Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Gluten Free Fast Food Meal: Chick Fil A

Grilled Chicken Nugget Kids Meal at Chick-fil-A

You're writing a blog about having a child with Celiac Disease and you post a picture of a Chick-fil-A kid's meal? 


But there is no way that place is Gluten-Free. No. Way.

Yes, it is a chain. And yes, their main fare is battered, fried chicken sandwiches. But you'd be surprised by how well they accommodate the needs of a Gluten-Free child.

Prove it.

Ok. This was a bit of an experiment. We didn't want to make this some sort of "accost the local Chick-fil-A and make them go above and beyond what they normally do to accommodate our needs" event. Just do what you do, and we'll decide whether it works for us and our son. We chose the location nearest to our house, on Arundel Mills Boulevard in Hanover, Maryland.

Within the past few years, Chick-fil-A added grilled chicken nuggets to their menu. As a kid's meal option, this proved to be great news; do you always want fried food for the little people? They've been serving grilled sandwiches for a while now... it was about time.

We went inside to order, just to make sure we interacted with a real life human (not that they aren't real when ordering from the drive-thru, they're just more real eye-to-eye). We didn't request a manager, we just went up to the first available register. We informed the woman that our son had Celiac Disease and couldn't have gluten. Then we asked what was gluten free.

"The grilled chicken nuggets and breasts, the french fries and fruit cups."

Apparently, the french fries are cooked in a dedicated fryer, as the cooking times and temperatures are different enough between nuggets and fries to warrant it. Obviously, there is a cross-contamination risk, but when the woman went into the back and told the prep staff it was for a Gluten-Free child, they changed their gloves to cook and package the order. Impressive for a fast food chain. Also, my son's favorite Honey Mustard dipping sauce is gluten free.

Now I'll say it again: there is obviously a huge risk for cross contamination in a facility that has both fried and grilled chicken, and fryers for chicken and french fries. Oils spatter, prep surfaces get shared and gloved hands touch everything. And different restaurants in the same chain may handle the situation very differently. But with the right amount of precaution and skepticism, you can still grab a bite on the go and be Gluten-Free doing it.

And you get a board book out of the deal.

A Wedding! And Our First Bad Gluten-Free Outing

Weddings are wonderful events. To see your friends tie the knot and have even more of your friends there to help celebrate is awesome. For my son and I, who were honored to be asked to be in the wedding, it was twice as amazing.

This particular wedding ceremony and reception was held at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt, Maryland. I was familiar withe Martin's from many years ago, as I lived in and around Greenbelt for much of my youth. It is a large banquet center with several large ballrooms and in-house catering services. Looking at the main website for Martin's, my wife and I were excited to see this statement:
"Our award-winning chefs are happy to accommodate every taste, including vegetarian, gluten free and kosher." 

After the ceremony was over and pictures were taken, my son and I made our way back into the ballroom for dinner. A few minutes after sitting down, the Event Manager stopped by to make an accurate head count of children's meals. There were 4 children at our table and, obviously, his initial count was 4. My wife interjected that our son's meal was to be gluten-free. His reaction spoke volumes to how our meal would go. He immediately jumped on his walkie talkie, spoke for several minutes, then returned to ask my wife "What its Gluten? No rice?"

"No. No wheat. Nothing with bread, nothing breaded, fried, or containing wheat or Gluten."

When the kid's meals showed up, we were left shaking our heads: Four identical breaded chicken strip meals with french fries. Obviously not Gluten-Free by any stretch of the imagination. My wife asked the waiter to return it to the kitchen. My son, seeing his meal sent back, asked my wife "Why can't I eat that? I wanted to eat that." My son understands Gluten and how it hurts him,  but taking food away from him is still rough to explain. He remembers liking chicken fingers that look like that. What we give him is Gluten-Free so he assumes anything given to him is Gluten-Free.

Fortunately, we packed a dinner for him (just in case) and my wife recently saw (and copied) a snack box idea (we call them Snackle Boxes) that kept both our kids occupied and well fed. Still, the blatant disregard of our input was disheartening. We wen't expecting a Gluten-Free kid's meal, just a Gluten-Free meal.

Snackle Box: The Aftermath

On the way out, the Event Manager (who we hadn't seen since his confidence-inspiring "What is Gluten" question) stopped my wife (with a content smile on his face) to ask how the Gluten-Free meal for our son was. "Breaded chicken strips and french fries are not gluten-free. We told them to take it back." He was perplexed. "Why didn't you come get me?" My wife simply told him that we had a hungry child and had brought dinner for him in case this situation came up and didn't want to wait for whatever they sent next. My response would have been "Your website says you have a Gluten-Free menu. I shouldn't have had to come get you."

Gluten-free is a buzz word right now. Unfortunately, lots of people in the restaurant business don't seem to actually know what it means and how it can actually hurt some people, like our son. The lesson is, even though someone may advertise that they have gluten-free food, do your research and prepare as if they don't. If you get lucky, it makes for a pleasant surprise.

We didn't get lucky. But at least we got to see our friends get married and celebrated with some pretty great people.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gluten Free Take-out: Coalfire Pizza, Ellicott City, Maryland

Gluten-Free Margarita Pizza from Coalfire in Ellicott City, MD

If you haven't yet guessed, good pizza is something that, until our son's Celiac Disease made us a Gluten-Free home, we enjoyed at least once a week. Usually, I made the pizza at home, as I think I'm pretty good with a pie. As I'm starting over from scratch, we've been forced to look at the various Gluten-Free options out there. Our second experience was with a small chain located just down the street from us: Coalfire Pizza in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Coalfire, as the name implies, uses a charcoal pizza oven that gets to around 800 degrees on the deck. This makes for a very quickly-cooked pizza with that tell-tale lightly charred appearance. Their Gluten-Free pie shares that appearance.

Like many pizzerias, Coalfire uses a third-party Gluten-Free crust, this time by Venice Bakery of El Segundo, California. The crusts are plopped into a one-time use aluminum pan and topped from a cheese and sauce station that is segregated from the main topping station used for the regular wheat crust. Coalfire even has a stated process of Gluten-Free preparation. Obviously they cannot 100% guarantee there wouldn't be cross contamination, but having a process is a good step. The manager was very knowledgeable on the Gluten-Free menu and was able to answer any questions we had. Coalfile has several locations, so I can't speak for the others... I would check if you were going to stop in.

My understanding is that they use a different (possibly non-charcoal) oven for these pizzas. Either way, the char and crispness was prominent. This was the first close-to-Neopolitan-style crust we've had (with Dogfish's Still Riding being thicker and fluffier). The crust still had a good chew to it and with Coalfire's signature sauce, it made for a tasty dinner. My wife wasn't as impressed, as she thought the texture was a little strange. Of course, our son (who prefers shredded cheese layered densely enough to hide all visual evidence of tomato sauce) wanted nothing to do with it. As you can buy Venice Bakery crusts online, you could certainly create your own pizza with a similar taste and texture.

There is obviously the usual upcharge for the Gluten-free option ($10.95 for a 10" pizza, compared to $10.95 for a 12" pie) and is much closer to a personal pizza than a share-able entree. But it's affordable and a good option for someone craving a good, basic slice of pizza.

We were very happy with our experience with Coalfire. While I wish other toppings could be added to their Gluten-Free station, I was impressed with the simple Margarita Pizza enough to return for another.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The First Gluten Free Restaurant Experience: Dogfish Head Alehouse

There is a restaurant that has become synonymous with firsts in our family. First real date. First place we ate when we found out we were going to be parents. First place we took both of our kids after they were born. First place they both sat in a highchair. First place they ate something off the kids menu. It just made sense that this place would be the first restaurant we braved after our son was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. It also happens that they have a well-defined Gluten-Free menu. We trust this place and we trust the people there. And we were not let down.

This place: Dogfish Head Ale House in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

First, let me state that we've been regulars at Dogfish for years. Even after moving from Gaithersburg to near Baltimore, we still make the trek a couple times a month; the drive is worth it. One waiter there, Rob, has befriended our family (and many others... he's a pretty awesome guy) and we knew that we had to sit in Rob's section for our first Gluten Free lunch. We're still getting used to this and knew that we wouldn't seem burdensome to him.

Dogfish was one of the first restaurants we frequent that developed (and publish on the back of their menus) a Gluten-Free menu section. They've been accommodating families like ours for a long time and know what they're doing. Udi's sandwich buns and Still Riding pizza crust adorn the menu (both very tasty, as we'd later learn). Dogfish is conscious enough about the Gluten-Free items on their menu to eliminate their chicken breast from the Gluten-Free section, as the usual marinade includes soy sauce (a frequently forgotten about Gluten source). The manager, Patrick, said he gets "over ten calls a week" about their Gluten-Free menu and preparation/cooking practices. He's knowledgeable and can talk about the kitchen practices and menu items in detail.

Dogfish Head Cheese Pizza with Still Riding Crust
We ordered two Gluten-Free items (one on menu, one off) for lunch: a standard Gluten-Free cheese pizza and a Gluten-Free grilled cheese sandwich. While there is no real 'Gluten-Free Kid's Menu', the kitchen is willing to go off-menu to accommodate when they can. We were told that if we knew we were coming in and wanted chicken, we should call ahead by a half hour and they would set a pre-marinated chicken breast aside for us. Seriously.

Now, we're not talking about separate kitchens for Gluten-Free prep and cooking, but the pizzas are cooked on separate pans and anything cooked is segregated on a separate pan or dedicated section of the cooktop for Gluten-Free items. Obviously, there is the risk for cross-contamination, but they have a defined process the the kitchen, which is a huge step beyond simply eliminating ingredients.

Dogfish Head Grilled Cheese with Udi's Bun
(bites removed for clarity)
The only real "issue", if you can can call it that is portion size. As the Still Riding pizza crust come pre-portioned as a 12" pizza, there is no smaller, kid-sized version at a kid's price (Patrick made sure to take the time to stop by and make sure we were OK with this... very cool). But if you share with your kids (or your kids share), or like leftover pizza (it reheats well), it's a good size. For picky (visual or texture) kids, ask that they flip the Udi's bun inside-out for grilled cheese sandwiches... it gives the appearance of a piece of bread and not just a grilled bun. Oh, and as with most places, the french fries, onion rings and assorted other battered items share the same fryer and are not Gluten-free.

For those of you in the Northern Virginia area, there are two other Dogfish Head Alehouse locations (Fairfax and Falls Church) with identical Gluten-Free menus. While Rob and Patrick obviously aren't at those locations, based on reputation alone you're sure to find helpful, accommodating staff to help you with any questions you may have.
Pizza Boxes make great canvases!
Thanks to Dogfish Head Ale House for making our first Gluten-Free outing a success. The bar has been set.

Friday, May 9, 2014

You Have To Start Somewhere

We're not doing this because we want to lose weight. We're not doing this because it's trendy.

We're doing this because we have to.

Two weeks ago, our four year old son was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. For those who don't know, Celiac Disease is an auto-immune disease that affects the small intestine and can lead to any one of dozens of symptoms. It is caused by the body's reaction to gluten, a protein strain found in wheat and other related grains. Essentially, my son can no longer eat anything containing these grains (flours, derivatives, drinks, etc.). The buzz-word for this lifestyle change is 'Gluten-Free'.

Fortunately, it's a good time to have to go Gluten-Free, as the diet has become the new, trendy thing to do to improve your health. The number of companies making Gluten-Free foods, or versions of previously wheat-based foods using other grains and starches has grown by leaps and bounds. Supermarkets now have Gluten-Free sections. The internet is full of Gluten-Free recipes to make the transition as easy as possible.

Unfortunately, thanks to people like these (seriously, how hard is it to Google 'Gluten!?), many companies and restaurants are now touting their food products as being 'Gluten-free' to gain the business of the 'Gluten-Free As A Trend' crowd, even though their foods are not Gluten-Free enough for a person with Celiac Disease. Just because it's not made with Gluten ingredients doesn't mean it wasn't prepared next to, or cooked on the same surface as, an item with Gluten. It's pretty hard to know who to trust with the Gluten-Free label.

After being tested, my wife and I found that neither of us has Celiac Disease, but we still decided that our home should go Gluten-Free for the sake of our son. This is not as simple as throwing out the flour, Goldfish and pasta. The whole kitchen was cleaned and any cookware, utensils, plates and kitchen gadgets that couldn't be thoroughly cleaned were donated and replaced. As a guy who is very, very proud of his pizza crust recipe, bidding farewell to my pizza peel and stones was a sad day.

My wife and I are foodies. We love to experiment with new ideas in the kitchen and come up with new recipes. We love eating out at good restaurants (we tend towards non-chain, local one-off places, particularly gastro pubs) in and around Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland. We definitely enjoy good craft beer (see: gastro pubs). For us, ordering Gluten Free at a restaurant is relatively easy:salmon with a potato and vegetables is an easy thing to do, as long as nothing is topped or marinated in a Gluten-containing sauce or cooked along side Gluteny (Is that a word? It is now.) items. For our son, whose diet is mostly grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries (if they're fried in the same oil as breaded items, they're out) and chicken tenders, restaurant nights just got a lot more difficult. Do they have a Gluten-Free menu? Do they keep the Gluten-Free foods away from the rest of the menu items and cook them on separate cookware? How well do they follow their Gluten-Free process?

This blog will be about our adventures and experiences in removing Gluten from our lives without changing our lives as much as possible. We'll talk about our experiences with how different restaurants around us treat the Gluten-Free mandate in a portion of the menu that is usually an afterthought: the Kid's Menu. We'll talk about our own kitchen experiences and any other life events that involve the Gluten-Free label. But we'll try not to rant... Celiac Disease isn't common knowledge for everyone and you can't blame people who don't have it for not being knowledgeable about it. We're just getting educated about this disease this too.

So I have a new pizza peel and pizza stones, but no new pizza crust recipe I'm happy with (I need yeast and the ability to throw something in the air).

Challenge: Accepted.