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Burning Question: Does the health department have it in for Asian holes-in-the-wall?

Relations between Chinatown restauranteurs and the San Francisco Department of Public Health came to a head this summer with multiple closures in the span of a few months. Is this a new trend or was it just a matter of time?

Hing Lung, renowned for its jook, had its health permit revoked last December. Shortly after, the same thing happened to Louie’s California Chinese Cuisine. Sam Wo, whose chow fun was a famous hangover cure, closed in April after its health, fire, and building permits were suspended. A few months ago, Tu Lan, the grimy but beloved Vietnamese joint in SoMa, was shut down too. Why the sudden rash of closures—three of them in Chinatown?

Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, director of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, says that owners repeatedly promised to clean up nasty rat and roach infestations, among other things. But promises were repeatedly broken.

Of course, Chinatown does have a few strikes against it: hundred-year-old buildings, immense density, and workers with scant English-language skills. Also, restaurateurs, pressured to keep prices low, often don’t have the money to make needed repairs.

Bhatia defended his department’s actions by pointing out that only 3 restaurants in Chinatown were shut down in the past two years, and 13 in the entire city (including Russian Hill–based Sushi Groove and North Beach’s Steps of Rome). And these closures came at the end of 12 years of outreach. “We had been helping Chinatown restaurants meet the minimum standards of the law.” Until patience, as it tends to do, finally ran out.