The Cow Says "Oink"

Which Houston restaurants are swapping pork for veal?

"We have always used veal top round and we have never changed our specs," said Hugh Nguyen, the manager at Carrabba's on Kirby, when asked to comment. "If there's a problem, I need to know about it." Not only does Carrabba's use real veal, it uses Provimi veal, the best on the market, Nguyen explained. He asked me to fax him the results of the test. He encouraged me to contact his supplier. Later, Nguyen called back and asked if the sample that had tested positive for pork was veal Marsala.

"Yes," I replied.

The Elisa Technologies test kit detects 
species-specific proteins.
John Anderson
The Elisa Technologies test kit detects species-specific proteins.

"Our veal Marsala is cooked with prosciutto," he said.

"Does it say that on the menu?" I asked.

"I believe so," he replied.

In fact, the menu at Carrabba's on Kirby reads: "Veal scallopine, your choice of Veal Piccata or Marsala, served with tagliarini picchi pacchiu," a pasta dish. Veal Marsala is traditionally made with Marsala wine and mushrooms. But some recipes for veal Marsala do call for prosciutto, including one on the Web site of Cucina Amore, the television show hosted by Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola, who founded Damian's.

Johnny Carrabba called the next day to reaffirm that Carrabba's uses only the best veal. He acknowledged that the veal Marsala at Carrabba's was made with prosciutto. I pointed out that his menu didn't include this critical piece of information.

"We might have to take a look at that," Carrabba confessed.

"We have a lot of people in Houston whose religion forbids them to eat pork," I said. "If a veal dish contains pork, that has to be made clear."

"You do have a valid point there," Carrabba agreed.

Likewise, Bubba Butera, a partner in Damian's restaurant, insisted that none of his veal dishes contains pork. "I only sauté in olive oil," Butera said. But he called back a short while later after talking to his chef.

Veal Sorrentino doesn't appear on Damian's menu anymore. But after looking up the recipe, Butera discovered the problem. "It's my grandma's recipe," he said. "I can't lie to you, it's got prosciutto in it." The recipe called for eggplant, fontina, tomatoes and diced prosciutto. It was a lunch special the day I ordered it, but the waiter didn't mention prosciutto. And I didn't notice any, either.

"The waiter probably described it as sautéed veal with eggplant tomatoes and fontina cheese," Butera said. I pointed out that this was deceptive for Jews and Muslims who need to avoid pork.

"You're right; I never thought about it," Butera said. "I'm glad you brought it to my attention."

The use of pork in the veal sauce would explain the double-positive test results for both Carrabba's and Damian's. But it also points out the need for stricter regulations on restaurant menus.

Zack Ateyea reportedly was out of the country when I called the Zin location on Wilcrest. I spoke with Michael Ateyea, his brother, who manages the Zin location on Louisiana. I told him about the test, and I asked him if the restaurant was serving pork to customers who ordered veal. He told me that I should talk to Zack, and that he would fix this problem for me when he returned.

"There's no fixing it," I told him. "I'm reporting the story. I purchased veal at your restaurant, I had it tested, and it turned out to be pork. Do you admit it or deny it?"

"Yeah, we do," Michael Ateyea finally admitted.

Zack Ateyea did call back upon his return, saying his restaurant is not substituting pork for veal. Until it is straightened out, though, he said, "I'm pulling the veal from the menu. I'm doing my own test…then it's going to be between me and the suppliers if it tests positive for pork and I'm paying for veal."

There is currently no legal penalty for restaurant fraud in Houston. Restaurants can substitute pork for veal, tilapia for snapper or chicken liver for foie gras. In fact, they could probably feed us heaping helpings of dog, cat or rat, and as long as nobody got sick, the City of Houston wouldn't take any action.

Of course, such restaurant frauds are against the law. The Texas State Health Code requires food to be accurately identified according to FDA and USDA standards. It also specifies, "Food shall be offered for human consumption in a way that does not mislead or misinform the consumer." Now all we have to do is find somebody to enforce the law.

In Houston, the State Health Code is supposed to be enforced by the Houston health department, whose staff perform surprise inspections in restaurants every day, all over the city. "There are 12,500 permitted establishments we have to oversee with 37 roster positions, four of them not filled right now," says Chirag Bhatt, division manager of the Houston health department. "It's a question of resources." Comparing a restaurant's menu to its inventory would take too much time, Bhatt said. "Meanwhile, there are places that really need our attention," he said. "Places with insects, with employees not washing their hands often enough, with cross-contamination problems. It's a question of priorities."

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