Ten years ago, gluten-free menus were few and far between. In fact, the term ?gluten-free? tended to throw restaurant staffers for a loop since most people in the US had no idea what gluten was back then. Most of us became painfully familiar with the ?deer in the headlights? look from servers when trying to dine out safely. Thankfully, those days are gone (for the most part), but with all progress comes both positive and negative shifts.
Generally, in years past, finding a restaurant with a gluten-free menu automatically gave gluten-free diners a sense of relief. The thought being if the establishment, large or small, went to the trouble of printing a gluten-free menu, diners could trust that it was accurate. While the ingredients are only half the equation when dining out (the other half being preparation and serving the food), there was reasonable hope that ordering off a gluten-free menu might conclude with being served a safe meal.
In the last decade, there has been a massive increase in gluten-free labeled products at the grocery store. So, of course, there has been an enormous rise in the number of restaurants that now offer gluten-free menus. We should all be dancing in the streets at this exciting time, right? Not so fast. Unfortunately, the validity of gluten-free menus these days varies wildly and we still have to ask the right questions?they are just different questions now.
Anyone who loves Italian food (like all the Delight staff and many of our readers) used to really miss being able to enjoy that cuisine when dining out. It?s very exciting that so many places now offer gluten-free pasta. It?s actually a dream come true ? as long as the pasta dish delivered to the table is in fact, gluten-free. Here are few scenarios we?ve run into that confirmed gluten-free pasta is one of the trickiest additions to gluten-free dining options out there. When ordering gluten-free pasta dishes, keep these ridiculous scenarios in mind.
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A restaurant offers gluten-free pasta, but the order taker, manager and even regional manager (who the location manager called) cannot tell you which sauces are gluten-free. Do they expect people to order plain gluten-free pasta without any sauce?
A restaurant serves gluten-free pasta and has gluten-free sauce options. This is great right up until you find gluten pasta in your gluten-free dish (identified by shape which the restaurant doesn?t offer a gluten-free version of). The manager explains all the pasta is cooked in the same water so it?s not safe for someone with celiac to eat there. Please note: the gluten-free menu there is eight pages long.
A restaurant serves gluten-free pasta and sauces and cooks the pasta in clean, uncontaminated water. The pasta is barely edible as it?s not cooked properly. There is a trick to correctly cooking some gluten-free pastas, and the truth is, busy restaurant cooks can?t stand over the pasta checking it minute by minute until it?s perfectly done (not mushy, and not so hard it can crack dental work).
Pizza is another item many of us love being able to order when dining out, or better yet, order for delivery! But pizza is another item that is hit or miss when it comes to safety. It?s been proven that cooking gluten and gluten-free pizza crusts in the same oven can be done safely, but only when the proper precautions are taken to protect from cross-contamination. We?ve heard some doozies when trying to order gluten-free pizza. If nothing else, they make for a funny story later.
A pizza place offers a gluten-free pizza crust, with limited sauce and topping options. That?s fine until you see the gluten-free crust going into the oven without a pan or something to protect it from the gluten crusts. When you inquire about this, the cook explains that ?the oven is 1000 degrees and that kills all the gluten.? Yes?that?s what they said. And it should be noted this is a chain that completed a gluten-free certification training program offered by a non-profit organization. Sadly, without ongoing training (in a high turnover industry) those certificates can mean very little eventually.
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A pizza place serves gluten-free pizza, but each time you order it, they try to sell you bread sticks, fried chicken tenders and some bread-laden dessert item. When asked if any of those options are available gluten-free, the answer is always no. Then maybe you should not offer them to someone who has just ordered a gluten-free pizza?
A pizza place offers several gluten-free pizza options, prepares and cooks it correctly so it?s delivered to the table gluten-free. The problem is, the crust is so tough it can?t be cut with a steak knife. When the server is asked about this, they explain that the gluten-free crusts are very difficult to cook and there?s nothing they can do about it. Actually, there is something they can do about it. They can learn to cook it properly or choose another brand of crust!
Chinese and Asian food in general can be very difficult to find gluten-free, but there are some options out there. Some establishments are chains and some are independent. It?s great to find gluten-free soy sauce available, and many sauces are thickened with cornstarch instead of wheat flour. However, this is one of the most difficult cuisines to question the safety of once it comes to the table. If you order a burger with a gluten-free bun and your meal arrives and your bun looks like everyone else?s, you know you got the wrong bun. But you can?t look at something made with gluten-free soy sauce and know it was made properly. That means you really need to have a thorough discussion during non-peak hours with someone in management to figure out if there are procedures in place to keep gluten-free dishes truly gluten-free.
One of the most startling things we?ve discovered with gluten-free menus recently is listings for gluten ingredients. While they are probably not going to serve you those items, if you see ?pita toast points? printed on a gluten-free menu, you will assume the restaurant has gluten-free pita available. When you get celery sticks instead, the server explains that of course, the pita bread is not gluten-free. Then it should not be listed on the gluten-free menu.
Something else that?s we?ve been encountering more often is servers who ask if our gluten-free order is due to an allergy or if it?s a preference. We all know that people with celiac don?t have a food allergy (it?s an intolerance which is different), but the only answer for the server is ?yes, it?s an allergy.? At least, that?s the only answer if you want your gluten-free request to be respected and taken seriously.
The truth is that there are many trendy gluten-free diners out there and, to a degree, we owe them thanks for helping to increase gluten-free dining options for us all. But when someone who can eat gluten orders a gluten-free burger without a bun (since they are supposedly avoiding gluten) and then tops off their meal with a gluten-containing dessert, it?s harmful to those of us who must avoid gluten.
Since we can?t do anything to control fad diet followers, we have to be diligent in our pursuit of safe gluten-free dining options. Asking the right questions goes a long way to continue the education of restaurant staff, owners and chefs. There is no debate that we have come a long way in the US regarding gluten-free menu availability or that we still have a long way to go. At Delight, we truly believe that together we can make a difference!
By Tiffany Janes