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Unclean cuisine: How does your favorite restaurant rate on health scale?

Restaurant inspection turns up violations

Sonya Enoch, a Chicago Department of Public Health inspector, takes a look in the kitchen of an upscale Polish restaurant on the Northwest Side that was later temporarily closed. (Tribune photo by Jose M. Osorio / September 17, 2008)

When Arleen Lopez and Sonya Enoch walk into a restaurant, it's like your mother-in-law dropping in unannounced. Except these two snoops are armed with flashlights, thermometers and keen eyes for "fresh, black and pointy rodent droppings."

Lopez and Enoch are inspectors for the Chicago Department of Public Health. And despite their pleasant faces, they're the last people restaurateurs want to see.

We found that out in dramatic fashion on a recent inspection tour with the pair. They put the fear of City Hall into one restaurant, closed down another and let us in on the warning signs that can help you decide whether a place is safe and clean.

Two quick lessons: Look for an inspection report on the wall that will tell you if serious problems were found during the last city visit. And don't necessarily judge a place by its tablecloths.

You would think, for example, that the humble Northwest Side store and taqueria where Enoch and Lopez kicked off a recent inspection run might fare worse than the upscale Polish place that followed. But guess which one survived?

Like all city inspectors, Enoch and Lopez show up at their assignments unannounced. So their arrival at the 30-seat taco joint was not a happy surprise. As Lopez explained in Spanish what was about to happen, the owner's face fell.

Within minutes, Lopez and Enoch were sitting at a table, going through copies of the taqueria's licenses and pest-control documents, and logging in the details by hand.

The inspectors know that during these 15 minutes of paperwork, proprietors are usually frantically cleaning up the kitchen. But Enoch was in no rush.

"They can only do surface cleaning," she said. "If there is a problem, we'll still find it. We pull tables and stoves away from the wall. They can't do it all in 15 minutes."

Enoch and Lopez, who usually work individually, employ a 44-item checklist that combines guidelines from the Illinois Department of Public Health and local city ordinances.

It's a meat grinder of a survey, the kind of thing that could make you look at your home kitchen and wince. In fact, in their combined 16 years of inspections, Enoch and Lopez said they have never found a place in full compliance. Not even the finest restaurants in town.

And yet, the women say they have not given up hope.

After the paperwork, the inspectors donned blue lab coats, slipped on their hairnets and whipped out digital thermometers.

Behind the taqueria's horseshoe-shaped counter, Lopez began filling up the sink. The anxious owner and staffers hovered nearby, ready to fulfill any request.

Employing a 3rd-grade teacher's tone, Lopez pointed to the slow-draining sink—the kind of thing a savvy diner could spot in an open kitchen too—and told the owner he needed a plumber and a bigger grease box, pronto.

Storage and cleaning of cookware is also crucial. Lopez pointed to a stack of platters next to a prep counter and announced they all needed to be turned upside-down for cleanliness. There's another detail that citizen inspectors can often spot on their own.

Hand sinks were checked for adequate hot water, soap and paper towels. A worker was warned to never wash glasses in a two-compartment sink that did not have a spray nozzle.

In a back room, the inspectors found wooden rods hovering over three cauldrons used to make fried pork.

"They hang the chicharron [pork rinds] to drip here," said Enoch, whose job requires a solid knowledge of ethnic food to spot issues in the city's diverse restaurants. "But porous rods could chip or harbor bacteria. They have to go."

They shined their powerful flashlights under shelves and into crevices.

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