South Philly's Passyunk neighborhood is known for its trendy, artsy vibe – and it also can add clean eateries to its rep. On average, restaurants in the enclave clock in at 1.6 foodborne-illness violations per visit from the city health department, compared to about 2.2 for the entire city.
Though not all its restaurants are pristine (more on that later), a local leader attributed the generally strong record to a tight-knit business community.
"They're all independents,'' said Pam Zenzola, president of the Passyunk Square Civic Association. "That leads to "a real connection, and the restaurateurs and the community have a partnership."
Zenzola spoke while sitting next to the Singing Fountain at the intersection of Passyunk and Tasker. Within the span of a few minutes, several local chefs and owners stopped by to say hello to her.
Noord owner Joncarl Lachman showed Zenzola the fresh veggies he had just purchased from a nearby market for the day's menu. His place has never been cited for a major health violation, but he shrugged off any suggestion that it requires a huge effort to live up to city standards.
Zenzola says one thing that helps is how tightknit the community is.
"I feel like I could go up to any of these owners if I saw something wrong and let them know about it," Zenzola said. "I wouldn't have to go to Yelp," she said of the consumer rating site that has become a go-to place to complain about sanitation.
Mike Giammarino owns a couple restaurants in Philly and a famous one in New York City, that being Lombardi's Pizza. He was finishing up renovations on a new sit-down restaurant, Grace and Pat's, at 1533 E. Passyunk.
"Philadelphia is a pleasure as far as inspections go," Giammarino said.
While Lombardi's maintains an "A" rating in New York, which unlike Philly posts letter grades publicly, he said New York City inspectors focus on a lot of "obscure" stuff while Philly sanitarians look at more practical issues.
"Education from the inspectors would go a long way," to help restaurants, he said, but added that he knows they are "pressed for time" and "can't really do that."
Giammarino said that he pays for a company run by retired inspectors to come in once a month to his New York establishment – a wise investment considering what could happen if that very public letter grade slipped.
"A lot of other restaurants can't afford that … [but] I can't afford to go from an A to a B," he said.
Benna's, a coffee shop at 1236 S.8th Street, has had just a handful of violations, most of them corrected immediately, going back to 2010.
But a few Passyunk eateries have had repeated and significant sanitary problems.
City inspectors cited China House No 1 for fresh mouse feces, unrefrigerated tofu and BBQ meats, and poor hygiene as evidence in the City of Philadelphia vs Yang civil court case in 2012. De Yang, owner of the establishment at 1739 East Passyunk Avenue, did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
The city's suit asserted that, "The condition of the establishment presents a serious and immediate hazard to the safety, health and welfare of the patrons ... and the public in general."
Even after the lawsuit, China House No 1 has remained one of the worst offenders in the area. Over the course of four years and 12 inspections, sanitarians cited the restaurant for mouse droppings more than 20 times and tallied more than 45 repeat violations
Other offenders include Pho 75 Restaurant at 1122 Washington Avenue, which went through several bad inspections culminating in repeated sanitarian visits in April 2014.
One 2014 violation was for selling meatballs of unclear origin. The manager provided receipts to the sanitarian dated a year earlier from a California address. The phone number listed on those invoices is now disconnected.
Pho 75 management refused multiple requests to comment for this story.
La Fonda Deteresita Restaurant at 8th and Dickinson underwent four inspections between September 2013 and July 2015, averaging seven foodborne illness violations per visit.
Owner Efrain Sandoval said he "listens to the [inspectors]" and had a new sink installed to comply with the latest inspection. He invited a reporter to visit and photograph the new sink on the same day he expected a re-inspection from the city. But when we arrived the doors and windows were shuttered because the city's Office of Licenses and Inspections ordered it to cease operations, according to Jeff Moran of the health department.
Sanitarians visited Wokano Chinese Cuisine eatery three times in the last year and issued 24 violations for foodborne illness risk factors.
Part-owner Tom Lung, who oversees the day-to-day operations of Wokano, showed a reporter invoices for pest control and pointed out that a plumber was on site replacing a leaky pipe.