Bugs Add Flavor

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Roasted crickets taste a bit like popcorn. Really.

Mealworm-infested pizza isn't bad, either--according to a Texas A & M entomology class in which students undergo a bug-tasting lesson every semester in a safe and scientific environment. Professor Roger Gold insists that certain critters provide vitamins, protein, and flavor.

When Micah Kennedy opened his bento box at Jin Beh in Las Colinas last year, however, he couldn't bring himself to try out the nice, crunchy cockroach inside.

Pity. Think of all that fiber going to waste.

"Every restaurant in the world has bugs," says Ben Williams, owner of Ben's Half Yard House in Dallas. There's no way around it, really. Most restaurants employ pest control services at least twice a month, but insects ride along on food deliveries or arrive in prepackaged foods. "Roaches are an ongoing concern," says Larry Procter of Procter Pest Control, "precisely because they can come in with supplies." According to Dr. Gold, every food item contains insect parts--an average of 56 parts in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for example. In fact, the presence of bugs is common enough that the Dallas Environmental Health Services Department, in charge of restaurant health inspection, lumps insect infestation with leaving a door ajar on its list of inspection items.

The Food Protection and Education Section of environmental health inspects close to 6,000 facilities--including restaurants, food stands, and school cafeterias--at least once every six months. "Most fail to meet code in one way or another," says Margie Earl, section manager. But don't be frightened: Earl claims she eats out almost every day.

Earl's team of 28 inspectors--"field sanitarians," excuse me--check off 44 items during a routine restaurant inspection. Missing any one of these items constitutes a violation. "Sometimes it's little things," Serge Prevert, general manager of Lombardi's, complains, "like the bartender drinking water from a glass behind the bar--that's not allowed." Lombardi's scored a 90 (of 100) on an inspection last week. Low scores require anything from a re-inspection within 30 days to immediate closure. "Every inspector has their own pet peeves," Williams claims. "I had Windex sitting on the second shelf, above bar napkins, not food items, and got marked off for that." His establishment earned an 84, still a passing grade, during a September inspection--including four points off for fruit flies. "It's hard to get a perfect score," says a manager at Dodie's Seafood Café. "They take off for a fork on the floor even when they're inspecting during lunch rush." She mentioned fruit flies as well, which means that drinks served in Dallas are often packed with extra protein. Dodie's scored a woeful 78 in September, which earned them a recent second inspection. "Mostly we had building issues to correct," the manager admits. "The building we're in is kind of old, which requires more maintenance." Dodie's scored a more respectable 89 on the follow-up.

Despite a few horror stories--Earl speaks of sewage back-ups and rodent infestations in the past tense and without revealing restaurant names--most restaurants fare well during the surprise inspections. Only one of 82 fast-food restaurants in Plano earned below an 80 (or B grade) during a round of inspections in July. If you must know, Whataburger at 6401 Coit earned the gentleman's C. Irving currently lists no restaurant below an 80, despite the Jin Beh incident. Only nine percent of the 325 facilities Earl's team visited in early September scored below an 80. Her team revisited these establishments from 24 hours to 30 days later. On the other hand, three of four Indian restaurants inspected this summer by Plano scored in the C range. Primavera Italian Restaurant on Coit in Plano received a D grade in July, which should scare any restaurant into compliance. The establishment did not have a manager present at 3 p.m. on Monday, though a staff member said a manager would be in at 6 p.m. However, even the Mansion once scored a miserable 73, but that was a year ago due to structual problems that were quickly resolved.

Earl's team of field sanitarians actually believe they make a difference in the local restaurant industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, Texans spend an average of $2,917 annually per household eating out, well above the national average of $2,030. Nationwide, Americans eat close to 50 billion meals away from home each year. "If we don't do our jobs, we couldn't expect anyone in Dallas to eat out," says Earl. It's a matter of creating trust as much as adhering to code and squashing bugs, in other words. Most restaurateurs agree--to some extent. "Some of the staff get intimidated when an inspector arrives," says the manager at Dodie's, "but there's no reason. She's just the inspector, she'll just grade us and leave. She works with us." Yet the manager--who asked not to be identified, by the way--revealed that trickle of fear running through all restaurateurs when inspectors stroll through the door. "Sometimes it's scary," Prevert admits. "You never know when something may have happened that costs a deduction."

For a few restaurateurs, the inspection process is an ordeal. Williams told of a visit three years ago when sanitarians entered his place on a Saturday, immediately after a Greenville Avenue parade. "We had had 2,000 people in the bar less than an hour earlier," he recalls, "and the kitchen was a disaster." Williams is a bit less than charitable toward the inspectors, despite a consistent B rating. "Some look for bent cans, which doesn't matter," he says. "Others look at temperatures, which they should." But Earl understands the level of frustration. "It's discouraging sometimes," she says of negative reactions, "but we train the staff to use professional judgment, to look at each restaurant individually. Still, we're not going to overlook anything."

If cleanliness and a bug-free environment remain a concern, just trot on over to Reunion Arena's Foodstand #120. Their last inspection resulted in a rare perfect score, a 100.

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