A few months ago, I reviewed Kumar's, a Plano restaurant that celebrates the flavors of South India. In the three-star review I lauded its spicy Tamil-style curries, fragrant biryanis, Oor-style parotta bread and more. Not long after, an email from a reader chastised me for sending diners there, as the restaurant's health department score was deplorable.
I checked, and sure enough, the Plano Health Department had assigned Kumar's a C grade following its Nov. 14, 2016 inspection. I waited and watched, and hoped the owners of Kumar's would clean up its act: Inspections and all the food handling regulations involved can be a tricky business for restaurateurs, especially those new to the industry.
But things got worse. Seven weeks after my review was published, the restaurant was inspected again: This time the grade was D. "Critical" violations included not having a certified food service manager on duty, holding fish at an improper temperature, grease trap and handsink violations and "small roaches observed at equipment stored by black bag taped to window." A repeat inspection a week later, on March 6, resulted in a C. Better, only this time bugs were found inside the ice machine.
In the past, I have advocated for more transparency from North Texas cities when it comes to inspecting restaurant kitchens. Inspection results — whether in the form of a letter grade (used in Plano and Irving), a 100-point score (Dallas, Richardson, Carrollton) or number of violations or demerits (Highland Park, Fort Worth, Frisco) — are available on city websites, with varying degrees of information offered.
For me, the Kumar's grade has been a wake-up call.
How have other North Texas restaurants fared in their recent health department inspections? I undertook a thorough inventory, looking up the scores and grades of every restaurant I've written about this year, along with those mentioned in The Best in DFW New Restaurants of 2016, published in December.
More on the results of my investigation presently.
Benefits of transparency
I still maintain, as I have for years, that the citizens of Dallas and other North Texas cities would be best served if restaurants were required to post their scores or grades on or near their front doors, as they are required to do in Los Angeles, New York and a number of other cities. When I lived in Los Angeles, I generally refused to enter any establishment that did not have an A — which was easy, as the transparency forced restaurants to maintain high hygiene standards.
Here in North Texas, Plano does the best job keeping consumers informed: Its easy-to-use website gives consumers quick access to a restaurant's full inspection reports, including violation details.
Dallas, not so much. The city has stepped up its inspection program in recent years, and is doing a much better job than it did 10 years ago at making sure restaurants are inspected every six months. But if you take the time to visit the website, locate a restaurant, find it has a score in the 70s, say (equivalent to a C) and you want to see the specific violations, you'll have to file an open records request with the city. At least that's what the city's website seems to imply. When I called the number listed to enquire, I was transferred to another office, then disconnected. I then tried calling the City of Dallas' Public Information office directly, but the city's phone system did not recognize the name of its own public information managing director (listed on the site), Sana Syed. An email to Syed has gone unanswered.
Coppell's page is in flux at the moment: According to Carol Primeaux, the city's Environmental Sanitarian, Coppell is in the process of switching from a demerit system to a 100-point scale due to recent regulatory changes. She hopes to have the new system in place on the website "within the next couple of weeks."
But back to Plano and Kumar's. I contacted the South Indian restaurant's co-owner, Prem Damodaran, and asked him about the inspection reports. "The majority of the violations we had were about the ceiling over our juice counter," he said in a phone interview. He had not seen the violation details for the most recent report, he said, and he expressed surprise that the details were available to the public online. (Find them at the Food Inspection Inspection Score page of the City of Plano's website.) After I read him the violation details, Damodaran expressed frustration that the city expects a problem such as lack of a handsink next to a beverage station to be fixed in time for a re-inspection a week later. "You cannot get a plumber and install a sink in a week," he said. "They don't give us any time." He added that he had known the restaurant's last grade was a C, that he had asked his manager to fix the violations, and that "he said everything is fixed." Now, he said, he's frustrated that they can't get the city back quickly enough for a re-inspection.
How other restaurants have scored lately
My first concern, following the Kumar's wake-up call, was how the restaurants recently featured prominently in Palate magazine have scored. For each, and for all the other restaurants that follow in this report, I will list the score or grade from the three most recent inspections listed on city websites.
New-wave regional Chinese restaurants
Here is how the restaurants featured in our recent Palate cover story scored:
Chuan Chuan: The Sichuan restaurant featured on Palate's cover – earned an A, as I mentioned, in its first and only inspection, on Jan. 12.
Sichuan Folk (Plano): Dec. 20, 2016: C; Aug. 22, 2016: B; Nov. 23, 2015: A
Fish House Family Cuisine (Plano): Jan. 3, 2017: C; Aug. 19, 2016: A; Dec. 9, 2015: B
FatNi BBQ (Plano): April 3, 2017: B; Dec. 17, 2016: B; Aug. 12, 2016: A
Beijing Brothers (Coppell): Temporarily unavailable, pending changes to The City of Coppell's inspection system and website.
Imperial Cuisine (Richardson - 100-point scale, with 100 a perfect score): Dec. 7, 2017: 90; Aug. 31, 2016: 77
Fortune House (Irving): Jan. 9, 2017: C; Feb. 3, 2016: C
Wu Wei Din Chinese Cuisine (Plano): No inspection reports are showing up on Plano's website. (Note: Owner Todd Hung says the restaurant has been regularly inspected and that last grade was B. I've asked him to see the report, and will update if and when he sends it.)
Yama Izakaya and Sushi Legacy (Plano): Dec. 13, 2016: A
Mah-Jong Chinese Cuisine (Plano): April 17, 2017: A; Dec. 2, 2016: B; June 29, 2016: A
Little Sheep Mongolian Hotpot (Plano): Feb. 23, 2017: C; Oct. 24, 2016: C; March 29, 2016: C
J. S. Chen's Dimsum and BBQ (Plano): Jan. 26, 2017: B; Oct. 18, 2016: B; Mar. 22, 2016: B
Kirin Court (Richardson): Dec. 28, 2016: 83; June 9, 2016: 89; Dec. 14, 2015: 91
First Chinese BBQ (Richardson): Nov. 9, 2016: 84; May 31, 2016: 91; Nov. 18, 2015: 87
Scores and grades of recently reviewed restaurants
I have long wanted to include information about health department grades when I reviewed a restaurant, or at least have access to the information. In the past, this was not possible, as scores usually weren't posted for many months. In Dallas, the situation seems to be improving. For instance, Mirador, which opened in late 2016 and was reviewed on April 19, does not yet have an inspection report posted on the City of Dallas website. Town Hearth, however, which opened Feb. 1 already has a report posted.
In the future, we will include the most recent inspection score or grade, if available, in the information box that accompanies each review.
Beginning with our most recent review, here is how restaurants reviewed this year scored:
Town Hearth: Jan. 25, 2017: 90
Mirador: No inspection reports have been posted to date
Water Grill: March 30, 2017: 94
Parigi: Feb. 13, 2017: 94; Aug. 25, 2016: 96; Feb. 27, 2016: 89
Zatar Lebanese Tapas and Bar: Mar. 22, 2017: 80
Honor Bar (Highland Park): Nov. 11, 2016: 0 violations
Grades and scores of other newsworthy establishments
Here's how other restaurants I have covered since the beginning of the year have done in their most recent health department inspections:
Kitchen LTO: Dec. 2, 2016: 75 (note: when I click on the report, the site says "page not found." I have filed an open records request to see the report.)
Lark on the Park: Mar. 8, 2017: 83; Aug. 22, 2016: 92; Jan. 26, 2016: 88
Oddfellows: Mar. 30, 2017: 78; Aug. 30, 2016: 90; Dec. 2, 2016: 86
Chino Chinatown: Mar. 8 2017: 95; Sept. 14, 2016: 88; Mar. 8, 2016: 88
Laíli: Nov. 3, 2016: 96
Pink Magnolia: Apr. 4, 2017: 83; Aug. 16, 2016: 94; Jan. 5, 2016: 87
Local: Dec. 8, 2016: 92; Feb. 25, 2016: 86; June 18, 2015: 90
Joyce & Gigi's Kitchen: Oct. 20, 2016: 87; Jan. 14, 2016: 97
Bambu Thai-Asian Cuisine: Dec. 21, 2016: 95; June 29, 2016: 95; Dec. 21, 2015: 92
Victor Tangos: Mar. 17, 2017: 80; Feb. 17, 2016: 77; June 18, 2016: 83
FT33: Apr. 12, 2017: 88; Oct. 25, 2017: 94; Apr. 21, 2016: 94
The Best in DFW New Restaurants of 2016
Mah-Jong Chinese Kitchen: see above, under "New-wave Chinese regional restaurants"
Montlake Cut: Mar. 22, 2017: 91; Sept. 7, 2016: 93; Feb. 22, 2016: 90
Sixty Vines (Plano): Jan. 26, 2017: A; Sept. 22, 2016: C
Sprezza: Dec. 29, 2016: 94; June 28, 2016: 96
Top Knot: Feb. 24, 2017: 94; Mar. 9, 2016: 92
Wayward Sons: Restaurant has since closed.
So, does any restaurant earn a perfect score?
Well, actually, yes. In the course of reporting this story, I happened upon a perfect 100 score from a City of Dallas health department inspection: Uchi, the modern Japanese restaurant that took New Restaurant of the Year honors in 2015, made the impressive grade in its Feb. 24 inspection.
No doubt there are others; we look forward to learning what they are. Meanwhile, it is my hope restaurants that have paid less than the appropriate attention to the cause of public health will get with the program.
Beyond that, if you care about food safety and would like to feel secure that the food you consume — and often pay dearly for — has been handled in restaurant kitchens with your health and safety in mind, start advocating for Dallas and surrounding cities to pass ordinances requiring restaurants to post their health department grades in their entrances. Higher visibility will apply upward pressure; no restaurateur wants you to choose someone else's dining room because their kitchen has a C.
In the meantime, we are watching.