A longtime Mexican restaurant in Portland’s Arts District has been closed indefinitely after being cited repeatedly over the last seven months for unsanitary conditions and practices.
The closure of Mesa Verde was noted in a city health inspection report dated Jan. 17, although the inspector had not ordered the restaurant to shut down. The restaurant was dark early Thursday afternoon, with chairs upside down on the tables. Two people inside waved off a reporter who knocked at the door.
The restaurant at 618 Congress St. had been in operation for more than 16 years, serving vegetarian and vegan dishes made from family recipes, according to its website, and margaritas made from fresh fruit and homemade sour mix.
City records indicate that the restaurant was not ordered to close because of the sanitary issues. It’s unclear why the restaurant shut down and whether it will reopen. The home phone number for the owner, Marco Ramirez of Freeport, is no longer in service.
“We don’t know why they closed,” said Michael Russell, a Portland health inspector.
On Jan. 15, the cook at Mesa Verde, who had long hair that was not in a hair net or hat, was drunk, according to a complaint made to the city.
The complaint record says the health inspector confirmed the incident with the restaurant’s general manager, who closed the restaurant and fired the cook.
During a subsequent inspection, the restaurant was cited for five high-risk violations, including flies, clogged drains, dirty food-contact surfaces and improper temperatures for hot and cold food storage. Also, the restaurant had no certified food protection manager, as required by law.
The Bangor Daily News posted a photo on its website Wednesday showing a message on the restaurant’s window reading, “Shut down by the new gestapo of Augusta – Gov. LePage.”
The message was removed and was not visible Thursday. It had been painted on the window from inside the restaurant, according to the manager of a bar across Congress Street. It’s not clear what the message referred to or who wrote it.
The state had no direct involvement with the kitchen inspections. Restaurants in Portland are inspected by city inspectors, not by the state inspectors who cover other parts of Maine.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the message was “unfortunate.”
“The restaurant was not forced to close at all by the state or the city. They closed voluntarily,” Bennett said in an email. “And certainly Governor LePage had no involvement.”
The closure was “a long time coming,” said Chase Lee, general manager of the Congress Bar & Grill, across the street from Mesa Verde. In recent months, many Mesa Verde staff members had walked off the job, Lee said, forcing the owners to hire replacements.
As for the message scrawled on the window?
“I thought it was tasteless,” Lee said.
Mesa Verde has struggled recently with sanitation.
Two complaints were filed against the restaurant in the last seven months, and it failed two of its last three inspections.
On June 5, someone complained about mice in the kitchen and mouse droppings in the silverware containers, but the health inspector saw none.
The complaint also alleged that the owner washed chicken with bleach and dropped a bowl of spinach on the floor and then served it, that customers were served spoiled food and got sick, and that employees smoked marijuana in the kitchen.
In a health inspection on June 6, the inspector didn’t see mice or mouse droppings, but observed a “strong presence of flies,” bad sanitation practices, dirty facilities and potential for food-borne illness.
The restaurant passed a follow-up inspection on June 28, even though there was still a strong presence of flies and uncovered food. It passed again later with the same violations.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: