Updated 8:40 p.m.
West Philly residents hoping to indulge in the “American food mashup of Mexican, Southeast Asian and Spanish” at Mad Mex this holiday weekend will have to go elsewhere. The University City bar and grill has been shut down due to health code violations — for the second time in two months.
At the beginning of May, the Philadelphia Office of Food Protection temporarily closed the restaurant after an inspection resulted in 15 violations, eight of them serious, including evidence of rodent activity. Health inspectors allowed the spot to reopen four days later, after a return visit found everything in compliance. But it seems some of the issues were not fully resolved.
Among the reasons for today’s shutdown, which will be enforced for at least 48 hours, was that inspectors found fresh mouse droppings in multiple areas of the kitchen. (There was also evidence of insect activity, plus no food safety certified manager on site.) The official food facility inspection report, dated June 30, notes that droppings were seen near the walk-in fridge, the fryer, the dish rack and the dry storage room.
That’s a lot of mouse poop. And it may stem from a larger issue.
According to a tip from an employee — who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of losing the job — after the previous cease operations order, an exterminator discovered a rodent infestation in the building walls. But management made only cosmetic fixes and re-opened quickly.
On Tuesday of this week, the employee said, a mouse ran up a customer’s leg.
That’s potentially what triggered today’s re-inspection. Health Department spokesperson James Garrow said he couldn’t tell exactly why sanitarians went out for a revisit without asking them (they had already left for the weekend when he was contacted), but that it could very well have been spurred by a complaint.
Asked why the Health Department had let Mad Mex reopen last May if there was in fact a rodent infestation in the walls, Garrow clarified that inspectors can only make decisions based on what they could see.
“If we can’t find evidence of an infestation,” he said, “we have to let them reopen.”
However, Garrow noted, a repeat violation results in a ratcheting up of consequences — such as the two full days of forced closure, this time. “If we have restaurants with a recurring problem, there are next steps,” he said. “It’s up to the discretion of the inspector and their supervisor to decide if the restaurant is making a good faith effort to really deal with it or not.”
In response to an inquiry from Billy Penn, a Mad Mex representative said management was “working to repair the issues pointed out by the health department,” and cited the age of the building as a factor.
“We are struggling with the challenges preserving the character of a revitalized old building while meeting the requirements of a modern food establishment,” the emailed statement continued. “We have set up teams of people…to address and correct these areas. Our efforts include a range of activities from working with the building owners to aggressive pest control programs with weekly review. The health and safety of our guests and staff are the most important facets of our business. We understand our responsibilities as part of the community.”
If there is an infestation, Garrow expects the city’s team of professional sanitarians will eventually find it.
“Our folks who do this are pretty good — this isn’t like an intern coming in. They do this stuff 10 times a day.”
Mad Mex, which over a dozen locations in Pennsylvania plus one in Ohio, is owned by Pittsburgh-based Big Burrito Restaurant Group. Big Burrito also operates PGH spots Casbah, Eleven, Kaya, Soba and Umi. In 2015, principals Tom Barron and Bill Fuller were nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur.