Against the Grain
If you want to know how I feel about wheat – pasta in particular – you just have to hear this story from my childhood. As family lore tells it, my parents (one of whom is Italian), frustrated by their thwarted attempts to feed me peas ’n’ carrots, finally came up with the idea to give me mostaccioli , a tube-shaped pasta much like penne. They’d watch breathlessly as I sucked the tubes down, exhaling only when it was clear that the tube had cleared my tiny windpipe and hadn’t made me choke.
In short, I was pretty much made from gluten. (And was a very fat baby, natch.)
So when my friend April told me that she had been diagnosed with celiac disease, I’m pretty sure I took the news worse than she did. No pizza? No pasta? Now way! But I wanted to support her—and see if it was really possible to exist on a gluten-free diet—so I took on the task of eating gluten-free in San Francisco. I did so with a high dose of martyrdom (and a little skepticism), to be sure. In general, finding gluten-free things to eat isn’t too difficult – fruits, vegetables, meats, rice, corn tortillas, and cheese all qualify – but there’s no way a carboholic like myself could survive too long without bread, in some form or another.
And then there’s just my general snobbery about food. I will eat anything and everything, but I’m pretty picky about elemental things like texture and flavor. Therefore, I can’t conceive of breadstuffs made without wheat flour. Gluten is what gives a baguette its light, delicate crumb, a strand of spaghetti its toothsome chew. Could gluten-free versions of bread or pizza actually be edible, let alone good?
The first thing I noticed as I embarked on my quest is that San Francisco is surprisingly devoid of restaurants specializing in gluten-free food. Sure, there are organic restaurants like The Plant Cafe Organic and vegan/raw food joints like Café Gratitude (both of which have gluten-free offerings), but I want pizza that tastes like, well, pizza…not a sunflower seed and sprouted rice bran disk topped with cashew cheese and ribbons of nori. I want crust. Sauce. Cheese.
I turn to April for advice. Since being diagnosed, she’s been searching high and low for restaurants that can accommodate her condition. As I don’t have celiac disease, wheat allergies, or any other gastrointestinal issue associated with gluten, I ask her if she’ll accompany me on my quest. She agrees and recommends Amici's, the Bay Area pizza chain, which has an entire gluten-free menu.
We order a pizza with pancetta, feta, and olives and a couple of Redbridge beers. The beer, made from sorghum rather than wheat and barley, tastes sweeter than regular beer, but it’s definitely a reasonable substitute. The pizza…it was good. There was cheese, there was sauce, and there was crust. The texture was different, to be sure – but not so much that it detracted from the overall pizza experience.
All in all, my first foray into gluten-free food is a modest success. Next challenge: finding a good breakfast sans gluten.
I meet April on a bright Sunday morning at Just for You Café in the Dogpatch. I’m excited because I’ve managed to find a brunch place that offers gluten-free toast and wheat-free oatmeal pancakes. (It wasn’t easy.) I’m irrationally crestfallen to learn that though it contains no wheat, oatmeal is not considered a 100% gluten-free food (it contains a protein that’s similar to gluten). April can’t eat it, but she can eat the thick slices of gluten-free bread that accompany our eggs. “Man, have I missed toast,” she sighs. I’m amazed to discover that, unlike the pizza at Amici’s, I can find no discernable difference between the texture of this toast and toast made from wheat.
Emboldened, I decide to expand my gluten-free repertoire. During my lunch hour the next day, I head to the Mariposa Baking Co. kiosk in the Ferry Building. My intent is to hone in on breakfast foods like bagels, muffins, and cinnamon rolls, but I also can’t resist the chocolate chip cookies, brownies, or the charmingly named “penguinos,” a rich treat which is a little like a Hostess chocolate cupcake. I bring my booty back to work and spread it across a table, feeling slightly like a kid on Halloween.
“Hey guys…want to help me eat this stuff?” I ask my coworkers.
I get a few weird looks, but eventually one of them comes to help me out. In 20 minutes we go through the cinnamon roll (amazing), four cookies (really tasty), the penguino (not my favorite, but I’m not a big chocolate person), and the brownie (ditto). I’m particularly impressed with the cinnamon roll. It’s fluffy and light, with a slightly yeasty flavor. Oh, and tons of sugar.
After our midday dessert binge I feel sick and like I’ve spontaneously gained five pounds. But I still have a job to do. I arrange my next dinner date with April: Vietnamese food.
Zadin is a modern, minimalist space in the Castro that’s close to empty when we arrive. There is a wide array of options on the menu for the gluten-challenged – appetizers like imperial rolls and fried calamari (a major win for gluten-free eaters), and entrees like pan-fried noodles, spicy tofu, and green curry scallops. This is significant because soy sauce contains gluten, and is a major ingredient in many Vietnamese foods (and other Asian cuisines). Gluten can also be found occasionally in rice paper wrappers – another reason why Zadin is doing gluten-free eaters a major service.
April and I order imperial rolls, fried and full of porky goodness, and then share an order of shaken beef with fried yams and coconut rice. The beef is caramelized, tender, sweet, and salty. You’d never know the soy was missing. April orders a gluten-free brownie for dessert but I pass it up.
The final frontier of my gluten-free quest is pasta, my personal staff of life. There are various brands available at Rainbow and Whole Foods, but I search in vain for an Italian restaurant that fits the bill. I remember that during my dessert party at Mariposa, there were various raviolis and pizzas in its freezer section, so I trek down to the Ferry Building again to pick some up. While I’m there, I ask the cashier what her favorite gluten-free restaurant in the city is and without hesitation she replies, “Pica Pica.” It’s looking like after my pasta experiment, I’ll have to try out some arepas. Darn.
Because it’s a chilly fall night, I decide to have Mariposa’s butternut squash ravioli with my own butter and sage sauce. It’s amazeballs, if I do say so myself. The pasta is chewy but tender and the squash filling is smooth and sweet. Like the bread I had at Just for You, there’s really no detectable difference between this ravioli and others I’ve had with gluten. So much so that I eat the whole package. Oops.
At Pica Pica Maize Kitchen (tagline: aMAIZE yourself!), everything is made from corn, so it’s all gluten free. It serves three different types of maize breads: an arepa (corn flour cake), cachapa (sweet corn pancake), and maize’wich (sweet corn bread). I decide on the Pabellón arepas: crispy cakes topped with shredded steak with black beans, plantains, and cheese. I don’t have anything to compare them to, gluten-wise, but they are tasty and super filling – the bonus being that you don’t have to worry about cross-contamination in the kitchen, as there’s no wheat.
I leave Pica Pica stuffed and satisfied. One thing to note about my gluten-free experiment is that I definitely have not gone hungry or felt deprived in any way. True, there are foods that I couldn’t find that I’d really miss if I had celiac: Chinese dumplings, fried chicken, falafels, and banana pancakes, to name a few. But for now, perhaps it’s a blessing that I didn’t come across those in my research; my pants no longer fit. I think I’ll try being vegan next.
Gluten-free eaters, never fear. You can literally have your cake (and pizza and bread) and eat it too. For pizza, try Amici's East Coast Pizzeria (near AT&T Park or on Lombard) and Mariposa Bakery (at the Ferry Building); Extreme Pizza has gluten-free crusts available too. Craving breakfast? Head to Just For You in Potrero Hill or the Red Door Café in Pacific Heights for French toast. Gluten-free bakeries abound: In addition to Mariposa, you can find Crave Bakery goods at Rainbow and Whole Foods, and gluten-free cupcakes at Kara's Cupcakes. If you’re craving more Vietnamese, try Zadin, Out the Door, and Le Colonial – they know their gluten-free stuff.