I just returned from a family vacation in what has to be gluten-free mecca: Colorado.
After all, Colorado is home to Udi’s and Canyon Bakehouse bakeries, New Planet Beer, the first ball park with gluten-free concessions, and the allergen-free restaurant certification program, Kitchens with Confidence. To name a few.
So you can bet that I was super excited to test out the local restaurants for their gluten-free fare. Especially since Boulder (where we were staying) had recently been named America’s #1 Foodiest Town, by Bon Appétit Magazine. I couldn’t wait to get started.
Specifically, we stayed a few miles outside of Boulder, in a shared house with my husband’s extended family. The vacation started off National Lampoon style, from not being able to find the rental home, miles outside the city and in the dark; to my sister-in-law and her son never showing up due to a mudslide debilitating outbound train tracks; to an infestation of ants in my daughter’s bed; and both my children exchanging days with fevers and elevation sickness. Not to mention Colorado itself having been through forest fires and a cinema shooting shortly before we arrived. Crazy and bizarre times. But most of the drama dissipated a few days into the trip, and aside from getting off on the wrong foot, the fresh mountain air, the beautiful vistas, and the friendly (and fit!) locals, all left an impression on me that makes me want to return time and again.
As I always do, I researched ahead of time which restaurants would be safe for me to eat at. Also as I always do, I called ahead to each restaurant that we identified as being gluten-free to make sure they can also accommodate my other food allergies (dairy and soy). Every response I received was very polite. Of course they will be able to accommodate me, and many places even said they could always create something for me off the menu, if they had to. I sometimes felt that asking for gluten-free/allergen free food in Colorado was like asking “if I come to your restaurant, will you have any food to eat?” “Duh!” Not that anyone would have ever said that to me. But it was almost a no-brainer there. How refreshing! Now I can’t say that is true of every establishment. I did start with a list of identifiable gluten-free restaurants, and went from there. But there is an abundance of gluten-free, allergen-free options, way beyond just one week’s visit.
The first evening we arrived late and hadn’t checked into the rental home yet, so we stopped for some take out at Murphy’s Grill. They don’t have a dedicated gluten-free menu, but there is a notice at the bottom of it that says: Many of our items can be made without meat, gluten or dairy. Ask your wait person!!!” Together with the bartender (who takes the to-go orders), I identified a couple of things that I could eat: I couldn’t decide between the Chili Lime Grilled Shrimp Salad, or the Coconut Thai Curry, but eventually settled on the latter. The creamy, mellow, mildly spiced coconut sauce with soft sweet potato and braised Asian greens was just what my growling belly wanted. And it also made me happy to know that my first meal outside my usual kitchen safety zone, was not going to set me up for an uncomfortable trip. They have two locations in town. Just be sure to watch out for the fries. They are not gluten-free, because they are cooked in a shared frier with gluten-y items, so are likely to be cross-contaminated.
The next night was a birthday celebration for my father-in-law who turned 80 this year. Everyone’s first choice was Frasca Food and Wine Bar, which unfortunately was not open on Sunday. The menu and the farm-to-table concept seem fantastic. This will be the first stop in our next Boulder visit. 🙂
So, we opted for another really great option: The Kitchen. With a lively atmosphere, and accommodating waitstaff, it was a festive place for a birthday dinner. The servers were able to work with me to find something that worked with all my food allergies. For an appetizer I had marinated olives and spiced nuts. For the entreé, I had a tender Alaskan Halibut in a soothing broth of morel, fennel and herbs. The fish broke apart from the fork easily, and while it was very good, I do think there could have been a little more food on the plate.
Unfortunately, Luke developed a fever during the dinner. I knew he was sick when he said he didn’t want to stick around for chocolate cake and that maybe everyone can just save some for him. So I drove him back to our rental house out of town. Without Luke there, the rest of the party opted for ice cream instead. Apparently Luke missed out on some really good (gluten-free) gelato, at Two Spoons. I promised him I would make it up to him. Two Spoons also sells (mostly) gluten-free soups, too, by the way.
Because we were staying in a vacation home, we mixed up nights eating out, with cooking at home. We also ate breakfast at home and packed lunches most days. Thank goodness for the Whole Foods Boulder, which is one of the coolest Whole Foods I’ve been in (not quite as cool as the Austin flagship, but close!). You can find most ingredients that you need for gluten-free, allergy-free meals there. But if you don’t feel like cooking, you can also visit one of their many awesome prepared meal counters or food stations. One day, we went to the BBQ station and got some delicious pulled pork with sweet and tangy Austin’s Own BBQ sauce, not too spicy for the kids. I know. Being from Texas, you’d hope we might branch out a bit. But it was just what we were in the mood for. We also got a big “chopped salad” full of field greens and a medley of fresh vegetables. A wholly satisfying paleo lunch! It was more than enough to feed the four of us.
But if you’re not in the mood for BBQ you can also visit their East Asian wok counter and get a rice bowl, maybe some street food at the traditional Mexican taco stand, some steamed greens and other healthy eats at the Greens & Grains station, make your own salad at the salad bar or peruse the shelves for prepackaged chicken salad and other such items. The Whole Foods in Boulder is so popular, that you actually have to wait in line for a table to eat your just-purchased lunch! Just be sure to ask all the right questions at each of the stations. Technically, they aren’t allowed to advertise themselves as gluten-free due to their proximity to the bakery. But I didn’t experience any issues with the BBQ lunch, and I am super-sensitive.
Another delicious and healthy, casual meal for take out, or dine in, is the Black Pepper Pho. Most items on the menu are gluten-free and are marked with a “GF.” All items are also MSG and nut free, and there are even a few Vegan items, marked on the menu with a ‘V”. Unfortunately, for me though, most of their items are grilled or sautéed in soybean oil. Luckily, the friendly and informative waiter was able to help me find a couple of things that were not cooked with soy. I ended up getting the Chicken Pho, to go. I arrived home with a huge tub of savory Vietnamese-spiced broth, some tender rice noodles and chicken pieces, and a large bag of fresh basil, jalapenos, bean sprouts and lime. This was actually my first time eating Pho and I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. In case you don’t know, its pronounced fu – like ‘fun’ without the ‘n.’ I loved the simplicity and freshness of the dish so much, that I have now made it my goal to find a gluten-free, soy-free Pho here in Houston, too. They also had children sized portions. Luke and Ava each got a simple dish of chicken marinated in lemongrass and spices, fresh veggies and rice. They loved it, and it was also wholly mom-approved. Thomas and I also got excited about the green papaya salad, a dish I hadn’t savored since living in the Philippines. This was one was full of flavor, but also super spicy, so only order it if you’re daring!
Probably the best meal of the week was at Brasserie Ten Ten, a restaurant obviously favored by the rest of Boulder as well. Thomas thought it would be fun to squeeze in a date night with me, while the grandparents watched the kids back at the cabin. The place was bustling when we arrived, and we were not able to get a table in the dining room. If you come to Boulder during peak tourist season, be sure to make a reservation, even if its only two of you! We didn’t think we would need it on a weeknight, but we were wrong! At least for the more top notch restaurants on Pearl and Walnut Streets, in the heart of it all.
So we took the opportunity over drinks and appetizers to call around town and make a reservation elsewhere. Not being a fan of big, meaty, tidal tasting oysters, I ordered the Kumamoto oysters, which were more dainty and on the sweet side. A beginner’s oyster, as our server, Ben, described them. They were the perfect vehicle for the delicate lavender- and shallot-infused dipping sauce that came with them. The shrimp (pictured at top) were plump and juicy and paired nicely with their piquant cocktail sauce.
By the time happy hour was over, we were still not in luck in finding a reservation anywhere. So we decided to stay where we were and eat in the bar area of the restaurant. I was happy about the decision, because I had been really looking forward to some gluten-free French cuisine. I can’t remember the last time I had French, since its not always easy to find it gluten-free. Many of the menu items are marked with a fleur-de-lis, indicating that the item is gluten-free. How lovely to use such a traditional cultural symbol to represent GF! But as I soon learned is customary with Boulder restaurants offering gluten-free items, dishes marked as gluten-free are often just a sampling of what can be made GF. Its actually often possible to order off the regular menu, if something looks really good and all it takes is a slight modification to make it safe.
I did notice a discrepancy on the menu, however. The Steak Frites was marked as gluten-free, but the fries listed separately were not listed as gluten-free. As I suspected, the frites are cooked in a shared frier, and so are not safe for celiacs or anyone who is super sensitive. Thus, the Steak Frites would also not be considered safe, unless you wanted to substitute the fries with something else. Please always be sure to talk to your servers and chefs about your meals, even if they are marked gluten-free.
Ben was very knowledgeable about the ingredients in each entreé. I am so impressed by how waitstaff know their food these days. When Thomas and I were much younger we each had stints waiting tables, and we were never this informed. Not because we didn’t want to be, but because we were never educated by our managers, chefs or restaurant owners about what exactly was is in the dishes we served. Thankfully, times have changed.
Even though Ben and I went over several items on the menu, I still went with the Coq Au Vin, which I had had my heart set on since I viewed the menu before I even left Houston! I began to salivate the moment the dish was placed in front of me. Crispy bacon, velvety mushrooms and pearl onions in a hearty wine sauce and rendered juices, smothered the crispy-skinned, moist and juicy chicken. My heart was not disappointed.
Because I have a dairy and soy allergy on top of gluten, it is very, very rare that I can enjoy a dessert out. This time was no exception. Its ok. I’m used to it! (Sometimes I just have an extra drink of wine instead). But I did take a moment to check out the gluten-free dessert options for any of you that might be interested, and they sure look good. If you visit Ten Ten, please indulge in one of these desserts for me:
For one last night cap, we visited the bar, Upstairs, above The Kitchen where we had been a few nights earlier. They have a very interesting drink menu, and even a few nonalcoholic drinks if alcohol is not for you. I sipped a fizzy cardamom ginger ale, not too sweet and reminiscent of a sultry evening in India. I would have loved to try the rest of their drinks, but not all in one night. 😉
There was one last place on my list that I really wanted to visit: The Sink (not related to The Kitchen). This restaurant is a Boulder institution having been around since 1923. It is located on “the hill” on the other side of Boulder Creek from downtown. Near the University, this is where the college crowd hangs out. The Sink has funky artwork on the walls and its ceilings are covered in Sharpie signatures, which even Luke and Ava got to add their name to. We arrived the day the Olympics stared, so all the waitstaff donned athletic gear and draped country flags on their backs like capes, adding to the already playful atmosphere. The Sink gained notoriety when it was featured by Guy Fieri from the Food Network on his show Diners, Drive-ins & Dives. It was also recently visited by President Obama, who left his signature in a very prominent location.
The food is usual casual, college fare with some signature dishes, like the Cowboy Reuben (devoured by Thomas!) and the Blue Cheese Stuffed Burger. Any sandwich can be prepared on allergen-free/gluten-free flatbread by Breadworks. I got the Turkey Stacker with bacon, lettuce and tomato and fully enjoyed the melding of flavors that only a sandwich can deliver, especially since sandwiches are a rarity for me.
I had to get a side salad instead of fries, because, you guessed it, they are cooked in a shared frier. But I was pleasantly surprised by the field greens, shredded carrots and fresh tomatoes. I half expected (for a dive) to get some wilted iceberg and pink, slimy tomato slices. Not the case at all. If you are visiting Boulder, you really ought put this one on your list of places to dine at!
Right next door is Pickled Lemon, a Middle Eastern restaurant offering gluten-free options, and interestingly, owned by the Udi’s bread company. Hummus anyone? We were too full from The Sink to check it out. Maybe next time. But it did look good!
We picked Carelli’s for a nice spot to spend our last night as the whole family together. Carelli’s is tucked in a location away from the hustle and bustle of Pearl Street, southeast of the University. They had a live piano player and a romantic ambience. But they were family friendly, too, with a hearty kids menu as well as oversized paper lamps that continually changed colors, mesmerizing Luke and Ava for hours. The gluten-free menu was impressive. The pasta was made by a company who asked me not to mention their name (for some reason only their lawyer knows!). If I remember correctly, it was corn and sorghum based. I assume they don’t want to take responsibility for any cross-contamination that may happen in their facility. So please do keep that in mind.
Any sauce on the regular menu could be paired with the gluten-free pasta. Again, not sticking entirely with the gluten-free menu, I was able to share in the Salmon Carpaccio as well as the Proscuitto Parma (a sampling of cured meats) for appetizers. And for the entreé, the waitress, Joanna, put a meal together for me that was not on either menu! We started with a (garlic-lover’s) garlic & oil sauce, topped it with fresh “bruschetta” tomatoes and threw in a few scallops for good measure. The pasta was actually al dente (not common for gluten-free pasta)! The scallops were seared to perfection and had a “buttery” (olive oil) flavor. To me, this was amazing gluten-free Italian !
Also amazingly, they serve gluten-free crepes made of quinoa, for dessert. An entire selection! Most are some combination of a caramelized fruit, cream, and a liqueur. You probably couldn’t go wrong with any of them. I couldn’t attest to any of these myself (due to my other allergies), but they sound pretty good!
From French to Italian, to Thai and Vietnamese, as well as American – I experienced a whole range of cuisines that were all gluten-free! There are even more on the list including Indian and Mexican. There were a few more that I wanted to try, but alas, I just did not have enough time. I guess I will have to come back to Boulder again one day. If you’ve been to any of these, please add your reviews below! I’m just dying to know how they are: Restaurant 4580, Salt the Bistro, Frasca Food and Wine (as I already mentioned) and Hapa Sushi.
Gluten-Free Beyond Boulder
Of course there is more to Colorado than the food. Boulder is considered one of the best and healthiest towns in America, having been given a litany of honors by many a magazine, such as “The Skinniest City in America,” #3 on the list of “Top 50 Bike-Friendliest Cities,” #1 on the list of “Top Recreation Cities,” one of the best “Summer Vacation Destinations,” as well as one of the “Top Ten Winter Towns.” From Boulder you can get on your bike and ride the nearest mountain, or stroll along Boulder Creek through the town. You feel lazy driving your car.
And then there are lots of great day trips outside of Boulder. A trip to Rocky Mountain National Park is almost required if you’ve already made it this far. The touristy town of Estes Park is a gateway to the National Park, and we visited there a couple of years ago. If you go, there are two good restaurants in town offering gluten-free options: more formal dining at Mama Rose’s Italian restaurant and the more casual pizzeria, Poppy’s Pizza and Grill.
This time around we decided to do a white rafting trip just outside the charming town of Fort Collins. The trip was fun, despite the low water levels and the burnt landscape. We promised our rafting guide we would come back another year for a more thrilling ride and a more interesting scenery.
Afterward, we drove into Old Town Fort Collins, which offered several great places to eat. Austin’s, with its busy lunch crowd, looked inviting, and they had a gluten-free menu. I got the fully loaded Cobb Salad. It was fresh and satisfying. I was not able to take advantage of their lovely array of dressings, however, because they recently started using soybean oil. But I was happy to know that my waitress was informed.
Then I had a coffee across the street at Starry Night Espresso Café. We were lucky enough to duck in just as the sky opened up and dumped a ton of water on the streets. I was delighted to find they offer almond milk as a dairy-free, soy-free alternative creamer for my cappuccino. While they don’t have an extensive gluten-free menu, they did tell me that they try to offer at least one gluten-free option. By the time we were done ordering and ready to leave, the rainstorm had vanished. Perfect timing!
On our last day in Colorado, there was one final stop that I had to make before leaving gluten-free wonderland. Our flight out of Colorado was not until the afternoon, so we had a lazy trip back to the Denver airport. Not too far from the highway, was one of the Udi’s bakery cafés in a new planned, mixed-use community where the old Denver airport once was. There are only a few items on their entire menu that are not gluten-free, and any other food allergy that you have can be accommodated for, which is punched into the computer by the cashier.
With so many sandwiches to choose from, how could I choose just one? As I mentioned earlier, sandwiches are very rare for me. I went with the Apple Walnut Chicken Salad, a tasty, mayonnais-y dish soaked up nicely by the toasted gluten-free bread. And, bonus! First the first time, I could order fries because they are not cooked in a shared frier! What a treat. Though, I do have to say, they were a little on the greasy side. Not as crispy as I would have hoped. Sheesh, I’m picky, aren’t I? But I did eat every one of them, except for a very few that I shared with the rest of my crew.
All in all, I had a fantastic foodie experience in gluten-free Colorado, and I can’t wait to return. I hope you get the chance to visit, too.