Last month, my cousin Kristin came to visit Brad and me for a weekend. She goes to University of Alabama and because she grew up in New York City, was clearly craving an urban adventure in the Midwest.
Even though we’re about 15 years apart and didn’t grow up together, Kristin and I are so similar in so many ways.
One of those ways is that we both love, love, love to eat.
Usually, I have a go-to laundry list of restaurants to take out of town visitors. It includes deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s, tacos at Big Star, classic Italian food at Club Lago, Chicago-style hot dogs at Portillo’s, the list goes on and on.
This trip was a little trickier because Kristin was diagnosed with celiac disease a few years ago, so she eats a gluten-free diet.
When Kristin booked her ticket, I did some research to find restaurants with gluten-free menus or gluten-free options in Chicago.
I thought it was going to be challenging, but it turned out that we were able to go to many of my favorite restaurants and make only minor modifications to our orders.
It’s hard to believe that we fit this much eating into one weekend, but we did.
We’d both do it all over again.
Living in Wicker Park, I’m lucky enough to have Coast within walking distance from my apartment. We went straight here after picking Kristin up from the airport.
I love sushi and despite the fact that you typically can’t order steak in a sushi restaurant, Brad does too.
Apparently, the sushi choices leave lots to be desired in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (who would have thought?) so this was our first stop.
We ordered a variety of sushi rolls – spicy tuna, fresh salmon, yellowtail. To keep it GF, we avoided anything with tempura or tempura crumbs. The kitchen was super accommodating to omit the tempura crumbs from maki that were otherwise gluten-free friendly. We were able to share a Volcano roll and a ‘Tuna on Top’ roll too).
Watch out: if you’re hyper sensitive to gluten, ask before you order. Coast adds rice wine to its sushi rice. Kristin was absolutely fine with it, but others might not be. If that’s the case for you, tell your server and they’ll recommend an excellent assortment of sashimi for you. I’ve done this when I’m eating low carb and you definitely won’t feel deprived.
You wouldn’t think that Chicago’s most notable Italian restaurants would have an extensive gluten-free menu, complete with several different types of gluten-free pasta, but they do.
I wanted to take Kristin somewhere special for dinner where we could enjoy a night out and get a great meal (and it doesn’t hurt that everyone loves the restaurant’s head chef, Top Chef Fabio Vivianni, too!).
At Siena Tavern, gluten free diners can enjoy everything from grilled oysters and crudo to selections from the mozzarella bar to gluten free rigatoni in any one of the restaurant’s signature sauces. We had to have pasta, and picked gluten-free rigatoni with jumbo lump crab, charred grape tomato, red chili & lemon cream sauce.
We split the dish because we were full after a charcuterie plate and an order of burrata. Truth be told I could have eaten the whole order and then some.
Cafe Ba-Ba Reeba
For one of our meals out, we met up with our dads’ good friend Mark and his wife Liz.
They wanted to dine on the early side.
I wanted to pick a restaurant that wouldn’t be full of kids at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, would have excellent food and also be a fun place to go if you’re visiting.
All of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants are pretty accommodating of dietary restrictions. Most have their own gluten-free menus.
The gluten-free menu at this Lincoln Park tapas spot was robust and offered plenty of options. A few favorites: garlic potato salad, skewered chicken and chorizo sausage, shrimp with garlic, olive oil and red pepper, grilled ibérico pork with red chimichurri and lots more.
They even offer several varieties of their signature paella for the table gluten-free — chicken, seafood or farmers market vegetable.
Somehow, I’ve lived around the corner from an amazing donut shop that has donuts the size of your face in dozens of different varieties for the past seven months. Yet, this was my first visit.
(There’s a bagel shop down the street that I’m known to frequent with regularity, but we’ll save that story for a different day).
One of Kristin’s college friends from Chicago had told her about Stan’s. She heard that they had a gluten-free donut. Each day, they offer one or two vegan choices and one or two ‘gluten-less’ choices.
The day we went, she stayed outside with Henry and I went in and ordered the donuts.
I ordered Kristin the gluten-free flavor that day, which was pistachio. I wasn’t sure if she’d be a fan so I just got her the one.
She did, and after tasting it immediately went inside to get another one. That tells you everything you need to know, right?
Watch out: if you’re sensitive to cross contamination, I’m only guessing that this isn’t your best bet. The donuts were served from their own platter, but very close proximity to non gluten-free options. I can only imagine there is flour clinging to every single surface in their kitchen. Ask them about their prep space if you’re concerned, otherwise, dig in.
Another neighborhood gem, Brad and I had brunch here on New Year’s Day. I had my new favorite thing to order for brunch anywhere, ever: pierogi eggs Benedict. It’s essentially a plate of pierogi smothered in delicious Hollandaise sauce topped with poached eggs, bacon crumbles and leeks.
It’s amazing and I want it right now just typing about it. Kristin and I happened by and went in to grab brunch on Friday afternoon.
Kristin opted for pork belly and eggs, which was rich, layered with flavor, and everything a good brunch should be. She notified the server that she needed to eat gluten-free and they were super accommodating. It was probably pretty easy since she ordered something relatively low carb and organically gluten-free. Even so, the menu had plenty of salads, egg dishes, sandwiches that you could do without a bun, and a DIY omelet menu.
From the outside, LoKal looks like your typical hole in the wall bar, but the food is really excellent and they have all you can drink mimosas for as long as you have food on the table.
So think about seconds and desserts, too.
Locals often joke that the only time we get deep dish pizza in Chicago is when someone from outside of Chicago visits. I prefer thin crust, New York style pizza all the way, but I do appreciate that deep dish has a rightful place on the spectrum of ‘za.
My favorite deep dish pizza is from Lou Malnati’s. I think they get the cheese/sauce/crust ratio right without being too greasy. They do offer a gluten-free option also good for low-cab dieters, a sausage crust pizza. Kristin wanted to get as close to authentic Chicago deep dish as possible, so we opted for Chicago’s Pizza.
The website boasted that in 2011, at the request of some of their regulars, they started offering a gluten-free crust. Since then, they have managed to perfect their recipe. Kristin’s pizza looked exactly like the gluten-full one that Brad and I ordered to share.
She raved about it and as a New Yorker, I trust that she knows good pizza.
This is a staple stop on the list of ‘where to take out of town visitors. The Wicker Park bourbon and beer-focused, taco-slinging, late-night honky-tonk is a must-do. It’s complete with some of the best guacamole you’ll eat in Chicago and margaritas that, well, could potentially get you into some trouble.
The best part for you gluten-free diners is that they use corn tortilla shells, so most of their chicken, pork and beef tacos are gluten free.
Kristin ordered the Taco de Panza, Taco al Pastor and one more. I think Kristin ordered the Taco Alambre de Res, a grilled skirt steak taco. I was too busy face planting myself into the guacamole to take notice.