TAMPA, Florida -- If China Buffet sounds familiar, it's because we've reported on this restaurant before. The Chinese Buffet on Fowler Avenue in Tampa was featured as a Restaurant Red Alert last year after racking up 104 violations on back-to-back inspections in February and March.
Now, the restaurant is in trouble again, this time shut down by the state as an emergency closure.
"It's fabulous. Like I said, I've never had anything bad here," said frequent customers Gina Ortiz, who had no idea about any of the previous issues.
We explained to Ortiz that China Buffet racked up 56 violations on their January 6th inspection, with grease under the cooking equipment and an employee bathroom toilet leaking. The inspector also documented an employee working with food without washing their hands, touching food with bare hands, a black or green mold-like substance in the ice machine, and live roaches. Fifteen of them were found under the sink, 20 along cooks line shelving, three inside a crack of the reach-in freezer, and 10 under equipment in the service station.
The inspector also reported finding rodent activity, with more than 50 droppings and a rodent burrow behind the buffet. The state said there were toxic chemicals stored next to cookies and wrote up the restaurant for having no proof of employee training.
"That's pretty disgusting," said Ortiz after hearing the long list of violations. "I probably won't be eating here anymore. I mean, that's gross."
We went to management to find out if issues had been corrected.
"You can take a look! You can take a look," said the manager, named Chen, who took us for a tour around the buffet area. "Everything is fresh and made daily. We guarantee."
We found a wide variety of piping hot food, sushi on ice, and the ever popular dessert bar featuring green tea ice cream. But when it came to getting into the kitchen, the buffet is where our access ended.
We did spot a can of roach spray right next to the clean cups, something considered to be a high priority violation by the state. And while our camera was not allowed into the kitchen, management said all other issues are now taken care of.
"No, no problem now ... we do cleaning and we do pest control," said Chen.
As for Ortiz, she was horrified to see the long list of violations and said, cleaned up or not, she won't be back.
"Looks can be deceiving! You just never know until you get back into the kitchen," she said.
China Buffet has four of the worst 20 inspections for most violations in all of Tampa Bay over the past year.