With nearly 13,000 restaurants in Houston, you can bet city health inspectors stay busy. But you may be surprised to learn there are a handful of restaurants that get the most attention -- those that break the rules repeatedly.

Local 2 Investigates scoured health department records to show you Houston's biggest food offenders. 

First, you should know some violations of the health code are more serious than others. Forgetting your hair net won't get you in as much trouble as having no hot water in your business.

Local 2 asked the health department to give us a list of the restaurants with inspections it considers the most egregious. Then we sorted it to show you which restaurants are repeatedly violating the most serious health rules.

When you're eating, the dreaded "r" word is the last thing you want to hear.

"Roaches and rats ... and rodent droppings," said Kathy Greenway when asked what grosses her out the most at dirty restaurants. 

"Of course, that's bad," said Patrick Key, the bureau chief of the city of Houston's Consumer Health Department.

But Key said it's not the most serious offense inspectors consider when visiting restaurants.

"The things that could possibly make someone sick are the things that we're most concerned about," he said. 

They were so concerned about the food at El Penjamo at 6110 Lyons last year that health inspectors stopped by on nine different occasions, condemning 514 pounds of food because it was off temperature. They closed the place twice to give the owner time to get the roaches under control and repair the restaurant's cooler.

They inspected Burn's Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que at 6314 Antoine nine times and tossed 195 pounds of food that was off-temperature. Inspectors closed the place temporarily in August and warned owners to get rid of the flies repeatedly.

Toni's Cafe on Griggs kept inspectors busy as they stopped by eight times in 2011. In June, they noted "roach activity in bread tray and under steam table."  Every time they found food the owner made at home and brought to the restaurant to sell. That's not allowed. They condemned 40 pounds of it and closed Toni's twice.

The Osaka Japanese Restaurant on Westheimer in the Montrose area blames bad timing on all the scrutiny it received from health inspectors last year. They made five visits to Osaka and gave the restaurant a serious ding for letting it's restaurant permit expire.

"It just expired when the lady came here," Osaka manager Giang Nguyen said.
Inspectors closed Osaka until it got a new permit. They also wrote the place up when they saw a live roach on the preparation table in the kitchen.

"We do pest control every week," said Nguyen.

"Was it just an off week, or do you remember that happening?" consumer investigator Amy Davis asked. 

"I was here, but like I said ... we do pest control every week," Nguyen answered.

The restaurant health inspectors visited most often for serious violations last year was Kim Son downtown on Jefferson Street. Health inspectors stopped by 17 times and tossed 157 pounds of food they said was too warm and could make customers sick.

"We've been open 30 years in business," said Kim Son's Tao Le.  "We've never have a food poisoning problem with anyone."

Le, a member of the family that owns the Kim Son chain, said he spent a boatload to make sure the food stays cool.

"I replaced all my refrigeration the last year," he said.  "I spent $40,000 or $50,000 just to replace the one that she doesn't want," Nguyen said, referring to the health inspector. 

All the extra attention costs repeat offenders a pretty penny. Restaurants have to pay $112 every time the inspector returns to make sure they've corrected violations.

On the other hand, when restaurants score well, health inspectors may only visit once a year.

The following restaurants received spotless inspections in 2011: 

  • P.F. Chang's in the 11,000 block of Westheimer

  • Chipolte at 5176 Richmond

  • Church's Chicken at 6003 Chimney Rock

  • Schlotsky's at 6127 Westheimer.

Considering the multiple visits inspectors paid those repeat offenders, we're beginning to think there's no truth to the old saying "The best time to eat at a restaurant is right after the health inspector stops by."

Health inspectors can close a restaurant permanently by revoking its license, but it's an administrative process. The restaurant owner can still apply for a new license later.