It’s 2007, and my mother has just entered the local pizza shop for the first time in a while. Her doctors have just told her she must avoid gluten, and her inquiries about gluten-free options on the menu are met with confusion. “What do you mean ‘Google free?’” the young woman behind the counter asks. Frustrated, my mom ends up with a boring and bland iceberg salad.
Yes, it was just a few short years ago that many of us had never even heard of gluten, the protein found in certain grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Think of it as the glue that keeps cookies from crumbling. Unfortunately, some folks have an adverse reaction to gluten, which can cause a host of health problems, the worst being an autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease.
According to the Center for Celiac Research, as many as 18 million Americans are living with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. For those affected, the best treatment is complete avoidance of gluten, a fact that has startled many into a life void of the Good Stuff: pizza, beer, bread and pasta.
The good news is that local restaurants are constantly offering more gluten-free dishes, many with entire gluten-free menus, which is a far cry from my mother’s sad looking salad some years ago.
At Shuck’s Fish House and Oyster Bar, demand for gluten-free items arose about a year and a half ago, as some regular customers started on restricted diets. Here, the “breaded” and fried favorites are coated in a simple cornmeal and seasoning mixture, totally free of flour. They even reformulated their clam chowder to make it safe for celiacs. Made in small batches, they can ensure proper quality, even without the wheat.
Known for ultra fresh seafood, the pleasant atmosphere at the Downtown location, with brown butcher paper spread on the tabletops, invites you to roll up your sleeves and dive into some oysters. Fried fish abounds on the full gluten-free menu; the fried calamari ($4.50 at Happy Hour) had a thin, light, and crunchy “breading,” which stayed intact on the perfectly chewy – but not rubbery – rings. If a sandwich is what you crave (an obvious faux pas in the celiac world) they even offer gluten-free bread for their sandwiches, including the Louisiana-style Po’ Boys.
Though the kitchen is not 100% free of flour, they are devoted to accommodating every customer; even those with shellfish allergies are able to dine there.
Pasta is another dish most celiacs don’t expect to enjoy. But Vivace in the Old Market was one of the first to offer a gluten-free option six years ago due to customer demand. Not all gluten-free pasta is created equal, but this penne-like noodle maintains an al dente quality. In fact, my dining partner couldn’t tell the pasta was gluten-free. The dill pesto sauce I sampled ($8.95) provided a zesty, herb-filled bite.
The GF menu is enhanced by tapas like stuffed mushrooms ($8.95) and a selection of salads, but our server was quick to explain that the chef would “work with us” to make any of the daily specials conform to our dietary needs. We appreciated the conscientious attitude.
Gluten can lurk in far less obvious places than pasta. It’s a main ingredient in traditional soy sauces, making many Chinese dishes a no-no. Luckily, the chef at Crystal Jade offers a GF “brown sauce,” so you can have your Kung Pao and Sesame Chicken once more. At home, try using gluten-free tamari soy sauce, which is brewed with rice instead of wheat, and is available at most supermarkets.
The times just aren’t as tough as they used to be, when you can grab a gluten-free ale and pizza at places like Pudgy’s Pizzeria. It is through growing awareness that gluten-free foods are widely available throughout the city, and not just oddities on specialty store shelves. Still, if a restaurant does not feature a specific gluten-free menu, it is a good idea to call ahead to be sure you’re not disappointed.
Thanks to local restaurants, dishes that were once off-limits are now back on the menu.
For more information and recipes, visit csaceliacs.info. Or pick up a copy of the Gluten-Free Bible: The Thoroughly Indispensable Guide to Negotiating Life Without Wheat by Jax Peters Lowell.
Shuck’s new Downtown location is at 1911 Leavenworth Street, with two other locations; visit absolutelyfresh.com for more information. Vivace is at 1108 Howard Street; visit vivaceomaha.com. Crystal Jade is at 7255 Cedar Street; visit jadedinners.com. Pudgy’s Pizzeria is at the SW corner of 168th & Harrison; visit pudgyville.com.