If I were a better blogger, I'd fill this post with photos from my weekend in Burlington, Vermont. But I only snapped two photos-- one of a snazzy can of “Old New England Seltzer” and one of a bottle of Moxie soda. (Vermonters seem to love Moxie soda. It was everywhere. Have you had it? I tasted a sip once; it tasted like a liquid cough drop to me.)
My weekend trip to Burlington was unplanned. Last Thursday my husband found out he had a half day of work scheduled for Friday--rare for him. Since we both needed a break, we decided to head out of town to recharge.
Traveling at the last minute with food allergies and celiac can be---may I be honest here?---a pain in the ass. There I said it. Sure, I could book a room with a kitchen and cook my own food but I didn't want to. I wanted to explore our options for eating out. (Side note: You know I am tired when I don't want to cook.)
Eating out, while getting better, is still problematic, at least in my experience. “Cross contact”--the mingling of gluten and gluten-free foods--- happens in kitchens and it gets me sick. As you know, just because a restaurant offers a gluten-free menu, it doesn't mean that the food they serve is actually gluten-free. Simple things like tossing a salad in a bowl that held croutons or handling rolls and not changing gloves before handling gluten-free foods cause cross-contact with gluten.
With this always in mind, I started to make my calls. Since my mother grew up in Burlington, I know the area well. Two restaurants interested me: Leunig's Bistro and American Flatbread. I'd heard each offer gluten-free menu items.
The Travel Prep
On Thursday I called each place. Here's what happened:
First I called Leugnis. I'd eaten there before going gluten-free. After expressing interested in their gluten-free menu, I asked how they handled cross-contact in the kitchen. The question wasn't answered. The person who picked up the phone told me that they had a gluten-free menu and that the fries were gluten-free but were made in a shared frier. He said that the fries might have “a little” gluten on them but would be fine. EEP!
Ok. A shared frier means that the fries are NOT gluten-free. It's all fine and good that they note the shared frier--at least they mention it. But it bothers me that they'd include the fries on their “gluten-free” menu. This is from their online menu: “FRENCH FRIES, HOME FRIES & CORN SHELLS ARE FRIED IN OIL THAT MAY CONTAIN FLOUR1”
The fryer mistake was strike one. Then the guy on the phone could not tell me how they handled gluten cross-contact in the kitchen. I was now uneasy. For me, and this is personal, I prefer a place that has set procedures for handling gluten-free food in place. Or will put me through to someone who can answer my questions. If Leunig's was in my hometown, I'd probably stop in when they weren't busy to gather more information. For vacation? When I need a break? I didn't want to spend the time or energy on it. I crossed Leunig's off my list.
Next I called “American Flatbread.” While I get nervous about pizza places with gluten-free menus, I keep an open mind. Some pizza places do a great job in handling gluten-free food.
The woman I spoke to on the phone could NOT answer my questions about how they handle gluten-free pizza. So she put me on hold. Yay, right? When she came back she told me that they pizza is made in the same oven but that it's baked in a pan, not on the floor of the hearth. This sounded promising.
Then I asked about toppings. Are they different? Oh, and how do you cut the gluten-free pizza, I asked. She grew irritated with me and had no answers. Finally I said, “Ok. It sounds like you might not have a procedure for handling gluten-free food. I'll look elsewhere.” Again, she didn't attempt to transfer my call or get a chef. She just said, “You do that.” So I did.
I knew that there was an Outback and an Uno in Burlington. They both have gluten-free menus. So I called.
First up, the Outback. I ran through my spiel: “Hi, I'm traveling to the area and I need to eat gluten-free for medical reasons. Do you offer a gluten-free menu?”
Get this: the server happily replied: “We do! Just let us know when you come in. We have a separate gluten-free menu. When we put the order into our computer, we note it's gluten-free. The kitchen makes the food in a separate area and the cooks change their gloves.”
Next up: I called Uno. Same spiel. Almost the same answer. The person on the phone mentioned the gluten-free menu, kitchen protocol, etc.
I knew where we were eating.
How it went
Since I don't like eating at restaurants during their busiest time, I made a 7:45 pm reservation for Friday night.
We arrived, waited a few minutes for a table and were seated. When I asked for a gluten-free menu, I was told that they were all out on the floor. I said to Greg, “I think that's good. It means lots of gluten-free folks eat here.”
Christian, our server, walked me through the regular menu and told me what I could order. Again and again he assured me that when my order went into the kitchen it would state “gluten-free”. He told me that they changed bowls for salad, gloves for handling the food, and made the gluten-free meal in a separate area.
Sounded good to me! I ordered the half-order of ribs with a sweet potato and a side salad (No croutons because of gluten. No onions because I don't like onions on my salad.). Greg, my gluten-eating husband, ordered a burger, fries, and a salad.
Soon the salads came out. Dude, this salad was good. I don't know if it was because it was so cold, so the lettuce was nice and crisp-- or if they sprinkled it with magic powder---but I loved the salad. LOVED IT. It wasn't anything special but it was executed perfectly. There wasn't too much dressing on it. The cucumbers were crisp. And, best of all, I did not detect one crumb from a crouton. If you've eaten out gluten-free, you know that sometimes places simply take off croutons from a premade salad before serving you. This was not the case.
Up next, the main course. The ribs, six of ‘em, were tender with a sweet and tangy BBQ sauce. My baked sweet potato accompanied the ribs nicely. Although, I have to admit, I eyed Greg's French fries with a little note of craving. I wish places like Outback could offer a dedicated fryer. Since they don't, I appreciate that they know the fries aren't safe for us. (Side note: Greg said the burger tasted fabulous.)
After that we called it a night. The server tried to tempt us to order dessert. But not only were were full, the Thunder from Down Under contains nuts, making it off limits for me.
Next Up: Lunch
The next day, we got up, grabbed a coffee, and wandered around Burlington. For breakfast, I ate a tangerine and some almonds. So by 2:00 pm, I wanted lunch. We headed to Uno to split a pizza. Before walking in the door, I knew I wanted the pepperoni pizza.
Again, just as with the Outback, our server knew about gluten-free. In fact, his friend was just diagnosed with celiac disease and he proudly told us that she eats at Uno.
Since it's been a long time since I'd eaten at an Uno, I noticed that they now offer Udi's gluten-free buns for their hamburgers. Neat! A burger on a bun!
The pizza arrived brown and crisp. It's not huge; so a hungry Greg and I made short work of it. Each time I eat at Uno's, I love how much the pizza tastes like a “pizzeria” pizza. I make a lot (A LOT) of great pizza at home. But mine taste different than what you get from a pizza place. It's nice to taste that unique flavor again.
As soon as we finished our meal, the manager stopped by. We chatted and I told him that the gluten-free menu was the reason for our visit. He lit up. Turns out, his wife eats gluten-free! Between the server with the newly diagnosed celiac friend and the manager, everyone knew about gluten-free.
The Outback, Take Two
It might sound boring but for dinner we headed back to the Outback. Between the friendly service and the good food handling practices, I felt good (and relaxed!) about eating there.
Remember the salad I loved? Well, for dinner I ordered the chicken Cobb salad. The server, a different one from Friday night, told me kindly, “I was just about to ask if you wanted crispy chicken but, duh, you can't have that!” Can I tell you how much I love that she caught that?
As it had been the night before, the salad came to me nice and cold. Usually a Cobb salad comes topped with neat little rows of hard cooked eggs, bacon, avocado, chicken, and blue cheese.
There were no rows on this salad. Rather, the toppings--hard cooked egg, bacon, Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheese, and tomatoes-- were scattered over the salad. Although the salad was good, there wasn't enough egg for my taste. It seemed to be about 1/4 of a hard cooked egg. But other than that, it hit the spot.
Greg, again, ordered a burger. Which, I have to tell you, was weird because in the 15+ years I've known him, he's ordered a burger out maaaabye a half dozen times. So for him to order a burger two nights in a row means the first burger must have been good!
Did we eat at the coolest restaurants in Burlington? Nope. But for me eating where gluten-free was easily handled wins over hip and trendy. It means I get to relax. While sometimes I'm in the mood to talk to a place and discuss how they can serve a safe gluten-free meal, I just wasn't up to it this weekend. I wanted a place that already knew how to do it. And both the Outback and Uno allowed me to relax, order a meal, and not think too much about being gluten-free.
And I'm really grateful--really, really grateful---for the gift they gave me: a tasty meal that didn't make me sick.