Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The whole mess started, as far as we can figure, when somebody walking by Oscar’s Café and Bar noticed the restaurant had posted its recent “C” rating from the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health, as required. He or she took a photo, and then posted it on Facebook.

After that, things got really stupid, really fast.

The picture on Facebook went locally viral, and became the talk of area foodies. It was even posted on a prominent local blog or two.

Then, in a move that would cause any decent journalism-school professor to weep in despair, KMIR News showed up, did a story on the Oscar’s rating, and inexplicably led off a newscast with it.

As a result, Oscar’s—located at 125 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, in Palm Springs—was unfairly maligned. This is not to say that Oscar’s didn’t deserve the “C” rating, or that Oscar’s customers didn’t have a right to know about it. This is also not to say that the Oscar’s manager didn’t make matters worse when, on the three-minute-long KMIR news story, he complained that the county inspectors should have “given us notice that they were coming.”

The problem here is that this stupid, stupid story lacked context—and, as a result, Oscar’s was unfairly singled out.

During the KMIR piece, reporter Julie Buehler mentioned that Oscar’s had “the only C rating in the Coachella Valley.” This statement was both false and contextually bonkers. It was false because Sam’s Sushi, in Rancho Mirage, also had a “C” rating hanging over its figurative head at the time, a fact that was added to the online version of the KMIR story three days later.

Here’s how it was contextually bonkers: According to an analysis of Riverside County Department of Health records by the Independent, at least 13 restaurants in the Coachella Valley received “C” ratings between August 2014 and July 2015. Of course, KMIR didn’t do a story on any of those other “C” ratings—at least not that we could find on the KMIR website.

To show how unfair this kerfuffle was to Oscar’s, know this: Oscar’s was inspected on July 30. Gyoro Gyoro Isakaya Japonaise (a place I adore, by the way), located a very short block away from Oscar’s, at 105 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, was inspected on July 9, just three weeks before Oscar’s was.

Not only did Gyoro Gyoro receive a “C” rating during that inspection; health inspectors closed the restaurant, due to violations including “rodents, insects, birds or animals,” “sewage improperly disposed,” “hot and cold water not adequately available” and “food contact surfaces not cleaned and sanitized.” Gyoro Gyoro would not re-open until a re-inspection five days later, on July 14. Yet this closure received no coverage anywhere that I could find.

According to Health Department records, the other Coachella Valley places that received “C” ratings over the last year are Woody’s Burgers and Beer (June 30), the Cathedral Canyon Golf Club (May 29), Pho Lan (May 27), Two Bunch Palms Bliss (May 19), El Taco Asado (April 3), Aqua Soleil Hotel and Mineral Water Spa (March 12), Four Seasons at Palm Springs (March 20), Las Flores (in Coachella, Jan. 16), Fandango Tacos and Beer (Nov. 25) and O’Leary’s Pub and Grill (Nov. 13).

It’s also worth noting that many dozens of area restaurants, some with very prominent names, received “B” ratings—with a surprising number receiving on-the-cusp-of-C scores of 80.

Any restaurants that get “B” or “C” grades are re-inspected within several days, and eventually given an “A” grade. That means unless you’re doing some pretty serious digging on the Riverside County Department of Health website, or you just happen to be at a restaurant at the right time, it’s hard to know which places initially received less than an “A” grade.

But that doesn’t excuse the unfair treatment Oscar’s received.

In Brief

SO.PA has opened at the new L’Horizon Resort and Spa Palm Springs, at 1050 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Chef Giacomo Pettinari, who has a Michelin star to his credit, is at the helm. Info at ... Starting Aug. 30, Rio Azul Mexican Bar and Grill, at 350 S. Indian Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, will be offering a drag-queen show during Sunday brunch. Reservations are recommended; … Summer closures are starting to come to an end! For starters, Vicky’s of Santa Fe, at 45100 Club Drive, in Indian Wells, will reopen Thursday, Sept. 10; … Asian-fusion joint Kitchen 88 is slated to open in September at Spotlight 29, at 46200 Harrison Place, in Coachella; … Congrats to Bill’s Pizza, at 119 S. Indian Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs: TripAdvisor recently placed Bill’s on its list of Top 10 pizza joints in the country. Wow!

Published in Restaurant & Food News

Food-truck operators may soon be freer to serve Riverside County residents, some of whom have looked with envy upon neighboring counties with far looser rules.

County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, who was elected last year after pledging to "free the food trucks," is consulting key players about the possibility of overhauling the county's restrictions on mobile kitchens, according to his chief of staff, Jeff Greene.

Greene is now telling aficionados of food-truck fare—and those seeing potential dollar signs in an untapped market—that they'll have to wait until the summer, at the earliest.

"We want to take time to do this right," he said, while adding that proper regulation didn't entail "inventing the wheel."

The current rules were set in the 1980s as a reaction to incidents of food poisoning and injuries, and are among the most stringent in the state. As it stands now, vendors are restricted to selling pre-packaged foods or simple items typically associated with hot-dog carts, such as popcorn, snow cones, coffee drinks, churros and roasted nuts.

Food trucks, as they're known and loved in other counties, across the country and on the Food Network—offering items cooked from raw ingredients—are only permitted at special events at which they can be inspected.

This has created the "disappointing" scenario in which food trucks only from outside of the county service these events, according to Angela Janus, executive director of Cathedral City's ShareKitchen, a nonprofit organization that acts as a business incubator for restaurateurs.

"We spend our money on food trucks that then take the money back where they came," she said. "The county is really missing out."

Janus added that many entrepreneurs have come to her organization seeking advice on opening food trucks in Riverside County, viewing them as a gateway into the restaurant business. They're ultimately frustrated by the restrictive environment, she said.

In terms of what a new environment might look like, Greene criticized one idea that has been circulated among county officials: that food trucks be installed with GPS devices, broadcasting their location to regulators.

"We want them to be inspected, but requiring 24/7 GPS monitoring seems over the top," he said.

Government, GPS devices and food trucks have tangled before: A 2012 Chicago ordinance, which mandated the devices to enforce parking restrictions, was met with stiff resistance from food-truck supporters; a lawsuit against the rules is pending. A similar requirement in El Paso, Texas, was repealed when boosters sued.

Other jurisdictions require the devices so health inspectors can find the trucks.

Lynne Wilder, program chief for the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health, wrote in an email that there were "no major developments to report" about the potential overhaul, but then indulged the Independent with a little hypothesizing about what change might look like on their end.

"We would need to institute a new program as we do not currently have staff for the additional workload that would be generated," she wrote. "We would want to address issues to ensure proper trash disposal, proper wastewater disposal should the holding tanks fill up during the work day, adequate commissaries located reasonable distances from areas of operation and possibly GPS for locating the vehicles."

Public-health regulators in Los Angeles County and Arizona's Pima County have noted the relative difficulty they have in finding food trucks to conduct inspections, when compared to restaurants that don't move.

Given that, we asked Greene if GPS devices perhaps made sense.

"The reality is that most of these trucks want people to know where they are," he said. Operators post their whereabouts, at least when they're looking for customers, to Facebook and Twitter.

Greene threw out possible alternatives, including citations if operators aren't where they've claimed they'll be, or creating a website with truck locations that would serve both "a regulatory and marketing purpose."

Regulatory details aside, some county officials seem committed to the idea that greater access to kimchi quesadillas and the like is more a question of when than if. And that has proponents like Janus and Greene sounding a hopeful note.

"If Orange County and Los Angeles and San Diego can have these gourmet food trucks," Greene said, "then Riverside (County) should, too."

Published in Local Issues