How To: Eat Out When You’re Gluten-Free

Posted by on Sunday Jul 24th, 2011 | Print

Though I’m only a newby at this whole gluten-free game, there is one thing I know for sure: it’s a lot harder to navigate eating out than cooking at home. One of the many reasons why we advocate making your own food is that you know exactly what you’re eating. When it comes to dietary restrictions, this is particularly important. But alas, until we take up some sort of Cathy Erway pact, eating out at restaurants once in a while seems pretty unavoidable.

Since getting my gluten-free sea legs, I’ve accidentally eaten béchamel sauce and had chicken arrive in front of me that I could tell had been dredged in flour before it was cooked. I was too lazy to send any of these things back, so I ate them anyway and felt sick afterwards. I’m not celiac, so I can take these risks. But the constant element of surprise is not one I find enjoyable. And so while sometimes it’s a pain to be picky, it’s always worth dealing with the waitstaff and the menu in a way that will ensure you enjoy your eating experience at the table, and in the long term.

Here are some of the pointers I’ve learned thus far about gluten-free restaurant dining—some general (ask lots of questions), and some more specialized (avoid Italian restaurants if you don’t want to cry when looking at the menu).

–Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK

NOTE: if you are celiac you might have to take some of these recommendations with a grain of salt, as I am lucky enough not to have to worry about cross-contamination in restaurant kitchens.

**Tips and Tricks**

Ask questions. I know it sounds simple, but when it comes to your health, don’t be shy about asking detailed questions about the food you are about to eat. The best way to do so is to ask the waitress to alert the chef that you have a gluten allergy. This will make them more careful back in the kitchen and also steer you clear of certain danger foods if you’ve accidentally ordered something with hidden gluten. Always assume that the waitstaff and chefs are less educated about gluten-free eating than you are. It sometimes pays to double check that flour wasn’t used at any point in the process, and that none of the sauces include soy sauce.

Call ahead. If you are shy, or don’t want to annoy your dining companions by asking the waitress about every minutia of every dish, simply be prepared when you arrive. Look at the menu in advance and suss out the best options–a lot of local restaurants actually have gluten-free menus these days. If you want some reassurance that what you’ve chosen is actually gluten-free, give the restaurant a call during a non-rush hour (before noon, or between 3pm and 6pm). The hostess can ask the chef any of your questions and you’ll be sparing the kitchen the chore of answering your queries while firing off orders for seared scallops for a table of ten.

Learn how to decipher a menu, and know your ‘code red’ words. Being able to pinpoint problem dishes will help you when choosing your meal, and also when asking your server targeted questions about certain dishes. Chefs have been educating themselves, but don’t be too reliant on their gluten knowledge. Avoid anything fried, and even pan-fried, as meat tends to be dredged in flour before its trip to the pan. Also, always ask about a dish’s sauce. If it is described as thick or creamy, you should make sure they haven’t used a gluten-based thickening agent. Stews are worth inquiring about for this reason too. There are plenty of resources out there to educate yourself about the ingredients you can and cannot have, so make sure you are aware of what condiments contain which problem ingredients so that you can put them on your radar. For example, teriyakai sauce is a sweetened and seasoned version of soy sauce, and should be avoided. In general, if you see a dish with Asian flavors, you should be asking whether or not it has soy sauce in it (see below).

Avoid certain cuisines altogether. Italian and Japanese I’ve found are the two biggest gluten fiends. You can usually find a risotto on an Italian menu, but other than that, pizza and pasta are the two biggest staples of moderately priced Italian restaurants and they’re both no go. Unless, you want to spend a little extra on some branzino or a bistecca, it’s best not to put yourself through the torture. Japanese restaurants use soy sauce pretty much across the board. Anything teriyaki is out, and sushi is out too, unless you’ve managed to sneak in a bottle of your own gluten-free soy sauce (which I highly recommend doing!). Japanese salad dressings usually contain some soy sauce as well for seasoning. Udon is wheat-based, as are most soba noodles in this country. And katsu is breaded meat. Best to avoid these restaurants all together.

Stick with my 5 go-to cuisines. Many rice-based cuisines are the easiest to adapt to a gluten-free diet. Of course, there are certain dishes to avoid in each, and if possible, it is still best to ask as many questions as possible. Here are my top picks:

Thai: This is how I’ve managed to not go crazy by not eating spaghetti. I can always get my pasta fix with pad thai. In most Thai restaurants in the US with translated menus, they tell you whether a noodle dish contains rice (vermicelli or thin pad thai noodles) or wheat noodles (yellow noodles, egg noodles). Like any Asian cuisine, you want to avoid soy sauce. Pad See Ew is a no no because of this. Most pad thai recipes do not include soy sauce, though they may have oyster sauce. If you are CD or very sensitive to wheat and this worries you, you can always say you are a vegetarian or order from the veggie side of most American menus, and oyster sauce will be omitted. Curries are usually safe, so when in doubt that is a good area of the menu to order off of.

Mexican: Since much of Mexican cuisine is corn or rice based, this is a great option for GF food. Authentic tacos are made with corn tortillas–burritos, though, use flour tortillas, as do quesadillas. Make sure to ask about which kind is being used in what you plan to order, and chances you can sub corn for wheat. While most sauces are thickened with corn flour, moles should be avoided. Additionally, skip chiles rellenos, and fish and seafood tacos (especially Baja) because they will probably be battered.

Middle Eastern: With all the grilled meats and condiments, you can find a great well-balanced meal at Middle Eastern or Israeli restaurants. Avoid tabouli as bulgar wheat is a no no. A lot of places in the states now offer quinoa tabouli, and this is great. Obviously, any type of pita sandwich should be avoided, but most of these restaurants, and even quick fast food joints will offer a shwarma, kabab, or falafel platter with an assortment of hummus, baba gaunoush, and Israeli salad, all of which are gluten-free and filling. Check to make sure the falafel is gluten-free. If it’s a traditional establishment it will be. Taim is a personal fave in NYC! Greek and Mediterranean are also good options because of their use of fresh meat and seafood.

Indian: So long as you are comfortable forgoing nan, Indian food is fairy easy to eat gluten-free. Avoid samosas, paratha, and any other obvious wheat-based carbs. But in terms of the traditional dishes (all of which can be served with rice), there is fairly little to avoid.

South American: Anywhere with lots of rice and beans will be friendly to a gluten-free diet and allow you to get your carbs and protein. Peruvians eat a ton of quinoa, Venezuelans are known for arepas—the best cure for GF sandwich blues—and Argentine cuisine touts affordable steaks, chimichurri, and roasted potatoes, unlike American steakhouses with rich sauces and mac n’ cheese.

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  • Frankie

    I’m GF and this is the best advice I’ve ever read. I’m off to my nearest felafel truck right now.

  • http://Coolproducts.com Alyssa S

    At my last job we had a gluten free menu. I feel like all restaurants should start adding new options on to their menus. Vegetarian options and gluten-free meals are more and more popular today and it just makes things simple.

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      agreed!!! let’s lobby together!

      • http://www.Coolproducts.com Alyssa S

        Sounds good! Hopefully this blog post gets out there to more people

  • Badleebent

    It certainly may be true that a wheat free diet is just a fad for a larger part of the population, but for some of us it is very important. It alleviates very real problems, I have had. Spelt is a great help with this.

    We love Pizza. So in a search for alternatives, we developed a spelt pizza dough for our own use. After finding how much more tasty it was than traditional doughs. After sharing it with friends, to rave reviews, we decided to make the spelt pizza crust mix available online.

    We offer our spelt pizza crust mix, which is organic, at http://healthyhippiekitchens.com

  • Mollyk

    I love La Palma Mexicatessen! It’s right by Humphry Slocombe. MMMMM

  • Kent Wicker

    Thanks — this is sound advice, and very well written.  Of course, you make eating out sound quite a bit easier than it really is.  It seems to me that I have to spend hours of research and calling just to find out whether a restaurant has any clear idea what has gluten in it or not– and even then, I can’t really trust what they say.  It certainly doesn’t help one’s social life any, does it?  

    Of course, I’m still having trouble giving up my very favorite thing to do pre-celiac diagnosis: walking into some hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurant and ordering something I’ve never heard of before…  Sigh!  I’m still not quite sure how to be gluen-free and not live in a hole somewhere by myself.But your advice about cuisines seems right to me.  My only quibble would be that some Indian food has hing in it — which is a powder made of asafoetida that often also has wheat in it.

  • http://www.glutenfree4kids.com/ Glutenfree4kids

    Having just returned from a disasterous lunch with my 9 year old daughter, this is a subject close to our hearts.  She was given the wrong pasta at a restaurant almost a year ago and now will refuse to eat out.  We are trying to win back her trust, but she is so frightened by what happened that she just doesn’t trust any food outside of home.  We even had the chef come out to our table to try and reassure her, but she just cried and cried.  I would love to see chefs take more of a front line on this, by becoming more educated and by having more gluten free options available on the menu.  When I see a menu with GF options highlighted I immeditely feel reassured that they have a fundermental understanding of GF food. 

  • bob

    Houmous is made with tabouli no?

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      Nope! Just chickpeas and tahini.