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Gluten Free Overseas Part3: Restaurants in America
Eating out for lunch or dinner in America is relatively easy for coeliacs. In New Zealand, nearly all restaurants will do gluten free meals on request, with many labelling which items are or can be made gluten free. In America, I found a much smaller proportion of restaurants labelled gluten free options. I also ran into establishments that simply had nothing available. As a general rule, good quality restaurants easily catered to my needs. Restaurant chains such as Applebees had folders with dietary information about their menus including gluten status. Fast food outlets such as Taco Bell had absolutely nothing on offer. I struggled to find much in the way of cafes over there as the market seems to be dominated by Starbucks or state-wide chains (reminiscent of Robert Harris).
So what sorts of GF foods were available?
Starbucks stocked fruit salads, GF nut bars and a marshmallow rice bubble thing. Restaurants typically had at least a couple of GF menu items though in many cases these were salads with nothing on the main menu available gluten free. Luckily, American meals are much larger than those in New Zealand, so even though some establishments could only offer me a salad, it was usually still a fairly filling meal.
Chicken salad at a cafe in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina.
But not all waiters were very switched on. I have always been told by Americans that tips are a great incentive for good service but my experiences travelling to America several times over the last 3 years have been that tips are expected and are often much more closely linked to the menu prices than the service because many people tip a relatively fixed percentage of the bill. My impression was that many waiters were eager to rush off with your order as fast as possible to get it going in the kitchen than to stop & understand the importance of your questions about gluten. I often had to specifically ask for a waiter to write down gluten free on their pad.
At this restaurant in Charlotte, the stir fry was one of only two items marked as "can be made GF" but the waiter did not make a note despite me mentioning gluten 3 times while ordering. I wasn't brave enough to eat the chips that came with it which appeared to be battered.
As mentioned previously, while some places don't cater at all for coeliacs, many do. Here are just a small selection of meals that I had at restaurants that catered very well for us.
Brixx in Charlotte not only have a special GF menu but also give heaps of reassuring information about their GF procedures. Click to view larger.
An amazing GF gourmet burger at the Wild Goat Bistro in Petaluma, California. It was wonderful.
A BLT at the Hilton Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina. In the background is my colleague's non-GF version with the fruit side while I had the vege.
One final observation: Americans seem to love broccoli. Whenever ordering a steak, it either comes with nothing else, or with garlic mash and broccoli. If a restaurant offers you salad or vegetables, the vegetables are always broccoli. It turns out that not all restaurants cook broccoli very well. Some was lovely, some wasn't. That I even noticed highlights how many times it was served to me.
I've so far only talked about restaurants and eating out. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, motels in America don't tend to have adequate kitchen facilities. I was also travelling on business so any extra time I could spend at work rather than in a kitchen was worth far more than the cost of eating out. However, I have found that Wholefoods is an excellent supermarket for coeliacs to visit, with a massive gluten free section. It is known for its organic foods but doesn't exclusively sell organics and niche products. It is a high end supermarket where you will find equivalents for pretty much anything you can buy at New World.
Posted by Rory on May 23rd, 2015 under Gluten Free Travel
Gluten Free Overseas Part2: Breakfast in America
Of all the meals I had in America, breakfast was by far the hardest for me. As a coeliac, the vast array of pastries, breads, donuts and mueslis were out of bounds, typically leaving fruit salad, apples, bananas and eggs. Those who read my previous blog post will know that I dislike eggs leaving fruit as the only option in most cases. While I like fruit, a high FODMAP meal consisting solely of fruit doesn't do my gut any favours.
The solution for me was to order a whole lot of gluten free nut bars from Amazon. With shipping, credit card fees and currency conversion, they ended up well under NZ $2 each. The other reason they worked well is that I continued to travel within America every few days and unlike here in New Zealand, Californian hotels and motels almost universally do NOT provide crockery, cutlery or a fridge. What you will get are paper and plastic cups, a small coffee machine and creamer. No tea, hot water, milk or teaspoons. I was told that this is due to somebody once getting sick from poorly washed dishes and suing a hotel. Some motels do have a "kitchen" which means you get a sink and bar fridge, but still no dishes or milk.
My fairly cheap & healthy breakfast that wasn't eggs.
While looking for nut bars, I discovered a wide variety of gluten free muesli (or "granola" as it's known in America) bars. They almost universally consist primarily of certified gluten free oats. In New Zealand and Australia (which have common food labelling laws) no products containing oats are allowed to be labelled gluten free due to the high cross contamination risk. In America, at least one company specialises in contamination free oats with a dedicated processing plant and harvesting machines that tour the supplier farms which in turn have contracts with their neighbours forbidding the growing of wheat, barley or rye within a certain distance.
The small amount of research that I've read about coeliacs and oats suggests that around 90% of coeliacs can safely consume uncontaminated
oats. The other 10% still react badly to the protein found in oats which is also a member of the gluten family. (The protein in corn is also a gluten, but even fewer coeliacs have problems with this, so to keep things simple, most of the world colloquially uses the term gluten only to refer to wheat, barley and rye glutens.) I briefly thought of trying out the some GF oats, but decided that it would be prohibitively expensive to import GF oats to NZ on a regular basis, so there was little benefit for me to risk getting very sick while travelling.
Snacks and baked goods
American snack foods are similar to what we're used to NZ with the main difference being the much higher popularity of donuts and pretzels. Like here, the gluten free status of potato chips depends on brand and flavour. I found it very easy to find nuts in America with small packets often costing US $1 or $2.
A good tip for those planning to fly into San Francisco: there is a specialist entirely gluten free bakery called Mariposa
in the ferry building (pier 1) in the Embarcadero district. This is a lovely spot to have lunch with a view of the bay bridge (Golden Gate is in the distance to the north). For about $9 each way, one can take a 30min train ride on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) get there from SFO. I love Mariposa, they're an oasis in a desert of gluten and remind me of my own favourite bakery back home in Christchurch: the Totally Gluten Free Bakery
Posted by Rory on May 16th, 2015 under Gluten Free Travel
Gluten Free Overseas Part1: Air New Zealand
Several of you indicated through our Facebook page that you would be interested in hearing about my two recent experiences eating gluten free overseas. This is the first in a short series of blog posts about my experiences on work trips to China and America. For the first post, I thought I'd start with my airline experiences. Airline food has a reputation for being poor, but as you'll see, even within one airline I received food that was anywhere from inedible to delicious.
For both trips, I travelled with Air New Zealand economy class on the way there and was lucky enough to return on premium economy (the first time due to economy being sold out because of the Cricket world cup, and the second by redeeming a recognition upgrade). I will also be flying with Qantas (economy) later in the year so will be able to compare in a future post.
The Auckland to Hong Kong and Auckland to San Francisco flights all left in the evening regardless of the direction travelled, with a dinner served an hour and a half into the flight and a breakfast an hour and a half before landing.
Dinner, economy class AKL to HKG.
The hot meal and potato salad shown above were simple and pleasant. Unfortunately the bread (mine were both crusts) was tasteless, dry and rubbery. I didn't eat the dessert, as I sank my teeth into it they nearly bounced off. It was how I'd imagine biting into a squash ball might feel. I don't doubt that the bread and dessert products are probably quite pleasant at ground level, but in this experience at cruising altitude they were horrible.
Appetiser, roll and dessert in premium economy SFO to AKL.
In premium economy, an appetiser, roll and dessert are served as shown above. Once you've finished the appetiser, a hot main is brought to you. From Hong Kong, the main was a very pleasant steamed white fish, while from SFO it was a salmon steak. The dessert from SFO consisted of both a fruit salad and a very nice muffin (which I saved for breakfast).
Near the end of the flight, breakfast is served. Breakfast on premium economy and economy are reasonably similar. A fruit salad, bread roll and sometimes a rice cake or yoghurt are provided. On all of the flights the hot main was an omelette with mushrooms and tomatoes. Spinach, capsicum and potatoes also featured on some flights. I really don't like eggs, so always had a muffin or gluten free nut bar in my carry on luggage for breakfast.
The hot breakfast in premium economy SFO to AKL.
So that was my experience of gluten free meals on Air New Zealand. As this is very much a food centric website, I haven't really touched on the rest of the experience, but as with most of my flights on Air New Zealand, the staff on board were absolutely excellent: friendly and always smiling.
Check back soon for the next instalment in this series: "Breakfast in America"
Posted by Rory on May 3rd, 2015 under Gluten Free Travel