Guide To Eating Out

The Wood Tavern - Oakland, CA

The Wood Tavern - Oakland, CA


By now many of you have figured out that restaurants can be a major obstacle course for the gluten or dairy intolerant or anyone with food allergies.  I myself try to cook at home as often as possible – I have complete control over what goes into my food, and the money I save goes toward organic groceries.  But there are times when we must venture out of the safety of our kitchens, whether on social occasions with friends or family, at work or on vacation, or simply because we just want to feel like normal people again.  Here are some words of advice for such occasions.


Rule No. 1 – Always Ask What’s In The Food


I spent six years of my life working in the food industry, and I know how annoying it can be as a server to have people ask what’s in every single dish on the menu.  I never wanted to be one of those people.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a restaurant and thought I’d figured out an entree was safe only to have my food arrive covered with cheese, bread crumbs, or some unknown creamy sauce.  Then I begin the embarrassing task of asking the server, please, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know it was going to come with this, I’m allergic, can you please bring me one without it?  Your server will be much more understanding if you tell them up front that you have a food allergy, and it will save you both a lot of trouble!  Even if the server doesn’t know what gluten is or isn’t sure what’s in the food, he or she can always ask the chef.  If anyone ever gives you a hard time for asking, it is their lack of understanding speaking – many people have no idea what we go through on a day-to-day basis.  You have every right to be able to eat an allergy-free meal out once in awhile! 


Rule No. 2 – Ethnic Food Is A Safer Bet Than American Food


Why?  American cuisine is often heavy on the meat, bread, milk and cheese and generally tends to be more processed than ethnic food, which usually contains more whole foods such as vegetables, grains, and legumes.  Of course that is a pretty broad, general statement, so here are a few specific cuisines I recommend that are safe, inexpensive, and easy to find:


Thai food – There are often many items to choose from without worry.  Sauces are thickened with coconut milk, not dairy.  Pad Thai is a delicious dish made with rice noodles instead of wheat noodles.   Just let your server know if you have a peanut allergy – many sauces are made with peanuts.


Sushi – Numerous combinations of rice, seawead, vegetables, and raw or cooked fish.  Ask for wheat-free Tamari sauce instead of soy sauce.  Avoid tempura (a flour batter) and anything with crab meat, unless they say it is real crab (most sushi restaurants use imitation crab, which contains wheat).


Avoid Chinese food.  It is usually of a lesser quality than Japanese or Thai food, not as fresh, and more preserved (the old MSG cliche is no joke!).  Almost everything on the menu contains soy sauce which, in addition to its high sodium content, also contains wheat.


Mexican – A good authentic Mexican restaurant or taqueria is a great place to find an inexpensive allergy-free meal.  Order a couple of soft tacos with corn tortillas and your choice of meat or beans – just ask that they hold the cheese.


I would also avoid Indian or Ethiopian food – they use a lot of butter in their dishes, and although authentic Ethiopian Injera is made from Teff, a gluten-free grain, you can almost never find it in America without wheat flour.


Seafood – If you must go to an American restaurant, find one that has seafood and order a broiled fish fillet.  If you are a vegetarian, get a salad with some beans on it.  But don’t forget to ask if it comes with croutons or cheese first.  Ask for a vinagrette dressing, but on the side, in case it shows up with cream in it.  Better yet, just ask for olive oil & vinegar or a few lemon slices.


Never go into an Italian Restaurant.  No matter how enticing the aroma, you are almost guaranteed to not be able to find anything on the menu without cheese, cream, pasta, or bread.  Period.  Same goes for pizzerias, although that’s pretty much a given.


Rule No. 3 – Avoid Chain Restaurants


While there are some chains that have recently begun touting gluten-free menus due to growing awareness of gluten intolerance and celiacs disease, for the most part, I avoid chain restaurants like the plague for one reason: by definition, chain restaurant food is not fresh.  Chain restaurants are corporate businesses with many rules and uniform menus.  In order to achieve that uniformity, the food has to come from a central source where it is treated with artificial flavors and colors and other food additives so that wherever you go, the food tastes exactly the same.  Not only that, but in order for the food to survive the long chain of delivery from the regional distribution centers to the restaurants and then sit on the shelf for extended periods of time in order to guarantee availability, it must be loaded with preservatives.


My favorite restaurants are the local ones – they have the best chefs and the most charm, and usually get their produce and meats from local sources.  They are also more likely to use organic ingredients, and the staff are more than happy to talk about what’s in the food.  Sometimes you can even have a conversation with the chef.  Unlike a chain restaurant where everywhere you go the menu is always the same, at local restaurants, menus change from week to week as the availability of seasonal items changes.  The food is always at its freshest, and you can count on finding something unique.  In short, local restaurants are everything that chain restaurants are not.


Final Rule – If you fall off the wagon…


…Jump!  Whether you have carefully weighed the pros and cons of eating that no-no, had a sudden moment of weakness, or simply found yourself in a bind where there was no other choice, don’t beat yourself up over it!  It happens to all of us.  Once you decide you’re going to go for it, you might as well enjoy it!  Don’t cloud your experience with feelings of guilt.  Just know that you will not be feeling well for a short period of time, but it will pass.  Depending on how long it has been since you last ate said food, however, you just may find out that whatever it is you ate may not be a problem anymore.  Some food allergies can be healed after a long period of avoidance (although that is usually not the case with gluten).  You’ll only find out if you try.


At least that’s what I told myself yesterday.  It was Labor Day, and my husband and I spent the afternoon at the Presidio in San Francisco.  We were wandering along the beach when an old familiar smell took hold of me.  The last thing I expected to attract my olfactory attention was the hot dog stand.  I’m usually pretty good at putting aside my cravings for things I shouldn’t eat, but when I saw the sign that said “100 percent grass-fed nitrate/antibiotic/hormone-free beef franks,” I was intrigued.  Mind you, I had not eaten beef in 3 years, since I tested positive for an allergy to all things bovine.  Since then I had even developed an aversion to red meat, and the thought never crossed my mind before today.  But I had never tasted 100 percent grass-fed beef, and that was what piqued my curiosity. 


What’s the big deal about 100 percent grass-fed beef?  Athough all cattle start out being grass-fed, most are later shipped off to the stockyards where they are fed an unnatural diet of grains to bulk them up and then pumped with antibiotics and other drugs because eating grain makes them sick.  Their stomachs then become acidic breeding grounds for highly resistant bacteria strains, such as E. coli.  One hundred percent grass-fed cattle, however, live much happier, healthier lives, and their beef is loaded with natural heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids instead of hormones and antibiotic residue.  Not having learned all of this before I gave up red meat, I often wondered what it would be like and if it would affect me differently.  I knew someday I would be brave enough to try it, but why it was a frankfurter that lured me in and not, say, a medium-rare fillet or a juicy burger, I’ll never know.


I debated for about 15 minutes whether or not to go for it, going over the pros and cons, trying to get the thought out of my mind, trying to understand why I wanted it in the first place, when my husband, the enabler, walked off to go buy me one.  I nervously waited until he returned with a nearly foot-long frank, minus the bun, topped with onions and sauerkraut.  Other than being messy, the first bite was uneventful – it tasted a little wierd to me, it had been so long since I’d had one and the onions and sauerkraut were the dominant flavors anyway.  However, once I had taken that first bite, there was no turning back – so I ate with abandon and tried not to think about it. 


Hours later, I still hadn’t noticed any strange feeling coming from my gut – so far so good.  But even if my stomach isn’t upset, usually a day or two later my skin will increase its oil production and start to break out.  Now it has been over 24-hours since ingestion, and things are still going smoothly.  But I’m still not in the clear – I’ll know for sure in 2 or 3 days, when it makes its way out of my system.  I am keeping my fingers crossed that I am safe for now, and that in the future I may on occasion have that medium-rare grass-finished fillet without hesitation.  I’ll keep you posted.