Eating Out: An Allergic Foodie’s Strategies

I’ve been eating out a lot since arriving on Hilton Head Island about a month ago and I haven’t had any bad reactions–just a few mild GI symptoms. I consider this a victory. After all, with over 20 food allergies as well as celiac disease it’s pretty tough  finding gluten-free and allergy-free entrees on a menu. During past trips to the island, I spent many days curled up in a ball with stomach pain while my family was on the golf course or riding bikes on the beach. So what’s making this stay different?

For one, I’m picking safer restaurants and avoiding the “bad ones.” I read online what other allergic foodies say about a prospective restaurant and check out the celiac and allergy apps. I also review the online menus.  People in the south fry everything from octopus to tomatoes, so I look for menus featuring lots of local fish and salads. If I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to order safely, I call the restaurant and ask to speak to a manager or chef. By the time the hostess greets us, I usually know what I’ll be ordering.

Sadly, I’m finding more and more restaurants are cooking with vegetable oil because it’s cheap. Many waiters aren’t aware that vegetable oil is soy oil or a combination of soy and another oil.  I react horribly to both soy and corn oil.  One of the first questions I ask a restaurant–even ones I’ve been to in the recent past–is what oil they use for cooking. I also ask about any “fake butter” they may use. I make it clear that I cannot have a drop of vegetable oil.  While many celiacs avoid Italian restaurants because of the flour used in pasta and pizza, I’ve actually had some of my best meals in Italian restaurants. One of my favorites on the island is OMBRA Cucina Rustica. The chefs cook with olive oil and the menu offers lots of delicious gluten-free and dairy-free options.

Another reason I’m not getting sick as often is because I’ve started taking my own dressings and sauces. My go-to meal for lunch is a salad with shrimp or salmon or grilled chicken. I’ve gotten sick so many times from the salad dressing–even homemade dressings from upscale restaurants–that I just don’t want to take a chance anymore.  I carry a small container of dressing with me. If I’ve forgotten, I ask for olive oil and balsamic or red wine vinegar. As a last resort, I’ll use fresh lemon on my salad.

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I eat a lot of salads so I’m thrilled when one looks like this one!

Last night we tried One Hot Mamma’s American Grille for the first time because I knew they offered gluten-free ribs. (I also was a fan of Orchid Paulmeier when she was on Season 7 of Food Network Star.) I asked for my ribs dry as I’d brought along some Bone Suckin’ Sauce with me. Our server was well-informed about allergies and took my request for no dairy, soy, or gluten seriously. However, when my ribs arrived, they were covered in barbecue sauce (no dairy, gluten or soy). I’d neglected to tell him I was also allergic to corn, which was likely in the catsup they used. While my husband and son immensely enjoyed the saucy ribs, I waited for a rack without sauce (also delish!).  In the south, restaurants cook with a lot of corn starch–I’ve learned this the hard way.  Cornbread and corn on the cob are often featured on menus. This is great for my younger son who has celiac, but not for me.

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Jamaican Jerk Bowl from PURE Natural Market in Hilton Head.

I also have better luck sitting at the bar and ordering from bartenders who are typically full-time professionals and not summertime staff.  We always tip well for good allergy-free service. After coming here for so many years, many of the bartenders know me and my allergies by name.

When I’m in new places, I look for ethnic, farm-to-table and vegetarian/vegan restaurants. There weren’t a lot of options on the island back in 2008 when I was first diagnosed, but there sure are now. One of my recent discoveries is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant called Delisheeeyo. I order the “Happy Wrap”–veggies wrapped in rice paper with an apple cider vinaigrette.

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The Happy Wrap with gluten-free rice paper at Delisheeeyo.

Pure Natural Market offers lots of Jamaican-influenced allergy-friendly options. I saw a new place called Healthy Habit out by the airport, which I hope to go to before we head back to Colorado Springs. We also now have a Kroger (42 Shelter Cove Lane) with a huge “health-food department” as well as a Whole Foods (50 Shelter Cove Lane). This makes it easy to pick up quick and safe meals for beach picnics.

It’s taken me many years–and many good and not-so-good experiences –to learn how to dine out safely.  If you have a tip for safe restaurant eating, or want to share a good or bad restaurant experience, please comment below.

“Eating Out: An Allergic Foodie Shares Strategies” first appeared at “Adventures of an Allergic Foodie.”

Renewed Faith: A Waiter Who Cared

The smiling white-coated waiter glided up to our rooftop table and introduced himself as Paul.

“I understand there are some food allergies at this table,” Paul said,  handing  us leather-bound menus.

When I’d made the reservation for Watermark Restaurant in Nashville on Urban Spoon, I listed my son’s and my celiac disease as well as my allergies to soy and dairy. We were driving through Nashville on our way home to Colorado and wanted to have a special family dinner with our college boy. Watermark was on our bucket list of restaurants to try.

“I’ve gone over your food restrictions with the chef and I’ve marked what dishes have your allergens.” I looked down at the extensive menu where Paul had placed an X for not gluten-friendly and crossed out the items containing dairy. “Of course, we can also make accommodations, such as leaving off butter. And you don’t have to worry about soy here.”

The chef marked what I could and couldn't eat before I arrived

His words were music to An Allergic Foodie’s ears. I told him how much I appreciated his efforts. Little did he know I had recently had a terrible experience when a chef didn’t want to communicate with the waitstaff and didn’t take my food restrictions seriously. I actually think this demon chef, as I’ve come to call him, intentionally “poisoned” me by including allergens in my food.

After taking our drink orders, Paul then told me because we had decided to eat outside, he didn’t have our table. I panicked. I wanted Paul! The waiter who had done his homework to provide a complete stranger with a safe meal. We considered changing to an inside table, but after a day in the car driving for eight hours, we were enjoying the pleasant evening air.

Watermark Restaurant in Nashville

Paul returned with our drinks. “Well, looks like I’ll be your waiter after all.  The other waiter is uncomfortable with your food allergies.”

This was a first.  A waiter who fully admitted food allergies alarmed him. I appreciated the other waiter’s honesty, especially since it meant I got Paul back. I’ve often witnessed  a waiter’s anxiety over serving me, but I’ve never had someone pass the reigns to a waiter who was more experienced and comfortable with special dietary needs. Kudos to the waiter who didn’t want to serve me for the right reason–not because I was a pain in the neck, but because he wanted to keep my son and me safe.

Executive Chef Joe Shaw’s  food was heavenly. Each of our appetizers and main meals were a work of art and just as delicious as they looked.  For appetizers, Steve had pan-seared scallops with duck confit over a sweet potato puree and poultry demi glace. I had New Orleans style barbecue shrimp, and George had corn and duck egg custard with pan-seared foie gras.

Watermark Restaurant

Watermark uses a wood grill–absolutely no gas–that lended my main dish,  a Niman Ranch pork chop a mouth-watering hickory flavor. Even the rapini melted in my mouth. Steve had lamb on ratatouille and George had his usual ribeye though he said there was nothing usual about it.

Renewed Faith: A Waiter Who Cared

Since developing food allergies and celiac disease I’ve had more terrible experiences than good ones. But Paul gave me hope that there are those in the restaurant industry who do take my son’s and my health seriously–and who take pleasure in serving us.

Thank you, Paul, for renewing my faith.

Renewed Faith: A Waiter Who Cared first appeared at Adventures of an Allergic Foodie.

People Who Don’t Have Eating Issues Should Butt Out

On New Year’s Eve, Ox Restaurant, an Argentina steakhouse in Portland, posted an Instagram photo of myriad sticky notes with dietary restrictions. Eater published the photo under the headline This Is Just a Nightmare of Restaurant Customer Allergies.  

Photo from  Ox Restaurant in Portland on Instagram, 12/31/2013

Photo from Ox Restaurant in Portland on Instagram, 12/31/2013

I was all ready to read yet another negative review of customers with food allergies, but that wasn’t the case. What Ox owners Greg and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton wrote on their Instagram post, and Eater reported, was that the special orders were “nothin’ special.”

Nothin’ special!

Keep in mind, this was a ridiculously busy night–New Year’s Eve! And the restaurant was offering a prix-free menu. Personally, with my myriad allergies and celiac disease, I would never ever expect a restaurant to “redo” a prix-free menu for me on one of the busiest nights of the year. In fact, I called five restaurants weeks before New Year’s Eve to find one that was offering a full menu and then I asked if they could accommodate me.

I’m nice that way. Evidently not everyone in Portland with food issues feels the same way I do. Again I say, Bravo Ox!

Here’s the part that’s gonna make you mad  . . . the comments that followed Eater’s brief article.

Oh where should I start?  Maybe with this one . . .

Comment #1: The percentage of gluten allergies here is about 20%, the reality is about 1.5% in the country. So most of them must be a choice. Next time choose to stay home.

Not sure where this guy got his numbers, but I’ll go to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness for mine: “One out of every 133 Americans has celiac disease. That’s equivalent to nearly 1% of the U.S. population. However, 95% of people with celiac disease remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. This means that up to three million Americans have celiac disease and only about 200,000 know they have the condition.”

Wow. No matter how many times I hear those statistics I’m still astounded, and I’m always left thinking how many people are suffering and not knowing why.  Maybe they’ve figured out they should eliminate gluten from their diet before a doctor told them to.  They made a choice not to eat gluten. Therefore, according to the guy above, they should not dine out.

For so many of us eating gluten is not a choice but a medical necessity. I would like to think many restaurants are glad I choose to spend my hard-earned cash at their establishments.

Comment #2: They should go to the hospital not a restaurant. People that haven’t worked in a restaurant should not eat in one.

I worked at Friendly’s in high school so I guess I’m qualified to eat in a restaurant. What a weird way to think. I haven’t worked in a clothing store, so I guess I shouldn’t shop in one. I haven’t worked in a grocery store, so I guess I shouldn’t buy groceries. I’m just going to stop here.

Comment #3: What’s the most annoying is that most of these are preferences, not allergies.

Huh? More than 170 foods are known to cause allergic reactions. People can be allergic to odd foods like lemon and pepper and lentils; I know people who are allergic to all of these. I happen to be allergic to asparagus and capers and nutmeg. I usually don’t list all my allergies when I order at a restaurant (we’d never get to eat!), but I do request no asparagus because it’s such a common side. I’m sure waitstaff think I just don’t like asparagus, but the reality is asparagus makes me really, really sick.

Comment #4: [They’re] just begging to have their food spit on. The entitlement mentality of modern US diners is just out of control. Stay at home if you have so many stupid allergies, no one really cares.

This person is just heartless and mean. Obviously he/she has never met someone who has gone into anaphylaxis, or had a child double up in pain because he ingested wheat. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there has been a 50% increase in food allergies since the 1990s. If everyone stays home, how will restaurants survive?

Comment #5: I waited tables in the early nineties with a tyrant of a chef; he would not do special orders and if we asked, he would go berserk. I totally understand the side of the customer saying, we’re paying we should get what we want. But then there is the side of the restaurant, one special order per server upsets the whole flow of the kitchen. People take their demands too far these days.

Did you hear that people? You are taking your  food allergies and celiac disease demands too far!  You are upsetting the flow of the kitchen. How dare you!

Final comment from an allergic foodie: People who don’t have eating issues should butt out.

People Who Don’t Have Eating Issues Should Butt Out” originally appeared at Adventures of an Allergic Foodie.