TAMPA, Florida - China Buffet on East Fowler Avenue has a following of loyal fans, each with their favorite items on the menu.
"I just eat the sushi ... the sushi and the crawfish, because I'm from New Orleans," said customer Michelle Kirlew.
"Just the fried chicken and the rice ... I don't pick up too much of anything else because I don't know what it is," said LaShawn Marion, another customer on her way to her car with a box of take-out.
But even these regulars feel the popular Asian restaurant isn't always up to par.
"We've had a couple complaints," said Kirlew. "My husband, he really doesn't like the smell and the upkeep of the bathrooms and stuff."
She's not alone. In February, another customer filed a complaint alerting state inspectors that the buffet was cold, and that food was, at best, lukewarm.
"The times that I've come here, I've always had to ask the people, the cooks in the back, could I get something fresh, because I never like the temperature of the food on the buffet," said Kirlew.
The complaint triggered a visit from the state. An inspector documented 68 violations, eight considered high priority on the restaurant's February 18th inspection.
Among the issues were:
- Cans of food found dented or rusted
- Temperature violations on the clams, mussels, oysters, and sweet and sour chicken
- Food stored uncovered or on the ground
- Employees not properly washing their hands, and not using soap
- Soil residue in food storage containers
- A black or green mold-like substance inside the ice machine
- A spray bottle containing a toxic substance unlabeled
- No proof of employee training
The state was back again March 4th and found 36 MORE violations; China Buffet racked up a grand total of 104 violations over their last two inspections.
"I never would have thought they would have that many violations," said a shocked Kirlew. "I hope they get it right, but I won't be back."
The restaurant remained open this week, so we stopped in, trying to find out how many of the violations have been corrected.
"I'm sorry, I'm not very good English," said an employee, who identified himself only as the manager when asked about the previous problems.
We asked for permission to take a look in the kitchen.
"Oh, no ... because we have to report to my boss," the manager said. When asked if we could reach the owner by phone, we were told he was in China and not available.
An attorney for the restaurant eventually asked us to leave, but not before customers sounded off about all the violations.
"I bet they wouldn't [show you back in the kitchen.] If they have this many violations, I'm pretty sure they weren't too happy," said Kirlew. "But I'm glad I was here tonight. It's a blessing I was here tonight, because I won't be back."
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