El Sapo Cuban Social Club, a critically acclaimed restaurant in downtown Silver Spring, has received its final warning from the Montgomery County health department after inspectors found on multiple visits that employees were flouting public safety measures meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including not wearing face masks or wearing them incorrectly.
After four separate visits from Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, including a follow-up compliance check related to signs of mice in the restaurant, chef-owner Raynold Mendizábal could be forced to pay hundreds of dollars in fines or temporarily shut down the restaurant if inspectors catch staffers breaking the rules again.
The health department issued its latest warning to Mendizábal on September 30, according to public records the county shared with Eater. Kenneth Welch, the department’s environmental health manager within licensure and regulatory services, says an inspector was responding to a complaint about some employees improperly wearing masks, and in some cases not wearing them at all. The inspection occurred while the restaurant was closed to customers, so the dining areas were empty.
Mendizábal contends the inspector called him out because one cook didn’t pull a mask up over his nose. The owner says the cook wore the mask that way so they could breathe as they prepared food on a 110-degree grill in the kitchen, where he says enforcing social distancing is not possible. The latest reopening directives from the Maryland Department of Health allow for indoor dining at 75 percent capacity, require “all staff to wear face coverings unless it is not safe to do so,” and tell restaurants to mark off six feet of distance in areas where customers and staff congregate.
“I mean yeah, guilty,” Mendizábal says. “Who is not? But I mean, what else could I tell you? The measures are so draconian that we are always violating one, whether you want to or not. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re always [in violation].”
Born in Havana, Mendizábal says he despises what he sees as abuses of power. He fled Communist Cuba during Fidel Castro’s regime, saying he landed in the United States in 1995. The island nation, 90 miles off America’s shores, is still considered an authoritarian state with a government known for committing various human rights abuses against its citizens, including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, restrictions on freedom of movement, and harassing or intimidating critics. It’s a country Mendizábal characterizes as having “so many laws that you’re always breaking one.”
Mendizábal gave that explanation because he says he was upset when Eater asked if he had problems with authority. He says the Montgomery County health department is an agency run by “bureaucrats.”
Despite his misgivings about the difficulty of following public safety protocols, Mendizábal says he and his staff will observe the state’s orders moving forward.
“I believe that we should follow the law,” Mendizábal says. “Now, we may disagree with the law — now, that’s my prerogative as a person. We have to follow the law, that’s all.”
If the health department spots El Sapo employees violating reopening orders again, it could slap the trendy restaurant with a $500 civil citation. Mary Anderson, the public information officer for the health department, says additional violations could trigger another $500 citation or other penalties, including a 30-day closure or the potential loss of El Sapo’s liquor license.
Mendizábal says a forced 30-day closure or the loss of El Sapo’s liquor license would “destroy the business.”
In the two years since Mendizábal opened El Sapo, it has notched a string of rave reviews from Bethesda Magazine, Washingtonian, and the Washington Post, all recognizing the chef’s Cuban cooking and a festive backdrop full of lively music, drinking, and dancing. Tom Sietsema, an influential food critic at the Post, ranked the restaurant fifth on a 2019 list of the region’s 10 best new restaurants, and named El Sapo as one of his go-to spots for takeout during the pandemic. It landed on Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants list earlier this year and in 2019. Mendizábal owns two restaurants, but El Sapo is the only one to remain open. In August, he temporarily closed nearby Urban Butcher, his seven-year-old steakhouse, citing the pandemic.
Sietsema reported in a January tweet that Mendizábal planned to open a D.C. outpost of El Sapo inside the Atlantic Plumbing development in Shaw by the fall. Developer JBG Smith Properties referred all questions to Mendizábal, who declined to say whether the pandemic has affected plans for that project.
El Sapo initially found itself under scrutiny from the county health department on June 13, when a takeout customer reported that social distancing couldn’t be maintained in the takeout line, cooks weren’t socially distancing, and only one of them was wearing a mask. When this customer asked front desk staff why they also weren’t wearing a mask, an employee replied, “I am far enough away from you,” according to the report.
At the time, El Sapo served diners from pull-up windows on the side of the building rather than allowing them inside, the report said. El Sapo resumed dine-in service at half capacity on September 22.
That customer complaint triggered a health department inspection on June 15. On that day, while the inspector found that front desk employees were properly social distancing, Mendizábal told the inspector he was concerned cooks may not be able to wear masks sometimes when the kitchen gets hot, the report said. Mendizábal agreed to move the customer line to the takeout area by front desk staff members, and the inspector told him to “make all efforts” to maintain six feet of social distancing around the patio.
Another inspector returned to El Sapo a week later, this time after someone told the health department that employees weren’t wearing facial coverings, and that the restaurant had mice. The health department conducted a full investigation of El Sapo on June 22, and shut down the restaurant the same day because they found evidence of mice, including solid rodent poison pellets on the bar’s prep surface and droppings in multiple areas. The inspector also flagged excessive mold build-up in the ice machine. The health inspector also observed employees without masks and also noticed El Sapo had not posted signs telling people to wear masks or markers encouraging social distancing.
That inspector ordered El Sapo to close for a day. When they returned the following day, they authorized El Sapo to reopen after finding the restaurant had resolved its issues. Mendizábal says staff scrubbed the restaurant clean and destroyed all food before that follow-up visit.
Mendizábal blames the mice on Metro’s ongoing Purple Line construction in Silver Spring, saying “this is one of the cleanest restaurants you’ve ever seen.” He says he “personally put poison in one place” to kill the mice, which he says he didn’t realize was a mistake. Welch points out that the county requires all restaurant owners to take a certified food service manager course prior to opening an eatery, and that Mendizábal would have learned about rodent poisoning in the course. He declined to comment on the contaminated ice and surfaces.
“There is always going to be things happening in restaurants,” Mendizábal says. “But the measure is not what happened, it’s how the operator reacts to that and solved it, because if you start digging and cherry picking, I mean, you can take any restaurant and portray [it] as the worst place in the planet.”
El Sapo is one of eight restaurants to receive final warnings from Montgomery County for violating pandemic-related restrictions. The others include East Grill Karaoke, a Chinese restaurant in Rockville; Nada, a Latin American restaurant in North Bethesda; and Casa Oaxaca and Gringos & Mariachis, two Mexican restaurants in Bethesda. The other Silver Spring restaurants with final warnings are Plan B Bar & Grill, which serves pupusas, Buffalo wings, and fried tilapia; El Caracol Café, a Latin-American restaurant; and Caliente Restaurant & Bar, a Mexican restaurant.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has consistently said wearing a mask correctly, frequently washing hands, avoiding crowds, and staying six feet away from others are some of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has killed more than 231,000 Americans and infected millions more. Maryland’s health department has confirmed more than 146,000 cases and more than 4,000 deaths.
So far, Montgomery County has closed two restaurants for 30 days for repeated social distancing violations: Republic Garden and Society Restaurant & Lounge, which both sell Caribbean food in Silver Spring.
“We’re serious about this and … we don’t want everybody who played by the rules to not be recognized for their efforts,” Anderson says on behalf of the health department. “We don’t want the one or two bad players to tarnish the good work of everybody else.”