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Food truck files: Are they making the grade?

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Food trucks are adding new flavor to dining out in Tucson, but how do the horse-powered kitchens stack up in cleanliness compared to your favorite restaurant?

Tucson News Now looked through the health department files, and talked to environmental health inspectors who inspect the mobile kitchens.

We learned that most food trucks are inspected 2-3 times a year, in Tucson.  It is the same form they use to inspect local restaurants. 

Pima County Environmental Health Inspector Fernando Silvas said, the rules are straight forward.  They work hand in hand with food truck owners to make sure the establishments are up to code, and following all of the food safety guidelines.

"If they have a job, I have a job.  This is a win-win situation," said Silvas.

We stopped by several local food trucks to see how they fared.

Jane Lee who owns and operates Jane's Rolling Wok with her husband was busy cooking up the local favoriate, Mongolian beef and rice for her regulars.

Lee allowed our cameras into her mobile kitchen.  In the cramped space, the couple worked hard to take phone in orders, and cook up fresh Chinese fare for locals who showed up at their window.

Lee said in addition to hot entrees, hygiene and safety were key ingredients in keeping their window open for business.

"We do bad things and people get sick that's it.  So we have to be very, very diligent on cleaning."

In the small food truck kitchens, health inspector Silvas said the smallest mistakes could stand out.

"I've walked into facilities and seen eight violations in an hour or so," said Silvas.

Here is a breakdown of the Pima County's rating system.  You may be surprised to hear, there's no such thing as a "Fail" or an "F" rating.  What every food truck owner is striving for is the letter "E" for Excellent.  That means no violations at all.

If you get a "Good" or "Needs Improvement", that means violations that can usually be fixed fairly quickly, usually on the spot.

The letter food truck owners want to avoid is "P" which stands for "Provisional".  Silvas said that meant the business had more than four violations, usually ones that could not be fixed right away.  The inspector would then be back within ten days to inspect the place again.

The Rolling Wok had an "E" rating, but Lee admitted it was tough.  While food trucks are not required to post their rating on their window, getting a good rating was their bread and butter.

"You earn an E.  You don't get an E.  That's how we like to say it.  I don't know any restaurant, unless they have an excellent rating, that would post the inspection report," said Silvas.

Inspectors can show up at food trucks without warning.  Pima County had 22 Environmental Health inspectors that inspected everything from restaurants, to food trucks, pools, and hot tubs.

We asked Silvas what customers should look for when they show up at a food truck.

"I look for a licence.  I like to see when they post their business licence on the service window," said Silvas.

A business license meant they were registered with the County, and subject to inspection.  Those without a business license were not inspected, so the quality and cleanliness could be questionable, not to mention, it's illegal.

Silvas said it was not a violation for a business who did not post the license for customers to see, but it should be considered a red flag.

Most food trucks we visited did have business licenses posted up.  One hot dog cart on the South side claimed they had one, but they were not able to show it to us on the spot.  The license they showed us had the year 2012 on it.

Customers can log onto the Pima County Health Department's website and check inspection reports.

For the month of April, four restaurants had a "Provisional" rating, only one of them was a food truck.  Considering there were more than 2,000 restaurants and 550 food trucks registered with the County, Silvas thought that was pretty good.

One of the food trucks that got a Provisional rating in April was the Black Top Grill, a fairly new establishment. 

Co-owner Gabriel Cisneros and his partner met us outside the grill and told us, opening up the establishment had been an educational lesson for them.  They had learned a lot in the process.

Cisneros said they specialized in making gourmet hot dogs with unique toppings.  They worked special events, and hoped to be open outside Main Gate Square later this summer.

"It was overwhelming at first.  Then it becomes routine, like any other job.  Make sure you have plenty of ice, running water, control your temperatures, we learned a lot," said Cisneros.

The Black Top Grill is now rated "Excellent" by the Pima County health department. Inspectors found no violations during their last visit.

"If you're following everything in this book, you're doing fine," said Silvas.

Even the best chef's admit the sight of Silva made them nervous.

Mukhjiv Singh and his wife ran the Twisted Tandoor, a food truck popular for it's Indian dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala and grilled chicken.  Singh said even though they got an excellent rating during every inspection, he admitted inspections can be nerve-wracking.

"They're here for about an hour to an hour and a half, two hours.  Every time we've been inspected they go through everything with a fine tooth comb," said Singh.

Eduardo Tento, who ran Tacotento on the South Side said most food trucks were linked to a commissary kitchen where they did all of their cooking.

"We do get nervous. There are so many things we have to do," said Chumacera.

If a food truck gets a "Provisional" rating they do have to pay a fine and will be re-inspected within ten days.  If they get several "provisional" ratings in a row, the health department could put them in an intervention program, said Silvas.

To check out local food truck ratings, you can log onto the Pima County Health Department Website at www.pima.gov/restaurantratings/

Copyright 2014 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.

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