Where ‘A’ Is Not on the Menu
After concluding a three-hour inspection, Los Angeles County health officer Siu-Man Chiu sat down at a table in a closed-off banquet room to tally the letter grade for a Chinese dim sum eatery in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley.
She noted the uncovered glass left in the food preparation area. No paper towels by the hand sink. A moldy refrigerator. Dead bugs in a plastic container used to hold pig’s blood. The restaurant’s current grade was a B, but as Chiu began tabulating violations, she knew it was in jeopardy. “Right away, it’s borderline,” she said. “What killed them was the red beans. That’s six points.”
The cooks had left 7 pounds of cooked red beans cooling overnight on a food preparation table to make desserts for the next day. When food is left for three hours at room temperature, bacteria growth can reach unacceptable levels.
“I hope I have a C in the car,” Chiu said.
At that moment, the doors swung open. A manager told Chiu that the restaurant was so jammed with lunch-hour customers that he needed the space. Before Chiu could finish, servers with steam carts began to unload glistening spareribs and braised chicken feet onto tables filled with noisy patrons.
“Some places, you don’t feel like you’re making a difference,” Chiu said. “Some of the violations you see again and again, and they’re still making good business. Even with a C, Chinese people don’t care.”
C is the lowest grade a restaurant can get before being shut down. It is given when a restaurant scores 70 to 79 points out of 100. Scoring 80 to 89 points lands a restaurant a B, and an A is 90 or higher.
According to a recent study in the Journal of Environmental Health, the bold letters posted by the health department at entrances to restaurants have helped reduce hospital visits for food-borne illnesses 13% in the county since the system was introduced seven years ago.
Many diners check out the letter grade before they check out the menu.
But in the San Gabriel Valley, home to the nation’s largest Chinese American community, the letter-grade system is often viewed as little more than a minor intrusion on a proud cuisine -- if diners consider it at all.
Patrons of one cafe in Monterey Park, which has repeatedly been cited for health violations and recently received a C from Chiu, are undeterred.
“I’ve been coming here forever,” said Melvin Jin, 25, as he headed for lunch. “I’m getting the fried rice. It’s quick, it’s easy. Besides, my friend used to work here and he says it’s OK.”
Michael Ke, 30, a USC student who frequents the restaurant, is equally unconcerned. “I don’t even know where they post the letters. B and C is so much gray area.”
The county does not categorize restaurants by their cuisine. But, anecdotally, officials have long believed that Chinese restaurants elude A grades at a rate greater than any other type of restaurant. Consider this: 80% of the county’s eateries have an A. So why is it so hard to find an authentic Chinese restaurant with anything other than a B or C?
Chinese restaurateurs argue that their kitchens simply use too many ingredients and too many cooking techniques to comply with the all the rules of health inspectors like Chiu.
They say inspectors are overly strict and that a perfect score is tantamount to destroying the flavor of their food. If a roast duck were kept at the temperature the county wants it at all times, for example, chefs say you’d be left with duck jerky, not the succulent flesh and crispy skin diners expect.
And if diners were getting sick, restaurant owners say, they wouldn’t be coming to eat in such large numbers.
“We’ve been cooking like this for 5,000 years,” said Harvey Ng, owner of Mission 261 in San Gabriel. “Why do we have a problem now?”
Ng’s restaurant has a strong clientele, both local Chinese Americans and foodies drawn by the glowing write-ups in national magazines. But if he gets an A, he doesn’t keep it for long.
Chiu, a Hong Kong native, doesn’t buy the excuses.
She has patrolled the restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley for more than a decade, cajoling, sweet-talking and even scolding the most grizzled of Chinese chefs. But her task -- bridging a cultural divide over hygiene -- is foundering on the long lines outside eateries with B and C ratings.
It was 10:33 a.m. when Chiu entered the dim sum house with the red bean problem, which like several other restaurants permitted a reporter to follow Chiu through the inspection process provided their names not be used. Chiu, who stands 5 feet tall, conducts her inspections wearing casual clothes and a county ID card.
In preparation for the noon dim sum horde, four chefs worked frantically in a back room behind the kitchen, forming row upon row of miniature dumplings and pastries.
A giant floor mixer stirred a pasty combination of shrimp and pork, later to be stuffed into yellow dumpling wrappers. Heated cabinets held trays of baked roast pork buns, milk buns and taro cakes. Strips of fatty pork were being defrosted under running water, to be ground for more dumplings.
Chiu acknowledged that no other type of restaurant can compare to the Chinese kitchen in volume and variety of dishes -- and therein lies the problem. Each dish requires more handling, more ingredients and less time to do it all.
Chiu stabbed bowls of pork with her thermometer and crouched beneath sinks with her flashlight to check for vermin. She ordered the manager to remove greasy rags from table tops and clean a chopping board with bleach.
“Here is very bad,” she said, pointing to grease on a hood above a wok station.
“We clean it once a week, maybe twice,” a cook replied in Cantonese.
The owner arrived, appearing agitated. Chiu spotted an open plastic container of shrimp on a table and ordered it covered. The owner pointed at the shellfish and barked at his staff in Cantonese, “Are you kidding me?”
Chiu rolled her eyes. It’s all for show, she said later.
In the end, the restaurant maintained its B, but barely, scoring 80.
The inspection, one of hundreds Chiu has done over the years, reinforced her long-standing belief that it’s nearly impossible for large Chinese restaurants to earn an A.
The pressure on the employees would be tremendous, she said. It would force them to work several hours on top of 10-hour workdays just to clean up. The Chinese restaurant business is notoriously competitive, and owners cannot afford to pay more for cleaning staff.
“Sometimes I feel sorry for them,” she said. “I don’t take their attitude personal.”
Chinese restaurants don’t have the efficiency of major chains, which pack in just as many customers, she said.
“A place like the Cheesecake Factory or Acapulco, a lot of the food is precooked,” Chiu said. “They have cleaning crews. In a big Chinese restaurant, the dishwashers have to do the cleaning. They have six or seven refrigerators. What are the chances that they’re all going to be clean?”
The cultural gap became vividly clear when Chiu visited a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park that had come under new management, which requires an inspection. The restaurant was prized for its roast duck and pork.
In Chinese cuisine, uncooked ducks and geese are hung to air dry, ridding them of as much moisture as possible. Drying allows the skin to become exceptionally crispy when roasted, as with Peking duck. The debate is over how long the birds can be left to hang in the bacteria-friendly danger zone from 41 to 135 degrees. The law allows only four hours.
The first thing Chiu noticed when she walked into the kitchen were the raw ducks and slabs of pork hanging on silver hooks, waiting to be barbecued. She immediately prodded them with her thermometer, explaining to the cooks that in two hours they would have to cook or refrigerate them.
Chiu walked to the takeout area and told a manager that a side of golden roast pork must be heated to 135 degrees and that he was in violation.
The manager pleaded with Chiu for some leeway. “It will be so dry we won’t be able to sell it.”
“Yeah, I know, I know, I know,” Chiu said, her eyes still on the report she was filling out.
After four pages of handwritten notes on violations -- including dirty gaskets, a lack of hot water in the bathrooms and unrefrigerated garlic in oil -- Chiu was done. She had the manager sign each page and then walked toward the main entrance, where at least 30 people were waiting in line for a table.
Chiu stripped the green B placard from the glass door. Because it was an inspection prompted by a change in ownership, the restaurant would operate without a visible grade until another inspector arrived in the following weeks.
Otherwise, “They would have gotten a C,” Chiu said. “It was pretty bad.”
Chiu grew up in Hong Kong, a city with one of Asia’s richest culinary traditions and where residents still buy food from “wet markets,” outdoor stalls where slabs of meat hang from hooks without refrigeration and shoppers eat cooked food from unlicensed hawkers.
“Our stomachs must be used to the germs,” Chiu said.
Chiu went to Cal State Northridge to earn a master’s degree in epidemiology and biostatistics. But she did not complete her thesis, opting to take a job with the Department of Health Services in 1987.
She joined the department amid a major demographic shift in the San Gabriel Valley, as largely white suburbs such as Monterey Park, Alhambra and San Gabriel became the epicenter for a wave of Chinese immigration. Suddenly, the area became home to hundreds of Chinese restaurants.
The first six months on the job were not easy for Chiu, who was still adjusting to life in the U.S. She was too passive, she said, and was often intimidated.
“Some of them would chew me out,” Chiu said. “But I got more confidence in myself from the job because I know what I’m doing.”
She believes the restaurant owners’ attitudes toward her also changed with time.
“When I started, they thought I’d be easy on them because I’m Chinese,” said Chiu, now the mother of three teenage daughters. But from the beginning, she said, she was a stickler for the county’s rules.
And over the years, she has come to command the respect -- and fear -- of the Chinese restaurant owners.
The most gratifying inspections are the ones that produce results, Chiu said. Take Au 79, a Taiwanese cafe in an Arcadia strip mall that boasts an A.
On her first visit, Chiu found numerous temperature violations and handed out a C. It took a year of encouragement and educating on the part of Chiu and other inspectors for Au 79 to earn an A. It meant translating the rules into Chinese for the kitchen staff, teaching the correct way to wash dishes and how to store food to prevent cross-contamination.
“She is very, very strict. My heart was pounding so fast when she came in,” said Megan Lee, 27, who manages the business for her parents. “We moved here from Taipei. There were a lot of new rules to learn. It’s completely different from Taiwan.”
But Au 79 is an uncommon example.
More typical for Chiu was her trip to a Hong Kong-style restaurant in Monterey Park that serves a distinct Chinese take on Western food, such as chicken a la king and grilled steak smothered with brown pepper sauce.
The restaurant had been clinging to a B for more than a year. Heat from a deep fryer, a grill top, two stove tops, four woks and six stock pots raised the tartar sauce and Thousand Island dressing on an adjacent counter 19 degrees above the highest allowable temperature.
A container of rice porridge had a dead fly in it, food was stored in the employee changing room, a rice scooper was left in standing water and a meat slicer was encrusted with dirt.
Chiu sat down at a booth to write up the report. She refused a drink, as she always does. The owner, a Chinese immigrant who came to the U.S. in the 1960s, sipped hot tea and sat across from Chiu, hoping again to elicit some sympathy.
“We’re month to month now,” he said. “The owner won’t renew our lease. I can’t even change the plates. We wanted to renovate. We’re barely paying our bills.”
Chiu flashed a wan smile and said, “I hate to give you a bad grade.”
“I don’t mind, I don’t mind,” the owner said. “You’re doing your job. And I get to scream bloody murder at the staff tomorrow.”
The restaurant dodged closure by only two points, with a 71.
As Chiu left the restaurant, she stripped the green B placard from the window with one swipe.
She walked to her car, grabbed a red C from her back seat and returned to the front door. There, she taped up the new grade without attracting any attention.
Soon, customers filled the restaurant, as if Chiu had never been there.