Good without gluten

The Root Cafe offers the option of gluten-free bread, made by Dempsey Bakery, on its burgers and sandwiches.
The Root Cafe offers the option of gluten-free bread, made by Dempsey Bakery, on its burgers and sandwiches.
Mar 13

As the popularity of gluten-free dining grows, local restaurants are jumping on the bandwagon.

The gluten-free trend has taken off in recent years, with wheat-free versions of snacks, breads and even condiments now lining the shelves of grocery stores. The gluten-free movement has even extended to restaurant chains such as Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and On the Border. Urbanspoon has created a gluten-free friendly subcategory for its restaurant listings.

But what does gluten-free mean?

In essence, it’s a diet without the protein found in wheat known as gluten. It’s also found in barley, rye and malts, but those are less often found in foods, and more likely to be in beer.

In gluten-free foods, the wheat is often replaced with other less-offensive grains, nut flours or nothing at all. Those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease must drop all traces of wheat or suffer consequences, such as an immune system response to the wheat proteins that damages the small intestine, according to But some without an official word from a doctor call themselves gluten-intolerant, and cut out gluten largely by choice.

Sherri Clay, president of the central Arkansas branch of the Gluten Intolerance Group, suggests that those who think they have gluten sensitivities should try to get an official diagnosis, but she acknowledges that the awareness of celiac disease is only now becoming more widespread.

“I feel it’s so underdiagnosed. Of course, any time something gets popular and on television, there’s going to be some sensationalism. There’s so many people that are thinking ‘Ah, maybe that’s what’s causing my problem.’ But you can go to doctors for a lot of years and nobody ever thinks to check that,” she said.

This explains the growing interest in gluten-free foods, even though the celiac community in the United States is relatively small.

Clay was diagnosed with celiac sprue when she was born in Canada more than 50 years go.

“But my mother didn’t really believe it, so I had a lot of health problems, but one day I got something in the mail that said, ‘If you have symptoms of [irritable bowel syndrome], try giving up wheat.’”

And that’s how her gluten-free journey began.

She’s been president of the local group since January, but became a member as soon as she figured out gluten was the source of her health problems.

“I joined the group almost immediately after I figured it out. I got the support because it’s hard to do on your own,” she said.

The group, which meets once a month, oversees the distribution of a newsletter with updates in the local celiac community as well as listings of local restaurants that have gluten-free menus. The main concern for those with celiac disease when dining out is cross-contamination. When french fries are cooked in the same oil as chicken tenders or when meat is sauteed on the same griddle as pancakes or biscuits, crumbs could come into contact with the food, and it’s no longer safe for gluten-free diners, Clay says.

Other worries might be if the seasonings have gluten fillers or if wheat flour is used to thicken things like sauces or dips.

“I usually eat in the same places that I’ve talked to before. I typically ask workers to change their gloves before fixing my food, and I ask if there’s a dedicated fryer for french fries,” she said.

“And sometimes they change the menu on you. At Chili’s, they had some gluten-free tortillas, and they changed the manufacturer, and they weren’t gluten-free anymore,” she said.

“So, it’s always important to ask and keep asking.”


When dining out in central Arkansas, it’s possible to get gluten-free items in nearly every type of cuisine. The local Gluten Intolerance Group president, Sherri Clay, gives a few tips for each type of establishment. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point for those looking for gluten-free dining in central Arkansas. Many of these restaurants came from the Gluten Intolerance Group’s list of restaurants with gluten-free menus.


The trick here is to avoid anything with a flour tortilla. Ask to substitute corn tortillas with your meals. Clay also says to watch out for the chips.

“Typically when you get your salsa and tortilla chips, those have been heated in oil that probably would not be safe. You would probably need to take your own chips in,” she said.

“Usually the white cheese dip at most restaurants is safe, but it could be that they do thicken it with flour.”

Mexican/Brazilian restaurants with gluten-free dishes: Cantina Laredo, On the Border, Chipotle, Cozymel’s, Cafe Bossa Nova (the bakery has some gluten-free items as well).


Local pizza places, ZaZa, U.S. Pizza, Boston’s and American Pie offer pizza with gluten-free crusts and usually take steps to avoid cross-contamination. Clay suggests calling the establishments to double check whenever possible.

“If you’re going to go to a restaurant, try to call at a time that’s not a really busy time, and ask to speak to the manager. Ask questions like, ‘Do they have any gluten-free options?’ and ‘Are they aware of cross contamination?’” she said.

Italian restaurants with gluten-free items: American Pie, Boston’s Restaurant and Sports Bar, ZaZa, U.S. Pizza, Bravo! Cucina Italiana, Carino’s, Olive Garden, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, YaYa’s Euro Bistro.


Clay says local Asian restaurants Pei Wei and P.F. Chang’s have made a concerted effort to avoid cross contamination when it comes to serving gluten-free items. Clay suggests bringing in your own soy sauce, as ones on most restaurant tables have wheat fillers.

Asian restaurants with gluten-free menus: Pei Wei, P.F. Chang’s, Lilly’s DimSum Thensome. Also many sushi restaurants, like Mt. Fuji, will point out which items are safe for gluten-free diners.


It’s sometimes surprisingly easy to make simple modifications to dishes and make them gluten-free, assuming there’s no chance of cross-contamination. Clay says she has had success with the barbecue at Whole Hog outlets.

“I order the pulled pork and ask them to change their gloves before preparing my food, and I know I can have the slaw and the chips,” she said.

But she says education of employees about celiac disease is key for most restaurants as the gluten-free menus become more popular.

“I hope that they don’t just say that they have gluten-free foods without realizing what they need to do to make sure it’s safe, and that they do continuing education as they get new employees.”

Chains and other restaurants with gluten-free dishes: Bonefish Grill, Chili’s, Dempsey Bakery, Izzy’s, Lone Star Steakhouse, Outback Steakhouse, Red Mango, Shorty Small’s, The Pantry.


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