Monday, February 8, 2016

Investigation of a Menu Above Suspicion...

Before I begin my first attempt at a restaurant review here on Intelli-Allergentsia, I want to lay down some ground rules as to what will and will not be done in my restaurant reviews. This is not meant to be a full overview of the restaurant under review, and at no point before dining there did I let the staff know that I am reviewing them online. (I may let them know further on down the line that I have published a review regarding their establishment, but that is up to me.) Likewise, these are not paid advertisements by the establishment nor are they articles for which I have been given compensation at all, either in goods, services or monetary payment. There will be no star, number, or letter grades given either to make it easier for the reader to have the article summed up instantly for him or her.

Each review will be comprised solely of my personal opinion built upon my interest in finding places where I can eat my favorite foods comfortably and safely. The assumption is that the reader is here for the same reason that I am. When you are dealing with a health-diminishing food allergy (or, even worse, several allergies), it is hard enough to negotiate the minefield that is the supermarket in order to find foods that fit your lifestyle. Common, popular recipes usually need to be altered to allow allergy sufferers to enjoy them, and the increased inclusion of allergy-free flours, mixes, pastas, breads, tortillas, etc. in the everyday supermarket has proven helpful. The downside is that stores often keep underestimated inventories of allergy-free goods, and getting to the store to find that my favorite bread is sold out is a frequent occurrence for me. Sometimes, approaching allergy-free as a mere fad, stores will only carry certain items for the short term before replacing them with another brand or, even worse, only carry them for a test run. Overall, though, the average grocery store has become better and far more diverse in food choices for allergy sufferers in the last few years.

And then we get to the restaurant world. A whole other ball of wax, as the saying goes. (I don't even want to get started on the whole "Is the wax on my apple gluten free?" debate.) There are chains that are better at catering to allergy sufferers than others, though this is often dependent upon what type of fare they commonly serve. When you get to a place like Panera Bread, you should know just from instinct alone that if you are a celiac or gluten/wheat sensitive at all that a bakery attached to a cafe might not be the sort of place you should be inside in the first place. If you are going to brave the circumstances to eat there, you will probably be stuck with a salad choice and a bag of potato chips. 

But other chains do remarkably well at catering to the interests of allergy sufferers. In-N-Out has "protein style" burger options on their "secret menu" (which is really not so secret -- that's sort of the joke), where they will lettuce wrap your sandwich for you, and since they don't fry anything except for french fries, you are pretty safe if your allergy is a simple wheat one like mine. (We ate there just last night as a matter of fact.) Five Guys is a fave burger spot of mine for this same reason, though in two consecutive trips there recently, I think the guy working the grill really didn't want to assemble a lettuce wrapped burger for me, and asked me if I had ever tried a burger "salad style," (i.e., thrown on top of a bed of lettuce). I declined both times.

There are other chains that are making inroads as well. McDonald's allows customers to use a touchscreen to "Build Your Own Burger," including a lettuce wrap option, at many locations now (though admittedly, I have yet to try this for myself, because I would rather eat at good burger places). But many other burger or chicken places will have you back in salad land (never a bad thing at all; I'm not knocking it and should eat that way more myself), unless your idea of a meal is to get a mystery meat patty sitting by itself in a styrofoam container. Maybe with a slice of cheese.

Most of the major pizza chains offer a gluten-free crust option now, though the particularly sensitive might have some concern if the place is in the business of making their regular dough fresh in the restaurant and has wheat flour in the air constantly. (No place outside of a dedicated allergy free restaurant is ever going to be 100% contamination free, so you will just need to study the place and make that determination for yourself.)

As for the non-chains, this is where we enter the Wild West of the Food Allergy Sufferer. There is much more good to report in the past year or so, but finding allergy free options in local dining establishments is largely up to the whim of the individual owner and how much they may care about catering to all of their customer base, not just the ones that bring in the most cash. I have said before that I have been laughed away (quite literally) from some places (The Kroft at the Anaheim Packing House being the most recent example), and most Asian cuisine places are pretty hard to deal with owing to how many dishes use soy sauce (and relatively few offer a GF soy sauce option).

This is where I had to learn to make a big change in my comfort level when dealing with restaurants. I am the type of guy who, even when a place gets my order completely wrong, is reluctant to send it back to have it corrected. Part of it comes from the urban legend about chefs doing nasty things to dishes that have been returned for corrections, and part of it just comes from my natural reticence to cause a fuss in a public establishment. Start a food fight and be loud and boisterous? Sure! I'm known for that sort of behavior. I was once described as having the mutant power of being able to destroy the atmosphere of any fine dining establishment. (I dumped a shake over a girl's head once just because she pushed my buttons.) But, in general, I do not like upsetting the wait staff or hostess when food is on the line, and try to be as polite as possible to them. (After all, sometimes they can get you free goodies or refills if they like you.) So, it has usually been my nature when ordering to make a quick joke or two as part of the exchange, and then have my order ready for them to write down. Quick and easy.

With the rise of my wheat allergy, came the need to take the time to ask questions; with that need, rose the concurrent need to get comfortable with asking those questions. As my theatre friends are well aware, I will do the most embarrassing, improvised things to myself and to others at the drop of a hat, but if there is even a half second of preparation involved, I freeze up almost completely. That's why I could never actually become an actor (though I was totally at home behind the stage as a puppeteer) despite being around the theatre world for most of my life. I am completely open when talking to others, but ask me to give a presentation at a meeting and I will stutter and stammer and flounder my way through that presentation. But in learning to live with a chronic immune disease (eosinophilic esophagitis), I had no choice but to go wheat free, and getting the most accurate and detailed information that you can out of the wait staff or a chef became a necessity. I needed to get comfortable with perhaps slowing down the service for myself -- and for other tables around me -- in order to make sure that I was not going to get violently ill. There was a jump that I had to make. 

I had to learn to ignore the stares and rolled eyes that you sometimes could feel all about you from your fellow diners. I also had to ignore the slowing down of time around me. And I had to truly try hard to not even consider for a second the increasingly furious pulsing of the dimensional walls that keep us all in our desired forms and that those very walls were threatening to cave in all about me, the destruction of which would surely lead us all to naught but chaos and doom (!!!)... and learn to ask... the simplest of questions: "Does this have wheat flour in it?"

Some restaurants make this easy. More and more places ask early on in the ordering process if anyone at the table has an allergy or special diet. This allows the conversation to flow more naturally, and also shows you that the owner has some concern (at least in terms of liability) over the welfare of his patrons. In the past few years, Disneyland and all of its food service establishments openly offer gluten free and vegetarian options, and are careful to make sure their butts are covered when dealing with the food allergic that roam their parks in droves. (I was even told by one of their restaurant managers that if you give them more than 24 hours notice of your visit and your menu choices, they can prepare almost any item gluten free for you.) It is wonderful to know that I always have options in the Happiest Place on Earth, but it sure would be nice to have the same confidence when dealing with places outside that realm.

I have found that the more meat-oriented places are the ones where they seem to care less about these niceties, and if you want to read anything political into that assessment, go right ahead. It is simply an observance I have made after spending the last four years or so learning to live with this illness. Hardcore carnivores who get all weak-kneed when a green vegetable is set on their plate are usually the first ones to tell me that I just need to get tough and suck it up. 

I am not saying this as someone who eschews meat. Until just under a year ago, our household menu was probably about 85-90% vegetarian fare for close to a decade. I had meat in the house mainly for sandwiches and the occasional breakfast; my wife Jen is 100% vegetarian, where she doesn't even eat anything with gelatin or animal rennet. (However, she does partake of milk and other dairy products, so she has not crossed the vegan threshold... yet.) Now, we are in a situation where her brother and mother live with us, both dedicated meat-eaters. Her brother, in fact, is a barbecue enthusiast who has considerable skill in the kitchen, and even plans to start his own food truck in the future. Thus, my diet has switched to having meat more regularly; pretty much every day. 

So, while my heart tells me that I should really cut the meat out altogether (there are some days where I can't even look at it), I have no higher moral ground to stand on here. My remark about meat-centered menu restaurants being a little less concerned with food allergic customers is merely something which I am noting from personal experience in dealing with them. 

There are plenty of examples, though, where this is not the case. I have found that the more youthful, trendier places -- including some barbecue joints, so don't let's get started on it -- are the best bets in finding more food allergy options. Naturally, vegetarian and vegan-centric places such as Seabirds in Costa Mesa (who were featured on The Great Food Truck Race a few years ago) are wonderful in always having a few options that aren't deep-fried (though they have those too) or having a gluten free bread or flatbread available in place of the normal bread. Or in having corn tortillas as an option for flour ones. Whether or not businesses such as this are merely hipster oases is beside the point. If they can serve great food and in such a way that keeps me from projectile vomiting after eating it, then I will put up with all the weird beards and stupid tattoos and guys with ear gauges carrying manual typewriters. (Besides, I know deep in my heart that were I 25 years younger, I would probably be carrying one of those typewriters. I did actually still own one of those 25 years ago...)

Where I have really run into trouble is in the older, more traditional, family diner-style places. Most of the time, I am relegated to ordering bacon and eggs, and then finding out if they add flour to their hash browns or home fries. (Most of the time, they have to ask someone else, or several someones, to get an answer, by which time I have decided to go without already.) In some places, the waitress will look at you strangely if you ask to have a burger lettuce-wrapped, as if you had just landed in an interstellar trip from Betelgeuse and bore antennae on your head. It is for reasons like this that I have often avoided such establishments completely because I just don't want to deal with the hassle of questioning someone who is locked in an ancient mindset. More recently, though, I have been able to get past this blockade and simply do what I must: ask questions.

The main point of all of this is, if you care about your health, and if your food allergy is dominant enough in your life where you need to be absolutely sure of everything going into your system, ask questions. Ask the right questions. If you are concerned about something on the menu, find out how they prepare it and what goes in it. If you want french fries, find out if they have dedicated fryers for separate menu items. If those fries are dunked in a fryer that also holds onion rings or other breaded items, you probably want to skip the fries. Sometimes all of the breads -- regular and gluten free -- are toasted in the same device or on the same grill. This can be a problem for the more sensitive among us. Ask questions about it, and if there are options to get around how they normally make the menu item, ask them to prepare it that way instead.

Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions. Here's the thing... if the owner of a restaurant scoffs at your food "allergy" (and says it that way, practically in quotation marks, which I have encountered more than once), keep in mind that if that owner gets enough requests for something he is reluctant to serve from enough customers, and he suddenly has a "light bulb" moment and realizes that he is turning away easy profit, there is a greater chance he is going to update that menu. But he has to know the audience is out there. Simply looking at a menu and saying, "There's nothing I can have here!" and walking out with a belligerent scowl and a snuffly nose is not going to advance your cause. You need to ask questions. 

Let them know that we are out there. And, man, are we ever hungry...

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