Sanitary problems can run the gamut at a restaurant; in many cases, only a trained inspector with access to food preparation areas can spot the problems. But according to Terrance Powell, a supervisor at the West Los Angeles office of the county Department of Environmental Health, telltale signs exist that can allow a customer to judge a restaurant's adherence to proper health procedures. Here are some of the things to look for:
* Menus. Are they covered with grime or grease? If they are not clean, chances are the kitchen isn't either.
* Money handling. Is the person with the grubby fingers who just made your tuna sandwich also the one counting your change at the grease-smeared register? County health codes recommend a division of labor between food preparation and money counting. At a minimum, food handlers should wash their hands in between duties.
* On-the-job smoking by employees. "Carries a high potential for disease dissemination," Powell said. "One's fingers are brought to the mouth and if one is ill there can be a direct transference to food."
* Restrooms. If they have a bad odor and are filthy, chances are the kitchen is worse.
* Encrusted silverware and dirty glasses. A tip-off that all might not be well with the dishwasher, much less the rest of the kitchen.
* Chefs' hair restraints and clothes. Are the chefs wearing a mandatory hair net or hat? Hair carries bacteria from the body's natural oils and hair care products.
Also, if the chefs are wearing clean and neat outer garments, they probably work in a healthful kitchen.
* Flies. "A telltale sign the kitchen is dirty," Powell said. Flies carry bacteria that can be deposited on food.
* Cockroaches. "Roaches defecate everywhere and carry filth from spot to spot," said Powell. "If you see one in a restaurant, call the county health department to report it."