Half of the restaurants in Alameda County do not serve Asian cuisine. Yet, during a one-year period, five of the ten eateries Alameda County food inspectors cited for eight or more of the worst critical health violations were Asian-themed restaurants.
Ron Browder, the food inspection program chief for Alameda County, says his inspectors don't target Asian cuisines more than others. But he acknowledges that there is sometimes a culture clash between health inspectors following state law and traditional food-preparation styles brought from overseas.
One of the most common disputes involves food temperatures. Many Asian cultures prefer to keep food at room temperature for a couple of hours in order to maximize flavor. The trouble starts when inspectors whip out their thermometers and measure temperatures of, say, shrimp or pork at lukewarm levels, which are ideal for illness-causing bacteria to grow. "With all the different exotic cuisines come different ways of preparing foods," Browder says. "We're learning some things, but we've got guidelines to go by, and if it doesn't look right it's a violation."
This happened a couple of years ago at downtown Oakland's Le Cheval -- a popular Vietnamese restaurant that is not one of the ten major violators. A health inspector found chicken and beef sitting out at room temperature, and cited the violation in his November 2000 report. Quan Tran, the owner's son, acknowledged that, in the past, health inspectors have quibbled with Le Cheval cooks over how they marinate meats. Tran says cooks freeze the meats and leave them to thaw out in the open in the kitchen, but health inspectors want the meat refrigerated or covered when thawing. However, Tran says, he has been able to persuade inspectors that the thawing method Le Cheval uses is safe, and they don't write up the restaurant for it anymore.
Tran says many immigrant restaurateurs come from other countries where there aren't health inspections. Then they come to the United States and think "we'll do it the way we did it back home," he says.
The issue of whether race and culture influence restaurant inspections is neither new nor unique to Alameda County. A decade ago, Asian-American restaurateurs in Santa Clara County formed a business coalition to combat what they considered unfair treatment by ethnocentric inspectors. Relations have since normalized, as restaurant owners and inspectors have both learned to compromise.
Restaurateurs from the "old country" are starting to fight back in the new country's political arena. A few years ago, Asian restaurant owners were being penalized for marinating Peking duck overnight. The Legislature later granted a handling exemption for Peking duck and Chinese-style roast duck, after restaurant owners used scientific testing to show that marinating the duck prevented bacterial growth. And last year Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation allowing Korean rice cakes -- dumpling-like desserts made of rice and sugar -- to be kept and sold at taste-enhancing room temperature. The law came about after Korean food sellers in Southern California successfully organized and lobbied the legislature to protect what they described as five thousand years of tradition. The food sellers said no one ever got sick from eating a warm rice cake.
Tradition is nice, but Carl Chan, former president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said he's tried to impress on restaurant owners the need to follow California rules. And since the state now requires someone at every restaurant to complete a food-safety course -- Alameda County offers such courses in Cantonese and Spanish -- food-servers can't say they didn't know the rules. Chan says some owners have complained to him that, now that they are paying more attention to keeping their places clean, they're hearing more complaints from customers about poor service. Ultimately, however, he says it's in their best financial interest to avoid getting poor marks from the health department. "These restaurant owners have to learn that maybe there are cultural differences, but they have to conform with the law in the United States," Chan says. "It may not be 100 percent the way they made the food in their country, but it will be safer and cleaner and will cut down on lawsuits."
Of course, not everyone is keeping the health inspector content and paying more attention to cleanliness.
Oriental Tea House, a 75-plus-seat restaurant in San Leandro, tops the list of repeat violators in Alameda County for the one-year period between July 1, 2001 and June 30, 2002. During that period, Oriental Tea House was cited for eighteen major health violations. Temperature violations were indeed among the infractions -- thawing raw scallops and shrimp at room temperature -- but they weren't the main health hazard. According to the inspection reports, the place was a sanitary nightmare: Trash spilled onto the floor, grime covered the walls in the kitchen, dirty cardboard boxes were used to store cooked meat, there was no hot water at the dim sum prep area, an employee was caught not washing his hands after using the bathroom, a dead cockroach was found in the pot-wash sink, and rodent droppings littered a food storage area.
The restaurant's manager, Michael Tsang, could not be reached for comment.
Helene Blatter contributed to this article.
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