When we have special dietary needs, it's easy to feel like there is "nothing to eat." But in the Saranac Lake area, we have fresh food prepared in kitchens with real chefs in the back. Our servers will be sympathetic and quick to check with them. We'll fill that plate in no time.
Specialty dining is not just close to my heart; it's close to my stomach. I've been dining gluten free since 2010. This challenge has made me sympathetic to all kinds of dining difficulties. So I'd like to share my tips, tricks, and favorite places.
communication is key
When we live with something that requires extra time and thought, it's easy to think that everybody understands it. But I've found this to be a thought that will create a problem. We need to be both clear, and specific, to make sure our requests are answered with accuracy.
I tell servers I need to be gluten-free, but if they don't know what that means, they can't be helpful. I've had responses like "You can't have... cheese?" or simply a blank look because they are trying to remember if they ever heard the chef ask the staff for more gluten. Most people don't know what gluten is, or what foods might contain it.
So I follow up with additional information: "I need to be gluten free. I have to avoid wheat and flour." Now my servers have the right information to go into the kitchen with, or make suggestions about, or simply adjust a dish slightly. Much of the time a dish can work for me if they just skip the gravy (which is thickened with flour) or substitute a side ("It comes with mac and cheese so could I have a vegetable instead?")
They may not know all pasta and macaroni is wheat-based, or how gravy is made. I use my own knowledge to help them by making suggestions about how a dish might be checked or adjusted. Is the meat floured before cooking, and can the chef skip that step easily?
I used to spend time in a large city with two Buddhist friends, and questions like these didn't come up because they knew all the vegan places. They would have to share similar teaching moments with servers if they are in unfamiliar places. Telling servers we are vegans and wish to avoid cheese and eggs in our dishes gives them the right information.
"Could the chef leave the cheese out of this dish?" works for vegans in places where the cheese is an optional topping, such as linguine in marinara sauce, but not in dishes where cheese is integral, like lasagna.
I have found Downhill Grill happy to hold the gravy and check on ingredients. Blue Moon Cafe will always ask the chef and hold the toast. Casa del Sol has dishes with no gluten, like my favorite, the Duck Adobo, or no animal products, like the Casa Guacamole. Eat 'n Meet Grill asks vegans to call ahead and they will make sure to have something for them, likewise for gluten free diners.
Degrees of fussy
Fortunately for me, I'm not so gluten sensitive that I can't go into a bakery (some celiacs find the air too loaded with flour), or a strict vegan who has difficulty eating in a place whose kitchen is not designed for them. I'm adaptable in terms of what is known as cross-contamination, such as a cutting board or cooking implements that would also be used to prepare something for a diner without restrictions.
If we need to be a little more vigilant, Saranac Lake has places with ingredients, or even whole dishes, which might make us more comfortable about our choices.
Nori's Village Market is our local go-to when it comes to vegan dining. They have a dedicated deli section with many breakfast and lunch options, along with their famous regular and gluten free brownies (which are most excellent, I can say from personal experience). The clear case by the hot beverage station has an ever-changing display of baked treats that are either vegan, gluten free, or both. Likewise, there are always two hot soups that are vegan and/or gluten free.
There is also a bright and cheerful dining room to eat in, with big windows and a wide range of coffees and teas to accompany the meal. Or, choose from a variety of exotic sodas from the cooler.
Origin Coffee Company has soy or almond milk for vegan customers to have in their coffee or tea. Their dining options are mostly vegan or vegan-adaptable, such as their highly popular avocado toast.
Sometimes gluten free treats can be found in the treat dome by the cash register. Their soup is often gluten-free and their Caesar salad can become so by asking them to hold the croutons.
Italian can seem like a minefield for the gluten free (all that pasta!) or the vegan (all that cheese!), so it's great that both Nonna Fina and Little Italy have gluten-free pasta and pizza crust options. For the vegan, the homemade pasta can come dressed in olive oil or a tomato sauce, and they can enjoy the fresh bread.
My friends used to second guess themselves about meeting us for Italian, but they don't have to. The last time we met at Nonna Fina, the special was an exceptional Fra Diavolo over seafood. Everyone at the table was envious of my choice!
One would think that ordering drinks is something everyone can agree upon, but the gluten free should keep in mind that some of us are sensitive to the gluten in distilled spirits. Bourbon, whiskey, and beer, which are distilled from grains, are obvious troublemakers. However, even some vodkas are now distilled from grain; not, as tradition has it, from potatoes.
For best results from a busy bartender, pick a few national brands that we know will get along with us. Or, choose wine (from grapes,) rum (from sugar cane — but beware of flavored rums,) or tequila that was distilled from “100 percent agave.”
China Jade will, upon request, make any of their dishes with tofu. They have no dairy on their menu. Lakeview Deli will make one of their glorious sandwiches with gluten free bread. Many of their soups and side salads are either gluten free or vegan friendly. They also offer a wide range of vegetarian sandwich makings.
When we have special dietary needs, travel can be daunting. We are fortunate that Saranac Lake has the right combination of foodie support, on-site chefs, and caring service staff that will help us confidently make the right choices.
And have a great time.