Zin was quiet at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. My editor and I had the upscale bistro on Louisiana Street all to ourselves. I looked over the menu with some puzzlement. I had seen a veal dish I wanted to order on Zin's online menu, but I couldn't find it on the lunch menu. So I asked the waiter. He went to the kitchen and quickly returned.
"Sure, we can make you some veal," he offered.
My editor had the ahi tuna salad, which was very tasty. The veal Milanese that was set down in front of me looked odd. It was covered with bread crumbs, and it arched strangely above the plate in places, stiff from being too well fried. It tasted okay. I ate about half and asked the waiter to put the rest in a doggie bag.
We had a couple of espressos and split a dessert, then we walked to my car with the Styrofoam to-go box in hand. The computer-generated text on the receipt listed my entrée as "Veal Milanese." In the front seat, I enacted a ritual that had become well ingrained by now. With my editor as a witness, I extracted a baggie and a plastic mailing envelope from my briefcase. Then I took the piece of veal from the white Styrofoam to-go container and dropped it into the baggie. This in turn went into the tamper-proof mailing envelope. I sealed it and wrote ZINLO across the seal with a Sharpie. The five-letter code was derived from the first three letters of the name of the restaurant and the first two letters of the street on which it is located.
I dropped my editor off at the Houston Press office and headed home, where I placed the mailing bag in my freezer alongside all the other sealed and coded envelopes. I had been collecting veal samples from Houston restaurants for almost a year. Finally, it was time for the verdict.
I put the envelopes in a box and sent the package to the University of Texas at Austin's Biochemistry Center. There, department chairman Dr. Barrie Kitto supervised tests to determine the species of the meats.
A few days later he delivered the preliminary results: Two out of ten veal samples tested positive for pork.
"That's incredible. It's scandalous," said Rabbi Brenner Glickman, the president of the Houston Rabbinical Association and a rabbi at Beth Israel Synagogue, when I told him about the test results.
Serving pork and calling it veal is one of the most onerous frauds in the restaurant industry. The eating of pork is forbidden to Jews and Muslims, and deceiving them into eating it is a violation of their civil rights.
Jews who keep strictly kosher and Muslims who keep strictly halal can't eat in most restaurants. But Glickman explained that the majority of Houston Jews attempt to follow the spirit of kosher law rather than keeping strictly kosher.
"I do not personally keep a strict kosher diet," he said. "Like many Jews, I like to eat out in restaurants, but I abstain from ordering dishes with pork or bacon or shellfish. So this issue is very relevant to me. Substituting pork for veal is reprehensible. It means that Jews who eat in these restaurants who are trying to observe their religion are being deceived into violating the Torah. It's repulsive."
Glickman said that lots of people think Jews don't eat pork because of some outdated fear of trichinosis, but that's not true. Biblical scholars more accurately describe the avoidance of pork by Jews as a deep-seated religious taboo. "Eating pigs is to us what eating horses or eating dogs is for other Americans," Glickman said with disgust.
The Houston Muslims contacted were equally irate.
"Substituting pork for veal is doubly immoral," said Sheikh Omar Inshanally, imam at the Main Center of the Islamic Society of Houston, North America's largest Islamic community organization. "Not only is it dishonest business, it is also interfering with somebody else's faith." The Islamic community is particularly vulnerable to this kind of cheating, he said.
"Muslims who are trying to consume only halal products have to rely totally on the information provided by the seller," he said. "The label on the bottle or the words on a menu are all we have to go by if we're trying to stay halal. Even if Muslims aren't very devout, they still won't eat pork. Substituting pork for veal is a major, major offense to us as Muslims."
Salman Al-Khatib, a spokesman for Houstonmuslims.com, said that the news of these tests will have a major impact on many Houston ethnic communities. "In the Pakistani and Indian tradition, from the time of childhood, you don't eat pork. What people don't realize is that halal is a very serious concept. These are foods that are prohibited by God."
The tip came in about two years ago, right after my story on seafood scams appeared ("Fish Fraud," November 1, 2001). That story revealed that the "red snapper" on the menu of many Houston restaurants was actually tilapia or some other cheap frozen fillet. But according to this tip, a far more serious fraud was going on in Houston. Pork was being substituted for veal, it alleged, and one place where this was happening was Cafe Elegante. Before I could investigate, the restaurant went out of business.
But Zack Ateyea, its former owner, still operated several other restaurants. In fact, Ateyea never actually closed the Cafe Elegante location; he simply changed the name to Zin in 2002 as part of a makeover. He also acquired Papillon Bistro Français; he changed its name to Zin after the bistro was vandalized during the French boycott. Both of Ateyea's Zin restaurants continued to offer veal.
Pork-for-veal scams have been the subject of other newspaper investigations. A California restaurant was busted for exactly the same thing, according to a February 23, 2000, story in the San Jose Mercury News. Acting on a tip, Mercury News restaurant critic Sheila Himmel visited the restaurant and ordered veal. She then sent a sample of the meat to a lab, where it tested positive for pork. The chef admitted to the fraud, and Bella Mia restaurant was fined $60,000 by the Santa Clara County district attorney, Himmel said. The chef was fired.
With this in mind, I started looking for a lab. One commercial food-testing lab in Texas declined because researchers were afraid of alienating their corporate restaurant clients. But I found a kindred spirit in Dr. Barrie Kitto at the Biochemistry Center at the University of Texas. During his undergraduate years at Brandeis University, Kitto accidentally uncovered a similar consumer fraud.
"We were testing haddock and cod. We got our samples from the New England Fisheries Board," Kitto remembers. One weekend the researchers ran out of samples. They sent somebody out to a supermarket to pick up some frozen packages of cod and haddock so they could keep working. But the haddock didn't behave the way it was supposed to. The packages labeled "haddock" turned out to be cod, which was a much cheaper fish. The researchers published a scientific paper on the scam in Science magazine. A number of seafood wholesalers pleaded no contest to subsequent charges brought against them by the State of Massachusetts.
Kitto suggested we use test kits from Elisa Technologies, a scientific testing company in Florida that manufactures one of the most widely used tests for "cooked meat speciation." The tests detect species-specific, muscle-related glycoproteins. We decided to test a number of restaurants.
Bruce Ritter, the owner of Elisa Technologies and maker of the test kits, told me how to gather the samples and keep the chain of custody clear. Order veal in the restaurant, and then take some out in a doggie bag. Drop the meat in a plastic bag and then a second bag to avoid contamination. Mark the bag with a code, not the name of the restaurant, so the scientist who does the tests doesn't know where it came from. Have a witness with you in the restaurant and have that person watch you seal the meat in the bag. Then freeze the samples until you're ready to send them to the lab by Federal Express. And keep all the shipping records. I followed his instructions as I collected samples at Houston restaurants that serve scallopini-type veal over the course of a year.
Ritter also persuaded me to test the samples for the presence of both pork and beef tissue. (The tests make no distinction between beef and veal, since they come from the same species.) "You want to know if there's any pork in the veal," he said. "But you also want to know if there's any veal in the veal."
Out of the ten samples I sent to the University of Texas Biochemistry Center, eight tested completely normal. The restaurants with pure veal were Simposio Ristorante Italiano, Michelangelo's, Piatto Ristorante, Palazzo's Italian Cafe, Tony's, Grotto Ristorante on Westheimer, Cavatore Italian Restaurant and Riva's Italian Restaurant.
The two samples that tested positive for pork were the veal Milanese from Zin on Louisiana and the veal Marsala from Carrabba's Italian Grill on Kirby. The Carrabba's sample also tested positive for beef. The Zin sample tested negative for beef.
I suspected the veal at Zin would test positive for pork; after all, it was a tip about another restaurant with the same owner that prompted this investigation. But I was dumbfounded by the results on the Carrabba's sample. After all, I'd just been bragging about the success of these hometown boys a few weeks ago in these pages ("Italian Bubba," December 11). It seemed impossible that Houston's boy-next-door Johnny Carrabba could do anything like this. We decided on another round of testing.
In the first week of January, I sent five more samples to the University of Texas biochemistry labs. Included were the veal piccata from three Carrabba's Italian Grill locations: in Houston, the ones on Kirby and I-10, and in Austin, the one on I-35 (Carrabba's on I-10 and I-35 are part of the Carrabba's chain; the Carrabba's restaurant on Kirby is owned by Johnny Carrabba and his family). I also sent samples of veal Sorrentino from Damian's and sliced veal from Zin on Wilcrest.
This time, the veal from every Carrabba's location tested negative for pork. The sample from Damian's tested positive for both pork and beef. And the sample from the Zin on Wilcrest tested positive for pork and negative for beef.
"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.
"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."
No one would argue with Bhatt's assertion that food safety is the department's prime mission. But there's a reason the truth-in-menu laws were included in the health code. It takes an expensive lab test to prove the pork-for-veal swap, and the only way to find out what kind of fish is being served is to barge into a restaurant's kitchen and look in the refrigerator or freezer. Consumers don't have the power to do that. Health department inspectors do.
The health department's inspectors are already barging into restaurant kitchens, and they're already observing these frauds. It's not exactly rocket science. Take my experience at Baytown Seafood on Main Street, for example. When I asked the manager there to prove that his catfish was the farm-raised American product ("Bigger and Battered," May 1, 2003), he led me to his freezer. On the way, I passed a sink in which bags of tilapia were thawing. But Baytown Seafood doesn't have any tilapia on its menu, just catfish and "redsnapper." When I asked him about it, the owner freely admitted that he was calling tilapia "redsnapper," a blatant violation of the state health code.
How many of these obvious infractions are Houston health department inspectors seeing every day? How hard would it be to write them up? And while they're in the kitchen, why not check to see if restaurants that offer veal actually have any in the refrigerator? How long would it take for Houston restaurants to clean up their acts once word got out that the health inspector was writing up truth-in-menu violations?
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If you think losing points on a health department inspection is not a suitably severe punishment for some of the more serious consumer rip-offs, remember that health department reports are public records. Once the frauds are reported, the restaurants would endure the wrath of the community, be open to civil suits and be subject to possible action from the attorney general's office -- not to mention the likelihood that Channel 13's dreaded Marvin Zindler might pay them a visit.
So how do we get the health department to enforce the law? Right now, our new mayor, Bill White, is soliciting suggestions from the public at www.ideasforhouston.com.
I have an idea for Houston.
I invite readers of this newspaper, food lovers, the Jewish community, the Muslim community and all of those Houston boosters who claim this is a world-class city to join me in sending Bill White a six-word message that could really change our community for the better: Enforce the truth-in-menu laws.