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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dining out takes strong stomach


By Charles Memminger

When I lived on Guam, one of my favorite parts of the newspaper and I suspect one of the best read in the entire Pacific Daily News was the government's health inspection reports on local restaurants.

As I recall, restaurants were given grades, like A to F, and a brief description of their failings followed. As in, "Anghet's Red Rice Cafe Grade C Roaches, mice, rotten mystery meat in cupboard. "

Or "Tony's Steak, Steak, Steak! Grade D Bugs! Bugs! Bugs!"

Guam isn't a big place, so we'd inevitably drive by the offending restaurants and say, "Hey, there's the diner with the rats the size of the Chief Quipuha statue!"

Hawai'i's Health Department restaurant inspection reports not only aren't printed in the newspapers and are not available online, they are harder to get at than Col. Sanders' secret chicken recipe. To check a local restaurant's record of safety violations, you have to physically go to the state Sanitation Branch, request documents, wait for them to be pulled from the files and then pay 50 cents a page for copies.

What you will find likely will be eye-popping, judging from this very newspaper's reporting recently that a gut-wrenching 82 percent of restaurants inspected last fiscal year had major violations.

And that's the GOOD news.

The bad news is that because the Health Department doesn't have enough inspectors, more than 2,000 of Honolulu's nearly 6,000 restaurants weren't inspected at all. That says a lot about the intestinal fortitude of O'ahu residents who eat out a lot, to put it mildly.

The Legislature apparently is considering forcing restaurants to pay a fee to hire more Health Department inspectors to scrutinize the restaurants. I'm not so sure that it's fair to charge a business a fee for having itself inspected. That's like paying someone to punch you in the face.

The legislation also would put the results of inspections online, which would be handy when you are planning a night out.

(Dad at the computer: "OK, gang, would you rather go to the place with homemade pizza and four incidents of salmonella poisoning last month or the cute little place in Kailua with great teriyaki and some minor roach infestation?"

Mom: "Is it the big cockroaches or the little ones behind the cabinets?"

Dad: "The little ones."

Mom: "Oh, let's go there!")

The fact is the human body is capable of digesting food that may not be perfectly prepared. Europe didn't import spices from 6,000 miles distance in sailing ships just to give their food a little kick. Spices basically made otherwise inedible food almost edible.

But poorly prepared food can make you sick. And fast.

I once got food poisoning so quickly from eating undercooked chicken at a Honolulu restaurant I barely made it home to the seat of ease. The good thing about food poisoning (there's a line you don't hear often) is that your body carries on like Guy Fawkes Night for about 24 hours and then you're fine.

The experience stays with you, though. I haven't been back to the Pink Chicken House since.

I kind of hope restaurant inspection results aren't posted online. I see financial opportunity. I might pay for copies of the restaurant safety violations myself and post them on a pay-to-view Internet Web site I'll call: "Roaches, Rats and Ratatouille! Hawaii's Guide to Restaurant Survival!"

Read Charles Memminger's blog at http://charleyworld.honadvblogs.com.