Wheatless in Orlando

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Where to find gluten-free dishes in local restaurants

by Rona Gindin

Some people get seriously ill when they eat gluten*, which is found in wheat. A dusting of flour, or a French fry prepared in the same oil as a breaded chicken finger, can do real harm. Other diners avoid gluten to feel healthier or lose weight—probably the same folks who ate pasta ’round-the-clock in the ’90s and went all South Beach meat-and-salads a decade ago. Between the two groups, a whole lot of customers show up in restaurants seeking dishes that are untainted by even a secondary encounter with The Staff of Life.

We stalked local eateries on the Internet to find best bets for gluten foes—and were delighted with the range of restaurants up to the challenge. Some go in enthusiastically. “It’s not very profitable, but it brings happiness to so many people,” one restaurateur says. Others feel they have no choice. These proprietors point to guests who make a fuss about an entrée, then wolf down a side dish like mac ’n’ cheese.

Much to our surprise, we found a wide variety of types of restaurants that go out of their ways to accommodate gluten-free eaters. Barbecue joints, an Irish pub and sandwich shops—two of them?!—let us know that safe gluten-free meals are easy, or at least possible, to find.

Here’s a roundup of some doing an especially earnest job.

(We use “wheat” and “gluten” interchangeably, although the allergy issues are more complex. We leave readers to understand their own dietary restrictions.)

Big Fin Seafood Kitchen

“I’m not a big fan of ambiguity,” says James Slattery, chef of Big Fin Seafood Kitchen. “I believe in black and white lines.” And so, even though 80 percent of his dinner house’s menu “is gluten-free by nature,” Slattery takes extra steps to provide gluten-free foods and to let diners know about them.

First, he put together a revised menu for gluten-free diners. To do this, he combed his menu for gluten-free dishes, deleted the “obvious items like beer-batter fish-and-chips,” then put a GF next to the foods that are safest for those with wheat allergies. Some wheat-based items, like lobster macaroni and cheese, remain but don’t have the GF symbol.

Second, he cut gluten out of the menu wherever possible. “Ingredients such as soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce often contain gluten, so, on most items, we only use versions that don’t have gluten in them,” he says. Even a dish that normally has a bit of flour, like mahi piccata, never does at Big Fin. “I do not flour-coat any of my sautéed fish,” he says, just so it is always gluten-free. Some sushi items have eel sauce or tempura-fried proteins, which both contain gluten. He makes sure his servers know that.

Last, Slattery stocks handy substitutes. “I can use rice noodles if someone wants a pasta dish,” he says. “The crab cake usually has a Ritz cracker crust. I’ll happily make it without the crackers.” bigfinseafood.com

Toasted

“Initially, we didn’t think anyone with gluten issues would step near the place because it’s a sandwich shop and we have gluten all over the place,” admits Megan Yarmuth, a manager of Toasted, a grilled cheese specialist with restaurants in Winter Park and Lake Nona. Yet today, gluten-free options are such a strong part of the business that the chainlet’s homepage announces, “Gluten Free Available!”

Soon after opening, Toasted’s owners started carrying gluten-free bread for the couple of visitors a day asking for it. They also retrained the staff to make gluten-free items absolutely safe. “We have a vegan menu, so the staff was used to keeping foods separated anyway,” Yarmuth says. Cashiers steer gluten-dieters away from the few fillings with flour in them, such as brisket. Cooks never cut gluten-free sandwiches in half so there’s no cross-contamination via knife or cutting board. Also, fries are prepared in a fryer used for nothing else.

Then, suddenly, 15 people came in during one lunch hour requesting gluten-free sandwiches. As it turns out, a local blogger who focuses on celiac-friendly establishments had dined at Toasted anonymously. Seeing the strict separation of gluten-free foods from others, she wrote a positive review. Since then, Toasted has received as many as 30 gluten-free diners a day.

Now those with celiac disease and other gluten-free eaters can settle in with a blackberry melt or pesto chicken lunch with a heaping portion of sizzling spuds tossed with truffle oil and rosemary. igettoasted.com

Ellie Lou’s Brews & BBQ

Barbecue is lean on the gluten to begin with. Sides like white bread, macaroni salad and mac-and-cheese are made with flour, but the core entrées are free and clear. Still, Ocoee’s Ellie Lou’s Brews & BBQ goes a step further. “We make all the sauces and meat rubs in-house and they’re all gluten-free,” says Pitt Boss Dennis Cheplick.

To keep guesswork to a minimum, the Ellie Lou’s team put together a chart listing every menu item and all possible allergens, including gluten. Guests can link to the chart online or ask to see it in the store. It shows which items contain each allergen, and which might have cross-contamination. The result? “Very good. A lot of people with gluten allergies eat here often.” ellielous.com

Taverna Opa

Take some hummus, some grilled meat or fish with olive oil, a side of lemon-drenched potato wedges … it’s mighty easy to eat a gluten-free meal at any Greek restaurant. Taverna Opa goes a step further. The festive International Drive stalwart has a special symbol next to every gluten-free item on the menu—and that’s a large percentage of items.

What’s more, the Pointe Orlando destination uses one fryer only for French fries so no products with gluten ever enter it. Breaded foods such as calamari are made in separate equipment.

The staff will happily make substitutions when asked, such as swapping in cucumbers for pita bread with the hummus that starts every meal, says co-owner Katerina Coumbaros. opaorlando.com

B&B Junction

At first, B&B Junction’s gluten-free options seem simple. Guests can order any burger with a gluten-free bun or no bun, for instance. And the salads are gluten-free, which is no shocker. It helps that the dressings are made in-house without wheat products.

Look more closely, and you’ll see that this petite farm-to-table burger joint in Winter Park goes further than most restaurants to accommodate the wheat-avoiders. First off, the gluten-free bread and buns aren’t pre-packaged. They’re freshly baked at the DeLand Bakery, which uses millet as the base. Second, some desserts are celiac-friendly, such as flourless chocolate cake.

Finally—and this is big—diners can have a gluten-free beer with their meal. The kitchen stocks labels such as Spain’s Estrella Damm Daura and Belgium’s Greens Endeauvour. All of the hard ciders get the gluten gold star, too.

Fries are the only challenge, and they’re fine for all but those with serious celiac issues. BB Junction doesn’t have room for a dedicated fryer but its cooks use GMO-free sunflower oil and filter it down to 5 microns regularly, says owner Lucy Silverman. Since the regular and sweet-potato fries are cut in-house daily, the potatoes themselves have no starch or other coatings. bbjunction.com

The Cloak & Blaster

With the tagline “A Gaming Pub for Geeks,” it’s clear The Cloak & Blaster does things its own way. Its pubby menu east of Waterford Lakes gives foods clever game-inspired names, its brew menu is appropriately varied, and its tabletop and video games—from Pass the Pigs to Zombietown—are free for all to use.

Geeky diners have gluten issues like everyone else, so owners Markus and Andrea Zimmerman take effort to accommodate them. Some menu items spell out their lack of wheat products. Example: “Shards of Narsil: (Gluten-Free) The legend of the potato and how it was shattered lives on in history. As fries, some say the shards are more delicious than the sum of their parts.” Other than that, beef and vegan burgers are A-OK, served, upon request, on a potato-based bun or a bed of lettuce. One fryer is used only for hand-cut fries and tater tots. The beer list includes Dogfish Head Tweason’ale and 20 gluten-free ciders.

When guests indicate that their celiac issues are serious, “we take extra time to wipe down all surfaces in the kitchen, change gloves and aprons and focus on that one meal to ensure there’s not cross-contamination,” says Markus. cloakandblaster.com

Hot Krust Panini Kitchen

Paninis. Simple sandwiches between two slices of pressed bread. You can’t get more gluten-abundant than that. And yet, gluten-wary customers have become a key part of Hot Krust’s customer base. “I noticed there was a demand yet few places offered a good variety,” says owner Evan Dimov. “And, many gluten-free items don’t taste so good. I figured if I could overcome those challenges plus cross-contamination, I could capture a good part of the market.”

Mission accomplished. By taking a number of steps, Dimov has made Hot Krust a go-to restaurant for gluten-free eaters in Southwest Orlando.

Guests who prefer gluten-free sandwiches are asked to state that when placing their orders. If they are, they’re offered a commercial Udi’s bread made with brown rice and potato starch. The soups are made fresh in a commercial gluten-free kitchen. Sweet potato and waffle fries are baked. What’s more, guests are asked if their issue is an allergy, sensitivity, celiac-related decision or merely a preference. Depending on the answer, the staff may go into sterilization mode. They change gloves and knives and take other steps—although, of course, “there is still a risk of cross-contamination,” Dimov tells them. hotkrust.com

Raglan Road Irish Pub & Restaurant

Kevin Dundon’s a bit of a gluten-watcher himself. The chef of Raglan Road is such a believer—“As human beings we were not actually built to digest wheat,” he says—that the Irish chef recently did gluten-free cooking demonstrations around Ireland for a coeliac.ie “road show.”

He practices what he preaches at his Disney Springs restaurant. First off, the menu is naturally 60 percent gluten-free, since Dundon tends to make soups and sauces without flour. What’s more, when guests have serious allergies, the Raglan Road chef in charge visits the table. The face-to-face communication reduces errors, such as absentmindedly tossing croutons onto a chicken Caesar salad.

Raglan Road's fish-and-chips

Raglan Road’s fish-and-chips

In some cases, Raglan Road has entirely different recipes for gluten-free eaters. The batter for fish-and-chips, for instance, is usually made with cornstarch and flour, but for gluten-free orders it contains potato flour instead.

Upon request, servers will give guests a gluten-free menu. (It’s also on the website.) It lists items that are naturally gluten-free and those that can be adapted. raglanroad.com

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