Glutie Foodie

Adventures of a Gluten-Free Gal Dining Out


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Close for Comfort

Open City     Spoons_THREE_76x25

When Mr. Green Bean and I have out-of-town guests on a Sunday morning, are too tired to cook on a Wednesday night, or are up for a short walk to dinner on a warm summer evening, Open City is our reliable destination. This Woodley Park cornerstone is a bustling coffeehouse/American diner serving fresh comfort food with a health conscious twist. Open City is in the Tryst, The Diner, and The Coupe family of restaurants, which all offer slightly different versions of comfortable atmosphere and dependable food and drink. In my opinion, Open City wins for having the most reasonably priced and comprehensive menu, with large, homey dining spaces both inside and out.

Gluten-free customers beware of the tantalizing baked goods case at the entance to Open City. It has yet to include g-free sweets. Just make it to the table and one look at the menu’s g-free food options will quickly make you forget what you’re missing. Any place that concocts unique egg dishes and serves them all day long is my hero. But with other options such as big salads, bun-less burgers, g-free pizza, interesting appetizers and sides, mussel pots, and classic entrees, there is something to feed any craving. The coffee and tea list is just as abundant, offering Counter Culture Coffee and an assortment of teas in Black, White, and everything in between. Just remember to order your cup of choice sans the animal cracker garnish. I tend to forget this detail and end up with lion crumbs on my teaspoon.

Open City recently switched from a dedicated gluten-free menu to indicating on their regular menu items that are gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan. I appreciate not having to ask for a separate menu, which I often feel draws too much attention to my “special” needs. (Note that many items not indicated as gluten-free can easily be adjusted. The omelets, for instance, are only missing the gluten-free indicator because of the accompanying bread.) The restaurant’s simple yet tasty American cuisine is hardly more sophisticated than what I can whip up in my own kitchen. But food always tastes better when you are not the one laboring over it, doesn’t it? The salmon scramble with tomato, chives and cream cheese is a salty pleasure. The Blanco omelet with egg whites, tomato, spinach, and mixed greens is light and satisfying. The large Turkey Burger patty plated without the bun is flavorful and juicy.

Bun-less Turkey Burger with Smoked Gouda and a  side of sauteed spinach

Bun-less turkey burger with smoked gouda and a side of sauteed spinach

For a treat, the side of gluten-free macaroni and cheese (yes, I did say gluten-free mac ‘n’ cheese) is deliciously chewy and cheesy. Mr. Green Bean, a Mac ‘n’ cheese aficionado, even gives the dish a thumbs-up. Pair it with one of Open City’s large, fresh salads to minimize the guilt. The kitchen uses Still Riding Pizza’s crust to offer rich pies that tend to be heavy on the cheese and grease, but gratifying when the pizza mood strikes. On a recent visit, I opted for a potpourri of sides to comprise one nourishing lunch. The quinoa with zucchini and corn, curried summer squash, and mixed greens offered a variety of textures and flavors, leaving me energized for the day.

Curried Squash, Quinoa with Zucchini and Corn, and Mixed Greens

Curried squash, quinoa with zucchini and corn, and mixed greens

Open City’s menu changes occasionally, preserving key items while sprinkling in new dishes here and there. It’s a tactic that keeps me coming back. This popular Northwest eatery delivers unpretentious food and prices while managing to maintain a local vibe in a neighborhood infiltrated with zoo-goers and tourists. You will wait to be seated for brunch on a nice weekend afternoon; but at least you’ll be among fellow DC’ers who all agree it’s worth the wait.

Open City, 2331 Calvert Street NW, Washington DC

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Pita that Pleases

Roti Mediterranean Grill     Spoons_TWO_76x25

Roti is an unleavened flatbread integral to South Asian cuisines such as Indian and Pakistani. It is also the name of a health conscious fast-food chain in Washington DC and Illinois, and quickly expanding to Virginia, Maryland and New York. I knew I needed to try it when I found out they offer gluten-free bread! I pictured walking into a shop filled with the aromas of curry and basmati rice. You can imagine my confusion when I approached the Roti location in Union Station and read the restaurant’s full name above the entrance: Roti Mediterranean Grill.

Roti executives, Larry Lessans and Mats Lederhausen, market themselves as champions of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle. The Roti website references bonafide resources to describe the ancient diet and its many health benefits. The eating style, based  on olive oil, fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry, is maintainable and heart-healthy (I especially appreciate the endorsement of a daily glass of wine). However Roti’s good intentions are victims of the insatiable American appetite, capable of turning any healthy meal into a gluttonous eating escapade. Roti’s portions are large and disproportionately heavy on proteins rather than vegetables. The topping bar offers ample opportunities to pack on extra empty calories or unnecessary fat. Diners can choose a sauce, a dressing, and various salads already prepared with their own oils. What results can easily fall far from what nutritionists have in mind when they preach the Mediterranean diet.

Roti's Topping Bar

Roti’s Topping Bar

Having said all of that, Roti’s food actually tastes decent. Meals can be assembled as a salad, over rice, or in a sandwich with pita or laffa breads. My choice is the bed of greens with a side of gluten-free pita that is warmed up securely in uncontaminated tinfoil on a sandwich press. The bread is satisfying with a soft, stretchy consistency that endures even hours after cooling (a rarity, as we gluties know). The mild pita flavor acts as a pleasant compliment to the salty spices in Roti’s dishes. With 155 calories, little fat, low sodium, no sugar and minimal protein, this carbohydrate treat is neither beneficial nor all that harmful (there’s the American in me talking).

Roti's Gluten-Free Pita Bread

Roti’s Gluten-Free Pita Bread

I will be honest, I am only a repeat customer to Roti for the g-free pita. However, its worth mentioning that most of the other items in their repertoire are also gluten-free. The personnel seem to be informed and prepared for gluten-free patrons and help guide the ordering process. While I can’t vouch for the rotisserie spit from which servers scrape shreds of g-free white meat, the Chicken Roti is very flavorful and fairly fresh, being constantly rotated on the grill. The Roasted Vegetables, a blend of carrots, broccoli, onions and peppers, are a bit over-oiled but are vibrant and crunchy. The Spanish Eggplant topping gets lost in an ambiguous sauce that renders this side a bit slimy. But the tomato and cucumber Israeli-style salad is light and simple.

Salad Plate with Roasted Vegetables, Spanish Eggplant, Tomato and Cucumber Salad and Olives.

Salad Plate with Roasted Vegetables, Spanish Eggplant, Tomato and Cucumber Salad, Olives and Hummus.

Overall the establishment is making an effort to provide health conscious food. The restaurant’s interior design and ambiance is closer to a McDonalds than the more upscale local fast-food vendor, Cava Grill (stay tuned for my future review). And though the chicken and steak are cooked on sight, the small staff and compact kitchen space indicates that not much else is. With the fast-food industry making such strides in quality these days, Roti may need to make some changes inorder to keep up.

Roti Mediterranean Grill, Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington DC (plus various locations throughout DC, MD and VA)


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Remember the Thai-tan

Rice     Spoons_FOUR

There is a small, inconspicuous Thai restaurant on 14th street that quietly chugs along while outside a tornado of new development and future competition engulfs the neighborhood. A product of Logan Circle’s first revival wave, Rice has been consistently cooking up high quality contemporary Thai cuisine for nearly a decade. The comfortable interior is chic and minimalist, with exposed brick and dark wood surfaces acting as a neutral backdrop for the colorful dishes prepared by Chef Lekki.

Lekki’s innovative menu distinguishes Rice from the monotony of Americanized Asian cuisine. She offers dishes in three categories: authentic Thai staples, lighter vegetarian medleys, and unusual specialties that flaunt her creative muscle. On my most recent trip to Rice, I was thrilled to discover that a new category has recently been implemented due to customer demand. Rice has composed a gluten-free menu with a generous sampling of soups, appetizers and entrees adapted from the regular menu. While Rice has been more versed in the gluten allergy than most Asian restaurants I frequent, the designated menu confirms their commitment to providing safe and delicious food free of soy sauce and other wheat products.

I eagerly scanned the many tempting offerings on the new g-free menu, items such as curries and soups that have been off-limits for years. Most Asian restaurants that accommodate gluten-free eating merely omit harmful ingredients, resulting in bland, sauteed whatevers. Rice goes well beyond the norm by preparing special sauces and dressings kept aside for us gluties.

I was excited to order Tom Yum Goong, shrimp lemongrass soup. The sizable bowl of broth with bobbing mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, parsley and large steamed shrimp was heavily seasoned with a day’s worth of salt and an abundance of lemon juice. It was fresh and satisfying nonetheless.

Tom Yum Goong (Shrimp Lemongrass Soup)

Tom Yum Goong (Shrimp Lemongrass Soup)

My soup was balanced with Rice’s famed brussels sprout salad, with spinach, walnuts and citrus soy dressing. Crispy brussels sprouts sit atop a bed of spinach, lightly dressed and sprinkled with slightly candied walnuts. Beet shreds and crispy rice flakes adorn the dish, adding a burst of color and crunch.

Brussels Sprout Salad

Brussels Sprout Salad

Rice’s pad thai puts all others’ to shame. The piping hot heap of noodles engulfs an abundance of tofu, chicken or shrimp, blanketed by a delicate sheet of egg and topped with sprouts, scallions and crushed peanuts. Each chewy bite delights the taste buds with a nutty, salty, sweet combination that makes this dish so universally loved.

Pad Thai with Tofu

Pad Thai with Tofu

Rice exceles not only in food quality, but in presentation as well, proving the kitchen’s attention to detail from start to finish. I often find myself peering at other diners’ selections, taking notes for next time. In a neighborhood of new and exciting distractions, Rice knows the value of keeping its patrons wanting more.

Rice, 1608 14th Street NW, Washington DC


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Melting-Bowl

ShopHouse     Spoons_THREE_76x25

Just when I was critical of Washington DC being steps behind New York in terms of  gluten-free innovations (see Time to BisTANGO), I found myself at ShopHouse Southeastern Asian Kitchen. The Dupont Circle location that opened in 2011 is the Chipotle chain’s first venture into eastern cuisine. They have plans to grow this year with new locations in Georgetown and Santa Monica, CA, but not yet New York. Culinary Manager, Nate Appleman, and Director of Concept Development, Tim Wildin, felt that opening first in NYC “would have been too easy”. To succeed in a market such as DC is a truer measure of success. I typically shy away from fast food vendors due to the fact that “fast” rarely co-exists with patience and care. But a rumor that turned out to be true brought me into ShopHouse: The entire menu is gluten-free! As the news settled in, aromas of crushed spices, coconut milk and jasmine rice filled my senses and I surveyed an open field of options.

ShopHouse is inspired by the multi-use buildings that line the streets of Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, with street-level restaurants and upstairs living quarters. Meals based in fresh vegetables, noodles, rice and spices are whipped up in minutes and served piping hot to hungry mouths. ShopHouse is far too American to resemble authentic Southeast Asian kitchens. Yet, the melding of various Asian flavors under one roof echos the multicultural cuisine in Singapore that has resulted from a melting pot of Southeast Asian settlers.

Diners start by picking the base for their bowl, either brown rice, jasmine rice, chilled rice noodles, or napa cabbage. Next one selects a protein: grilled chicken satay, pork and chicken meatballs, grilled steak laab, or Tofu. One vegetable is included with the bowl: broccoli, charred corn, eggplant or green beans. The dish is topped with a choice of green papaya slaw, pickles or fresh herbs, then one of three sauces categorized by heat levels, and finished with a sprinkle of toasted rice, crushed peanuts, or crispy garlic.

Assembly line at ShopHouse

Assembly line at ShopHouse

Each component is packed with flavor, making it easy to build combinations that confuse with too many leading ladies. Diners should resist the urge to pile on everything and try to keep it simple. As a first timer, with pressures from my server and the line forming behind me, I made some snap decisions that I might rethink next time, like adding both papaya slaw and pickles atop my eggplant and chicken lettuce bowl.

Salad bowl with chicken, eggplant, green papaya slaw, pickles, crushed peanuts, and green curry.

Salad bowl with chicken, eggplant, green papaya slaw, pickles, crushed peanuts, and green curry.

Mild palettes should beware. While the restaurant tweaked its ingredients to make the food less spicy, heat still abounds (in other words, Mr. Green Bean will never see the inside of ShopHouse). I do recommend getting your sauce on the side, as most dishes wont even need the extra flavor or the calories. This might be a practice makes perfect situation, but I would appreciate a bit more direction from the servers to strike it right every time.

Unusual for a restaurant of this genre, everything is made in-house, from intricate spice blends to complex curries. While management admits the food is hardly traditional Southeast Asian cuisine, recipes flirt with authenticity by using rice, as opposed to wheat, as the main grain for items like the meatballs and noodles. I admit that I feel a certain affinity for cultures whose cooking is based in grains like rice or corn, as if my DNA is more closely linked to those ethnicities. When I traveled throughout Southeast Asia years ago, I had no idea the cuisine suited me so well. Perhaps another voyage to across the globe post celiac diagnosis is in order.

ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, 1516 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC