Dining Gluten-Free Article from Arizona Daily Star, Caliente Section on April 30, 2009.
One of Tucson's most indispensible dining guides is all about gluten — and how to avoid it.
It's the Web site of Southern Arizona Celiac Support, a group that is a resource for anyone who wants to lead a gluten-free lifestyle.
It includes nearly 50 restaurants that range from one that has gone completely gluten-free to eateries that have worked with diners to help keep gluten out of the meals they make.
"You cannot just pull the croutons off the salad and call it gluten-free," said Cheryl Wilson, the group's president.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that leaves the body unable to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats. It's also commonly added to a surprisingly wide variety of foods, from soy sauces to soups.
The only known treatment is a gluten-free diet, which requires incredible vigilance and education.
Luckily, awareness of the digestive disorder has grown rapidly in recent years. Its profile is getting even higher with books such as Elisabeth Hasselbeck's "The G-Free Diet; A Gluten-Free Survival Guide," due out on Monday. "The View" co-host diagnosed herself with celiac disease in 2002, and talks frankly about living with the digestive disorder, which includes frustrating experiences at restaurants.
Some studies show that nearly half of the population carries some fraction of gluten intolerance.
"We have so many people who say, 'It's nice to not have to think of what we're ordering,' " said Todd Martin, who opened the Tucson Tamale Company at 2545 E. Broadway last November. With just a couple of small adjustments to the menu, Martin made his restaurant completely gluten-free.
The menu, which has something to please every taste, recently earned high praise from the Southern Arizona Celiac Support Group's GF Lunch Bunch, which meets at a different restaurant on the second Friday of every month.
"It was stellar," said Patricia Hirsch, one of about 20 Lunch Bunchers who packed the place. She's since returned and ordered tamales by the dozen to take home and freeze. "They also have good gluten-free chips and salsas."
The 55-year-old said the lunches are fun and she likes discovering new places. She also praised organizer Colleen Beaman's efforts to educate restaurants about the specific needs of people who are gluten-intolerant. The group, which requires RSVPs, has scheduled its next lunch at the Chantilly Tea Room at 5185 N. Genematas Drive.
Lunch Bunch went to Tucson Tamale after a group member raved about the food in a posting to the Web site's dining guide, and called the employees "extraordinarily helpful and friendly."
Postings typically include advice on what to order, and sometimes whom to talk to at specific restaurants.
The Web site also urges users "to be cautious and rigorous when ordering" because owners, chefs and menus can change, and reminds diners to never be afraid to ask questions about their food and how it's prepared."
Wilson said she frequently gets comments and questions from people who are considering a trip to Tucson.
WIlson recently enjoyed her first egg roll in years thanks to the efforts of Darryl Wong at the Lotus Garden. Wong worked with her to create what he calls a "Mexican-Chinese egg roll" using teff, an African grain.
Wong said he learned about celiac disease from a friend, and has since educated himself. It is just one of many special dietary requests his family's restaurant accommodates. Eighty percent of the menu is made to order.
"You have to change for the market. The market can't change for you. You have to evolve," said Wong, whose parents, Thomas and Lillian Wong, opened Lotus Garden, at 5975 E. Speedway, 41 years ago. It's the oldest Chinese restaurant in Tucson owned by the same family, and likely the first to create gluten-free offerings.
While there is not enough demand to keep teff on hand, Wong said he will buy it for a diner who gives him enough advance notice. The restaurant does keep gluten-free soy sauce on hand.
Wong said he recognizes there is a larger, and growing, demand. And he also sees that people appreciate the effort and tell others. "They are so tired of eating at home. They want to be pampered," he said.
If you go
Gluten-Free Food Faire
• What: Sample gluten-free fare from the Lotus Garden and Tucson Tamale Company, in addition to such vendors as Gluten-Free Creations Bakery, Organic Bistro, Sunflower Farmers Market and New Life Health Center. You can also talk with a Southern Arizona Celiac Support volunteer about dining out. Silent auction items include certificates from P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Pei Wei, Feast Tasteful Takeout and the Eclectic Cafe.
The group also is offering free screening for the disease. Pre-registration on the Web site, www.southernarizonaceliac support.org, is required.
• When: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. May 9.
• Where: Christ Community Church, 7801 E. Kenyon Drive.
• Cost: Free.
• Bring the kids: There will be face- painting and a jumping castle, in addition to gluten-free treats.
• Opt for restaurants where chefs make items from scratch, using fresh ingredients. They're typically more knowledgeable about diet and special needs. Consider calling the chef ahead of time.
• The kitchen or waitstaff should be able tell you if a menu items contain wheat or gluten, and may offer substitutions or modifications.
• Call or visit and leave written information on the gluten-free diet requirements with the chef.
• Go out of your way to thank the chef and staff for their efforts. A good tip will also show your appreciation.
Source: Southern Arizona Celiac Support