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.
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.
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.
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.