Ulster County, New York

At the beginning of July, I had the good luck to spend a few days in a scenic spot a couple of hours north of New York City. New York State’s Ulster County is home to lovely hiking trails, gorgeous waterways — perfect for canoeing — and some truly fine food. I was pleasantly surprised to find how celiac-friendly local businesses are. Here are a few of the gems I visited:

The Big Cheese (402 Main Street, Rosendale, [tel] 845-658-7175): located on Rosendale’s main drag, next to its theater, this eclectic shop has an impressive assortment of cheeses from around the world. It also boasts hot sandwiches, and offers a gluten-free option (as the board on the wall says, “For gluten-free, we usually have corn tortillas available.” There are also fresh-baked goods that change daily — when I was in, there were gluten-free lemon coconut squares. At the back of the store is an eclectic collection of vintage clothing, accessories, books, and art.

The Alternative Baker (407 Main Street, Rosendale, [tel] 845-658-3355): Across the street from The Big Cheese is this sweet bakery, which offers a terrific range of desserts. There are plenty of gluten-free treats (the bakery is aware of potential cross-contamination issues and avoids them), as well as dairy-free and vegan options, and even a few sugar-free goods.

Saunderskill Farms (5100 RT 209, Accord, NY, [tel] 845-626-2676): Situated a ways outside of town, this small market offers a phenomenal array of celiac-safe groceries (from breads and bagels to snacks and frozen dinners). There’s also a fresh-baked gluten-free treat of the day — blueberry muffins, on the day I was there. There’s a wealth of fresh produce, too, plus a gorgeous greenhouse filled with blooming flowers.

The Arbor Bed & Breakfast (44 Mohonk Road, High Falls, NY, [tel] 845-687-9888): for two nights of my stay, I was at this pretty, well-maintained B&B. The owner, Nancy, was happy to whip up a gluten-free omelette for me at breakfast, which I really appreciated.

So, where are you traveling this summer? Let me know if you make any great gluten-free finds!

Lessons From the Road

I’m back from my book tour for THE DAMAGE DONE! The past couple of months have been a whirlwind. My debut novel came out on September 28th, and I had a party that night in New York City. Since then, I’ve attended two conferences (Bouchercon and Noircon), had bookstore and/or library events in a dozen cities (including Houston, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, Pittsburgh and Toronto), and had six events in New York City alone. Also, I was writing my second novel, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, which will be published by Forge in fall 2011 (I turned the manuscript in to my editor last Wednesday). There’s been a lot of work on the publicity front, too. This past weekend, I was honored to discover that the Los Angeles Times featured THE DAMAGE DONE as one the the books the paper is recommending for the holidays. Reviews of the book have been wonderful. There are also a number of interviews with me (many include coverage of the Gluten-Free Guidebook as well).

As tiring as it is to be on the road so much, there was a lot that was wonderful about it, too. I’ve had the chance to collect information about a lot of great restaurants, bakeries and shops, and I’ll be writing about those over the next few weeks. I also had the chance to meet some Gluten-Free Guidebook readers, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. Some observations from the last few weeks:

  • Phoenix/Scottsdale Is a Great Destination for Gluten-Free Foodies: I was expecting to find terrific Mexican cooking here (and I found it), but I didn’t realize just how diverse and sophisticated the dining scene is in Phoenix and Scottsdale. One tip-off: Phoenix Magazine, which had its “Best New Restaurants” issue on newsstands while I was in town; its list of hotspots included the Pomegranate Café ([address] 4025 E. Chandler Blvd., Suite 28, Phoenix [tel] 480-706-7472 [web] www.pomegranatecafe.com), which offers vegetarian, vegan, and raw dishes. Not everything there is gluten-free (there are spelt tortillas, for example), but most of it is, including a decadent cheesecake.
  • People Are Very Kind: I was surprised, over and over again, by how thoughtful people were. Just after I arrived in San Francisco, a writer friend (Joshua Corin, author of WHILE GALILEO PREYS) sent me a message about a gluten-free bakery he’d found in the Ferry Building (the wonderful Mariposa Baking Co., which I’ll have more to say about later). Before I went to Los Angeles, another writer friend (Rebecca Cantrell, author of A NIGHT OF LONG KNIVES) recommended a restaurant across the street from The Mystery Bookstore, where I was reading. A friend of a friend passed along recommendations for Houston. In Pittsburgh, the lovely couple that owns Mystery Lovers Bookshop researched gluten-free restaurants in the area so that they could take me out to dinner while I was in town. While I was in Phoenix/Scottsdale, I got to meet the lovely Liisa (who wrote a Reader Report about her trip to Hawaii a while back), and she gave me a list of very accommodating local restaurants.
  • Still, Never Travel Unprepared: My hotel in Houston, the Four Points Sheraton, left a lot to be desired. That was especially true on the food front. As one employee said to me, when I started to ask about gluten-free options: “What, do you want me to explain what’s in a steak to you?” I was very glad I had protein bars, pistachios, and fruit along with me.
  • Fast Food Chains Are Catching On: At Houston’s Hobby Airport, my only dining option turned out to be Wendy’s, which offers gluten-free salads. At Philadelphia’s Central Station, I was able to pick up dinner at Cosi. At Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, I was able to have dinner at Paradise Bakery Café. To tell the truth, the employees at each of these places didn’t know what gluten-free was and had to get a manager, but each turned out to have a list (in Cosi’s case, a giant binder) of nutritional information for people with food allergies or gluten intolerance.

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If you’d like to read THE DAMAGE DONE, the first three chapters are available for free online. The book is available from independent mystery booksellers across North America, as well as from IndieBoundAmazonBarnes & NobleBordersPowell’s, and — in Canada — Indigo/Chapters. Signed copies are available from The Mystery BookstoreMurder by the BookThe Poisoned Pen, and The Mysterious Bookshop.

On the Road With Author Rebecca Cantrell

According to her website, “a few years ago Rebecca Cantrell quit her job, sold her house, and moved to Hawaii to write a novel because, at seven, she decided that she would be a writer.” It turns out that was a very wise idea. Cantrell’s debut novel, A Trace of Smoke, was widely acclaimed when it was published in 2009, and it went on to win the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Its sequel, A Night of Long Knives, came out in June (both novels are published by Forge, which is also my publisher). Thanks to Twitter, I discovered that she is also on a gluten-free diet, and since she was just on a book tour across the U.S., it seemed like a terrific time to talk to her about it. For more information about Rebecca Cantrell’s books, check out her website.

I read A Trace of Smoke and loved it. Your new novel, A Night of Long Knives is waiting in my TBR pile. For people who haven’t encountered the Hannah Vogel mysteries yet, how would you describe the books?
I’m glad to hear that you loved it! The Hannah Vogel books follow one woman through pre-World War II Berlin. Hannah tries to fight the Nazi Party, protect those she loves and bring out the stories of those being crushed by the rising regime. They are painstakingly researched literary historical mysteries. And they have some funny bits too.

You’ve written a book for young adults as well, under the name Bekka Black. Can you tell us about that?
I certainly can! My next project is called iDrakula. It’s a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula using only text messages, voicemails, emails, photos, and web browsers—basically it’s as if you stole Mina Murray’s cell phone and read through it to watch her unmask and battle Dracula. It’s not just a new storytelling method, though, it’s also a brand new delivery system: iDrakula comes out first on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch (in a week, I can hardly believe it’s finally almost here!) and then as a beautifully designed print book. The early reviews are quite positive, and Kirkus Reviews says: “Black brings Bram into the modern age with e-mails, smart phones and websites, all while preserving the brooding heart and vicious nature of Dracula, the literary ur-vampire….Mina’s heartfelt final e-mail to Lucy blends a traditional goodbye with the ephemeral nature of today’s digital technology.”

How long have you been on a gluten-free diet, and how difficult was the transition for you?
I’ve been on a wheat- and oat-free diet for about 13 months, and the transition was awful! The first two weeks all I did was mope around in mourning for bread and pastries. Then I got hold of myself and started trying to discover what I could eat, which must have been plenty as I’m still around.

You were on your book tour for A Night of Long Knives recently. Was that your first big trip since going on the gluten-free diet? How did you prepare for it?
It was my first long trip since I found out. I’ve done 4-5 day stints, but for the A Night of Long Knives tour I was away from home for a month. I stocked up on Zone bars (peanut butter) and made myself a few bags of my favorite snack food (dried apricots, pecans, and dark chocolate chips). Then I resigned myself to eating a lot of chicken Caesar salad, since most restaurants have it and so long as I skip the croutons I can actually eat it.

The thing that was the hardest was explaining to everyone I ordered food from that I was really allergic to wheat and oat and tomatoes (plus a variety of other stuff). It got very old, very fast and I constantly felt like Sally from When Harry Met Sally. Almost everyone was really wonderful about it, but I hate asking for special meals even though I pretty much have to these days.

Where did you go on your book tour, and were there any restaurants and/or hotels that did a really great job at taking care of a gluten-free guest? I seem to remember you tweeting about a castle in Colorado…
I hit 10 cities: Phoenix, Arizona; Encino and Westwood, CA (Los Angeles area); San Diego, CA; San Mateo and Tiburon (San Francisco area); New York; Chicago; Milwaukee; and Denver.

Au Bon Pain in Westwood (right across the street from The Mystery Bookstore) had a great quinoa salad that was quick, tasty, and filling. Bar Breton in Manhattan had tons of gluten-free items clearly marked on their menu (hooray!). And Castle Marne in Denver went out of their way to make me a tasty gluten-free breakfast: from my own scones to my own bread. It was all delicious and I was very touched! I also have to thank Jerrle Gericke who made me delicious gluten-free peanut butter cookies when I stayed with her. She gave me a box to take with me and that helped me through those hours I was stuck in O’Hare airport.

What was the toughest thing about traveling gluten-free?
Until I realized I was allergic to wheat, I never noticed how many events have only wheat foods. So, it’s tough when you go to your special debut author breakfast and they have a wide selection of muffins, croissants, and pastries you can’t eat. Often this gets followed up by lunchtime events filled with tons of sandwiches and then a few wraps that you can’t eat either. I ended up eating a lot of Zone bars and fruit. The worst experience was when I was stuck in the LaGuardia airport for several unplanned hours and the only thing I found I could eat was a boiled egg (man, was I ever grateful for that egg!) and I’d run out of my own snacks because it was near the end of my tour.

What things do you always bring with you when you travel?
My apricot/pecan/chocolate chip trail mix, my iPhone (cannot travel without it. I even dedicated iDrakula to my phone), my netbook, and a couple of pashminas.

You live in Hawaii, which is many readers’ dream destination. Have you found restaurants/shops near you that you’d recommend to others?
I like the Keei Café up in Kainaliu. Their buckwheat noodles are gluten free and tasty, but their open hours are odd, so it’s best to check before you go.

What’s your own dream destination to visit?
Berlin in 1931. Failing that, Berlin now. And Barcelona. And China. Also Japan. Really anywhere with good food and soft pillows.

Do you have any other advice for gluten-intolerant travelers? Also, any readings or conference appearances coming up?
Pack a meal before you leave the house and be prepared to spend hours more at the airport and on the plane than you think (after I was delayed on my way to Chicago, I got delayed again on the way out and this time we were stuck in the plane for three hours with only those snack boxes full of wheaty treats to eat). Of the 10 flights I took, two were delayed by more than three hours.

As for appearances, I’ll be at Bouchercon in San Francisco from October 14-17 and also will be launching iDrakula at the Books, Inc. book store in the Laurel Heights area of San Francisco at 5 pm on October 17. Please come! If they let me serve food, at least some of it will be gluten-free!

Reader Report: Austin, Texas

Every Reader Report that comes into my mailbox is a welcome find, but Susan Mack’s report on gluten-free Austin is extraordinary. While I knew that the capital city of Texas was a paradise for music-lovers (Asleep at the Wheel, one of my favorite bands, is based there), I had no idea it was a mecca for gluten-intolerant people, too. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to use the information in Susan’s report when I visit Texas on my book tour in October. (I’ll be discussing and signing my debut mystery novel, The Damage Done, at Houston’s Murder by the Book on Saturday, October 30th at 5pm; I’m hoping to add an Austin event to my schedule soon.) A huge round of applause for Susan’s incredibly helpful report, and a heartfelt thank-you to her for taking the time to share so much information!

Susan’s Report on Austin, Texas: Gluten-Free Mecca

I’ve lived in Austin for seven years, and have had to go gluten-free in the past six months. In talking to friends from other cities, I have to say that if you have to be gluten-free, Austin seems to be the place to do it.

If you’re looking for a vacation spot – Austin is famous for our Austin City Limits music festival in October (where you will find carnival food stands with GF options) and our SXSW music, film and interactive festival in the spring. But any weeknight of the year, you will find at least 75 live music events, several local theatre production, some UT sporting event, or a great organized athletic group. Plus, in the spring, we have wildflowers in the Texas Hill Country.

We have a plethora of good, locally owned restaurants in a wide variety of price ranges. Almost every one of them is sensitive to gluten intolerance.  There is no reason to go to a restaurant that doesn’t have a gluten-free menu. If your waiter doesn’t understand your needs – walk out.  You can find a perfectly good option within a couple blocks. And although I’ve picked out several places that I think are particularly good or sensitive – I’ve even gone to food trailers that had gluten-free lists. Almost any restaurant is going to have safe options.

We have a strong locavore culture. We’re the headquarters of Whole Foods. And until recently, the local Whole Foods was dwarfed by another store: the HEB chain flagship – Central Market. In addition, we’ve recently gotten Sprouts, the Natural Grocer, and Sunflower Farmer’s Market – all of which join the local People’s Pharmacy in delivering gluten-free options.

So, without much ado, here are some gems that you can find in Austin.

Entirely Gluten-Free Restaurants:

  • Wild Wood Art Café — 3663 Bee Caves Road, #4A Austin, Texas 78746. Wild Wood is an entirely gluten-free bakery and café. Imagine walking into a restaurant and ordering a sandwich or lasagna! But really, it is their tamales, salads and desserts that shine. Their gluten-free ding dongs are to die for — even if you didn’t want to eat ding dongs in your gluten-eating days.
  • TalkHouse — 1221 W. Sixth Ave, Austin, TX 78703.  This small café connected to a beauty salon serves food that tastes so good, you might not even notice that it’s good for you!  A raw food restaurant that is entirely gluten-free, TalkHouse is shocking. Their ‘pizza’ and chile rellenos are so good that my gluten-eating, meat-eating husband wants to eat there more often!  No gluten comes through the door.
  • MyFitFoods — Various locations. This place serves single serving meals that you can reheat in the microwave. They specialize in supporting a 21 day cleanse — but they have many quick meals that are worth saving for a hotel-room breakfast or lunch on the go. No gluten or soy enters their facilities.

Diner-ish Restaurants With Good Gluten-Free Selections

  • Galaxy Café — Various locations — A local chain run by an owner sensitive to gluten intolerance. You can get breakfast wraps in gluten-free rice tortillas and a wide variety of menu options. They can’t utterly promise to avoid cross-contamination, so they don’t claim their flourless chocolate cake is gluten-free. But if you can risk a few grains in your food it is to die for.
  • Kerby Lane Café — Various locations — One of the more extensive GF menus in town. Open 24 hours. They are sort of like a Denny’s that offers enchiladas and local produce selections. Salads are incredible, as are their enchiladas.
  • 24 Diner — 6th and Lamar — A new ‘locavore’ restaurant. They don’t have a GF menu, but can tell you what is safe. They make their own sausage in house and can tell you which farm the produce came from.
  • Counter Café — 626 N. Lamar Blvd — “Counter culture” reigns here. A small diner that serves local produce while you sit at the counter. Their eggs are absolutely to die for – as is their quail salad on the lunch menu. The hipster staff is completely aware of food intolerance issues and will very carefully cook your food separately to take care of you.

Mexican

  • Maudie’s — Various locations — Ask for the gluten-free corn chips and they will help you out. A wide variety of gluten-free options and utterly conscientious.
  • Torchy’s Tacos — Various locations — This place will make you rethink your definition of taco. They raise tacos to a gourmet form of art. And they have a list at the register of which items are and are not GF. You might have to skip the fried avocado taco, but the grilled fish, barbacoa, or green chile pork are all safe when you eat them on one of the best corn tortillas you will find.
  • Zocolo — 1110 West Lynn Ave, 78703 — Fresh Mexican? Really? This place offers goodies like vegetable stew, jicama salad and an amazing black bean soup in addition to fresh tacos and amazing enchiladas. As long as your corn tortillas stay out of their deep fryer, you have a lot of great GF options — and they are aware of cross contamination issues.

Burgers, Pizza and More

  • Terra Burger — 10611 Research Blvd. — Organic burgers. Gluten-free buns. Organic shakes made from real gluten-free ice cream. Unbreaded fries made from real potatoes. And a playscape. And a water park. Need I say more?
  • Austin’s Pizza — Various locations — Gluten-free pizza delivered. And the toppings are amazing.
  • Brick Oven on 35th — 1608 W. 35th St — This Italian restaurant advertises and offers a wide variety of gluten-free pastas and pizzas. If you want to go out, sit down and eat — this is a great option!

Four- to Five-Star Dining

  • La Condesa — 2nd and Guadalupe — If the menu is not gluten-free, they will make it so. This is one of the best restaurants in Austin and a huge part of the local food movement. They do a Mexico-City inspired Mexican Fusion cuisine that is not to be missed. And their pastry chef can put together gluten-free treats if you are interested.
  • Olivia — 2043 S. Lamar — Rated one of the best new restaurants of 2009 by Bon Appetit, this place is worth a splurge. Home-made ice cream, home-made charcuterie and just good food. They will prepare something special if you challenge them with GF.

Grocery Shopping

  • Whole Foods Corporate Headquarters — Lamar between 5th and 6th — If Whole Foods married Costco, you might get the impression of the sheer floor space of this place. With an entire grocery store aisle and an entire frozen food aisle dedicated to GF products, you can find most of what you want from cookies, to breads to beers. If a flour isn’t in the GF aisle, it might be in the standard cooking aisle. And you can find pure buckwheat soba, and GF cooking sauces in the Asian aisle. If it can be done GF, you can probably find it here.
  • Central Market — 35th and Lamar — The major competition for Whole Foods and possibly the inspiration for their floorspace. There is a full aisle and frozen section with GF goodies. They frequently host GF cooking classes for the uninitiated.
  • Fresh Plus — 12th and West Lynn — If you don’t have time for a big store, and just want to pick up some staples, this neighborhood market is very impressive. With high end cheeses, goats milk ice cream, kambucha tea and a gluten-free aisle — you will be pleasantly surprised. It looks from the front like a convenience store, but the selection is incredible. And you can get in and out in five minutes!
  • Sprouts — 2 locations — New to Austin, Sprouts Natural Foods is giving the big guys a run for their money. They recently ran a 25% off all gluten-free products special, and most of the store had GF signs all over it. Several bargains to be had from this natural foods competitor.
  • Wheatsville Co-op — In Austin for more than 30 years, this small co-op ‘gets it’ about GF. In addition to the standard products, they do ‘Wheat-free Wednesday’  where their bakery goes GF and they sell home-made goodies.

Welcome to ThrillerFest

One of my favorite events of the year is about to begin: ThrillerFest, a conference that has been described as “summer camp for thriller readers, fans, writers and industry professionals.” It brings some of my favorite writers to the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Manhattan for four days, starting this Wednesday, July 7th. (The first two days are for CraftFest and AgentFest, targeted at writers who are working on thrillers; Friday and Saturday are for readers and writers alike). Featured authors include Linda Fairstein, Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, Gayle Lynds, Joseph Finder, Sophie Littlefield, Rebecca Cantrell… well, you get the idea. It’s quite a line-up. This year, I’ll be on a panel, too: “How Do You Pack for a Thriller?” — about using international settings in your fiction — will take place on Friday, July 9th at 11am. (If you weren’t aware of ThrillerFest but want to attend, you can still register for Friday and Saturday.)

One writer who is attending ThrillerFest asked me — via Twitter — about where to dine gluten-free in New York. This seemed like a perfect time to mention some of my favorite Manhattan spots. If you’re visiting New York this summer, you won’t want to miss these:

Bistango: Almost every item on the menu of this Italian restaurant in Murray Hill can be prepared in a gluten-free version. There’s plenty of gluten-free pizza and pasta dishes, as well as meatier offerings like  rack of lamb. What really makes a meal at Bistango stand out is the graciousness of its staff. The owner, Anthony, goes back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen, talking to everyone and making sure that diners are comfortable. This is a gem. [web] www.bistangonyc.com

Rosa Mexicano: My favorite Mexican restaurant in Manhattan now has a separate gluten-free menu. (The gluten-free menus are available at all three of Rosa Mexicano’s Manhattan locations, though the one at the original First Avenue spot is a little different from the others.) There’s a long list of options, but my favorite main dish is the Budín de Pollo, a decadent tortilla pie filled with layers of chicken, peppers, and cheese. There are also amazing — and rather strong — pomegranate margaritas. [web] www.rosamexicano.com

Risotteria: The bad news is that Risotteria doesn’t do reservations. When the wait gets extremely long, sometimes the waitstaff comes outside with gluten-free breadsticks, guaranteeing that you’ll hang around. The food is stellar, and the many celiac-safe options run the gamut from Caesar salad to mushroom risotto, and from pizza to panini. All of the desserts are gluten-free, and they are divine. [web] www.risotteria.com

There are also two bakeries that I want to mention. Both of them deliver to addresses in the continental U.S., though not all of their products are available this way. If you can, check them out in person:

BabyCakes NYC: This Lower East Side bakery is famous for its organic, vegan, and gluten-free options, but keep in mind that the treats made with spelt are not safe for celiacs or the gluten-intolerant (though they’re a great option for wheat-allergic people). I’m wild about the cupcake tops, but other options include cookie sandwiches, crumb cakes, and banana bread. [web] www.babycakesnyc.com

Tu-Lu’s Gluten-Free Bakery: Formerly known as Tully’s, this East Village bakery is entirely gluten-free. I’m hopelessly addicted to their brownies, which are the best I’ve had in a long time. There are also cupcakes and a variety of cookies, including oatmeal, cranberry, and classic chocolate chip. [web] www.tu-lusbakery.com

Roundup: Contest and More Tips From Readers

The Gluten-Free Guidebook is having its first-ever Reader Report Contest (check out this post to enter). I’ve received questions about it from some readers, and I wanted to answer them here, in case others are wondering the same thing. It’s perfectly fine to send a list of your favorite celiac-safe restaurants and shops, without actually “reviewing” each one. Some Reader Reports that are already on the site are actually lists like that, and they’re very helpful to people. The Reader Report can be about anywhere in the world, and it’s perfectly alright to write about a destination already featured on the site. There’s always new information to share. I look forward to reading your entries!

Contest aside, several readers have sent me tips about gluten-free restaurants and bakeries via e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook, and I want to pass these along. I’m always grateful when people take the time to share information, and I know that these tips will help many others.

Kathy, a reader in Montreal, visited New York a few weeks ago, and wrote to tell me about a restaurant she’d enjoyed: Emporio. She described it as having a “great GF menu, helpful staff and wonderful atmosphere.” I haven’t tried it yet but plan to. ([address] 231 Mott Street; [tel] 212-966-1234; [web] www.auroraristorante.com)

Chelsea, a reader in Toronto, wrote: “The Starving Artist cafe/waffle bar in Toronto (near Bloor/Lansdowne) has really awesome gluten-free (and vegan) waffles. You can substitute the GF waffles in any of their waffle meals/desserts.” That’s another place on my list of places to try. ([address] 584 Lansdowne Avenue; [tel] 647-342-5058; [web] www.starvingartistbar.com)

My friend Henny Groenendijk, also based in Toronto, told me about a new gluten-free bakery in Oakville, Ontario. It’s called Voila Gluten Free Bakeree ([address] 22 Lakeshore West, Unit 6; [tel] 289-837-0110; [web] www.voilaglutenfreebakeree.com).

Another friend, Margaret Littman, told me about Fifth Group Restaurants, a company in Atlanta, Georgia, that recently launched gluten-free menus at each of its five restaurants: El Taco, Ecco, La Tavola Trattoria, and South City Kitchen (which has two locations). From the company’s official statement: “We are dedicated to giving our guests as many dining options as possible – and that includes options for those with dietary restrictions. It’s another step in striving to satisfy our current patrons and potential new diners, and with a rise in celiac disease diagnoses, I think it’s a big step that we absolutely must take.”

It’s always exciting to see more places offer gluten-free options. What have you found lately?

NYC’s Rosa Mexicano Goes Gluten-Free

I’ve mentioned Rosa Mexicano before: it’s one of my favorite restaurants in New York, and definitely a spot for a celebration. But on my latest visit, I wasn’t exactly celebrating. My husband took me there to cheer me up after I’d had some minor surgery for a possible skin cancer. When we had dinner, we were still waiting for the biopsy results.

I’ve never given much thought to melanoma, mostly because I am not a person who tans. Ever. I have pale Irish skin, and I wear sunscreen every day, even in winter. A few months ago, I noticed that I had a couple of new moles, and I went to a dermatologist to have them checked out. The doctor examined and measured them, and assured me that they weren’t a problem. Then she did a full-body mole check. She identified a couple of moles that were suspicious, and removed the larger of the two that day. It was biopsied and turned out to be fine. I only went back to have the second mole removed a month ago. Small as it was, it turned out to be filled with severely dysplastic cells, which the lab flagged as aggressive. The result was that I needed some minor, in-office surgery to remove the surrounding tissue over my left bicep. It wasn’t difficult or painful, but it required ten stitches to close.

My husband chose Rosa Mexicano for dinner because we’ve been there many times. He knew that there were a number of gluten-free items on the menu, even though they weren’t identified as such (forcing me to double-check on each visit that the dishes were still celiac-safe). On this most recent visit, I had a very pleasant surprise: Rosa Mexicano has introduced a separate gluten-free menu. Given how many options are on it, it’s a wonder that they didn’t do it sooner. (The gluten-free menus are available at all three of Rosa Mexicano’s Manhattan locations, though the one at the original First Avenue spot is a little different from the others.) I’m embarrassed to admit that, this time around, I stuck to my tried-and-true favorites, including the pomegranate margarita and the Budín de Pollo, a decadent tortilla pie filled with layers of chicken, peppers, and cheese.

The discovery made my evening. The next day, I found out that the biopsied tissue was given the all-clear. I’m still feeling very grateful about that. If you’ve never had your skin checked out by a dermatologist, please do.

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On March 31st, I was thrilled to learn that my crime story “Insatiable” is a finalist for a Spinetingler Award in the “Best Short Story” category. “Insatiable” originally ran in Beat to a Pulp in September 2009. Voting on the Spinetingler Awards is open to the public until April 30, 2010, and requires no registration. Links to all of the nominated stories are on the ballot. I hope that you’ll stop by, read the contenders, and vote.

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Speaking of crime, several writer friends decided to have a flash fiction challenge about how I really got that new scar over my bicep. I owe a huge thank you to everyone who took part: Eric Beetner, Chris F. Holm, A.J. Hayes, Naomi Johnson, Chris La Tray, Ellen Neuborne, Steve Weddle, and especially Dan O’Shea, who instigated the challenge in the first place (there was also one anonymous entry). I couldn’t have dreamed up a better get-well gift. Thank you all.

On the Road With Daphne Oz

Last October, I was excited to find an excellent article on Oprah’s website about gluten intolerance. The author was Daphne Oz, daughter of Oprah’s favorite health expert, Dr. Mehmet Oz. Daphne, who graduated from Princeton in  2008, is an author in her own right: in 2006, she published The Dorm Room Diet, which is being re-released in an expanded and revised edition this September; in 2007, she wrote The Dorm Room Diet Planner. She is also co-author of the bestselling books You: The Owner’s Manual, You: The Smart Patient, You: On a Diet, You: Staying Young, and You: Being Beautiful. Last year, after experiencing health issues that ranged from sleep problems to weight fluctuations, Daphne followed the advice of a naturopathic, Ayurvedic doctor who recommended that she cut gluten from her diet. While tests have shown that she doesn’t have celiac disease, Daphne noticed her health improve on the gluten-free diet. She’s currently at work on a self-improvement book about conscious living.

How often do you travel? I am a total gypsy. In October and November, I was living in Chicago, but now I’m back in New York. Recently I’ve also traveled to Florida, Philadelphia, Maine, California, and England.

What foods or snacks do you pack when traveling? There are some staples that I always bring with me, like pistachio nuts. My dad has really drilled home the nuts issue! They’re a great snack. I also bring apples and soy crisps. Generally, I prefer to eat food I’ve brought with me, rather than what’s served on a plane.

What other things do you always bring with you? I’ve assembled a travel pack because I’m on the road so much. I bring hand sanitizer, facial moisturizer, lip balm, and a full-size pillow — those tiny pillows they give you on planes just don’t work for me. I bring my iPod and a bunch of magazines, like Oprah and Vogue.

Any favorite restaurants? I absolutely love a New York restaurant called Peasant. They serve fresh fish with just a little olive oil and sage. There’s no gluten-free menu, but the food prep is so simple that many dishes are naturally gluten-free. There’s another place in New York, Fatty Crab, that I really like. They serve Malaysian cuisine and have amazing coconut-milk broths. In Los Angeles, I always go to the Newsroom Café, which does great vegetarian food, and the LA Mill, a coffeeshop that serves food, including gluten-free crackers. In London, I just had brunch at Baker & Spice, where they had wonderful Mediterranean salads, like peppers and feta cheese, and roasted sweet potato.

Any favorite hotels? Staying at the Penninsula in Los Angeles was probably the most luxurious experience of my life.

Favorite city or destination that is not your hometown or current home base? I love Istanbul for many reasons. I have family there, the food is wonderful, and the city has this amazing union of Byzantine architecture and modern skyscrapers. I also love London, even though the weather is terrible.

What’s your dream destination? The place that immediately comes to mind is Thailand, because of the history and culture. I’d also love to see Bora Bora.

Do you have any other advice for gluten-intolerant travelers? When you’re traveling, one of the best things to do is to visit a local market, where you can get fresh fruit. Not only is that good for you, but it teaches you a bit about the culture of a place.

Photograph provided courtesy of Daphne Oz.

Vacation Planning for Celiacs: Resorts

Back in the fall, I got an e-mail from a reader who wanted to get married at a resort, but was having trouble finding one that could accommodate the gluten-free diet. While it’s certainly true that more and more places are offering options for gluten-intolerant and food-allergic guests, it’s not always easy to find those spots. Here are some resorts that are ready and able to cater to the gluten-free. Keep in mind that it’s always important to confirm in advance, via telephone or e-mail, that a resort will be able to accommodate you; even in a celiac-friendly kitchen, ingredients may need to be specially ordered before your visit (particularly if you’re staying at a resort in a remote location).

Canyon Ranch: With locations in very different climates — Tucson (Arizona), Lenox (Massachusetts), and Miami Beach (Florida) — Canyon Ranch offers something for everyone, and that includes the gluten-intolerant. While the company does point out that none of its kitchens are completely gluten-free, they are ready and able to take care of gluten-intolerant guests.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts: When I’ve done the “On the Road With…” interviews, one of the things I’ve noticed is that Hyatt seems to be universally respected for its food allergy awareness and its ability to cook for those on a gluten-free diet. Personally, I’ve found this to be true of Hyatt kitchens in cities across North America, as well as in Santiago, Chile. Oddly, this fact doesn’t seem to be mentioned on the company’s own website.

Sandals Resort Hotels: The company, famous for its all-inclusive Caribbean resorts, doesn’t specifically mention celiac disease on its site, though it does discuss food allergies — which we all know gluten intolerance is often lumped in with. According to Sandals’ website: “You can rest assured that we will work very closely with you and our chef can ensure that the appropriate meals are available. Please provide us with your arrival date and booking number as well as your name and the resort at which you will be vacationing so that arrangements can be made for you to speak with the chef on arrival.”

I’d love to hear about your resort experiences. Please e-mail or comment to let me know which resorts have treated you exceptionally well.

Celiac-Aware Chains in Las Vegas

While I was in Las Vegas last November, I was struck by the number of options that are now available to the gluten-intolerant. Almost every restaurant I contacted was able to accommodate me. Some, like Mon Ami Gabi (in Paris) and Border Grill (in Mandalay Bay), had dedicated gluten-free menus. Others, such as Bradley Ogden (in Caesar’s Palace) and Michael Mina (in Bellagio) were incredibly helpful and aware, and willing to make almost anything on the menu in a celiac-safe version. But those weren’t the only restaurants where I could dine safely. There were the chain restaurants, too.

One of the best things about the increasing popularity of the gluten-free diet is that it’s becoming more affordable. That’s not to say that specialty groceries have come down in price, but when a fast-food chain like Chipotle offers gluten-free options, it makes it possible for a gluten-intolerant person to get a quick meal out without paying a premium for it. The chains hit a variety of price points, but, speaking generally, they’re affordable and accessible to most people.

Here are some of the spots you’ll find on the Strip.

  • Chipotle: There’s isn’t a dedicated menu, but there’s information about eating gluten-free — and about common allergens — on the website. Several locations, including the one at Harrah’s [address] 3475 Las Vegas Blvd. South [tel] 702-836-0804 [web] www.chipotle.com
  • Maggiano’s Little Italy: There’s gluten-free pasta available and many dishes are gluten-free or require just a little modification to be safe. Located in Fashion Show Mall [address] 3200 Las Vegas Blvd South [tel] 702-220-4185 [web] www.maggianos.com
  • Outback Steakhouse: There’s a lot more than steak on this gluten-free menu, but I’m partial to the flourless brownie. Located in the Coke Bottle on the Strip [address] 3785 Las Vegas Blvd South, 4th Floor [tel] 702-220-4185 [web] www.outback.com
  • P.F. Chang’s: I wish that there were one of these in Manhattan. The restaurant has an Asian-inspired gluten-free menu with plenty of choice, and a delicious dark chocolate and raspberry cake for dessert. Located in Planet Hollywood [address] 3667 Las Vegas Boulevard South [tel] 702-836-0955 [web] www.pfchangs.com

There are other chains to consider, such as Pei Wei Asian Diner, which has a gluten-free menu but not a location on the Strip. For more ideas about where to eat in Las Vegas, visit Celiac Handbook and Gluten-Free Maps.