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Gluten-Free Traveling in South-West USA

Los-Angeles
Los-Angeles. Courtesy of Rod Ramsey

by Ton Nederhof

This year, I visited some of the major National Parks in the South West of the USA. It gave me some of the best and worst experiences since I started travelling as a celiac.

It is a well-known fact that the United States of America are one of the major (if not the major) wheat producers of the world. As one waiter said: "I know nothing about gluten, but I do know about wheat and it is used in everything here [meaning the USA]". I should have left that restaurant immediately, but foolishly stayed, having been persuaded by the manager that some entrees could be served gluten-free. Well, my steak was sandwiched between breaded onions and a big slice of wheat bread. Ironically, this was the only time I needed to show my restaurant card. What went wrong was that the manager took a careful look, but not the waiter serving us. Of course, I didn't touch the food.

But the USA are not only a frontrunner in wheat but also in gluten-free (g.f.) meals. Up to 20% of the American population is said to prefer eating gluten-free, even though only a minority of them is either a celiac or sensitive to wheat. This would one make to expect that many people in the food industry are familiar with gluten-free eating as well as that many meals in restaurants would be gluten-free. Indeed, I found that many but certainly not all people in the South-Western food industry knew about g.f., but that many restaurants did not actually offer anything g.f. on the menu.

In many other cases, restaurants carried purportedly g.f. items on the menu that after some questioning of staff turned out to be anything but g.f. For instance, the French fries were baked in oil contaminated with bread crumbs. I must say that in nearly all of these cases, staff ended up by admitting that their so-called g.f. items on the menu were really only suitable for faddish g.f. eaters, but not for celiacs. A few other menus listed items as "gluten friendly". I avoided these too, as the risk of being glutened seemed too big. In another restaurant, a polite inquiry was met by a member of staff silently pointing out a line on the menu warning that no guarantee was offered that anything on the menu was actually g.f. He seemed highly surprised that we decided to try our luck elsewhere.

Beforehand, I had thought it likely that in big cities such as San Francisco or Los Angeles, g.f. food would be relatively common and easy to find due to its being trendy, whereas in less trendy smaller cities and places near or in National Parks g.f. food would be less easily obtained. Certainly, in downtown San Francisco I enjoyed twice a g.f. breakfast, but in Los Angeles near the airport, in Salt Lake City, and in Phoenix / Scottsdale finding a g.f. dinner was not any easier than elsewhere. Nevertheless, any single day of my three and a half week stay I was able to get a g.f. dinner eventually, and not once I was glutened.

Yes, I had a few poor meals and once (near Bryce National Park) I had to attend a relatively expensive country music show to be fed properly. In addition, much more often than in other countries I visited, choosing a meal from a g.f. menu in SW USA was more expensive than ordering the identical meal from the regular menu, usually about four dollars. Similarly, in quite a few restaurants only some of the more expensive items on the menu were labeled as g.f.

Stocking up

What about stocking up? In addition to Teff crackers, I brought with me a sufficient supply of long-lasting bread (3Pauly Teff Schwarzbrot) to cover breakfast and lunch during the entire trip. This proved to be just as well, for I was not able to find any g.f. bread lasting longer than a day or so during the trip. I stocked up on cheese in the Rainbow grocery (1715 Folsom St San Francisco; a big store with an organic focus), although this was relatively badly packaged with thin foil that is easily torn.

After a week or two, I had to scrape off some mould, but the cheese lasted to near the end of my journey. Later, I bought cheese in an ordinary grocery that was much better packaged. Having to face high temperatures (up to 46 C or 116 F in Death Valley) I kept bread and cheese in cool bags, and these were put in a cool box that I bought for the occasion.

Restaurants

In San Francisco, I had breakfast twice (lovely quinoa bread with delicious, but rather sweet jam) at Jane, 2123 Fillmore St, CA 94115. Sashimi dinner at Osaka Ya, 1737 Post St, Japan Center, CA 94115 (had no Tamari soy sauce). In Yosemite National Park (NP), I stayed at El Portal and had dinner twice at The River Restaurant Lodge, 11134 Hwy 140, El Portal CA 95138. Excellent steak was served at The Hungry Hunter Steakhouse, 3580 Rosedale Highway at Bakersfield, CA 93368. Just outside Death Valley, I dined at Denny's (g.f. items on the menu), Stagecoach Hotel & Casino, 900 E Highway 95 N, Beatty, NV 89003; the only g.f. option in town. At the Strip in Las Vegas, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville (3555 Las Vegas Boulevard S, Las Vegas, NV 89109) had a small g.f. menu with a $4 rise per entree in a lively setting. Near Bryce Canyon NP, Ebenezer's Barn and Grill, Bryce Canyon, 10 Center St UT 84764, "Cowboy dinner show" with g.f. food and lots of country music. Near Capital Reef NP, at the excellent Cafe Diablo (599 W Main, Torrey, UT 84775), knowledgeable staff served delicious food, with g.f. entrees marked on the menu. Same Sushi (426 W 300 S, Salt Lake City, UT 84101) did have g.f. Tamari soy sauce! Just outside Yellowstone NP, at Madison Crossing (121 Madison Avenue, West Yellowstone, MT 59758) most of the items on the menu were g.f.! Should you wish to dine somewhere else, the Visitor Center at West Yellowstone lists no less than four other restaurants with g.f. options.

In Jackson (145 N Glenwood St, WY 83001), the Lotus Cafe has a separate wok for g.f. items! I really enjoyed dining there. Just south of Salt Lake City, Joy Luck (Sandy, 10745 South State Street, Utah 84070) offers good Chinese g.f. food. Still in Utah, near Arches NP, The Blu Pig (811 South Main, Moab, Utah 84532) offered various g.f. items on its menu, including turkey, as well as blues music. Visiting the Mesa Verde NP, we stayed in the Far View Lodge (1 Navajo Hill, Mesa Verde NP, CO 81328) in the park. Its restaurant, Metate Room, is located on the premises of this hotel, and offers several g.f. items on its menu. In Page, we stayed at Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas, dining in its Rainbow Room restaurant (100 Lake Shore drive, Page, AZ 86040). Good g.f. food and great views near dusk. Near the Grand Canyon, I had a nice g.f. veggie pizza at We cook pizza and pasta, Tusayan, 605 N State Route 64, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023. We had to drive 10 miles to Picazzo's (7325 E. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd. 101, Scottsdale, AZ 85260), an organic Italian restaurant where nearly all items (even the pasta) were g.f.! The nice chocolate mousse wasavocado-based.

Back in California, the bistro Lulu (Palm Springs, 200 S Palm Canyon Drive, CA 92262) served several g.f. entrees. Dinner at our final US destination, Los Angeles, was disappointing. We stayed in a hotel near the international airport and we ended up at Fresh Brothers (4722 Admiralty Way, CA 90292). Unfortunately, my g.f. order was noted down as a regular (non-g.f.) one. I immediately pointed out the mistake, but it took nearly half an hour, and the manager, to correct it. Also, I had to pay about $4 extra for a g.f. veggie pizza with a rather poor topping.

The e-mail site that was most helpful to me is www.findmeglutenfree.com. Notwithstanding the occasional error, it contained many helpful addresses and information. Google was also useful.

In all, I really enjoyed my visit, not just because of the impressive and often unique scenery of the South West US. Of course, you still need to be well prepared and, as usual, it pays off to be on your guard for dietary mistakes. Finding a g.f. dinner was often easy, and most staff at most restaurants knew about the diet. Nearly all of my dinners were enjoyable and I never was glutened.

We had another report on eating gluten free in the American south come in at the same time as Ton's above:

I can offer some tips on eating in the South, a place with its own special regional cuisine. I live in North Carolina, in a large metro area and have learned these top tips:

1. North Carolina pork barbecue is incredible and usually GF, if eaten with the typical vinegar-based sauce. I eat it with cole slaw, also GF, and sometimes collard greens, which are usually just cooked with lard and vinegar.

2. We love our "salads", in the sense that we mix tuna, chicken, eggs, potato, cucumbers, or fruit in a sauce (often with mayo) and call it a salad. They aren't healthy but are usually GF (unless macaroni salad) and are nice and cool in the summer.

3. We eat a lot of corn and sweet potatoes (yams), as they are grown here, often prepared gluten free.

4. There is a somewhat recent influx of Latin Americas here, bringing their food and "tiendas" (grocery stores). You can count on corn tortillas, flan, tamales, pupusas, pozole, ceviche, sangria, gelatina, and aguas frescas to eat. Stay away from "mole" as it usually contains wheat as well as "milanesa" chicken, beef, or sandwiches which are breaded. I'm cautious about tortilla chips at restaurants as they are fried with other items, although I usually eat them if there are few other menu items that are fried.

5. These apps are updated often and are helpful throughout the country: Find Me Gluten Free- for restaurants, Is That Gluten Free- for groceries

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Wherever you're going, remember to take a free gluten free restaurant card with you.

I hope that this celiac travel story has helped you. You can help other celiacs travel more safely by telling me about getting gluten free food in your area - remember where you live is a destination too! Send me a report and I'll let thousands of celiacs know.

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