Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gluten-Free Eating in San Diego

When I was about 12 years old, I launched into a weird period in which if I ate spicy food and then I ate chocolate my upper lip began to itch and would then swell up to look like what today we would call a horrifying Botox moment. Think Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club. It was embarrassing and uncomfortable and to this day I try to avoid that combination.

But, lucky me, that—I think—has been the extent of troubles I’ve had with food, beyond loving it too much, of course. Unfortunately, a growing number of people in the U.S.—some 2 million, or one in 133—are having to live and deal with something far worse and debilitating: celiac disease. For these folks, eating habits must be reinvented. They must live without gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, because their small intestine can’t tolerate it, causing a variety of health problems including gastro-intestinal distress, bloating, fatigue and muscle aches. It’s not easy and not straightforward. They’re giving up more than conventional bread, cookies and pasta. In a world in which so much of what we eat is processed, we don’t know for sure what is added by manufacturers to seemingly safe items. Every purchase of packaged goods at a grocery store can be a potential disaster for someone suffering from celiac disease.

And, of course, for years people suffering from this disease—or from wheat allergies—have either had to avoid dining out or become a server’s worst nightmare, carefully ordering at best a grilled chicken breast and steamed vegetables or something equally innocuous and then still worrying because gluten can show up in the oddest places—bread crumbs that extend tuna salad or chicken salad or a slight teaspoon of flour in an omelet. There can be cross-contamination in a kitchen and the restaurant may use packaged products that contain gluten, including items like soy sauce.

Happily, that’s changing, especially in California. It would be coy to describe this phenomenon as celiac chic, but gluten-free menus are popping up in restaurants throughout San Diego. We’re talking Pizza Fusion and Terra in Hillcrest, Urban Solace in North Park and chains like P. F. Chang's and Sammy's Woodfired Pizza. Markets like Henry’s, Trader Joe's, OB People’s Co-Op and Whole Foods have a large selection of boldly marked gluten-free products. Additionally, we have websites and bloggers focusing on this issue and offering plenty of useful resources and recipes for those whose diet is constrained.

I was on KPBS radio’s weekday morning show These Days on Tuesday, May 26 at 10 a.m. to discuss gluten-free eating, as well as vegan and sugar-free diets. With me was Erin McKenna, a former San Diegan who now operates BabyCakes, a New York City bakery on the Lower East Side that specializes in alternative baked goods. Her new book, BabyCakes, has just been published, so talked about that as well as the new bakery she's opening in downtown L.A.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of research for this so I thought I’d share my findings, although I don't pretend that this is comprehensive. If you or a loved one are newly diagnosed with celiac disease or have wheat allergies, I hope you find it helpful. And if you’ve got a great resource I’ve missed, please leave a comment so others can benefit from your knowledge.

Restaurants with Gluten-Free Menu Items

Urban Solace (printed menu of options)

Sammy's Woodfired Pizza (offers gluten-free pizza)

Ritual Tavern (has gluten-free vegan or meat shepherd's pie and many gluten-free appetizers, entrees, cider and beer)

Pizza Fusion (has gluten-free and vegan options)

PF Chang’s (has gluten-free menu available)

Terra (Chef Jeff Rossman's menu is full of wonderful, clearly-marked gluten-free dishes)

Del Mar Rendezvous (has gluten-free menu with over 40 items)

For more restaurants, check out the lists at Urban Spoon and Gluten-Free SD.

Markets with Gluten-Free Products

I spent some time at Henry’s and found what looks to me to be a wealth of different items, from salad dressings to frozen meals. Everything is well marked by the store and stocked with similar conventional products. In other words, there’s no special GF section you have to find. Here are some examples of products I found:

Frozen foods: Gluten-Free Café’s Lemon-Basil Chicken, Amy’s Asian Noodle Stir Fry and Indian Paneer Tika. Bagels, bread, pizza crusts

Baking: Pamela’s Cake Mix (chocolate and vanilla), Pamela’s Frosting (chocolate and vanilla), Pamela’s Brownie Mix, Chocolate Chip Cookie, Bread Mix, Baking and Pancake Mix. Arrowhead Mills Brownie Mix, All-Purpose Baking Mix, Pancake & Baking Mix. Four Sisters & A Brother Italian Herbed Breadcrumbs. Red Mill’s vast selection of flours, a baking mix and chocolate cake mix.

Pasta: De Boles rice lasagna noodles, multi-grain angel hair, penne and spaghetti noodles. Ancient Quinoa Harvest spaghetti noodles and shells.

Gluten-free penne with string beans, parsley, toasted pine nuts, French feta and Spanish olive oil

Cookies: Pamela’s chocolate chip mini cookies. Mi-Del ginger snaps

Salad Dressing: There was too much here to list, but included a vast array of Annie’s brand, including Natural Raspberry Vinaigrette, Red Wine and Olive Oil Vinaigrette and Artichoke Parmesan Dressing

Ethnic Foods: Thai Kitchen has a large selection of sauces and rice noodles. Patak has some Indian-style sauces including the Korma Curry, which I’ve used in the past and enjoyed.

Trader Joe’s has a wide assortment of gluten-free products. Their house products are labeled and throughout the store I found some surprising gluten-free options, including salad dressings, chutney, marinara and other tomato sauces, dips, brown rice penne pasta, brownie mix, pancake/waffle mix, granola, sausages and flourless chocolate walnut cookies. I saw the same brown rice bread I bought at Henry's, only on the shelf, not frozen, and less expensive. Look on the shelves for blue tags with a "G" "Gluten-Free" on them. And, here is their list of gluten-free store items, edited as of May 20, 2009.

Whole Foods has its Gluten-Free Bakehouse, which they describe here, along with useful links to other resources.

OB People’s Co-Op has a wide variety of gluten-free products and a staff well-versed in helping customers identify what will work for them.

Jimbo’s is another great place to buy gluten-free products and offers an online list of items.

GNI Bakery in Escondido makes a variety of gluten-free bread products that can be bought online or found at Whole Foods, Major Market and Seaside Market. is a website launched by a San Diegan selling gluten-free baking mixes.

Gluten-Free Mall offers a vast selection of products for celiac diets.

Take a look at the big supermarkets, too, but you'll have to look hard. I spent some time at the Ralphs in Hillcrest. They carry a wide selection of Bob's Red Mill products and some Arrowhead Mills gluten-free products. But only one Thai Kitchen packaged meal is labeled gluten-free. Be careful with the Annie's condiments. While the selection that Henry's carries has a number of gluten-free products, read the labels carefully at Ralphs.


For basic information on celiac disease:

National Foundation for Celiac Awareness

NIH Celiac Awareness Campaign

Celiac Sprue Association

On Being Gluten Free:

Living Without magazine

Gluten Intolerance Group of North American


Gluten Free in San Diego

Karina’s Kitchen

Artist and cookbook writer Karina Allrich has become a friend and is one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve come to know in this arena. Her blog is filled with wonderful recipes and resources, like her gluten-free cheat-sheet. She recently launched a gluten-free recipe search engine on Google and has put together and hosted a marathon gluten-free Twitter party, which you can find on Twitter by searching #gfree.

Gluten-Free Girl

Shauna Ahern has also been at the forefront of blogging about being gluten free. She’s the author of the book, Gluten-Free Girl. Her blog has a wealth of information and online resources for those with celiac disease. Definitely worth bookmarking.

Vegetarian/Vegan: Some people who are gluten free are also exploring vegetarian and vegan options. Many of these same San Diego markets and restaurants also have vegan options. You can find lists of these at:

All Vegan Shopping website (includes a downloadable PDF of a vegetarian dining guide)

Urban Spoon (includes reader reviews and blog resources)

Happy Cow Compassionate Eating Guide (includes reader reviews)

Basic Tips:

  1. Read labels carefully and be on the lookout for wheat, rye, barley, spelt, wheat starch and commercial oats, according to Karina Allrich. “Oats themselves are okay, but those that are commercially grown tend to contain gluten because of cross-contamination,” she explains. “Some small farmers like Bob’s Red Mill are carefully growing oats to give people the option of eating them.”
  2. When in doubt about a packaged product, look on the label for the customer care or information number for the manufacturer and call to find out if the product is truly gluten free.
  3. Shop the perimeter of the supermarket. That’s where you’ll find produce, dairy and meats. It’s the center aisles with processed foods that prove difficult and dangerous.
  4. Enjoy grains like quinoa and buckwheat. Try sorghum flour with its lovely, grassy flavor.
  5. Ask questions when dining out. Find out if the chef adds anything like flour to egg dishes or breadcrumbs to tuna salad or chicken salad. Many restaurants now have gluten-free menus on request, so be sure to ask if they're available.
  6. Don’t assume that because spelt is low in gluten that you can eat it or that someone with celiac disease or a wheat allergy can. Allrich says that the equivalent of 1/10th of a grain of rice could set off a sensitive auto-immune system. Low gluten isn't no gluten; it doesn’t help and could make someone very ill.
  7. Make sure you keep gluten-free items and conventional items completely separate and well labeled so you don’t inadvertently cross-contaminate the gluten-free products.

Note: If you'd like a copy of BabyCakes, please leave a comment below. I have two copies to give two readers. Tell me your experiences with gluten-free, vegan or sugar-free eating, shopping for food and dining out. More resources? Let us know! The deadline is Friday, June 5 at 5 p.m. PDT. I'll randomly select two readers who have left a comment.

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  1. Excellent piece, Caron! I stumbled it. Thanks for adding to the on-line gluten-free discussion. I'll also add this link to my resources page (for So Cal folks).

  2. Very interesting. I love to bake, and I went to the babycakes booksigning at warwicks which was really fun (by the way, they are starting a foodie book club, which might be fun!).

    I'd love to be able to accommodate people with gluten allergies but I really worry that I might accidentally contaminate things. I remember having a stand at the farmers market for a fundraiser and I had some flourless chocolate cookies and I was paranoid there might be something in there that could set someone off, but I suppose as long as you carefully clean every utensil before use, and check every ingredient it should be ok.

  3. Be careful with the BabyCakes recipes. Many are not gluten free but instead call for low-gluten spelt flour. Low gluten is not the same as gluten free and could cause problems for someone with celiac disease or severe wheat allergies.

    Thanks for your comment!

  4. Great list of resources, thanks! I'm a huge fan of Tinkyada brown rice pastas, which you can find in some well-stocked supermarkets and Whole Foods. Much better than DeBoles, IMHO - the pasta doesn't get mushy and it's the closest to wheat pasta I've tasted yet. Yummy!

  5. I recently tried Better 'n Peanut Butter (sold at trader joe's) .. gluten free and DELICIOUS!

  6. I've been experimenting more and more with vegan baking because I've found more people interested in that style due to being vegan or having allergies to dairy. I've also been getting a few requests to make gluten-free cupcakes. I'd love to try some recipes in this book.

  7. I heard the interview on KPBS May 26 with you and the author of Baby Cakes. very intersting stuff!.

  8. Diana and Kristin, you each win a book. Please send me a note with your address so I can get them out to you!

  9. Thanks Caron! I've been itching to have this cookbook. :-)

  10. Caron Thank you SO much! My neice is coming on Thursday (she can't have gluten)and Diane told me you wrote this on your blog. This is going to help me out SO much!


  11. To whom it may concern;

    I am writing to inform you of our new Gluten free menu. About 4 yrs ago my sister Christine and I opened nebo restaurant at 90 N. Washington St. in Boston’s North End. Nebo is a traditional Italian restaurant offering dishes based on recipes that were passed down from our mother and grandmother. After being open for about a year, two of our closest friends were told they had Celiac disease. We then realized just how many people this disease has affected and the need for an alternative for their dining restrictions. Determined to serve our friends their favorites, we set upon making our menu available in a gluten free form. We are thrilled to say that we have now produced 90% of our menu with the same great taste as our regular menu. We don't think there has been an accomplishment that has brought us more pleasure. If you would like us to forward a copy of our Gluten free menu please send a menu request to .

  12. Pizza Fusion is one of my favs! Brick Oven Pizza in Poway (12222 Poway Road) offers a gluten free pizza with a thicker crust. If sweet treats are more your thing The Lockwood Table Cafe in Solana Beach (346 South Cedros Ave) sells Mari Made gluten free baked goods. Fresh baked cupcakes, lemon tarts, cookies, and muffins all gluten free, yay!!

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  15. Have you ever tried Healthy Creations in Encinitas? They are a dedicated gluten-free cafe and were the first to open in san diego.

    1. Not only have I tried Healthy Creations, I wrote about it back in 2009. Here's the link:

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