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All You Can Eat

Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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April 21, 2008 7:15 AM

Where to eat with food allergies?

Posted by Nancy Leson

Jeff Parker wants to know: Where should he and his family dine out, given their various food allergies and intolerances? Here's his story:

Jeff's teenage son is gluten/lactose/casein intolerant, and while gluten is the main problem, he can tolerate some milk. Jeff and his wife are both lactose intolerant (they, too, can handle a little milk) and also allergic to eggs -- though when baked in a recipe rather than scrambled or in omelet form, they can digest them. To add to the difficulties finding a restaurant the entire family can enjoy, Jeff wrote, "My son is a bit tired of always ordering breakfast food (eggs and ham are safe) when he goes out to eat, and he hates all vegetables."

My suggestion is to consult the Seattle-based Innate Health Foundation, whose website lists many local restaurants (Cafe Flora, Lombardi's, Restaurant Zoe) and national chains (Buca di Beppo, Outback Steakhouse, P.F. Chang's) that cater to customers with allergies and food-intolerances.

That said, these days, with so many restaurants offering fresh foods cooked to order, I've found that most place worth spending your money at are willing -- and able -- to oblige customers with special dietary needs. I'd encourage the Parkers, and anyone else with dietary restrictions, to call ahead to any restaurant that sounds appealing and ask whether accommodations can be made.

I'd would definitely send the Parkers to Madison Valley's elegant little Impromptu Wine Bar Cafe -- where the entire seasonal menu is cooked to order and gluten-free -- but unfortunately the place is 21-and-over so they'd have to leave their son at home. Speaking of Impromptu, there's a reason the place is so sensitive to the needs of gluten-intolerant diners. Chef Dan Ahern's wife, Shauna James Ahern, has Celiac Disease and has written a terrific memoir (complete with recipes) about her food-focused life. "Gluten-Free Girl" is a book (and a blog) that speaks eloquently about shopping for, cooking with and seeking out the best possible ingredients. I think the book -- which warmly celebrates eating well and healthfully -- should be required reading for any fledgling cook or new food-adventurer looking to learn more about enjoying a wider world of foods.

So, back to Jeff's question. I'd appreciate it if any of you familiar with the difficulties of dealing with food allergies and other dietary restrictions could lend your expertise on the subject. Which restaurants do you find most appealing and accomodating?

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Posted by Nancy Leson

12:25 PM, Apr 21, 2008

This in, via e-mail, from my co-worker Rhean Souders:

With the dairy and egg issues the first thing that pops to mind is vegan restaurants. Chaco Canyon is all vegan and offers a number of clearly labeled gluten-free items on its menu, as well as excellent house-made gluten-free baked treats if anyone wants dessert or a snack rather than a meal.

And I haven't been to Silence-Heart-Nest for a while (that one's vegetarian, not vegan, but would have plenty of egg- and dairy-free options), but I once had an outstanding masala dosa there, which I expect would be gluten free as well.

Speaking of which, If they can find an Indian place that will reliably leave out the dairy (not too hard to find, but not to be taken for granted), there should be lots of options there since they really don't use eggs, and you could always have rice instead of bread. Pappadums should work, also.

Posted by SP

1:33 PM, Apr 21, 2008

I have gluten and dairy intolerances too (and garlic too!) and find that going out to eat is not only difficult but scary. Eating in a restaurant takes trusting that the staff understands all the places gluten and dairy can hide, it takes trusting that I won't go home sick.

But, I have found this great resource for finding trustworthy restaurants http://www.urbanspoon.com/c/1/Seattle-restaurants.html

It goes beyond the typical restaurant review website by offering gluten-free friendly and vegan friendly catagories. So you can find all those restaurants that don't define themselves as strictly gluten-free or vegan, but that have some choices that are safe for people with gluten and dairy intolerances.

I like that it is all reader reviewed, so I know that the people who tag a restaurant as gluten free friendly are the same people who know how it feels to accidently eat something with gluten in it.

Hope that helps take some of the mystery out of finding a restaurant.

Posted by Mireldis

2:33 PM, Apr 21, 2008

My husband is vegan and also allergic to wheat (all of it, not just the gluten part), corn, and peanuts. We have had very good luck making reservations through www.opentable.com. Their reservation form includes a comments box where I can list all his allergies so the restaurant knows about them well in advance. It even remembers the list so I don't have to enter it every time.

We've eaten lots of fantastic meals at great restaurants this way, and only once or twice has there been any mix-up about what he can and can't eat.

Posted by Pat Hirayama

8:49 PM, Apr 21, 2008

I have a young niece who is allergic to dairy -- even to touch it. Eating out tends to be a lot of Asian restaurants. We did have a fairly successful dinner at Tom Douglas' Lola -- they were quite accomodating. And the brunch buffet at Salty's -- she sticks with seafood and fruits.

The Araya Thai restaurant on 45th is vegan -- and has a decent lunch buffet for around $8 -- so that should be good for people with dairy/egg issues.

Posted by Tess

10:41 AM, Apr 22, 2008

I am gluten, dairy, and soy intolerant (I might be allergic to eggs, but a gal has got to eat something), and finding restaurants and cafes is a challenge. That's "challenge" as in gauntlet being thrown down; I've been devoting myself to finding great food since I learned about my food allergies some months ago.

My favorite place of all time has turned out to be The Flying Apron Bakery in Fremont. This place is all organic, vegan, and mostly soy-free, offering terrific baked goods, salads, and hot dishes. If I could convince the owner to eschew the use of chocolate that contains soy lecithin, I'm sure the place would be soy free as well. They probably have not discovered Dagoba chocolate yet.... I love this bakery so much that I make a weekly trek from Bellevue to Fremont and fight with parking just to take home a couple of cute pink cardboard boxes (the contents of which usually go directly into the freezer.)

Check out their Russian Tea Cakes, which are each the size of a small tugboat. Or an Apricot Thumbprint. Those are two of my favorite sweet bakery items. I also enjoy their flatbreads, on their own or with a savory meal.

If that is not outrageous enough, how about some "raw" food? Nature's Pantry in Bellevue has one of the only raw food bars in this area. My favorite concoction is the "alternative to cheesecake" which is made with luscious ingredients like coconut milk, macadamia nuts, lime juice, agave, mango, spices, and "love" (their word!). I've even had some of their concoctions based on kelp noodles! The chef loves to use spices in large quantities -- which is OK By Me -- and I find I'm not really losing anything by eating food that is not cooked. Although I'll admit I don't just eat anything raw.... Raw pizza, for example? No thanks.

Probably the biggest no-no for me is Whole Foods. They are huge proponents of soy and dairy in their so-called gluten-free foods. Since processed soy is not healthy in large quantities that Americans tend to consume it in (like MSG it breaks down to neurotoxins), even if I weren't allergic to soy I would avoid it like the plague. Ergo, no Whole Foods bakery goods.

Thank you so much for bringing up the topic of allergies!

Posted by aland

11:39 AM, Apr 22, 2008

I too have celiac and I'm a fan of glluen free girl and she highly recommends Volterra on her blog and in her book. She also had them do the catering for their wedding. Jeff you should check out her blog.

Posted by Paula

6:22 AM, Apr 23, 2008

I too am allergic to wheat and dairy. Some of my favorite places to eat out:

- Thai restaurants: use rice noodles, not wheat like Chinese food. As long as you avoid eggrolls and breaded meats, there's lots to choose from.

- P.F. Chang's has a gluten free menu.

- Japanese restaurants! (again avoid breading though)

- Azteca Mexican restaurants have been very accomodating to me - ask for no cheese or sour cream (extra guacamole instead) and choose corn tortillas.

Posted by glutenfreegirl

9:27 AM, Apr 23, 2008

Nancy, I just awoke to my cup of coffee and your column. Wow! Thank you so much for the mention. Dan loves feeding gluten-free customers, because he knows they enjoy their meal much more when they know they are eating safely.

(And you should try the blue cheese cheesecake with fig crust he's serving now!)

But more than that, i really appreciate that you attempt to allay people's fears here. As you pointed out, eating allergy free in Seattle is easier than almost any place i know. We have so many incredible restaurants here, based in seasonal eating and the freshest ingredients. Among the man restaurants where I have eaten safely, I love eating at Volterra, all the Tom Douglas restaurants, Crush, Vios, and even Rovers (for a special occasion).

My husband has shown me: if the chef truly cares about food, he or she will care about feeding you well, and safely.

Posted by Nanette

11:01 AM, Apr 23, 2008

My son, who is now 13, is allergic to fish, eggs, almonds and peanuts. I have found that this combination is difficult in eating out, though thankfully not as difficult as it could be if he were allergic to wheat and dairy as well!

For instance, vegan restaurants often feature nuts as a protein source; Thai food seems dangerous because of the strong potential for cross contamination with ground peanuts which can be hard to control; Japanese food is fish, fish, fish; and eggs sneak in to many hidden places, mayo for instance, or in egg washes on otherwise safe breads and pastries. French fries are frequently safe, if they're not cooked in the same oil as foods breaded with egg containing ingredients or as fish. Until, of course, one goes to a relatively upscale restaurant where the pommes frites are cooked in...peanut oil!

However, we recently had a very good experience at, of all places, Macaroni Grill at Northgate. We were deciding between two new to us restaurants, Macaroni Grill being one of them. I went in the do the allergy reconnoiter, asked my usual list of questions, and the very helpful manager returned with a menu specifically designed for those with egg allergies! In fact, he had a menu for each of the major allergenic foods, which I then used to determine which foods my son could eat. He was thrilled to have his own menu from which to choose and loved, loved, loved the bread and spaghetti with meat sauce that he chose. (OK, he has boring taste, but with the limited choices to which he's been exposed, what can be expected?) Each of the three of us got food we liked, AND each managed to take home enough for a second meal.

Granted, Macaroni Grill is not Volterra or Rover's, but neither did we have to take out a second mortgage to have a pleasant family evening out. Try filling up a 13 year old boy who's grown 6 inches in a year at one of those places and see what it costs! The only disappointment was that there was not a single dessert that was safe for him "That's OK," he said, "I'll just have more bread. It's really good!"

For those with gluten intolerance, please mention DaVinci's, a completely gluten-free bakery/deli in Greenwood, at North 100th and Greenwood Avenue North. They have fabulous bakery/deli, and no wheat or other gluten containing foods are even allowed in the kitchen. We go there to get the egg-free brownies, though they are not always available. In my opinion, DaVinci's is much better than Flying Apron, based on the comparison tastings I've done. Though everyone has their favorite, Davinci's is especially useful if one has to feed a group with both gluten intolerant and tolerant, because it's safe for the intolerant and the tolerant don't notice the missing gluten.

Posted by jdebarros

12:01 PM, Apr 23, 2008

Hi Nancy!
As an adult with severe food allergies to nuts, I face this challenge too. I feel most comfortable in restaurants where the waitstaff have very good knowledge of ingredients, alert the cooks of the allergy and confirm back with me that there aren't nuts in my food when they serve it to me. A pet peeve: waitstaff who "don't think" there are nuts in my food. That isn't helpful. Kudos to restaurants where I've had great, allergy-free experiences: St. Cloud's in Madrona, Steelhead Diner, Tamarind Tree, Earth & Ocean. I've also found the Elysian has a strange policy where they tell customers with food allergies that they can't guarantee the ingredients in their food, suggesting that nothing in the entire restaurant is safe. Duh! This isn't helpful when all you want to know is whether your dish has a specific ingredient in it.

Posted by jenny miller

2:33 AM, Apr 24, 2008

Its a great headache to them who are allergic with some specific types of foods. I suggest them to follow alternative therapies. Here is a site, http://www.rvita.com. You will find the remedies of all chronic diseases including several types of allergies.

Posted by Steven

8:37 AM, Apr 24, 2008

As a person with a long standing dairy allergy, I was diagnosed several months ago with Celiac's disease. Dining out is especially hard, since you really can't always trust places with gluten free menus. In addition I have found mistakes on GF/CF menus that, if I had not inquired, would have made me sick for several days. I wish you could see what I have to do just to place an order! I had to get over feeling "high maintenance", really quick. I made "allergy cards" to give to chefs and servers. Eating off hours tends to produce better results since the chef has more time. It also tends to be easier at upscale places where I can speak directly with the chef. Any review for any restaurant should include not only the willingness, but also the accuracy of special requests. Here are my favorites!

Impromptu Wine Bar is excellent, and really gets it.

PizzaWorks in Bothell have 4 kinds of GF crusts, and casein free and regular soy cheese!!! (This place is a find for Celiacs!)

Sabor A Mexico in Mukilteo has gone out of there way for me. Ruben, the owner, has been incredible. I met with him on a slow afternoon, when over everything, and he makes certain that it is always safe.

Great bread at Haley's Corner in Kent. (They also make some of the crusts for PizzaWorks.)

Pizza Pi does GFCF pizzas, but only vegan, and all of the "meats" contain wheat so vegetarian only for Celiacs.

Lombardi's was excellent and quite knowledgeable.

If you come across a GFCF burger (on a bun) with fries made in a dedicated fryer, let me know.

Posted by amy

11:08 PM, Apr 24, 2008

.a quick commentary on your guy looking for places to eat out with food allergies. My son and husband both are gluten intolerant and in addition to sushi nights out, we love to go to Bick's and Saltoro. Both restaurants have food that my son can eat (non-dipped fries and non-doctored up skewered chicken). As well as plenty for my husband to eat, including chick-pea floured calamari at Saltoro and an array of dishes. I give both places an A+ in accommodating families - we feel we can go to either place with both kids or on date nights!

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