Chow Bella

El Portal Striving for Decent Health Inspection; Restaurant Owned by County Supervisor Getting No Favors, Officials Say


We cornered Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox after a news conference last month at El Portal, the downtown Phoenix restaurant owned by her and her husband, Earl.

"When are you going to clean this place up?" we asked snottily.

El Portal, located at 117 West Grant Street, may serve tasty Mexican food, but it hasn't passed a health inspection since 2008.

Wilcox, a seasoned politician, wasn't flustered by the question.

"They already have," she shot back, adding that new methods in place at the restaurant have solved the problems. "Forgive us. We're going to do things a lot better and we're going to end up with the gold."

We'll see.

If she's right, the joint would be reversing a longtime trend:

Five of El Portal's last six awards by the county's department of environmental services were "no award."

The last inspection, which showed eight "major" violations, was conducted in June; the restaurant is due for another soon. Health officials, naturally, didn't want to reveal the date of the next surprise inspection.

Even if the next inspection rates more major violations and "no award" again, El Portal may not suffer any consequences. But that's not because El Portal and Wilcox are receiving special treatment, officials insist.

Enforcement actions like a threat to revoke the restaurant's permit wouldn't be triggered until a third consecutive -- and similar -- major violation, says David Ludwig, division manager for the environmental services department.

In other words, multiple different major violations won't usually rate any action, he adds. (Exceptionally filthy places are sometimes dealt with on-the-spot.)

The system seems a bit screwy to us, but it explains why El Portal's record may seem worse than other restaurants, if you just look at the awards.

New Times examined the records of a few other downtown Mexican food restaurants and found at least one that faced recent threats from the county for violations that seemed no worse than El Portal's. In that case, the restaurant facing enforcement action had three of the same type of major violations.

We ask Ludwig outright whether El Portal has received favorable treatment.

"I take exception to that," he huffs. "That has not ever happened."

He doesn't try to whitewash El Portal's record, either:

"I would probably look for another establishment that's a 'gold' establishment," he says.

Of course, as a habitual user of the county's restaurant rating site, we know that's easier said than done.

And, to be perfectly cynical, a good rating doesn't always mean the place is next to godliness.

For instance, El Portal's satellite location at 555 North Central Avenue was given an "excellent" rating at its last inspection by the state, which monitors eateries on Arizona State University property. However, much of the prep work for the food there is done at the Grant Street location.

The state noted a few problems in January at the Central location, too. No paper towels were available at the employee handwashing sink -- a critical violation, says state inspector Gene Bond, because employees aren't likely to wash their hands if they can't dry them.

The internal temperature of the Central eatery's refrigerator was also too high. It still wasn't fixed a week later when Bond came back -- but at least there wasn't food in it that time. The fridge has since been repaired.       

We'll update this story after El Portal's next inspection.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.