Sunday, June 07, 2009
I recently learned that a coworker has celiac disease. Celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue, is a digestive system disorder; the gluten in wheat and a number of other grains damages the small intestine and prevents the absorption of nutrients, with pretty severe consequences. It's not a "wheat allergy," but rather an autoimmune disease. The University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research estimates that "nearly 1 out of every 133 Americans suffer from celiac disease." I told my coworker I'd give her a list of my favorite celiac-friendly dishes at New York restaurants. After I said that I immediately realized there was a blog post in it.
I've been aware of celiac disease for over fifteen years, because Michael, one of my closest friends, is a sufferer, and finding interesting restaurant items that can fill in his starch gaps when he visits New York is a challenge I have embraced. Michael discovered that he had the condition between fifteen and twenty years ago, but it was not an easy discovery. Celiac awareness then was not what it is today, and only after extensive testing did a doctor find the root of Michael's problems. It was adult-onset celiac sprue. At first the doctor wasn't sure if it was tropical sprue or celiac, the hereditary version of the disease. Tropical sprue was a candidate because Michael had traveled extensively in the third world when he was younger.
For some with celiac disease even small amounts of gluten can have very dire effects, and we often don't know exactly what is in restaurant-prepared food. There are a number of substitute breads and pastas, cookies, pie shells, waffles, etc., readily available in health food stores, that don't contain the offending glutens. They're made with such celiac-safe ingredients as cornmeal, rice flour, potato starch, buckwheat, nuts and legumes. While the number of people with celiac disease is relatively small, when you add the number of people with non-celiac wheat allergies or sensitivities, and on top of that the large number people who think they have wheat allergies, there's a fair market for these products.
Much more interesting than substitutes, which can never match the real thing, are starch-based foods that are central to certain cuisines and also happen to be celiac-friendly. I think with the right planning celiac sufferers can enjoy great meals at many New York restaurants without feeling "cheated," and their friends and family needn't be hamstrung by their dietary restrictions.
Risottos are a natural for people with the disease, and Risotteria, in Greenwich Village, bills itself as a celiac-friendly restaurant, making a number of gluten-free dishes in addition to risottos (or is that risotti?). I've never been to Risotteria, but Roberto Passon, one of my favorite Northern Italian restuarants, often has a fantastic wild mushroom risotto as a special.
Asian cuisines, being largely rice-based, are also obvious choices (though there is the pitfall of wheat-based soy sauces). All rice all the time can get tedious (granted, billions of people on subsistence diets around the world don't have the luxury of contemplating culinary tedium), but there are a number of rice flour-based items in all Asian cuisines that can add some variety to the menu. Rice noodles are found in almost all Asian cuisines, be it Chinese chow fun and mei fun, Vietnamese bun (similar to mei fun) and pho noodles, Malaysian char kuey teow, or pad Thai and pad kee mao (wide rice noodles with basil and chili) at Thai restaurants, to name just a few. And I'm particularly fond of chewy rice cakes, nian gow in Chinese (found in Shanghai-style restaurants) and dduk kuk in Korean. Another Shanghai dish that's not a noodle at all, but seems like one, is made of bean curd sheets with soybeans and preserved vegetables. There are a number of Korean noodles that are gluten-free. Traditional Japanese soba is made from a mix of buckwheat and wheat flours, so it wouldn't be a safe bet in a restaurant, but if you want to make it at home Eden makes a 100% buckwheat version.
While North Indian breads are out of the question, there are a number of great celiac-friendly items in South Indian cuisine. South Indian staples such as the dosa, the great crepe of the south (but not rava dosas, which are made with semolina) and uttapam, a flat, fluffy pancake, are made from rice and lentil flours, as are the spongy steamed iddlys and the fried vadas (often described as lentil donuts). On some South Indian menus, and all Sri Lankan ones, you'll also find the rice-flour based appams (bowl-shaped pancakes also called hoppers) and idiappams (meshes of rice noodle, also known as string hoppers).
Have a French crepe craving? Head over to Bar Breton for one of their buckwheat galettes.
I love cornmeal based foods. With any corn-based product it's essential, however, to make sure that no wheat flour is used in addition to the cornmeal. Latin American cuisines are your best bet for dishes made with cornmeal. One of my absolute favorite dishes in the entire city is the huitlacoche corn souffle cake (made with blue corn) at Itzocan Cafe, a fabulous Mexican-French fusion restaurant. Tamales are your friend at a traditional Mexican restaurant, but you'll be hard-pressed to find any in Manhattan that are as light and fluffy as the ones you can take out from Lopez Bakery in Brooklyn. And, of course, tacos made with corn tortillas are also just fine. Pupusas are the Salvadoran pancakes that are made from a corn masa and are pan fried. They're usually stuffed with either cheese, beans or chicharon (pork skin, chopped), or a combination, and served with a spicy pickled cabbage salad. I love the texture of pupusas--a bit crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. And then there's the arepa. The Venezuelan arepa might be my pick for the absolute best celiac-friendly sandwich vessel. Venezuelan arepas are thick enough to be sliced and stuffed (similar in size and shape to an English muffin), and areperas (arepa places) in Caracas as well as the Caracas Arepa Bar in the East Village offer a wide variety of fillings. The Colombian arepa is more of a flat pancake. The arepa de choclo is a sweet version made with a mix of cornmeal and mashed corn kernels, usually served topped with melted white cheese; I've fallen in love with the ones at the Juan Valdez Cafe.
Huitlacoche Corn Souffle Cake at Itzocan Cafe
Arepa de Choclo at Juan Valdez Cafe (right)
Venezuelan Arepa at Caracas Arepa Bar
And while we're on the subject of corn, don't forget about polenta dishes at Northern Italian restaurants. A more obscure entry on the corn front is the Punjabi makki ki roti, a griddle-cooked flat cornbread that's like a cross between a tortilla and a polenta cake. It's traditionally served with sarson ka saag, spiced mustard greens. It's available on Tuesdays at Minar, my favorite Indian fast food place in the city. You can also find it, refrigerated or frozen, at Indian grocery stores. I recently bought some at Patel Brothers, in Queens, where you can find most of the Indian items I mentioned, and discovered that makki ki roti makes a great breakfast topped with some jam, an off-label prescription I'm sure.
All of the foods I've just described are cornerstones of their respective cuisines, and are pretty easily found in New York City. Surely there are many other candidates; I've merely scratched the surface. These are all dishes that I, as a non-celiac person, enjoy regularly. No need to accept substitutes.
* * *
Where can one find these celiac-friendly dishes?
This is a selected list of restaurants that serve the dishes I've mentioned above. It is by no means exhaustive, but unless marked with an asterisk they're all places I've tried and enjoyed. I've linked to relevant blog posts where available. Since this guide is sure to be of use to visitors to New York I've focused mainly on Manhattan venues, with a smattering from the outer boroughs. While I'm reasonably certain that the dishes I've mentioned are usually prepared solely from celiac-friendly ingredients, every celiac sufferer knows that it's essential to ask.
Risottos and polenta can be found at many Northern Italian restaurants, but you might want to call to make sure, as specials come and go, and some items are more likely to be found seasonally. Le Zie (172 7th Ave., between 20th & 21st St.), an excellent, affordable Venetian place, is sure to have polenta at all times. Though it's not on the printed menu, Roberto Passon (741 9th Ave. at 50th St.) has had a wild mushroom risotto available every time I've eaten there, and it was wonderful. Park Slope's Al Di La (248 5th Ave. at Carrol St., Brooklyn), one of the best Italian restaurants in any of the boroughs, features black risotto with squid ink as well as polenta on its menu. With advance notice, I suspect that some restuarants that make polenta might be able to improvise a dish with one of their pasta sauces, though not all would mesh well. As I mentioned, I haven't been to Risotteria* (270 Bleecker St., at Jones), but they do seem to specialize in celiac-friendly Italian dishes, including gluten-free pizzas, pastas and panini. They even have gluten-free pasta night every Tuesday. Several people have suggested, on a Chowhound thread about gluten-free dining, that Pala* makes excellent gluten-free pizzas.
Bar Breton (254 5th Ave., between 28th & 29th St.), run by Cyril Renaud of the upscale Fleur de Sel, himself a Breton, specializes in the gluten-free, all-buckwheat galettes of Brittany.
East and Southeast Asian
Pho, beef soup with rice noodles, is a cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine, and every Vietnamese restaurant should have it. Unfortunately, New York is not the best hunting ground for great Vietnamese food (not enough of a Viet immigrant community here, I suppose). So far the best Pho I've found has been in Brooklyn, at Pho Tay Ho (2351 86th St., in Bath Beach, formerly a solidly Italian neighborhood, now largely Russian and Asian). In Manhattan, my current favorite Vietnamese restaurant is Pho Tu Do, at the north end of Chinatown (102 Bowery, between Grand & Hester).
Thai food in Manhattan is generally disappointing (you need to go to Queens for great Thai, e.g. Sripriaphai or Zabb), but Wondee will do in a pinch. I prefer Wondee Siam II (813 9th Ave., between 53rd & 54th St.) over the original Wondee a few blocks south, as it's larger and more comfortable with a more pleasant decor (frankly, I found the original Wondee dank and depressing). I can't vouch for Wondee II's pad thai, as I haven't yet tried it, but the pad kee mao is quite good.
For Korean rice cakes (dduk kuk) or gluten-free noodles, the go-to neighborhood is the lower 30s, east of 6th Avenue, Manhattan's Koreatown or Little Korea (though it's not a Korean residential neighborhood). All the places in this area, and there are many, seem to have their ups and downs, but one of the most reliable is Kum Gang San (49 W. 32nd St.), a large place with a kitschy waterfall and an elevated white baby grand piano (I've never seen it played).
Every Shanghai-style restaurant should have rice cakes (nian gow), and most should also have dishes made with bean curd sheets, both vegetarian and with meat. In Chinatown, my favorite is Shanghai Cafe (100 Mott St., north of Canal); the owner is a veteran of Little Shanghai, where I first discovered Shanghai cuisine in the '70s and '80s. In Midtown, the upscale choice is Our Place Shanghai Tea Garden (141 E. 55th Street, between 3rd and Lexington). Also excellent, and less expensive, is Evergreen (10 E. 38th St., between 5th & Madision Ave.).
The best place to sample char kuey teow, the spicy rice noodle dish of Singapore and Malaysia, is at Nyonya (194 Grand St., between Mott & Mulberry, Chinatown).
Indian and Sri Lankan
There are a number of South Indian restaurants in the East 20s, in a restaurant enclave known as "Curry Hill" (how convenient that Curry rhymes with Murray). My favorite is Saravanaas (81 Lexington Ave. at 26th St.), and they serve all of the standard Udupi-style treats such as dosas, uttapams, iddlies and vadas as well as great thalis. In the East Village, Madras Cafe is a good bet (79 2nd Ave. between 4th & 5th St.). But avoid, by all means, the laughable Hampton Chutney.
I believe Minar serves makki ki roti with sarson ka saag every Tuesday at both of their branches (138 W. 46th St., between 6th & 7th Ave.; 5 W. 31st St., just west of 5th Ave.). I think the 46th St. branch is somewhat better, and both are best bets for lunch only (they close at 7:30).
As far as I know, Sigiri is currently the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Manhattan, but I can't recommend it. It's a bad Sri Lankan restaurant near the multitude of bad 6th Street Indian restaurants. Staten Island is the borough to go to for Sri Lankan food, though I haven't yet checked out any of the restaurants. Fellow blogger Dave Cook, of Eating in Translation, recommends San Rasa* (formerly Lakruwana), at 226 Bay Street, only a short walk from the ferry. There you can try hoppers and string hoppers.
Twenty years ago you'd have been hard-pressed to find a good, authentic Mexican restaurant in New York, but due to recent immigration, mostly from Puebla state, there are now plenty of choices, especially in Brooklyn & Queens. My favorite taqueria in Brooklyn's Sunset Park is Piaxtla es Mexico (505 51st St., off 5th Ave.), known to many as "Ricos Tacos" because of the big descriptive sign (no, it's not run by a guy named Rico), especially for the fabulous carnitas (fried pork chunks). In Manhattan your best bet would be Tulcingo del Valle (665 10th Ave., just south of 47th St.). Also good, in the East Village, is the Downtown Bakery (69 1st Ave., between 4th & 5th St.), which despite the name is a taqueria. And I'm just wild for the tamales at Lopez Bakery (645 5th Ave., between 18th & 19th St., Brooklyn), which is a bakery.
The chef-owners of Itzocan Cafe (438 E. 9th St., between First and A) are also from Puebla, and after working for a while in the kitchens of Manhattan French restaurants they decided to open their own place that mixes French techniques with Mexican ingredients. The results are fantastic, and nothing they do is more fantastic than the huitlacoche corn souffle cake. They also have an uptown branch, Itzocan Bistro* (1575 Lexington Ave. between 100th & 101st St.), but I haven't been there yet.
Any Salvadoran restaurant will have pupusas, as well as tamales. I'm not too familiar with New York's Salvadoran restaurants (having eaten the food mainly in San Francisco), but there are a number of places spread throughout the boroughs. The one I do frequent, El Continental (672 5th Ave. at 20th St., Brooklyn), makes great pupusas.
The sweet arepas at Juan Valdez Cafe (3 locations in Manhattan) are fantastic, as is the coffee. For stuffed Venezuelan arepas look no further than the Caracas Arepa Bar (93 1/2 E. 7th St., between First & A).