Gluten-Free Without (Much) Misery
Eating in Austin with a wheat allergy
By Jessi Cape, Fri., Feb. 3, 2023
Last summer I decided to finally address my lifelong year-round "seasonal" allergies. Fortunate to have insurance that mostly covered the adventure, my first "skin prick" test had been decades in the making. Little did I know, about a year after retiring as the Chronicle's Food editor – a role defined by glorious feasts – my renaissance would feature an extensive overhaul of nearly every single morsel in my diet. Science offered the sweet relief of validation that I wasn't dramatic or overreacting, and in fact had been underreacting my whole life.
The test results, you wonder? Well, basically I'm allergic to air and food; light and water are fine. In all seriousness: To a known anaphylactic allergy to one tropical fruit and a now-confirmed supersized battery of environmental allergies, I add a not-life-threatening-but-definitely-intense wheat allergy. The reactive list also includes barley, hops, malt, and yeast, plus sensitivities to soy and cow's milk, among other things. Are you chuckling yet? That was my first reaction – instant gut-busting laughter – then curiosity: Does everyone's tested and "scraped" back look as if they'd been pelted by angry red paintballs on a grid? NO. Could this little lightbulb of mine explain why I felt like a pile of poisoned compost every day? YES.
Having a wheat allergy is different from celiac disease, but the range of symptoms can be just as severe, including anaphylaxis for some. (I'm not a doctor or scientist, but essentially: A wheat allergy occurs when your body produces antibodies to attack the invader proteins found in wheat; with celiac disease, a specific protein in wheat – gluten – causes an autoimmune reaction.) Even on the spectrum's mild side, an intolerance to wheat and its many derivatives can make an allergic person feel absolutely awful, with symptoms including nasal congestion, digestive issues, bloat, fatigue, etc. (Imagine the suffering when combined with our locally infamous cedar fever!) Allergy shots are a viable option for some and an EpiPen is essential for severe cases, but overall, the best remedy is to avoid wheat ... easier said than done.
In my ongoing examination of not just what and how I eat but why, I'm grateful to have so many options here in Austin. So here I am, eight-ish months later, with an assortment of delicious ways to – by choice or necessity – avoid wheat around town and at home. It's absolutely not all-inclusive, and I am here for your recommendations. Perhaps most importantly: If I've ever been a jerk about "voluntarily" choosing a gluten-free (easier to explain than wheat-free) diet before my diagnosis, mea culpa. Truly.
When you're jogging toward wheat-freedom, it can be easier to whittle down the surprisingly endless "what to eat" options by cuisine. Focus on the protein- and produce-forward options and you're already in good shape. When cooking at home, check substitution guides for ingredients you can swap without much effect on flavor or technique – there are more than you'd think! If you are struggling during the fight for reduced allergy attacks, remember the first rule of Wheat-Free Club: We don't talk about the screwups. We just do our best.
No Need to Dine With the Devil
We're incredibly lucky to enjoy countless groceries, markets, restaurants, and bakeries in Austin that understand the wheat-free assignment, though not all are dedicated gluten-free like Wilder Wood, the 100% dedicated gluten-free restaurant with chicken-fried steak, waffles, cider, and everything else you crave. In the interest of space, here's a smattering of other recommendations.
Many West African dishes feature wheat-free starches like plantains, hominy, sweet potato, and cassava. One native superfood, fonio, is an ancient gluten-free millet that can be used in place of couscous. Pick some up at Whole Foods and try a Senegalese mango fonio salad. From the continent's Eastern coast, Habesha Ethiopian Restaurant is a must: The best way to scoop doro tibs (sautéed spiced chicken) is with injera – a big and thin, round and spongy sourdough flatbread made from teff, a naturally gluten-free lovegrass native to Ethiopia/Eritrea.
Japanese cuisine is delicate, bold, and complicated, and it's one of my favorites, but there are traps! When you opt for sushi (nigiri or sashimi), mind the wheat-laden soy sauce and miso. Noodles? Avoid ramen, soba, udon, yakisoba; opt for rice or any of the options listed below. Fried delights? Ask about the batter; cross your fingers for a gluten-free tempura, which is delicious. Komé, an Airport Boulevard mainstay, has a big selection of noted gluten-free items, including soy sauce. Their sashimi lunch is one of the best steals in town.
Thai food most often gets its umami boost from fish sauce, not soy, and rice noodles are the standard, so go nuts for tom yum, pad thai, or a green curry. Get dinner at Thai Fresh and make sure to try the salty caramel brownie, one that just happens to use a house-made mix containing rice flour, tapioca starch, and potato starch. Many Indian main courses are easily wheat-free fare and Tarka Indian Kitchen is fast-casual but damn good. There's no "missing out" with their long list of options including tikka masala fries, vegetable pakora, and mango cheesecake. Another flavor powerhouse, Spain, gave the world tortilla española and paella, and many dishes boast seasonal veggies, cured meats, beans, and carbs on the side. Explore the gluten-free tapas options at Barlata.
Latin foods boast the classic combo of rice, beans, and corn. And never forget the Brazilian geniuses who created pão de queijo, or tapioca cheese balls, which you can find in the freezer section of your nearest H-E-B or Central Market. If you go the Tex-Mex route, your best bet is a fajita platter full of proteins and veggies with corn tortillas. Beware: Not all corn torts are made equal, so a good rule of thumb is that if it's not handmade, it's a sneaky wheat risk. ATX Cocina is a 100% dedicated gluten-free fine dining restaurant that delivers incredible Mexican-inspired fare, including queso fundido (I love you 3,000).
Speaking of grilled meats, popular dishes on Greek and Middle Eastern menus are an easy herbed-and-spiced win, but be wary of falafel, which often has wheaty binders. (I know it's from Cali, but the Kebab Shop is so approachable and delish.) I'll not name-drop barbecue spots because I don't want to incite a riot, but generally speaking, choices exist if you avoid the soppin' bread and cobbler and inquire about the sauce. Opt for smoked turkey and vinegar-based slaw.
Pizza is another hot-button topic, but mission-critical in my world, so I'll just say this: Via 313, Local Slice, and ABGB all have recommendable gluten-free crusts. If there's a tipping point: Pinthouse has hard kombucha (JuneShine) on tap. Beyond pizza, Intero Restaurant offers a lovely selection of wheat-free Italian dishes, including handmade pasta with house-made gluten-free flour, plus a focus on zero-waste and chocolate expertise.
I'm only mentioning Schlotzsky's, the Austin-based chain, because if you find yourself on a road surrounded by fast-food joints, their gluten-free buns are remarkably tasty and excel in their role. Burrata House's first location outside of Los Angeles lured me with the ooey gooey promise of burrata, and I was pleased. Gluten-free bread is available for the panini, and you can substitute quinoa for the farro in the bowls. We're team Quality Seafood for life: Don't bother looking at the rest of the menu, because all you need to remember is that peel-and-eat shrimp and fat Gulf oysters don't have a single iota of wheat. And they've got one helluva fish market to boot.
I think if there's one thing everyone embarking on this journey fears, it's that you'll never be able to enjoy your favorite dessert again. False! In fact, if anything, I've been happily baking again (or at least assembling the incredible Krusteaz gluten-free line of boxed mixes) and seeking out new sweet treats.
Frozen desserts are fairly wheat-free-easy, and a few local faves include Luv Fats Ice Cream (avocado and coconut milk base), Gati (100% gluten-free ice cream and baked goods), and Jim-Jim's Water-Ice (gluten-free, a million flavors). Custards and other eggy delights are a solid bet, so maybe wear your best to-be-seen-in outfit and order the crème brûlée at Justine's Brasserie, huh?
Love & Cookies is a small, Lakeway-based, mail-order cookie (and dough) biz that won H-E-B's 2022 Quest for Texas Best contest, which means their Whitney (oatmeal, raisin, and spice) gluten-free cookies are available on shelves! When you've got gluten-free pastries on the mind and shopping for cool home goods in a lovely showroom on the agenda, newcomer Maaribu is your goal. Get thee to OMG Squee, the 100% dedicated GF shop, and order everything: mooncakes, lemon butter mochi donuts, and any flavor of macaron they've got.
Austin has a ton of local chocolates; just aim for the pure cacao varieties like Joaihu Chocolate. Also, flourless chocolate tortes are a chocolate lover's dream! If you too have been missing the delicious, sophisticated meringues from Fluff Meringues, please share any recos for local makers of the naturally gluten-free wonders.
Snacks That Don’t Attack
Snacks don't have to be garbage, or relegated to popcorn, because we've got top-notch consumer packaged goods in Austin. Toodaloo Trail Mix, for example, is a newish local startup founded by Cattie Khoury. Each of the five flavors is delicious – and plant-based, non-GMO, gluten-free, dairy-free, and grain-free, with zero processed sugars, refined canola, or palm oil – and every bag contributes to organic regenerative farming. You know, so someday we can escape the monoculture death spiral?
The ATX-based snack food company You Go! just launched a "healthy" keto (thereby wheat-free) chip, which is excellent news for salsa fiends like me. The grain-free chip royals, Siete Foods, are the Austin original responsible for my crunch-crack, cinnamon Churro Strips. Insert big heart-eyes emoji.
Frozen cheese pizza isn't technically a snack, unless a middle-schooler is involved, but it is the ultimate comfort food. The H-E-B brand MightyCrust pies are pretty tasty at a great price. Nonlocally, CauliPower 'zas are saucy and yum; Cali'flour Foods pizza crusts are worth keeping around for either pizza or actual pie crusts, but they taste healthier than we usually dig.
That's the thing about this journey: If you don't find ways to tailor your revamped eating style to your cravings and needs, it won't stick. But when you start to feel more like a fully functioning human again, those dietary tweaks and adjustments soon become life-affirming habits that just might offer enough renewed energy to tackle the next phase of your self-improvement journey. Or not. Either way, embrace change and give yourself hella grace.
Wet Your Wheat-Free Whistle
Alcohol is a minefield for us wheat-free-zers. Here's a breakdown of what you can safely imbibe.
Seltzers: White Claws and most other hard seltzers are gluten-free, but things way down on the mystery ingredient list could be tricky, because their alcohol comes from fermented sugars derived from a blend of grains (including malt, corn, and wheat). Glucose in general "might contain wheat" and malt is derived from barley, so, yeah.
Tequila: Traditional tequila made entirely from the blue agave plant is naturally gluten- and wheat-free. Cheap "mixto" brands might be a different story. Some of my go-to brands are Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's Teremana Small Batch, Casa Dragones (co-owned by Mexico's first official maestra tequilera), Tequila 512 (local), and Clase Azul (for fancy nights). And I've heard of Lucky Stash – a new local hemp tequila – but haven't had the probable pleasure yet.
Sake: The nuance of sake is akin to wine, and like tequila, the wheat-/gluten-free status depends on quality. Basically it's four ingredients: sake rice, water, yeast, and koji (a type of mold that grows on rice ... and other grains, hence the technical toss-up). Choose a "junmai" and you're probably okay, but it's not guaranteed. We have a local maker: Texas Saké Co.!
Vodka: Because it's distilled from either wheat, rye, or potatoes, this spirit can get tricky, but it's a good option. Local global superstar Tito's Vodka is distilled from corn in copper pots.
Gin: Same deal as vodka and tequila. That said, risk or not, my favorite watering hole, the Silver Medal, carries original and cranberry flavors of the canned Finnish Long Drink, a gin-based bubbly delight.
Whiskey: The Celiac Disease Foundation considers whiskey gluten-free, but many severely allergic folks take issue because it's made from any number of grains. You could opt for corn whiskey, but I do not. Tell me your wheat-free whiskey secrets!
Wine: Yes, grapes are fine. It's the old-school (vintage?) wheat-paste-sealed barrels and potential fining process contamination that get weird. If your allergy is severe, try natural wines and seek sommeliers' advice, but otherwise you're probably fine. Oh, and wine coolers? Hard pass.
Beer/Cider: Well, it's definitely a situation. Austin Beerworks' website explains their famously "clear" beers are about half the federal limit for parts per million, the gluten measurement, but because of the origin ingredients, legally they cannot proclaim gluten-free. But, Austin Eastciders' cider is gluten-free!
Ride the Gravy Train, Carefully
Pat yourself on the back because this journey is worth the effort, but it's not easy. A few surprising wheaty land mines to watch out for:
Carbs (see below)
Oats (some brands)
Thickened sauces and soups; bouillon and roux
Use Your (Buckwheat) Noodle
If you have some flexibility with a mild wheat allergy, there is a chance that heirloom, organic, ancient varietals could be an option. I highly recommend you consult with your doctor and/or dietitian, but look into Barton Springs Mill, whose beautiful breads I recall fondly. By the way, buckwheat is not a wheat, it's a member of the knotweed family related to rhubarb, so chow down! Some soba noodles are 100% buckwheat and lovely. H-E-B, Central Market, and Costco all have great gluten-free options, and here are some alternative carbs for you to cut out or screenshot as a handy shopping guide:
Plant-based noodles: edamame, mung bean, yam/sweet potato, shirataki, kelp, veggies (zoodles!)
Flours: tapioca, oat, almond, potato, cassava, rice
Tortillas: real corn, cauliflower, almond, cassava