Diners rejoice — Rim Country kitchens, from the modern eateries to the greasy spoons, are mostly clean.
The Roundup analyzed a list of 45 area restaurants inspected by the Gila County Health Department, and found that only four restaurants so far in 2011 have had critical violations.
Only a handful of restaurants didn’t make the grade for infractions that range from roaches to cooks smoking while on the line.
But the vast majority kept kitchens clean and stored and handled food properly to avoid food poisoning.
In the first half of 2011, 70 percent of restaurants received the highest inspection rating of “excellent,” which means no critical violations. About 20 percent received a “satisfactory,” as a result of at least one violation.
Only four restaurants received a “needs improvement” rating, with one or more of their violations needing immediate correction, those included Tiny’s, Beeline Café, China Wok Buffet and Mandarin House.
No restaurants received the lowest possible score of “unacceptable.”
All area schools received excellent ratings during the most recent inspections, except for the Payson Community Christian School, which received a satisfactory because it does not have a certified food service manager.
Gila County restaurant inspectors Michael Lemon and Shane Stuler, who conduct two unannounced inspections at each establishment a year, said most restaurants do a good job. While some kitchens are prettier than others, even the older establishments are safe.
“The old places give a false sense of how they really are,” Stuler said.
Lemon said he worried he would find tons of violations when he first moved to the Rim Country and saw the number of older restaurants.
“I was pleasantly surprised by what I found,” he said. “Because there are a lot of independent operators, they care more and they do a good job.”
The most common violations at fast food, mom-and-pop and the fancier restaurants included failing to wear gloves when handling ready-to-eat food, storing food incorrectly and malfunctioning dishwashing machines — all minor fixes.
Stuler said cooks must wear gloves or use utensils when working with salads or other foods that will not be cooked, but do not need to wear them when cooking hot foods.
When a restaurant receives an unacceptable rating, Stuler or Lemon usually follow up within a few days or weeks to see if the violation has been corrected. If not, they schedule another follow-up. But, most restaurants correct the error quickly, said Stuler, environmental health manager.
Stuler and Lemon also conduct inspections whenever they receive a customer complaint, which most often centers on suspected food poisoning or a facility’s cleanliness.
With inspections usually taking place a day later, inspectors find it hard to prove a restaurant caused a person’s sickness, Stuler said.
Often, there is no evidence the restaurant is the cause. Of all the illness complaints dating back to 2007, only a few were attributed to the restaurant with none in the past few years.
The majority of illness complaints the health department receives come on Monday and most are from out-of-town residents.
People often camp all weekend and stop in Payson for a burger on the way home. When they get sick, they automatically attribute it to the last place they ate, said Lemon, an environmental health specialist.
In fact, fast food restaurants top the list of complaints, but these establishments often also have the best inspection histories.
Dairy Queen has had the most complaints since 2007, with nine.
Conversely, it had nearly a perfect inspection score during that period.
Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) also had several customer complaints, but near-perfect inspection records.
Stuler believes the volume of customers at fast food restaurants leads to higher complaint numbers.
When a complaint is valid, such as a dirty dining room or equipment, Lemon and Stuler said they try to work with a business owner to maintain proper food handling practices.
So, a wall that needs repainting is often overlooked if everything else in the kitchen checks out.
Things that are not overlooked include a cook smoking while working, which Lemon observed during a May 2011 inspection at China Wok Buffet, 210 E. Highway 260.
That visit led Lemon to give a “needs improvement” rating after he also found a large tub of chicken marinating at an unacceptable temperature, an employee slicing hard boiled eggs with a knife attached to a dirty string, chips stored in a greasy cardboard box, dirty storage bins and shrimp on the sushi line above a safe temperature.
According to inspection reports dating back to 2009, China Wok Buffet also has a high number of customer complaints, with five.
Other restaurants with “needs improvement” ratings in 2011 include Tiny’s Family Restaurant, 600 E. Highway 260, with a July inspection noting chicken being thawed in a hand sink, a dirty french fry slicer and grease hood and a broken dishwasher.
The Beeline Café also was dinged after an August inspection found a dishwasher not sanitizing properly and roaches under the dishwasher.
The Mandarin House also got an “N” in January after its dishwasher stopped working properly, the walls, floors and equipment needed sanitizing and a failure to properly defrost. By August, Mandarin House had corrected some of those issues and received a satisfactory rating.
These errors do not reflect the overall quality of Rim area restaurants, which constantly meet inspection requirements.ఙ