Painter Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks might come to mind when you approach Café Fina in the evening. The warm light of the dining rooms in this former Fina gas station — which is perched at the T where Old Las Vegas Highway meets U.S. 84/285 — shines like a welcoming beacon in the night, beckoning to hungry travelers and the residents of nearby hills, roads, and neighborhoods who’d rather not make the drive into town. Walls of windows give the dining room a fishbowl quality, enveloping everyone in the deep indigo of winter’s nighttime. Is that a coyote watching me sip my soup?
The light and the voyeuristic view from the outside is where comparisons to Nighthawks end, though. This isn’t an embodiment of cold urban isolation, and patrons aren’t uncommunicative or lost in thought. Rather, friends linger after plates have been cleared and neighbors might stop by your table to chat. The honeyed hues of the wood finishes, furniture, and floors contribute to a cozy, vaguely Scandinavian feel. It’s quite a transformation from Fina’s daytime ambiance, when the café serves breakfast, lunch, and various pastries: The atmosphere is more that of a bright, well-lit coffeehouse, where a handful of solo diners will probably be parked in front of their laptops.
Dinner is served three nights a week — Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays — and most nights the restaurant fairly bustles. Evening chef Chris Galvin’s menu doesn’t really have a unifying theme but surely offers something to satisfy almost everyone, with a gamut that runs from New Mexican to Vietnamese and Thai, with some classic Italian and French elements (polenta, Gorgonzola sauce, chicken given the Milanese treatment) and comforting Americana staples thrown in. Portions are neither spare nor overly generous, execution is fastidious, and flavors are full and balanced. The beverage menu expands to include about a dozen wines (reds, whites, and a rosé), as well as a handful of well-chosen beers (from a pleasant Belgian Pilsner to a potent imperial porter).
There’s plenty to choose from, including an assortment of salads, ranging from light (fresh leafy field greens with pepitas, jicama, and a lemon vinaigrette) to loaded (spinach with roasted beets, bacon, hard-cooked egg, and a creamy green goddess dressing). Comfort-food cravings are quelled by the familiar simplicity of rotisserie chicken, potatoes, and sautéed spinach. A hankering for New Mexican flavors can be satisfied by chicken and vegetarian enchiladas. Giant cornmeal-fried Pacific Northwest oysters arrive fresh-from-the-fryer hot; the russet crust cohesive and crisp; the oysters steamy, thick, and briny. A lovely filet of salmon — coral-pink and moist — meets a small but satisfying quantity of jasmine rice, shredded cabbage, and bok choy in a broth that is highly fragrant with lemongrass and ginger.
You could try a different dish on every visit or return to a tried-and-true favorite, as my friend John does: In appreciation of sweet Yukon Gold potatoes, the comforting softness of the often-overcooked broccoli, and the amandine-reminiscent fish, he orders the rainbow trout with the regularity of Big Ben’s chime. And whenever the sizeable bowl of highly perfumed Thai noodles and chicken passes on the way to another table, I find myself second-guessing my own choices.
If a green chile cheeseburger is what the doctor ordered, Fina fills your prescription with a juicy, Goldilocks-just-right-sized patty of local beef. Purists will quibble with the use of poblano rather than New Mexico’s signature crop, but while we missed the heat of Hatch, the deep emerald of the poblano is pretty, at least, and its distinctive vegetal flavor is a pleasing partner for the metallic beef. Though starchy and perfectly golden, the fries are otherwise nondescript in a not-house-cut way, but the choice of having both fries and a salad on the side (for a small upcharge) will please both the angel and the devil on your shoulder.
The Vietnamese shrimp salad heaps cabbage, lettuce, bean sprouts, plump peach shrimp, chopped peanuts, and fresh herbs atop an ample mound of clear mung bean noodles. The dressing is refreshingly light and aromatic, fish-sauce-salty and citrus-zingy. The whole affair is a plate dominator that gets messy quickly, especially as you try to fork up tangles of unbroken and uncut noodles. I wish Fina served this dish in a large bowl instead. It would certainly help eager diners like me from littering their table with roughage.
There are some other minor hiccups. The fact that you order at the register and take a number to your table feels incongruously casual at dinner, especially with that inviting dining room light, entrée price points solidly in the double digits, and bottles of wine on offer. While early in the evening you and your dining companion can enjoy quiet conversation, at peak times — especially if larger groups are dining together — the noise level can border on deafening. I suspect, though, that’s what Café Fina is aiming for — being an antidote to the isolation of modern life. It’s a haven on the outskirts of town, a place where people come in from the dark night to feel surrounded and satisfied. That’s about as far from a cold and lonely urban diner as you can get. ◀