Over the past couple of months, our friends at VICE offices around the globe have been hitting up the dirtiest restaurants in their respective towns to see what they have on offer. London sells wet bags of fish, Melbourne has maggot dumplings, and Liverpudianseat what looks like angry paper bags full of vomit—but what gross stuff do New Yorkers cram into their maws?
To find out, I decided to take a visit to my town’s dirtiest restaurants. Figuring out where these places were turned out to be tricky, however. After some inquiries, the New York Department of Health sent me a spreadsheet with every restaurant in New York sorted by the number of health code violations it received during its last inspection. The places with few or no violations get an A grade, those with more violations get B’s or C’s, and the really bad spots get shut down. On the surface, this appears to be a pretty straightforward way of mapping out the worst restaurants. But of course it’s actually more complicated than that.
Inspectors subtract points (out of 1,000) for various violations, and some of these have nothing to do with cleanliness—restaurants can get dinged for not having a choking sign or for not having proper ventilation over a panini press. It doesn’t take much to knock an A down to a B, and as one chef complained on CNN’s Eatocracy blog, “The violations game is completely open to the whims of the given inspector on the given day. That’s how one of Restaurant magazine’s top 50 establishments of 2014, Per Se, got slapped with a C rating this year, while the deli near my house can get an A even though the sandwich guy always has a snotty nose.
What this means for my project, though, is that I couldn’t go by grade alone—so for my purposes I picked a cross-section of restaurants, some with poor health ratings, some with really disgusting Yelp reviews, and one Chinese spot that my roommate swears gave him the worst food poisoning of his life.
Photos by Meredith Jenks
I grabbed my trusty photographer Meredith, who, bless her heart, consistently agrees to watch me do a variety of bad things to my body. Our first stop was Chinatown, specifically a restaurant called Pho Bang, which bagged 47 violation points during an inspection last summer.
I am not exactly a food critic. I would describe my eating habits as “garbage disposal-esque.” Food-cart burritos, beef patties, bits of chicken that’s been sitting under heat lamps for hours—I eat it all, I enjoy it, and I tend to shrug off what others might regard as culinary red flags. In high school, I lived on prepackaged supermarket sushi for longer than was probably appropriate. All that’s to say I wasn’t too concerned about any of the places on my itinerary, especially not Pho Bang, which is an old haunt of mine. It seemed clean and delicious every time I’ve been there. At least clean enough for me.
Meredith and I grabbed a big table and soon the waiter seated another pair of Pho Bang customers with us—one of them was a hairstylist for Project Runway and the second was a makeup artist. When I told them what I was doing, they sang Pho Bang’s praises and immediately ordered the entire menu to prove that everything was good. The hairstylist even fed me a bite of some strange egg-based loaf with glass noodles inside.
The meat in my pho was raw, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. It cooked quickly in the broth, and I piled in fistfuls of bean sprouts and mint, inhaling the aroma. A distant voice in my head dutifully reminded me of the Salmonella-infected bean sprout epidemicthat’s been ravaging New York City recently, but I shrugged that that as not being in the spirit of things.
Bellies full of pho and whatever else the hairstylist fed me, Meredith and I then went up to Midtown to grab the second of our many meals, at the Warwick Hotel’s Murals on 54. It’s the sort of place that sells a fruit salad for roughly the price of an orchard, but it lost a whopping 121 points in an inspection last March—more than any other restaurant I could find.
We arrived at quarter to three, but Mural’s revolving doors wouldn’t budge—it closed 15 minutes before we got there, according to a sign outside. Where was I supposed to eat a potentially hazardous lunch?
Luckily, there was a Halal cart only a few blocks away that blew up the internet a few weeks ago after someone snapped a picture of a bunch of pigeons picking meat directly off the grill. I ran over and bought a heaping pile of chicken and yellow rice doused in something that tasted like bleu cheese dressing. When I sat down to feast a swarm of pigeons descended on me, all vying for a bite. The cart must have the pigeon equivalent of three Michelin stars.
Only a small section of the aforementioned pigeon swarm
I figured if it was good enough for flying rats that eat literal garbage it was good enough for me, so I gobbled it down and Meredith and I hopped on the subway to see what sort of delicious, bacteria-ridden cuisines the outer boroughs have to offer.
We ended up at Clinton Hill’s Golden Hing, one of the city’s countless hole-in-the-wall Chinese joints. What distinguished it from all the other slightly shady spots in Brooklyn is that it gave my roommate the worst case of food poisoning he’s ever had. I went straight for the beef with oyster sauce, since that was what he warned me against.
The beef melted in my mouth, which is not really something that cooked cow is supposed to do, and the “oyster” sauce had the consistency of molasses. I wouldn’t have been particularly surprised to find that the meat was made of crickets, like the Jell-O nutrient slabs the poor folks eat in Snowpiercer. (That’s not to say I’ve got anything against eating crickets. When I was seven years old, someone gave me a lollipop with a huge cricket suspended inside, and I was so impressed with the thing that I refused to eat it. Instead, I kept it in the glove compartment of my dad’s Toyota until a particularly hot day when it melted and turned the auto insurance and registration papers into a goopy, cricket-y mess. I wish Golden Hing sold insect pops. But anyway.)
To cap off the evening we ventured slightly deeper into Bed-Stuy to visit Sushi Tatsu, a restaurant that scored 55 violation points last fall. Not only that, they took hits for things like “cold food items stored at warm temperatures.” It was well below freezing outside, so I could use a hot meal. Ideally, that hot meal wouldn’t be sushi, but I wasn’t picky.
After Golden Hing, Sushi Tatsu was a pleasant surprise. The restaurant was nicely decorated and the waitstaff were friendly. They even brought me a massive Sapporo and even poured it in a glass for me. I was sure the food was going to be fine. But I was sorely mistaken.
The sushi looked good, but so does the plastic toy sushi decorating plates in those fake dining rooms at IKEA—and those probably taste better. The salmon was manageable, but the tuna had a waxy residue all over it, like the chef had slathered it in Chapstick to soothe my weather-damaged lips. I downed my Sapporo, but the sushi stayed where it was. For once, the Health Department may have been right when it slapped a giant “C” on this window.
It was a gelatinous bile, looking vaguely like the melted remains of that cricket lollipop.
That was the official end of my experiment, and I didn’t feel any worse for wear after my risky feasting. I even went to a show that night. But things took a turn around 1 AM, when I was standing outside the venue. Without warning, I threw up right there on the sidewalk, an outpouring of gelatinous bile that looked vaguely like the melted remains of that cricket lollipop. I can’t say it was food poisoning—eating five different ethnic cuisines one after the other would make anybody queasy. Plus, I’d just bounced around in a crowd for an hour and drank an entire row of sweating, firetruck-red Tecates. I probably can’t blame my yakking on the food.
I finally ended up at home around two, purged and empty. I was hungry, in fact. So I made my way to the bodega next to my house and bought a cheesesteak with extra jalapenos. I’m not sure if the guy wore gloves or what condition the grill was in or whether he dropped the hero on the floor—all I know is I inhaled its 12 greasy inches on my walk back to my apartment. Then I slept.
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