The last time I dined at a Chinese restaurant was a few weeks ago with Natalie DeLauer. We shared a plate of chow mein and broccoli with a typical sauce that adorns many lunchtime specials at Chinese restaurants.
Little Shin Shin is a favored spot by DeLauer, widow of Charles, who ran DeLauer's Super Newsstand on Broadway. The choice was OK by me because I like her and chow mein, and Little Shin Shin is among the few Chinese restaurants without a mile-long list of health code violations.
I know this because of a Web site I stumbled across a few weeks ago while searching for court records.
The Alameda County Department of Environmental Health posts violations found during restaurant inspections on its Web site, www.acgov.org/aceh/food. The database, found under "Restaurant Inspection Results," is awesome — and scary.
I spent days searching all 2,082 restaurants, convenience stores, school cafeterias, work cantinas and hospital kitchens listed in Oakland like a teenager addicted to her PlayStation. For the most part, the city's eateries are not nearly as nasty as I imagined, at least the ones whose inspection reports I later read.
The online results have a way of inducing alarm because the violations — including the serious ones printed in red — are written in dry, abstract jargon that includes many disgusting possibilities.
For example, "each food facility shall be kept free of vermin: rodents (rats, mice), cockroaches, flies" could mean rats were roaming the kitchen or, as I learned by reading the full report for Aki Sushi restaurant on Piedmont Avenue, spider webs had accumulated on the ceiling. The place cleaned up its act and got a 100 percent rating on its follow-up inspection four days later.
In another case, at the Ba Le French Coffee Shop on Franklin Street, a cockroach was found floating in the mop sink. The offending vermin was removed and the owners were told to seal all the cracks and crevices immediately.
The report for Alta Bates Summit Medical Center Café on Hawthorne Avenue said, "Employees with a communicable disease shall be excluded from the food facility/preparation of food," which sounded frightening. Actually, inspectors caught someone coughing into his hands, rubbing his nose then putting on food-handling gloves.
I like to think the guy making my sandwiches washes his hands many, many times during the day. But hygiene was another frequent problem cited by inspectors.
That doesn't mean the inspection reports are masking serious problems. Inspectors find cockroaches (dead and alive), rat droppings and probably the creatures themselves. With my imagination, though, I was picturing far worse.
Years ago, I used to sling espresso in a Union Street bakery. I refused to use the tiny restroom that looked like an outhouse because rats had a habit of joining people there. But I used to frequent a late-night Vietnamese noodle shop in San Francisco where cockroaches were embedded in one of the display cases. We figured it was dead anyway, and at 4 a.m. who's picky?
One night more recently I was sitting at a lounge in Oakland when a golf-ball-size mouse skittered by my feet. I was going to name the mouse Frank Sinatra and offer him a martini, but my boyfriend was practically standing on his chair. "Frank" took one look at him and booked out the crack near the window he had come in.
Alameda County is considering a color-coded system like Sacramento, which requires restaurants to place placards in plain view of diners, said Ronald Browder of the Environmental Health Department. A green placard means "in compliance," yellow means "open with one major violation," and red means "closed due to multiple major violations."
In the meantime, problem kitchens closed down because of violations are posted on the Web site.
The Web site is searchable by facility name or by city within the county, from Alameda to Union City. The worst places in Oakland tend to be the little hole-in-the-wall joints that get worse the farther East they are located. But even Kentucky Fried Chicken (on Foothill Boulevard), Burger King (International Boulevard), Starbucks (Piedmont Avenue, Clay Street), Taco Bell (35th Avenue) and the Barnes & Noble bookstore cafe (Broadway) had a list of violations. Inspectors also cited some swank spots on College and Piedmont.
Before you run to your computer, know that inspection reports are supposed to be available to diners at restaurants.
Check them before freaking out when your favorite place pops up on the site looking like an inspector's red pen exploded on the page.
Reach Angela Woodall at 510-208-6413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.