Visitors to The Cheesecake House would never believe that the busy little restaurant on the east side of San José was once what the owner describes as a “creepy, dark, nasty dump” of a bar.
Just ask Jans Ng, and he’ll gladly tell you the story of how he, along with a few talented friends, employed a method akin to an old-fashioned barn-raising two years ago to transform the dump into what is now a clean, stylishly appointed, simply decorated, inviting restaurant that serves delicious cheesecake and much more.
Jans jokingly describes himself as “50 percent Chinese, 50 percent Costa Rican and 100 percent unforgettable,” and he may be onto something there. That’s because the effervescent personality of the restaurant owner everybody knows as just “Jans” is a huge part of the restaurant’s success.
The Cheesecake House, in Barrio Escalante, celebrates its first anniversary this month and simultaneously welcomes a sister restaurant at the Sandpiper Inn and Restaurant in Playa Hermosa, on the central Pacific coast. A third Cheesecake House is scheduled to open in Escazú, west of San José, before the end of the year.
So, life is good for Jans, who caught the culinary bug honestly at the knee of his father, a restaurateur who continues at the helm of several steakhouses and Chinese restaurants in Costa Rica.
“I was a hyper kid, and I loved going to the market with my father and seeing all the beautiful and colorful fruits and vegetables,” Jans reflected. “I loved to be in the kitchen, and I loved to create. I learned Italian cooking from Italian chefs, Chinese cooking from my father and French cooking from French chefs. And I learned that everybody is special in their own way.”
At the age of 19, Jans – armed with happy feet, a taste for adventure and a discriminating palate – flew off to the United States for more seasoning, as it were, and to widen his culinary horizons with on-the-job training. Naturally, he became a busboy to get his sensitive nose in the door.
“But I wanted to be in the kitchen,” he said, adding that after work he would create desserts at home and try them out on the chef at the restaurant where he bussed tables.
The chef continually turned up his nose and criticized his offerings.
But Jans persisted, and finally he got a thumbs-up for a cheesecake creation. The chef said, “It is a good cheesecake. You can make this and be a millionaire someday.”
Jans, 34, who studied 10 years ago at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miami and spent three years as a chef at The Cheesecake Factory in the same city, said that at the time he didn’t even like cheesecake, but he did love to create, revise, titivate and create again.
The four-page Cheesecake House menu is brimming with cheesecake desserts and other delights. For example, you’ll find appetizers such as avocado egg rolls (¢2,895/$5.20) and pumpkin cream soup with sesame oil and ground peanuts (¢2,695/$4.80). Among the specialties are baby pork ribs (¢5,200/$9.30), which Jans said is a customer favorite, and orange-peel chicken (¢4,595/$8.20). A variety of pastas such as tagliatelle dolce vita (¢5,595/$10), salads such as avocado and bacon (¢3,995/$7.10) and sandwiches such as Miami cheese steak (¢3,695/$6.60) complete the heavy part of the menu. To drink, you can choose from smoothies, juices, soft drinks, hot chocolate and a variety of teas and coffees.
Jans said the 28 different kinds of cheesecake are concocted from a variety of flavors and are “99 percent cream cheese.”
The cheesecakes run about ¢2,000 ($3.60) and come in a wide variety of flavors, from amaretto to piña colada.
On a recent visit, a friend and I were delighted with our orders of avocado egg rolls: chunks of avocado, sun-dried tomatoes, red onions and cilantro, deep fried in a Chinese wrapper and served with a tamarind-cashew dipping sauce. Very crispy and tasty, indeed – the perfect beginning.
Teriyaki chicken and pasta primavera were our main entrées. Each cost less than $9, and each included fresh, colorful vegetables. And both were scrumptious.
We wrapped up our dining experience with strawberry cheesecake and, let me tell you, it was smooth, sweet and oh-so-yummy. We shared one, but we really should have ordered two.
As we savored our dessert, Jans, who gives cooking lessons to small groups once a month, told us his main mode of advertising is via satisfied customers.
“It’s mainly word of mouth,” he said. “We give personalized service, and we try to make sure our customers are satisfied. We try to make people feel like family … feel always special.”
That recipe works really well for The Cheesecake House.
The Cheesecake House
Location: Barrio Escalante, 50 m north of Intensa language school
Hours: Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.
Contact Info: 2225-5278, www.thecheesecakehouse.co.cr