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Chicago's Dirtiest Restaurants: Violations Abound at Some Surprising Spots

By Mark Konkol | December 31, 2012 8:54am | Updated on December 31, 2012 1:45pm
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Billy Figueroa

I try to be a good son.

Every Mother’s Day I get my mom out of the suburbs and treat her to a nice brunch in the city.

For the last few years, we’ve gone to The Big Easy in Hyde Park, a joint that specializes in New Orleans-style fare.

I picked the place because The Big Easy got a bit of foodie love when it opened under chef Jennifer Gavin, who starred on the Fox reality show “Hell’s Kitchen.” Gavin didn’t last a month, but we liked the place because it wasn’t too fancy, the food wasn’t overly spicy, and the price was right.

Mom usually ordered jambalaya-stuffed chicken with tasty corn bread. She always had a bite of Dad’s seafood gumbo and asked me to fetch her an extra sweet roll from the dessert table.

We had a nice time.

So nice that I hate to spoil it.

But Mom, I’ve got bad news.

Our Mother’s Day spot happened to be the filthiest restaurant in Chicago — earning top dishonors on DNAinfo’s list of Chicago’s dirty restaurants.

Even trendy places frequented by foodies had trouble with minor cleanliness issues, according to a DNAinfo.com review of 8,823 city health inspection reports completed between April and October.

But some restaurants raked up several “critical” health code violations — some as bad as rat and roach infestations, rancid meat or deplorable cooking conditions — that led to big fines and even immediate closures. Each critical violation comes with a $500 fine.

A total of 18 restaurants, including a place featured on the Food Network’s “Diner’s Drive-ins and Dives,” received at least four critical violations during the six months of inspections reviewed by DNAinfo.com.

The dirtiest restaurants were ranked by total number of critical violations found at each eatery and the total number of vioations cited each time the place was inspected by the city.

It wasn’t easy to break the news to my Mom and Dad about The Big Easy’s big problems.

When I told her about the mice — about 50 of them that inspectors say left droppings all over the joint — she gasped.

There were live flies and roaches also populating the dining room, kitchen and storage areas, according to inspection reports.

And something stinky in the kitchen — 100 pounds of raw chicken stored with raw eggs, raw fish, and cooked soups stored at unsafe temperatures as warm as 69 degrees, according to reports.

"Isn't that what we ate?" Mom said.

When I started to tell her about the "rancid" grease in the deep fryers she demanded I stop.

"Oh, Mark I don't want to hear any more," Mom said.

So, I didn't get the chance to tell her about how the dishwasher and sink leaked wastewater onto the floors. And that inspectors reported more foul orders wafting from the freezers — and the men’s washroom.

A single critical violation is enough for the city's Health Department to shut down a restaurant. But not all restaurants close down — or even fail inspection — if critical problems spotted by inspectors get an immediate fix.

The Big Easy, though, racked up 90 violations — 25 of them critical — during 14 inspections. The restaurant was closed after failing a June 8 inspection following up on a customer complaint. It wasn't until getting a passing grade in October that The Big Easy was allowed to reopen.

The Big Easy's owner, David Shopiro, whom my Mom remembered as the friendly host on our Mother's Day visits, disputed the conditions cited in the reports, but said the problems were easy to fix and have been corrected.

Shopiro said the restaurant remained closed for so long because of problems fixing floor tiles and health problems that sent him to the hospital over the summer.

“We were closed for 3½ months, that’s a really long time. But it’s over now," said Shopiro, who has owned restaurants in that building for 31 years. “We’re more than compliant.”

Not every violation the Health Department deems “critical” makes the stomach turn. But if the problem isn’t fixed immediately, inspectors can shut the place down, according to the Health Department website. Folks interested in how their favorite neighborhood restaurants fared when health inspectors visited can find inspection reports on the city’s website.

But before you take a look, here is a rundown of what inspectors found at other dirty eateries around town — quite possibly places that you took your mom:

At Bonsai Café & Lounge, 3503 N. Halsted St. inspectors found the East Lake View sushi bar had unsanitary cooking utensils in the kitchen, which didn’t have hot water. The dishwater didn’t get hot enough to sanitize dishes, and it spilled wastewater on the barroom floor, according to reports. The place — which boasts $1 drink specials and a DJ — was cited for a total of eight critical violations between July and November. No one at Bonsai Café returned calls seeking comment.

At Abe’s and Tommie’s Carryout, 5107 W. Chicago Ave., inspectors witnessed one employee handle food after dipping his hands in a bucket of dirty water. They also spotted a second worker handle hamburger buns without washing her hands, according to reports.

During three inspections in August and September, the fast food joint was cited for seven critical violations, including evidence of Italian beef and corned beef stored at unsafe temperatures as warm as 62 degrees.  

When questioned about the violations a manager who would only identify himself as “Chris” said, “We did everything to fix them. Everything is taken care of.”  Then Chris hung up the phone.

The Burger King at 3953 W. Chicago Ave. was cited for selling undercooked bacon, among other things. The kitchen sinks didn’t have hot water in July when inspectors showed up twice and found six critical violations.

Since then, the restaurant has been taken over by Heartland Food Corp.

“We acquired them from a distressed operator and are confident that now the situation has been handled and the restaurant is clean and safe,” Heartland CEO Chris Ondrula said.

When inspectors showed up at Montoya’s Ice Cream in Gage Park they found the place was operating as an illegal commissary used to stock ice cream trucks — and six critical violations.

There wasn’t a certified food manager present when inspectors found milk products used to make whipped cream and ice cream stored at unsafe temperatures as high as 48 degrees in faulty refrigerators.

The place was infested with rodents and insects. Rodent droppings covered preparation areas. And there were flies in open boxes of sprinkles used to top ice cream sundaes. The kitchen didn’t have a sink for employees to wash their hands, either, according to reports.

Montoya’s, 2911 W. 59th St., was shut down in September and never reopened.

OH Fusion, a Lakeview Thai and sushi spot, was cited by inspectors for five critical violations in August, including not having soap at a kitchen sink where a dirty-handed employee handled raw “ready-to-eat sushi fish.” There were 5 pounds of cooked rice stored at room temperature and roaches and flies were found in the kitchen, according to reports.

OH Fusion, 3911 N. Sheridan Ave, was closed down for a week before passing a re-inspection on Sept. 4. Management didn’t return calls seeking comment.

“Food debris” bubbled up from a sink of cloudy water at Congress Pizza, 5925 W. Diversey Ave., according to inspection reports.

The pizza place was infested with gnats, and roaches were found on food preparation tables. The dishwasher operated at a low temperature with no sanitizer, according to reports.

Five critical violations forced Congress Pizza to shut down for two weeks in May.

“To me, they overexaggerated the situation,” said a Congress Pizza manager named Eric, who refused to give his last name. “I’m an honest person. Everything they talked about, we took care of it. Anyone who wants to come check, they can come check right now. There isn’t one fruit fly in the restaurant. The place is clean, period.”

At Original Triple Crown in Chinatown, inspectors found raw pork stored alongside raw vegetables. Glue traps “saturated with roaches” were discovered on food preparation tables. And more than 100 live roaches were spotted under a “wok station,” inside bowls, on utensils and inside crevices all over the kitchen.

The Chinese restaurant at 211 W. 22nd Place also was cited for five critical violations during three June inspections.

When I called, a manager asked to take my order. I asked about the roaches. She hung up the phone.

Rib Bazaar, a West Side barbecue joint at 5419 W. Madison St., was cited for four critical violations including not having hot running water. Inspectors also found about 100 mice droppings around the deep fryers, on counters and on food preparation tables, according to reports.

Rib Bazaar closed in May and never reopened.

China Hut, 7100 N. Clark St., failed an Aug. 26 inspection with four critical violations, including claims that broccoli may have been contaminated by a kitchen worker who put his “foot on a cutting board” and the presence of “black slime” in the icemaker.

Another employee at the Rogers Park restaurant was spotted wiping sweat off his face and immediately handling ready-to-eat egg rolls, according to reports. Inspectors also found about 120 pounds chicken, beef shrimp and cream cheese stored at hazardous temperatures. The restaurant was not closed down for the violations, according to the city Health Department. China Hut management didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Leo’s Sandwiches and Wings, 513½ E. 47th St., remains closed after inspectors found problems with the restaurant's refrigerators and plumbing.

At Barrio Urban Taqueria, 714 W. Diversey Parkway, inspectors found the seafood dish ceviche, salmon and cheeses stored at unsafe temperatures in a kitchen cooler. Management did not return calls seeking comment.

A&T Grill, 7036 N. Clark St., was cited for having “black slime” in the ice machine and refrigeration and plumbing problems, according to a July 25 inspection report. Management didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Glenn’s Diner, 1820 W. Montrose Ave., failed an Aug. 30 inspection that found two critical violations, including improperly stored seafood. The North Center diner made famous on the Food Network reality show "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" passed a July 3 inspection despite being cited for two critical violations for refrigeration and sanitation problems. The diner was not shut down by the city, but inspectors forced management to throw out coleslaw, lobster salad, pancake batter, tartar sauce and clam chowder stored at unsafe temperatures, according to reports.

Glenn's is now under new management. Calls seeking comment were not returned.

Buffet Castle, 3326 W. Belmont Ave., was cited for storing seafood, beef, chicken, tofu and eggs in coolers with unsafe temperatures as high as 67 degrees. Food worth about $425 had to be discarded, according to reports. Management didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Manijares Al Express, 2226 S. Ashland Ave., was cited for refrigeration and plumbing problems during a failed inspection in May.

Troy Grill, 2908 N. Broadway Ave., was cited for having mold in the ice machine, plumbing and other sanitation problems in May.

The Burger Philosophy, 1541 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., was cited for having “black slime” in the ice machine, storing food at improper temperatures and not having hot water during a May 10 inspection. The restaurant passed a re-inspection three days later.