When Maria Hon was 12 years old, she helped in the kitchen of her parents’ restaurant. Now 45 help her. Hon’s Tin Jo restaurant in downtown San José has evolved from serving Chinese food in the 1970s to serving Pan-Asian food, the community and the environment.
At 12, Hon, who was born in China, arrived in Costa Rica with her parents from Hong Kong, where the family lived for nearly four years. Her father – known as “General Hon” because he was very strict with his four daughters – was a mechanical engineer from Hangzhou, China. Her mother was a chemist from Guangzhou. Neither of them spoke Spanish.
“So they did what most immigrants do in this situation; they opened up a Chinese restaurant,” says Hon, 51, whose given name is Yin Yin Hon.
As a child, after school at the Colegio Metodista on the east side of San José, Hon worked at Tin Jo, which means “the best” in Cantonese. And the best is what was expected of the Hon children.
When Hon was 18, she took a break from “washing dishes, chopping vegetables” and working the cashier to pursue a degree. Her parents felt she needed a profession “in order to guarantee a good livelihood,” Hon says. She never questioned it.
After graduating from New York City’s Manhattan College in chemical engineering, Hon worked a few years in that field. Then she pursued a master’s degree in finance and marketing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and landed a job with IBM in Boston.
That career was short-lived. Hon fell in love with Robert Walter Faulstich, a Cambodian refugee worker who was later hired to work at refugee camps in Thailand. She took a six-month leave of absence from IBM and hit the road, ready to explore the world of refugee work in Southeast Asia.
In Thailand, she realized she couldn’t go back to the corporate world.
“I was never really feeling quite at home in those fields,” says Hon, a petite brunette who favors sporty dress.
While traveling all over Asia, Hon discovered Thai and Indian food. “The beauty of the flavors,” “the colors” and how the food triggered her senses, she says, led her back to cooking.
“Everywhere I went, I tried to learn to cook with the local people, on mud floors, in kitchens, in little cafeterias, in food stalls, street stalls, just anywhere to soak in all the different culinary delights of that part of the world,” says Hon, who is fluent in Spanish, English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
The food and international ambience is what motivated her to settle in the U.S. city of San Francisco in the early 1990s, while Faulstich stayed in Thailand as a counselor for a consortium of nongovernmental associations. In San Francisco, Hon explored Italian food.
“I remember being really into Italian food,” she says. “I made my own pasta.”
Hon worked there for three years for Asian Inc., an economic development organization. She helped immigrants write business plans and oriented them on financing.
In 1993, Hon’s parents, being close to retirement and wondering when they would become grandparents, invited the couple to move to Costa Rica and run Tin Jo restaurant.
“We decided we’d … give it a try. Costa Rica was just becoming a paradise,” Hon says, referring to the rising popularity of the country as a tourist destination.
Hon and Faulstich took over the restaurant, at the time a brick house, with locals their main customers. Today, the restaurant – a two-story, split-level, yellowish-orange structure with charcoal trim and red roof – serves a mix of local and international customers, and is three times larger than when the Hon family originally purchased it and lived on the second floor. Hon and Faulstich bought the house next door on the north side and converted it into the Indonesian, Japanese and little patio rooms. Faulstich did the woodwork, representing different regions of Southeast Asia. The couple recently renovated again, purchasing the house on the south side and converting it into the Bamboo Room, where special events and qigong classes are held.
Hon’s culinary experiences in Southeast Asia and India had given her a new palate; her favorite food was Thai, her favorite ingredient, lemongrass. But Thai food was new to her Costa Rican customers – and its preparation was new to her.
“I’m not a trained cook. I’ve never taken a cooking class in my life,” says Hon, emphasizing that she was trained in organic chemistry.
Hon slowly introduced the new cuisine to the menu – and her clients loved it. She also developed special menus for vegetarians, kids and those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
But it’s not just the food that takes up Hon’s attention. Every Saturday, with pastor Susy Quiroz of the Comunidad Cristiana Bet-el, Tin Jo employees take turns cooking lunch for nearly 80 kids in the community of Guararí in Santo Domingo de Heredia, north of the capital.
“They are very poor, … economically disadvantaged families or abused children,” says Hon, the mother of two teenage daughters.
The restaurant also supports the arts, downtown San José improvement, the Women’s Club of Costa Rica and environmental causes such as the Terra Nostra Association. In fact, Hon and Faulstich built their new Bamboo Room because they wanted a space to hold fundraising events for the various causes they support, Hon says.
Hon’s interest in sustainability was reinforced during her years in California, where she worked as an outreach coordinator for the San Francisco recycling program. She has applied those environmental practices at Tin Jo restaurant, which uses no disposable dishes, utensils or straws, gives customers reusable containers for takeout orders, and offers a 10 percent discount to clients who bring reusable containers and bags to take out their meals, and to those arriving by bicycle.
The restaurant also collects rainwater in two tanks to water its plants and to flush the toilets in the new Bamboo Room. And excess oil from the kitchen is used as fuel after purification.
“Robert drives a blue Toyota HiLux, and it smells sometimes of fried wantons,” Hon says, laughing.
Tin Jo restaurant is on Calle 11, between Avenidas 6 and 8, in downtown San José. For information and reservations, call 2221-7605, or visit www.tinjo.com.