With a multitude of choices in San Mateo County, finding a restaurant is easy — but finding one with the highest health inspection rating can be a little more challenging.
It’s not that there’s a shortage of options that merit the county’s rank of “excellent,” as nearly half have earned that distinction. It’s because the county database of health inspection information is not set up to provide the user with a list of all of the “excellent” — or “poor” — restaurants. Online, someone can only look up the ratings for one restaurant at a time, by name.
Francesca Tashjian is co-owner of Alana’s Cafe, which has received a rating of “excellent” since 2005. The “gourmet comfort food” restaurant has two locations, one in Redwood City and the other in Burlingame. She said word of mouth is the best promotion, but an easy-to-use database could also be a benefit.
“I’m totally a word-of-mouth person,” Tashjian said. “I take advice from people with similar tastes. But I know there are people out there who look it up on the Internet. Every good publicity helps; it’s not like a bad thing.”
She said she and her business partner focus on master cleaning lists and proper food handling throughout the day.
Dean Peterson, director of the county’s Environmental Health Department, said he didn’t know why the database had not been set up to let consumers search by health inspection rankings.
Health inspections are conducted annually at the roughly 3,800 food-serving facilities in the county, Peterson said.
According to the department, 45 percent of the establishments have earned a rating of “excellent” and another 32 percent are “good.” About 18 percent are “fair,” 3 percent “average” and only 2 percent are “poor.”
Peterson said the number of major violations has decreased in the past decade, most likely due to a new state requirement that all establishments must have one certified food handler.
That requirement, Peterson said, has enabled restaurants to put one person in charge of food handling and safety and train other staff members in proper practices.
“Reasons to close down have dried up since then,” he said. “Restaurants want the same thing we do: for customers to leave, not get sick and come back.”
In 2009, only 21 food establishments were closed by inspectors, according to the county.
Violations that would require one of the county’s 12 inspectors to close an establishment include insect infestations and structural problems, such as not having hot water, Peterson said.
Ricardo Oliveira, owner of Di Napoli Pizzeria and Restaurant in South San Francisco — which received an “excellent” rating — said it’s important for him to keep his kitchen clean, and he passes that mentality on to his workers.
“I run this kitchen the way I run my own personal kitchen at my house,” Oliveira said.
Juan Carlos Pometta Betancourt/special to The Examiner
Quick bite: The Curry Up Indian food truck is one of almost 150 licensed to operate in San Mateo County.
The growing number of food-truck vendors has San Mateo County health inspectors searching for new ways to track and test the trucks for safety and sanitary practices.
Dean Peterson, director of the county’s environmental health department, said the current 147 licensed trucks are inspected annually, just as all other establishments. The difficulty, however, comes when a complaint is received.
“They’re mobile,” he said. “So if a complaint comes in, its less spontaneous of an inspection.”
Depending on the violation,
Peterson said, the county can call a food vendor to come in, adding that it’s easiest to find those with scheduled days and times for locations.
The department is discussing the possibility of dedicating one of the 12 inspectors on staff to deal specifically with truck vendors, Peterson said.
“We need to try to figure out how to better do it,” he said. “We may try a GPS to find them, or more
That said, Peterson noted that there’s not a lot of food-borne illness complaints from customers eating at truck vendors.
The mobile eateries — some offering gourmet or ethnic fare — are growing in popularity with food fans, but are not always popular with brick-and-mortar eating competitors, which have to add the cost of rent into the price of their food.