April 4 2012 11:31 AM

Some owners said they learned a lot after failing their inspections, others just hung up on us

Mystic Grill's manager refused to sign the official notice saying that it failed its health inspection last summer.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan
In February, U-T San Diego raised questions about how food trucks don't receive letter grades from health inspectors—A, B or C—like regular, brick-and-mortar restaurants.The San Diego County Board of Supervisors instantly sprung into action, voting to extend letter grades to mobile restaurants, too.

Here at CityBeat, we just shrugged. It's not like you ever see anything but an A in a restaurant's window, anyway. The county conducts approximately 24,000 graded inspections each year, and 99.5 percent result in an A grade.

Unlike in elementary school, there are no D or F grades for health inspections. It's really only an A-through-C scale, with C being a failing grade. A health inspector starts with 100 points, then begins subtracting for every violation (no restaurant has received less than 70 points in the last two years). Even with a low C, a food facility can remedy the situation almost immediately. So, that restaurant with the near-perfect score hanging on the wall today could have been infested with cockroaches three days earlier. The only way the customer would know is by searching the county's online database, which doesn't provide many details, either.

For our special Food Issue, CityBeat used the California Public Records Act to obtain a list of every restaurant that received less than an A since January 2010. We isolated the 10 lowest scores and had the county pull those inspection reports. Then we contacted the restaurants. Here's what we learned and how the owners responded.

Also check out our interactive map and list of every restaurant that received less than an A rating between January 2010 and February 2012 at Dirty Diners: San Diego County.

Primo Food Market

1535 W. Vista Way in Vista 
Failing grade: 70 (April 23, 2010) 
Current grade: 95 

The Report: The health inspector noted problems with hand-washing and sanitization; one employee took a soiled knife, rinsed it without soap, dried it on his apron, then resumed chopping. Several items were stored unsafely, either uncovered or at the wrong temperature, including cilantro, onions and a pint of Mexican cream. Drain flies were spotted in the kitchen, and rat droppings were observed under shelves and pallets, some within one foot of stored tortillas. Cloths—including bloodied ones—were not stored properly in sanitizer.

Management's response: Owner Sam Assi called back immediately. He says he spent at least $6,000 to fix the problems, including installing new doors and hiring a specialist to train employees on food safety. In 2011, the establishment barely hung onto its A rating with two 90-point scores, but is now in full compliance. Assi's other establishment in Oceanside also holds a 95 rating. "I would never do anything to jeopardize my bread and butter to jeopardize my place in the community," he says. "We're hard-working people, and we want the best for our customers so they come back."

Meadow Lake Golf Club

10333 E. Meadow Glen Way in Escondido 
Failing grade: 72 (June 30, 2010) 
Current grade: 90 

The Report: At the time, Meadow Lake was operating two separate food establishments under a single health permit. Some employees didn't have documented evidence that they had passed food-handler training courses; one was seen eating and drinking in the kitchen and another was caught mopping the floor, then handling tomatoes with his bare hands without washing first. Hot dogs on a cooker were thrown out after the inspector discovered they were being held at unsafe temperatures. "Numerous" rodent droppings were on the floor of the kitchen near the soda fountain and also on shelving units. In the walk-in cooler, raw meat was stored above uncovered lettuce, and the cooler itself was soiled with dirt and mold. This was the second low score for the facility in a year.

Management's response: Head golf professional Gene LaLiberte and food and beverage manager John Jun responded quickly to our inquiry. Immediately after the inspection, Jun, a recent hire, was certified as a food handler's manager and regained the A rating. The second restaurant, DG Steakhouse, which was operated by a different owner, is now operated solely by the golf club as Meadow Lake Grill.

During a December 2011 inspection, the county specialist noted minor problems with food surfaces and hand-washing, but awarded an A anyway. "I think they're doing an excellent job," Jun says of the county. "At the time, I was just getting into the field. They teach me how to do all the cleaning stuff…. As long as I work here, I want to keep it up."

Panaderia Estrella

1551 W. Mission Road in San Marcos
Failing grade: 72 (Feb. 20, 2010) 
Current grade: 90 

The Report: The inspector found five live grain beetles inside one bag of flour and an infestation of fruit flies in the restroom. The establishment had points further deducted for using a pesticide that wasn't suitable for deployment around food. Food storage was a problem, with eggs stored on the floor and beans and chicken tamales left on the counter overnight at unsafe temperatures. The inspector noted grease buildup on the walls and ceiling. One sink was backing up and another sink was plumbed directly to the sewer line. The inspector impounded 34 bags of corn chips that were labeled only in Spanish—an establishment may only sell items with English labeling somewhere on the package.

Management's response: The restaurant's owners did not return our call.

El Patron Traditional Mexican Grill

9460 Mira Mesa Blvd. in Mira Mesa 
Failing grade: 73 (Dec. 13, 2010) 
Current grade: 94 

The Report: The facility didn't have valid foodsafety certification, and multiple employees were seen handling food without properly washing their hands. Equipment throughout the facility was in disrepair. Due to the broken walk-in cooler, several foods, including raw fish, raw pork, ground beef, shrimp ceviche, menudo and chorizo, were being kept at unsafe temperatures. The condenser in the cooler was also dripping on open containers of food. In another cooler, raw meat was stored above cooked fish. The inspector noted a fly infestation.

Management's response: The restaurant's owners did not return our call.

Sunrise Super Buffet

3860 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa 
Failing grade: 74 (Dec. 7, 2010) 
Current grade: 90 

The Report: The inspector noted that employees weren't properly washing their hands between cleaning and food preparation. Potentially hazardous foods weren't being held at safe temperatures, including squid. Raw meat was stored above cooked meat in the cooler. Gnats were found, as were mice droppings from an earlier infestation. Slimy mold was observed growing inside the ice machine, dripping on the ice. Three pounds of batter was thrown out after the inspector determined it had been contaminated by nearby trash bags.

Management response: When we called the restaurant, we spoke to Steven Lam, who was listed as the owner on the 2010 inspection report. He wouldn't answer questions and hung up on us.

El Nopalito Restaurant

Photo by Marcus Ligons

582 Santa Fe Drive in Encinitas 
Failing grade: 74 (Jan. 19, 2012) 
Current grade: 91 

The Report: The inspector observed a "large amount of debris" on shelves throughout the facility, inside and outside the ice machine and on food containers. Pork-skin soup, beans and beef were not being held at hot-enough temperatures. One employee was seen touching raw fish, then preparing tamales and tacos without washing first. Dented cans of food were kept with intact cans of food.

Management's response: Owner Ruben Garcia responded at length via email. "We have been in business over 25 years and had never seen a C," he writes. "But my whole thought was to make this negative into a positive. I think it brought the employees and owners close through defeat." He remembers the inspection being three hours long and unusual in its harshness. "As the health inspector continued, there was a sense of fear, which was a first for us," he says. After, the restaurant, as a family, had a meeting and went through the report point by point. They purchased new equipment and were back to an A rating by the end of the month.

Mystic Grill & Bakery

6990 University Ave. in La Mesa 
Failing grade: 74 (June 21, 2011) 
Current grade: 90 

The Report: Insects were a problem, with fruit flies and regular flies observed around the sink, two cockroaches were seen on the ground and four unidentified insects were spotted on a knife rack. Containers of food were stored on the floor instead of at least six inches above the ground. Pepperoni, eggs, beef and chicken were stored at unsafe temperatures. Uncooked eggs were stored above produce. The inspector noticed that most staff didn't possess valid food-handler certificates. The manager refused to sign the form acknowledging the down-grading.

Management's response: Owners did not respond to email or telephone messages.

Sushi Roll Depot

Photo by Marcus Ligons

4425 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa 
Failing grade: 75 (Dec. 29, 2011) 
Current grade: 93 

The Report: Three out of six employees didn't have valid food-handler-training documentation. Cooked rice was found at ambient room temperature. Staff was instructed to cease using the ice machine because of brown and black debris mixed in with the ice. Frozen mussels were thawing at room temperature.

Management's response: Restaurant staff hung up on us. Until recently, this restaurant was known as Halmouny BBQ & Tofu House. It has been inspected at least four times since the failing grade.

Descanso Junction Restaurant

8306 Highway 79 in Descanso 
Failing grade: 76 (Oct. 19, 2011)
Current grade: 98 

The Report: The inspector observed "multiple violations" of proper holding temperatures, including eggs, sausages, tartar sauce and sour cream. An open box of bacon bits was found in the basement with gnaw marks and mice droppings. Further ro dent excrement was observed in a cabinet below the milk dispenser. "Excessive grease" was seen between cooking equipment (half-an-inch thick in some places) and on the floor. The facility had already received the low score of 81 earlier in the year.

Management's response: Owner Tammy Cooker responded via email about the "horrible day" they received the failing grade. "I have been in business for eight years and always been in good standing with the health department," she writes. "It definitely changed my managerial policies and the accountability process that day." She says she implemented new storage and reheating policies and hired a new kitchen manager, fixing problems she acknowledges should have been addressed all along. The restaurant now has the highest grade on this list.

Mananas Mexican Food

1137 Main St. in Ramona 
Failing grade: 76 (April 27, 2011)
Current grade: 96 

The Report: Employees did not follow handwashing protocol. Fish was thawing on a prep table, rather than under running water. Raw eggs and chicken were stored above cooked beef and pork. As much as 15 pounds of chicken were thrown out after being stored at an unsafe temperature.

Management's response: The owner could not be reached due to international travel.

For an interactive map of all restaurants that received B and C grades since 2010, click here. Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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