Gluten-free San Francisco

By Erika Lenkert

A few years ago, when I invited a famous chef to craft a menu for my magazine, GFF: Gluten-Free Forever, he confessed he was intimidated. It was a familiar response. Most people don’t know what gluten-free means, never mind how to avoid gluten. But once you do, it’s not only easy to eat gluten-free in restaurants or at home, it’s also easy to eat better and consequently look and feel better—especially in GF-friendly San Francisco.

For the record, gluten is an elastic protein substance found in wheat (including wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, kamut and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale. It’s what gives baked goods texture and structure. Its absence explains why gluten-free desserts can be sandy, crumbly and dry—and why GF people like me who refuse to compromise flavor or texture work hard to find worthy substitutes.

When I went gluten-free 17 years ago, after experiencing sudden and dramatic weight gain and rashes, that wasn’t the case. But scarcity proved a blessing: With bread, pasta and most desserts and processed foods off the table and the $4 billion GF food industry not yet a glimmer on the horizon, I was left to eat food made from whole, fresh ingredients.

Not surprising: Cutting out nearly every type of “junk food” except for ice cream and French fries (potatoes are GF!) made me feel better, lose weight, have clearer skin and put a stop to the energy-draining food hangover most of us perpetually suffer. And since the naturally gluten-free, farm-to-table food movement rose alongside the GF trend, I never felt excluded while dining out.

Now that gluten-free has gone global, there are more options than ever. But if you’re going GF and want to do it right for health and pleasure, you need to know a few things, starting with this: Be thankful you live in SF because this is one of the best cities to start a delicious GF lifestyle.

We have top-quality restaurants and bakeries dedicated to gluten-free dining, including plant-based Seed + Salt on Chestnut Street, dairy-free Little Gem in Hayes Valley and Mariposa Bakery in the Ferry Building Marketplace. Nearly every other local restaurant has options, too, even unexpected places like Scoma’s, which clandestinely makes all their delicious fried calamari GF, or Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, whose house-made, wheat-free pies are baked separately to avoid cross-contamination. The menu at Firefly in Noe Valley is almost entirely gluten-free, so you can even enjoy the coveted fried chicken. Heck, even Bi-Rite Creamery and Three Twins offer GF cones now.

Regardless of where you eat, it’s important to tell your waiter you’re gluten-free and ask for help making safe choices. Not all staff knows their stuff, so it’s good to be familiar with dishes likely to include gluten—like anything with soy sauce, miso (a few types are GF, but most are not), Romesco sauce containing breadcrumbs, oats that aren’t milled at a GF facility, readymade salad dressings and French fries, which are sometimes flour-dusted and usually fried with foods that include gluten.

For people with celiac disease who get seriously sick from even a rogue speck of gluten, our city also has the answer: Nima, a portable, chemistry-based sensor developed here that tests food right at the table and flags it OK to eat.

San Francisco also boasts access to many of the best gluten-free products in the country: If you want to fill your pantry with locally made good stuff, try Nana Joe’s granola bars, Bread SRSLY’s sourdough, Mariposa Bakery’s bâtard or rye bread. Pamela’s fantastic pancake mix is available at grocery stores nationwide, but the company is based in San Rafael. Even Napa Valley superchef Thomas Keller is in the mix, with Cup4Cup GF flour blends and a darned good brownie mix. If we lure C Casa donuts from Napa’s Oxbow Market, the SF-GF life will be almost complete.

Lazy-Summer Pasta with Tomatoes


A no-cook sauce teeming with summer flavor means that dinner is ready with nothing more than a little marinating of fresh tomatoes and, yes, the boiling of GF pasta.

• 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved

• 1 clove garlic, finely grated or crushed

14 cup extra-virgin olive oil

14 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, plus more for garnish

• Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

• 4 ounces gluten-free capellini pasta (Lenkert likes Jovial brand) or other gluten-free pasta

In a small bowl, mix together the tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil, 12 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper. Let marinate for 30 minutes.

Cook the pasta as directed on the package. Drain, reserving 14 cup of the cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot, add the tomato marinade and reserved water, and briefly toss, with the heat on medium-high, to evenly coat and warm. Divide the pasta between two dinner plates, garnish with basil and pepper, and serve.

Erika Lenkert is the Editor-in-Chief of GFF: Gluten-Free Forever magazine, the only national food magazine headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area. Produced in collectable, quarterly editions, it focuses on world-class, easy-to-prepare, whole-ingredients cooking.

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