We are at the dawn of a new age of noodle joints in Santa Fe. I know I mention this every time I go to one of these places, but the closing of Mu Du Noodles really messed us all up inside (much the same way the closing of Raaga left a hole in the city's Indian food-loving heart that hasn't even come close to healing yet.) There still hasn't been a restaurant that really lights that fire for me in the same way, but I'm appreciating the myriad places springing up to try.
Winter in Santa Fe is a rough time for restaurants to open, especially a snowless, dry season like this one that cockblocks any kind of tourist presence. But it's a strangely perfect time for a place that offers craveable, cold-weather comfort food like a big plate of spicy curry and noodles or a bowl of tom kha soup. Between Cuba Fe's pop-up ramen shop, Cerrillos Road Vietnamese restaurant Pho Ava and new kid on the block, J&N Thai Bistro, our options for spicy, Asian-inspired cuisines are more diverse than ever.
J&N took over the old Five Star Burger location adjacent to the DeVargas Center, across from Albertsons. The decor isn't gaudy or tacky mall styling, though. Quite the opposite, it's all soft shades of brown and green; pots of bromeliads rest in room dividers, and the original Five Star lights provide a soft glow. (There's no alcohol served on the premises just yet, but according to employees I spoke with, they plan to have beer and wine available sometime this month.)
The menu represents the hugely diverse spectrum of traditional Thai dishes—from the pad ki mao, or drunken noodles, which were originally created by Chinese immigrants in northern Thailand, to the various southern Thai coconut-based curries that bear evidence of India's influence on Thai cuisine. For maximum impact, make sure to get your food "Thai hot"—but if you want to actually taste things in the heat, maybe stick to "hot." Hey, if you aren't at least partially trying to melt your face off, what are you even doing eating Thai food in the first place?
I got the spring rolls ($9) to start: small wrapped portions of lettuce, carrots, cilantro, and rice noodles served alongside a sweet and sour dipping sauce that I wished had just a little bit more vinegar kick to it. I contemplated getting the fruit rolls for the same price, but I got what I wanted out of the appetizer. It was a clean, crisp and slightly herbal palate cleanser for the heat to come.
Dinner was vegetable-based drunken noodles ($13), which are flat egg noodles wider than those used for pad Thai, mixed with egg, yellow onion, red bell pepper, tomatoes, Chinese broccoli and jalapeño, then flavored with cooked Thai basil, lime leaves and garlic. It was fragrant and spicy and quite filling; a friend and I ate the whole thing between the two of us. Also on the table was the panang curry with tofu ($13 at dinner) and jasmine rice (brown rice and noodles are also available, but I personally like the way a neutral-flavored rice cuts the heat.) The thick, slightly nutty-tasting panang red curry sauce would go fabulous with the $15 beef option as well, but I was a little disappointed the other vegetables listed in the dish were not as prominent. There was very little in the way of jalapeño, basil or bell pepper in my tofu, but it was spicy and satisfying, a lovely counterpoint to our noodle dish.
It was a lovely experience and just what I'd expect from co-owners Joseph and Ratchanida (Nam) Lovato, whose other eatery, Thai Cusine Restaurant, opened in Los Alamos in 2015. I do look forward to enjoying some cold beer on the table once J&N is able to provide me one, and I otherwise hope that Nam, who also acts as the head chef, can evolve the menu to lean into the expansiveness of Thai food a little more. It's wonderful to see such dishes represented in all their diversity, but I'd love options that go beyond chicken, beef, shrimp or tofu as main courses.
Part of what I miss about Mu Du Noodles was that it always created unexpected flavors that worked together insanely well; it always tasted like something you felt you couldn't get anywhere else. But I know it's hard to think outside the box when the perceived value of "ethnic food" is so low in Santa Fe. To that effect, I read a lot of yelp reviews about J&N complaining about small portion size, which is ludicrous to me—but then again, I was actually able to finish a plate of vegetable noodles. Still, it's a welcome addition to an expanding noodle house scene in Santa Fe, and I hope to be back soon.
J&N Thai Bistro
604 N Guadalupe St.,