I love the grilled pork banh mi sandwich at Saigon Deli on Jackson; I think they consistently make the best banh mi in town: loaded with vegetables and beautifully marinated pork, and built on a crackling baguette. At $3 a pop, including tax, three of these feed my family for under $10. What’s not to love?
Well, this: I saw a bug there last week. Crawling along the edge of one of the food pans inside the deli warmer case. Looked like a termite, though one can never be sure of these things.
I wasn't sure what to do.
Tell the management, one might say: Only I didn’t want to create a scene. There were other customers right there—up front, where you order—and I wasn't keen to humiliate anyone, especially if the usual language barrier I’ve encountered at Saigon Deli reduced me to a yelling, pantomiming weirdo. Besides, whether they lured the little varmint off the food pan, fished it out of the drink, killed it then and there, or even whisked the pan away—what good was any of that? This particular horse, as they say, had left the barn.
For better or worse—I didn’t tell the management.
Instead I went home and logged on to King County's public health website, and what I saw under Saigon Deli was pretty rugged. Problems of all kinds dating back to 2006. “Insects, rodents, animals present; entrance uncontrolled,” as early as April 2008, then again later that year, then again two years later, then twice in January of this year. Last month, an “unsatisfactory” score of 126—which was enough to shut them down temporarily.
(Due to an idiosyncrasy of the King County computer system, the forced shuttering does not show up on that page. They report it elsewhere. Looks like an enhancement opportunity to me.)
Seattle has had food service hygiene problems in the news lately, from KIRO-TV’s report on the Ten Dirtiest Restaurants in Seattle (they’ve taken it off their site, knowing that it’s not fair to keep such an ephemeral judgment in the public eye too long) to the state’s recent closure of Chu Minh Tofu in South Seattle for unsafe food conditions (including rodent droppings, pigeons, and insects near the tofu-making apparatus).
But this was no rodent; it was one little bug—and a winged one at that, which could’ve as easily flown into my home kitchen. I called Public Health-Seattle and King County, and got spokesperson Hilary Karasz on the phone. I told her that I spotted a bug (not on my food) in a restaurant (that I love).
And even as I was speaking with her I thought about all the places I’ve eaten over a lifetime of world travel and questionable judgment…all the gross things I’ve surely ingested out of daring or ignorance…and I found myself wondering just how first-world a problem this is. Aren’t fried termites a delicacy in some cultures?
Karasz didn’t skip a beat. “File a complaint,” she said. “It’s gross. We follow up on every complaint.”
But here’s what she said next. “A bug in food can’t make a person sick. Not even a cockroach. Three things make you sick: food service workers not washing hands after using the bathroom, cross contamination of chicken or meat, and improper temperature control.”
None of which a diner can see. So the food safety failures I can’t see are far more potentially sickening than the bugs I can. Which brings me back to my original question: What should one do in this case?
What would you do?