San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Popular Asian restaurant Tin Jo closes, reopens

Johnny Barrantes opened the doors of Tin Jo to the public for the first time in five days on Wednesday. The faithful clientele of the restaurant, a downtown San José staple since the 1970s, did not disappoint. Barrantes finished up a hectic week with a refreshingly busy morning.

Tin Jo’s front house manager hoped for a day like this. Back in his regular uniform – white buttoned-down shirt, black slacks and striped tie – Barrantes embraced customers and fielded calls each time his cellphone rang its traditional Chinese-music ringtone.

Less than a week previously, Tin Jo was closed for health code violations. The fixes took little time. The wait for customers to return did not last long either.

“[They said,] ‘We’re here for you. We trust you,’” Barrantes said. “It’s a nice feeling.”

On June 24, the Health Ministry closed the pan-Asian cuisine establishment after following up on a pair of complaints. Inspectors found a lack of plans for several procedures, that employees did not have food-handling licenses and that there were sanitary problems with food storage, said Health Vice Minister Mauricio Vargas.

Barrantes clarified the Health Ministry comments and explained why the restaurant reopened in less than a week’s time. The employees all had food-handling licenses, but only copies of them at work. The ministry would accept only the originals.

The restaurant received a citation for not complying with disability laws and for not having an exit plan in case of an emergency. Fixing that only required adding an arrow pointing to the handicapped entrance and emergency exit.

Barrantes said the staff was barred from entering the restaurant until Monday. The entire cleanup and changes were completed in 24 hours. Health inspectors returned Tuesday, approved the changes and lifted the injunction closing the restaurant.

When Tin Jo opened Wednesday, a Health Ministry vehicle idled outside while an inspector did one final check. None of the customers arriving for lunch seemed to mind.

Fans of the popular establishment expressed support for the restaurant through its Facebook page after it was shut down. Tin Jo management responded, giving a few short updates to its customers on the cleanup process after the closure. On Tuesday evening, the most loyal customers circulated an email encouraging friends to eat lunch at the restaurant when it reopened.

Fernando Guier and his family were the first customers to show up at Tin Jo on Wednesday. They waited to lunch with Gonzalo Castellón, a defense attorney who has worked for prominent Costa Rican political figures. Guier said his friend knows the restaurant’s menu by heart.

“He’s memorized all the plates,” said Guier, also a lawyer. “He says today, ‘I’m going to have No. 125.’ He knows them all.”

For years, Guier drove across town from his office in the western suburb of Escazú while Castellón left from east San José to meet at the downtown restaurant to discuss cases.

On the morning of the reopening, Guier hurried his wife and daughter – who brought her own 5-month-old daughter – to the restaurant. Castellón arrived 15 minutes later. He ordered a fish dish that’s no longer listed on the menu, the former No. 84.

Juan Carlos Pérez and his wife stuck with more typical dishes: the Plato Tin Jo, a kung pao-style meal. Their daughter, Laura Segura, ordered chicken curry bathed in coconut milk. The family comes once a week, and knows all the waiters by name.

“They all know our names, too,” Pérez said.

The closure didn’t bother the family. They trusted the restaurant’s owners.

Tin Jo owners Maria Hon and Robert Faulstich could not be reached for comment; the week before the closure, the family left on vacation to China. However, Faulstich released a statement through a press release.

The owners apologized for the troubles and thanked clients who had posted hundreds of messages of encouragement on Facebook: “We want to give infinite thanks to our many friends and customers who have supported us and illuminated us throughout this process. We are sure that the positive energy and thoughts have allowed everything to progress smoothly. We are very happy to reopen our doors to all so that we can serve you again.”

Many of the lunch customers on Wednesday said they have become friends with the owners throughout the years. Betsy Abraham and Vivian Paz came after receiving an email encouraging frequent diners to return for the reopening.

“We dropped all our plans to come down here today,” Abraham said. “We came down so we can support Maria and Robert.”

Hon has been involved with the community (TT, May 6) since she took over the restaurant for her parents in 1993, Abraham said. With Hon and her husband on the opposite side of the world, her family helped out with the reopening.

Hon’s two sisters offered assistance in the kitchen and their parents sat down for a meal. Customers gave hugs and told the family they were delighted to see Tin Jo open again.

Rosa Hon, Maria Hon’s mother and former owner of Tin Jo, said she was shocked the Health Ministry would close the restaurant without a warning (see box), especially because the problems amounted to several quick fixes that took only a couple of days to resolve.

But after seeing the restaurant almost full by 1 p.m., Barrantes explained last week’s closure in a positive light.

“Before we were very good,” Barrantes said. “Now we’re even better.”

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