Having paid my dues in the trenches of restaurant work, I confess to more than mild irritation when faced with diners with food allergies. “I can’t have soy,” says the old lady. “No peanuts!” yowls the red-haired boy. Now, as karmic retribution would have it, I have my very own resume of food allergies: wheat, soy, dairy, sulfites, and eggs. It ain’t easy bein’ me-I feel sorry for my dining companions and waitstaff alike. So, I offer this piece as a service, and to answer that nagging question: Well, where can you eat?
You’d be hard pressed to pick a more food-allergy-friendly city than Portland. Keeping the focus on simple and fresh ingredients gives the food-afflicted a better chance. Many servers can quickly answer questions about the ingredients of a dish. Servers and chefs are not only tolerant, but often more than accommodating. Some places have even developed special gluten-free menus for those with celiac disease (an intolerance to the protein in wheat, barley, and rye resulting in digestive problems or rash). One of my fondest memories after I got the celiac diagnosis was walking into Andina and having them hand me their special gluten-free menu; I could confidently eat anything listed on that beautiful sheet of paper, bless their gluten-free souls. However, while we do have places like Andina that are both safe and delicious, plenty of others aren’t. You’re better off picking a place and calling ahead to make sure they are amenable to and forewarned about your particular allergies. Don’t be afraid-these people want your business and your loyalty. I’ve had no problems with recent meals at Fife, Clyde Common, Rocket, and Tabla. I didn’t even have to ask for modifications to the dishes I ordered.
Of particular interest to the gluten-afflicted are baked goodies.
Show your allergic pals you care by treating them to John’s Landing gem Coffee Plant at 5901 SW Corbett (next door to the gluten-free Corbett Fish House). Alternatively, taking normies here, they wouldn’t know or care what the discrete “gf” means on the labels of the baked goods. If you are able to tolerate small amounts of egg and dairy, Coffee Plant’s extraordinarily tasty and dense pumpkin and lemon poppyseed muffins make you forget your food freakiness: sip that coffee, do your crossword, and bask in the glow of normalcy. The coffee cakes (in both apple and blueberry) have a certain j’ne sais quoi that is more airy than a typical coffee cake, but still just damn yummy. They also serve gluten-free sandwiches. (Coffee Plant’s sister location in downtown Portland has vegan, but not GF items).
Conversely, I’ve been more than a little disappointed with the vegan establishments around town due to their heavy reliance on soy and a seeming lack of understanding about food allergies. Recently at Chaos Cafe (2620 SE Powell Blvd.) I was told there was “debate” about whether spelt has gluten or not. For the record, there’s no debate. If you have celiac disease, you need to stay away from spelt. There was literally nothing I could eat at Chaos, despite the fact that I very much wanted to. It’s a cute and cozy place where they are clearly trying to offer tasty vegan fare.
With practice, eating in restaurants has gotten a lot easier. I suck it up and ask the pesky questions. I call ahead. I have the menu faxed over so I can examine it before I commit to a meal. There are seeming armies of food-allergic people now, and all of us-the afflicted, their dining companions, servers, and chefs-are going to have to get used to it.
A final word of advice: be generous with your tips. If you get a server who knows her stuff, rattles off the ingredients of a dish like she knows what she’s talking about-because she does-show your appreciation by padding her wallet. Our food safety is in numbers. The more we’re out there eating, educating, and tipping for a job well done, the more we can expect our menu options, and stomachs, to expand.
Food Allergy Tidbits:
- 90% of food allergies in the U.S. are caused by the “big eight”: milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanuts, shellfish, fish, and tree nuts. Other common allergens include corn, sulfites, the nightshades, and citrus. Food allergies can develop at any age. This should scare the living bejesus out of you.
- Celiac disease is an intolerance to the protein gluten found in wheat, barley, and rye. The Celiac Disease Foundation (http://www.celiac.org/) reports that about one in 133 people in the U.S. have celiac disease.
- Grain Damaged (http://graindamaged.blogspot.com) maintains a list of gluten-free friendly restaurants and gluten-free bakeries in the Portland metro area. Current favorites include: Andina, Caprial’s, Three Degrees, Carafe, Fife, and the Corbett and Hawthorne Fish Houses (where you can wash down your gluten-free clam chowder, fried calamari, and tartar sauce with gluten-free beer).