Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gluten free in Austin Texas

On Friday morning we sadly had to say goodbye to Anne and Joe at Chicken Paradise and head to Dallas for the wedding - the real reason for this trip. We had to arrive in Dallas in time to press clothes and change for the rehearsal dinner. Of course I had called the restaurant to figure out what I could eat and it turned out I could eat nothing being served on the buffet...such is the life of someone with Celiac. No problem, they were happy to make me some beef soft tacos (fryer issue) rice and beans. All were checked to confirm they were gluten free. My meal ended up being not only gluten free but pretty darn tasty as well!

As it turns out, when you are driving to Dallas from San Antonio, you drive right through Austin. There is a place there called Wildwood Arts Cafe that has a gluten free bakery onsite and they serve many gluten free dishes as well. They serve lunch so of course we had to go - no question. We'd been warned that traffic in Austin is horrid but being from Atlanta we always think people that say that have no idea what real traffic is. Unfortunately for us (and Austinites), the warning about Austin traffic was accurate. It took forever to get to Wildwood even though it was not that far off the interstate. We arrived during the lunch rush and it was crazy busy so I had plenty of time to figure out what to order while waiting in the long line. We snagged a table (they don't have many there) and waited for our meals to arrive. I had pork tamales with rice and beans and my meal was outstanding. My husband ordered some kind of sandwich and said the rice bread it was made from was ok.

When it was time to pick a dessert from the massive gluten free offerings, I started reading ingredients and realized most things there seemed not only to be gluten free but dairy free as well. Some of my favorite treats are made with canola oil and not butter so I was not completely scared away. I chose a cookie to have later (it wasn't good) and my husband chose the brownie, which was made with margarine instead of canola oil. I'm sure at some time I've had a worse tasting brownie but I'm not sure what or when that was. I could not believe my husband ate the whole thing after admitting he didn't like it...but he couldn't bring himself to throw it out.
For the following morning I needed something to eat in the room unheated so I chose a pumpkin muffin. My husband chose a blueberry breakfast bread which was huge. Considering the traffic delays and the quality of the baked goods, I would not bother returning to Wildwood if I was ever in Austin again. There are more places in the area than Wildwood that can provide safe gluten free meals. You'll find them on the Celiac Alamo site.
The pumpkin muffin turned out to be the best thing we bought at Wildwood and I should have gotten a few more. The blueberry breakfast bread was inedible except for the blueberries that my husband literally picked out of it...he had some protien bars to supplement his breakfast as there wasn't time for him to get service in the hotel cafe at this point.
Like another well known 'almost' gluten free bakery in NYC - I don't get what all the fuss is about regarding Wildwood Cafe. I can make better gluten free baked goods at home and I'm no baking expert. I just use the very best mixes on the market and that doesn't take much skill - except to find said mixes. I guess people accept these less than stellar tasting items just because they don't want to make every single cookie or piece of cake at home, and for that I don't blame them. But for me, if something isn't good enough for a discriminating glutenoid to eat, I usually don't like it. Life is too short to eat bad food - gluten free or otherwise.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Texas trip - Part 3 / Eating out in San Antonio

As most people who've been to San Antonio know, the Riverwalk is a famous attraction there. We found it to be lovely, if a bit too touristy for us. Still, we knew we had to dine along the Riverwalk during our stay. But unlike most visitors, we had to find a gluten free friendly place to go. Like at home, I try and avoid those large impersonal chains with gluten free menus. In Georgia, most servers and even managers who work at such places could not explain what gluten is if their life depended on it.

Luckily for me, Anne at Chicken Paradise was able to steer us to several great options for safe, yet interesting gluten free meals. We were tired our first night in town (I'm always tired from flying regardless of the length of the flight) so we settled on a casual dinner at Paloma Blanco for Tex- Mex fare. Once there we were seated quickly at a nice table for two and handed gluten free menus. Interestingly, their version is called a Celiac Menu there. This is the first time I'd seen this and found it delightful. We knew from Anne's gluten free hand book that we needed to stress we had to have Celiac chips and so we did. But after a good long while our server appeared to tell us they were totally out of gluten free chips and they were very sorry. Since I have a place at home that has a dedicated corn product fryer and have Mexican fare often with safe chips, I got over it. The VIP margarita made up for the lack of chips and I loved that it was served in a martini glass!

The place was super busy but finally our meals arrived and mine was excellent! I ordered a stuffed poblano pepper with shrimp, veggies, cheese and spices and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My husband got the fish tacos and would not order them again. He said they were fine but nothing special. He says that about that about most everything he orders at Mexican restaurants these days. Maybe eating this fare in Mexico (work travel) has spoiled him. There wasn't any dessert I could have but I ate all my meal so I could not have had anything anyway. Knowing my husband loves Tres Leches cake I convinced him to order a piece but he didn't like that either. In his defense, the version served here is nothing like we're used to in Atlanta or in Mexico for that matter. It was dry and we thought maybe they gave him the wrong thing but they didn't. I loved the ambiance here and would go back when in San Antonio. Maybe next time they'll have the Celiac chips!!!

For lunch the next day we tried a real honky-tonk kind of place called The Cove. It's a restaurant with a garden, a playground and for some odd reason, a car wash. We knew they had gluten free buns and grass fed beef but the ordering process was sketchy at best. The gluten free menu was hand written on a yellow note pad sheet and didn't say gluten free on it except to describe the buns. They had sweet potato fries listed which my husband ordered but I knew they didn't have a dedicated fryer. He can eat gluten so no worries there. It was nice that the cook came to our table to explain the fries were not gluten free and was shocked to hear they are listed on their 'so called' gluten free menu. In any case, she was really nice about it. The bar tender insisted that they didn't carry Redbridge beer and offered only what was on the menu. So my husband had to carry the menu - with Redbridge clearly printed on it - to the bar and the guy finally found one for me. Our burgers were killer but I could have done without the bun. The frozen Whole Foods GF Bakehouse buns are better and I'm not in love with them by a long stretch. Still, if you get the chance to order a burger with a gluten free bun, I suggest you do it. You can always remove it if you don't like it. At The Cove, I ate only the bottom bun and it was okay that way.

We went to The Cove on an 'off' day, to say the least. And because my husband was so concerned they messed up my food, I could not enjoy the place or my meal that much. It's nice that he's so protective but sometimes he acts as if I'm going to drop dead if someone messes up my meal. I'm happy to report that my meal at The Cove was most definitely gluten free. If I were to go back I'd eat before going, and go at night when they have live music.

I have to say that our dinner that night more than made up for the lunch experience. Upon Anne's recommendation (and others on Trip Advisor) we dined at Las Canarias in the Omni Hotel on the Riverwalk. We were seated at a romantic table by the window and had a lovely Riverwalk view down below. Our server immediately explained that I should review the menu and ask for whatever I wanted and she would ask the Chef if I could have it prepared gluten free. When I eyed the duck entree I knew I had to order it, if it was not full of wheat starch like all the duck dishes I'd inquired about before. The server quickly returned to tell me the duck would be prepared safely for me so I ordered that and we ordered a salad to split - which was almost too pretty to eat. I could not eat what my husband ordered but he enjoyed it, though neither of us can remember now what it was. The salad was fabulous and I rarely get excited about salad when dining out. But my duck entree was probably the best I've ever had, and I've had duck in many high end places in the US and even in Paris. All I can say is if you live in or visit San Antonio and you like duck, you must go to Las Canarias and order it. I don't care of you eat gluten or not - this dish is not to be missed! There was nothing I could have for dessert except for creme brulee with cherry compote and I can have that (or plain creme brulee) most anywhere so we skipped that course. I had a Kahlua and creme instead. If you enjoy fine dining without the air of pretentiousness that is present at many please offering it, don't miss this special dining experience in San Antonio. Chef John Brand is happy to accommodate his special needs guests and is extremely creative and well versed in gluten free food preparation. Excluding tip our bill was $107 and we considered it quite a deal! I know I say it all the time but when you dine where there is an actual Chef cooking REAL food, you'll always have a better experience than at a large chain where they roll their eyes when you mention gluten, even when they have a gluten free menu.... There is just no comparison in the two types of places, and that is as it should be.
To the left is my favorite shot taken at The Alamo which we visited before lunch one day. Last but not least, is a shot of The McNay Museum which we visited upon Anne's recommendation. Luckily for us, they have a reciprocal membership deal with the High Museum of Atlanta which we're members of, so we were able to get in for free which allowed me to purchase a gorgeous glass art bottle stopper in the gift shop. It's hard to believe the place was once someones home but it was. One of the most interesting exhibits to us was Tim Burton's 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'. They had actual mini sets from the movie and it was truly fascinating! If you enjoy seeing fabulous art in a most spectacular setting, do not miss The McNay when visiting San Antonio. The general admission only runs $8 and I think one day a week you can get in for free. Check their website for details. Oh, and don't miss the spectacular sculpture garden on the McNay grounds!

Collectively we've been to eight cities in Texas and we agreed that San Antonio is by far our favorite place there now. I just wish it was within driving distance so we could visit more often!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Texas trip - Part 2 / Chicken Paradise - our home away from home!

When you drive through the colorful gate at the Chicken Paradise B&B, it's hard to believe you're in the middle of a residential area of San Antonio but in fact, you are. The sprawling property is part farm, part garden and part resort. It's run by the Alamo Celiac leader Anne Barfield and her husband Joe. The Paradise Suite is huge and offers a private entrance, full bath and small kitchenette. The garage to the house separates the Suite from the main house where Anne and Joe reside. Guests have access to the lovely pool, deck and patio out back. There is even a private outside shower which offers hot and cold running water and two shower heads!

Below is the breakfast served our first morning there. And yes we ate every bit of it. First up was a huge fruit plate, complete with some of the best mangoes we've had anywhere. Then we each had a homemade Teff waffle - the first non frozen waffle I've had in almost three years - and it was excellent! Last but not least was a goat cheese basil omelet served with bacon. They served the tomato slices on the side. The eggs came from the on site Chickens of course, and the tomatoes and basil came from the garden!

Since Anne and Joe are used to dealing with all kinds of food intolerances (unlike most B&B hosts), she asked me what we liked to eat before we arrived. She even had Agave sweetener for my coffee - both in the Suite kitchen and at breakfast. They thought of everything at this place! I've never experienced anything like it and we've been devoted B&B patrons for over fifteen years now.

To the left is one of the many Chickens that rule Chicken Paradise. I'm not really an animal person per se but these Chickens were very friendly and interesting to observe. It was hysterical to watch them all run to the coop for dinner when Joe called them to dinner. The tree below is in the center of the backyard and is actually two trees next to each other. The private outside shower sits under these gorgeous trees!

Below are photos our breakfast on the second morning of our lovely visit at Chicken Paradise. The hosts made sure the day before, that we didn't have a seafood or shellfish allergy and that we liked crab meat. After our lovely fruit plate course, out came these lovely Asian Crab omelets, served with jicama and a sliced apple salad. Anne took this photo inside the house. Oh, and we had excellent toast made from bread from the LAB with homemade fig preserves. Yes, they even have a fig tree at Chicken Paradise!

We only stayed two nights in San Antonio and were sad to say goodbye the Chickens, the dog Chutney, the outdoor shower and especially to our new friends Anne and Joe. We vowed to return to Chicken Paradise one day. San Antonio is our favorite city in Texas now. True Southern hospitality is alive and well there, with an extra dose available at Chicken Paradise.

Below are photos are the magical trees in the afternoon, the pool water fountains and lovely fresh flowers in our Suite. They came from the garden too, of course. I'm telling you they thought of everything at that place! Check out the tree house, complete with a bed on their website!

Without question this was THE best B&B experience we've ever had - gluten free or not! About half the guests at Chicken Paradise are gluten free (and many have multiple food intolerances) and the others are glutenoids who rave about the food just like we did! There was one thing we could not get over though. The rate was ridiculously low, considering all you're
getting. For selfish reasons we hope it stays that way but we would not flinch at paying more to return. The breakfast alone would set you back $30 or more and would not be nearly as good anywhere else in town. And certainly no Chickens would be welcoming you to breakfast!

Thanks Anne and Joe, for giving us a home away from home in Texas! We hope to come back again and again!

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