HOUSTON - 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.
To see a complete list of restaurant violations in the Houston area, visit www.click2houston.com/restaurantinspections. How To File Restaurant Complaint We get our information from the city of Houston Health Department, but many of you have complaints about restaurants in other cities and counties. Refer to the following list to find out which agency to contact depending on the location of the restaurant: * For all complaints about restaurants located in the city of Houston, call 311 or file the complaint online. * Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services inspects and permits all retail food establishments in the unincorporated areas of Harris County as well as in the cities of Tomball, Katy, Jacinto City, Galena Park, La Porte, Morgan's Point, South Houston, Seabrook, El Lago, Southside Place, Hunter's Creek, Piney Point, Bunker Hill, Jersey Village, Spring Valley, Deer Park, Humble, Waller, and West University Place. If you believe you have become ill from ingesting food from an establishment in unincorporated Harris County or in a city inspected by Harris County, please file a complaint at http://www.hcphes.org/eph/foodcomplaint.ht or call them at 713-274-6300. If you are concerned about a food establishment's operations such as cleanliness, food handling procedures, etc., please file a complaint at http://www.hcphes.org/eph/complaints.htm. * To file a complaint about a restaurant in Montgomery County, call the Montgomery County Health Department at 936-539-7839. * To file a complaint about a restaurant Galveston County, call the Galveston County Health Department at 409-938-2300. Use this link to speed the process and file your complaint electronically, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. * To file a complaint about a restaurant in Brazoria County, contact the Brazoria County Health Department. * To file a complaint about a restaurant Fort Bend County, contact the Fort Bend County Health Department. * To file a complaint about a restaurant in Sugar Land use this link or contact the Senior Sanitarian at 281-275-2278 or email email@example.com. If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2012 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.