jinja’s Pacific Rim and Pan-Asian menu is just fine.

The Santa Fe branch of this mini-chain (there are two Jinjas in Albuquerque) is a pleasant place offering a cozy, suitably dark bar lined with vintage South Seas travel posters and an airy but also slightly nostalgic dining room. We were pleased to be seated in a comfortable booth in the bar during a recent lunch visit.

Jinja’s menu might best be described as flexible, in that many choices are offered in larger and smaller servings, including several of the appetizers, making them suitable for sharing among a table, or making a meal for one or two people. Two varieties of chicken wings, tempura, sashimi, lettuce wraps and spring rolls, a couple of Chinese-style dumplings and even crispy tofu are available.

We were only two, so the small order of spring rolls ($9.49) was fine. Four slender cylinders of crisply fried wrappers enclosing ground chicken flavored with green onion and cilantro were served with a Vietnamese-style dipping sauce that, by my guess, included soy sauce, a hint of rice wine vinegar and something else with a slightly sweet note. Mirin, perhaps?

My guest, a longtime visitor to Southeast Asia, opted for the Thai-style red beef curry ($18.99 for the large size, which gave her plenty to take home for dinner). It was excellent: just spicy-hot enough to please her, with a complexity of other spices, too. The beef chunks were tender, and stir-fried with onion and sweet pepper chunks before the addition of the curry.

I went for the land-and-sea combo ($18.99), two good-size skewers, one laden with shrimp, the other with beef, sweet peppers and onion. Two dipping sauces, one a dark, garlicky concoction and the other a refreshing combo of cilantro and lime, accompanied the kebabs. A Japanese-style cucumber salad and, of course, a mound of rice of choice (jasmine for my guest, brown for me) accompanied each of our entrees.

The kebabs were excellent: the shrimp grilled just done, the beef medium-rare as requested and succulently tender. I enjoyed the straightforward flavors of the two sauces. And here, too, there was more than enough to supply a take-home dinner.

Choosing is a conundrum at Jinja, however. I saw all sorts of Asian classics that sorely tempted. Jinja offers rice-paper-wrapped salmon or (unusually) halibut, grilled tuna or shrimp, or shrimp in your choice of red or green curry (certainly a different twist on the New Mexico state question). The meat side of the menu includes Chinese-style classics like kung pao chicken with cashews, sesame chicken, mu shu pork with signature tiny pancakes, and sweet-sour pork. Beef is also served four or five ways, or as a straight-up grilled steak with frites. Noodle dishes are served in classic Thai, Japanese or Chinese styles; there are three salad choices, including traditional Chinese chicken, and a couple of incongruous but tasty-sounding Asian variations on western Caesar and Cobb salads.

After all that food, there was no need for dessert. But we were duty-bound and chose the macadamia nut tart ($7.99) as possibly the least cloying option outside of ice cream. It was a good choice, not as sweet as American-style pecan pie, but made richer, perhaps, by the macadamia nuts. The filling was minimal, just enough to glue the nuts to the crust and, given our surfeit, that was a good thing.

Service at Jinja during a modestly crowded lunch hour was good if a little leisurely. But our needs were readily attended to by whichever waiter happened to be passing.

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