Flavorful Gluten-Free Portals to the Pacific
It’s that time of year when I am reminded that living just miles from the Pacific Ocean may make my family among the luckiest people in the world. I ponder the ecological marvel that is the California coastline and its diverse cities, each a portal to the Pacific with its own flavor. And I plot a plan to explore a few of my favorite California haunts, this time with a fresh eye toward gluten-free dining.
San Diego’s sun, surf & satisfying eats
Due south just a few hours from Los Angeles is the saucy border town of San Diego, which I visit first. The first mission in a vast system spanning the state was built in San Diego in 1756, but in recent history this growing border town is better known for its strategic military port and eclectic neighborhoods, from quirky to top drawer. Today, vast ridges and valleys have been slowly built up to accommodate an increasing tide of new residents seeking the sun, surf, and jobs. And the balmy weather beckons.
Since the metropolis is so huge, I choose two neighborhoods to focus on in my gluten-free quest. Both are compelling for their forward-thinking, gluten-free cuisine and appeal as destinations for travelers: downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter and the beach community of La Jolla.
If you have the energy, San Diego has the activity, from exploring museums to trekking through its world-class wild animal park or just hanging out at white sand beaches. As a base, I choose the 40-acre Rancho Valencia in northern San Diego. A subdued resort with Mediterranean-style cottages tucked into a rustic residential area it’s a perfect home away from home. As I’ve traveled with celiac disease for a little more than a year now, I’ve discovered that where I stay is critical to a successful trip, both practically and emotionally. Maybe it’s age. Or maybe it’s a general nervousness about going hungry. But when I have been unable to find safe food, it’s grounding to have a place to return to.
Advance research and a few phone calls confirm that the resort’s restaurant Veladora accommodates gluten-free diners at all three meals. In the afternoons, so does the lobby bar, where in a quiet corner of the sunny outdoor patio I relax with a generous Cobb salad upon arrival. Breakfast off the buffet is a no-go due to the incredible spread of pastries and muffins, but the menu is full and their gluten-free Deanna’s bread not only tastes sublime with fresh jam but it’s multigrain, a rare treat.
The Gaslamp Quarter
Our first outing is to downtown’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. Navigating San Diego’s winding freeway systems with the “Maps” app on my iPhone, we quickly locate the one-time red-light neighborhood with a shady past. Today, the area’s restored brick warehouses dating from the late 1800s are breathing new life. Independent shops like Nothing Sacred Tattoo and The Hopping Pig Gastropub rub shoulders with national retailers. At night the scene bounces. During the day, restaurants put out tables for European-style street dining in the Southern California sunshine.
It doesn’t take long to locate a handy selection of gluten-free eateries. We pop into the Old Spaghetti Factory in a tri-level building with a distinctly Italian feel. The pasta is a Heartland brand fusilli noodle, and the menu indicates which sauces and dishes are gluten free. It looks worthy of a try, and would be great for families with loud kids whose racket will get lost in the din. But I’m more interested in Saltbox, the Hotel Palomar’s restaurant I’ve heard is intensely committed to providing guests gluten-free meals. General manager Alex Desquiron tells me guests can even order gluten-free from the room service menu. I give the curry chicken salad a whirl and am pleasantly surprised by the lime yogurt vinaigrette’s bite.
Another restaurant getting attention is Jsix in nearby Hotel Solamar. The restaurant takes a holistic approach, and I’m impressed with its efforts at re-use (coasters are cut-up menus), sustainability, and accommodations for guests with food allergies. “We treat our guests as if they were our grandmothers, so let us know if you have a gluten-free requirement,” Executive Chef Christian Graves tells me as I sip a cocktail in the well-lit bar. The kitchen uses every part of an animal in the prep of homemade chorizo, lox and sausage. We dive into their charcuterie board, a mix of cooked meats that’s a great option as an appetizer or for a quick protein pick-me-up.
Riding artificial waves at WaveHouse
But a little activity is in order, so we head to WaveHouse in nearby Pacific Beach, San Diego’s top artificial wave destination. The place is party central for twentysomethings, and with bikini-clad beach revelers and loud music blaring, I feel like I’m stuck in the new millenium’s version of Beach Blanket Bingo. I should mention that although we live in California, I am not rid of every woman’s distaste for swimsuits past the age of 40. But the time has passed for squeamishness, so I suck it up, don a one-piece with board shorts and take a run at the FlowRider, a milder version of the FlowBarrel (pitched as “the mother of all artificial machines”).
Flowboarding combines elements from a variety of board sports and sounds like a hoot. I’m not disappointed when, at the push of a button, 20- to 30-mile-per-hour water blasts straight at me. In a nanosecond I’m riding a wave, cutting back and forth trying to keep afloat. Better for the uninitiated and older crowd, it’s still a challenge. But it also creates, incredibly, an endless wave. Imagine those few blissful seconds when you’re up and riding a wave in at the beach, but the sand never arrives. I go until my legs start shaking, reluctantly crying uncle after a few minutes. Shazam!
Meanwhile, the kids run off to the FlowBarrel, a whole other type of wave that simulates Hawaii’s pipeline by pumping 100,000 gallons of water per minute, challenging guests from Olympic gold medalist Shaun White to surfing world champion Kelly Slater. Pooped out and starving in only the way an afternoon in the water can do, I inhale a tuna tataki salad with sliced tuna on a bed of mixed greens, tossed in a tangy peanut dressing with buckwheat noodles, snow peas and carrots while the kids grab burgers and fries.
Another day finds us in La Jolla, the quaint beachside neighborhood on a peninsula that has such an impressive number and variety of gluten-free restaurants. At Bubba’s Smokehouse, we chow down on ribs slathered with a rich, dark barbeque sauce. According to its owners, everything on the menu except the macaroni and cheese is gluten free, but be sure you ask for the gluten-free barbeque sauce. Unbelievably, directly across the street is Roppongi, a contemporary, hip Asian fusion restaurant and bar with a dedicated gluten-free menu. The bartender doesn’t seem surprised at all by my request for a gluten-free beer and produces a Bard’s with a smile. I’d be a regular if I lived here.
A quick stroll around the city center finds us at Puesto Mexican Street Food. Combining the flavors of Mexican street food with a hygienic, warm environment free of greasy floors and day-old chips, Puesto is a Mexican food lover’s dream. Bowls are prepared in a buffet-style line, starting with a woman whipping out bona fide, homemade corn tortillas on the same type of press you see on the streets of Mexico. I even love them with butter. With the exception of the carne asada and soy chorizo, the entire menu is gluten free. Hip and delicious, the restaurant displays local graffiti artist Chor Boogie’s works on the walls. Don’t miss this one. If you don’t like spicy food, be sure to indicate as you move through the line.
Always on the lookout for a decent gluten-free dessert, we practically trip over Cups as we saunter around town. A teeny-weeny, all-organic shop baking cupcakes on-site daily, it has three gluten-free varieties in the case every day. I pounce on a chocolate and peanut butter one, which is a little like a Reese’s peanut butter cup with more bite. It’s heaven on earth. To get a greater proportion of the chocolate and peanut butter, order several of the smaller cupcakes rather than a regular-sized, which give you more cake. They’re rich, though, and like most gluten-free goodies, don’t last for very many days.
The sky is a searing blue on our last day in San Diego, so we get some light picnic goodies at La Jolla’s Whole Foods, grab a kite and head over to Balboa Park, a two-acre urban cultural park with walking paths, open green areas, museums and gardens. Lying on the grass in the sun, we all agree a return trip is a must.
Santa Barbara – the American Riviera
Head north an hour from Los Angeles up winding Pacific Coast Highway and you’re in Santa Barbara, tucked between ocean and mountains referred to as “The American Riviera.” The well-deserved moniker comes from its 100-plus miles of coastline, Mediterranean weather and bustling downtown scene. Think Nice, France, on a smaller scale. The city’s main drag, State Street, is lined with a mixture of trendy boutiques, open-air restaurants and the occasional dive bar pumping out loud music, college kids spilling into the street on weekend nights.
On a long weekend, we head to downtown to put our stomachs through a test run of the local gluten-free goodies, spending the day popping in and out of restaurants and shops. Our first stop is Backyard Bowls for a breakfast Acai bowl. All the rage in healthy California cuisine, they’re made using the small, purple Acai berry known for its antioxidant properties. An Acai bowl is a blend of the berry’s frozen pulp and other fruits, topped with honey, fresh fruits and granola. I check and their oats aren’t gluten free, so I toss a little of my own on the top. The mixture is filling and delicious yet doesn’t weigh me down, good news for the rest of the day.
From the mountains that loom behind it to the glinting blue ocean below, Santa Barbara is pure eye candy, and by lunch we’re ready to take a run at a health-food version of the classic American diner, Silvergreens. I’m standing in line with businessmen and surfers, which feels oddly normal. As does the menu, which includes pasta, hamburgers, salads and sandwiches, all made from scratch and with fresh ingredients. The menu indicates vegan and vegetarian, but ask to see the laminated gluten-free menu they keep at the register. I try the Thai chicken pasta, which is served in a generously sized bowl. Not too spicy and topped with grilled strips of chicken breast, it’s heavenly. And inexpensive, a bonus in pricey Santa Barbara.
Tops on my list, though is La Super Rica. I’m practically giddy anticipating the locally beloved Mexican joint that drew the national spotlight after Julia Child raved about it. The handmade corn tortillas and fresh pico de gallo are so delicious there are literally crowds of diners waiting to get in well after the “closed” sign is hung on the front door. That we’re sitting on a concrete floor in plastic chairs seems beside the point.
Sundays are particularly fun in Santa Barbara. We splurge on breakfast at the Biltmore Hotel. Looking at the hotel’s long lawn and grand views of the Pacific in classically Spanish-style buildings, you and your money will be quickly parted. But this one is splurge-worthy so be sure to linger. Then spend a few hours at the Arts and Crafts Show. A weekly event since the dawn of man, local artists hocking everything from leather earrings to mixed media set up their wares along the sidewalk, leaving plenty of room to keep moving or stop for closer inspection.
For a quick treat, Blenders in the Grass on State Street is a good bet. The smoothies are either fruit- or ice-milk-based, and in an email to the company I learn the manufacturer of the ice milk can’t guarantee the corn syrup is 100 percent gluten-free. But there is a Blender’s where I live, and since it is widely understood corn syrup is, in fact, gluten free, I have their smoothies regularly with no apparent problems. My favorite is the Red Banana, a mixture of strawberries, bananas and ice milk. I do avoid the add-ons like protein powder and vitamins just in case. Rather than loitering, take your smoothie down to Stearns Wharf and watch the boats bobbing up and down in the harbor, sun glistening off their bows. If you have kids, it’d be silly not to check out the Museum of Natural History’s Ty Warner Sea Center, where they can crawl through a tidepool tank and learn about wave action, investigate a live shark touch pool or play with the interactive exhibits. My 11-year-old gives it an energetic thumbs up. Bingo!
For all its Mediterranean tranquility, Santa Barbara’s real deal are the people who’ve built a community with top-drawer educational and adventure activities in an incomparable physical setting. Rent a Vespa or surrey and explore, check out the Natural History Museum, or kayak the Channel Islands sitting just off the coast. Were I one of the original explorers, this is where I would have dropped anchor.
San Francisco on the cutting edge
Further afield but within a day’s drive of Los Angeles is San Francisco, probably the only American city regularly compared with London. Despite its diminutive size – after all, its hills are boxed in between ocean and bay – it can take days to do a thorough reconnaissance. No surprise, then, that the focal point for most visitors is the wharf area and nearby neighborhoods.
And so on arrival we follow the path well traveled, heading directly to the Ferry building at the bottom of Market and California Streets. Hungry and ready for a morning sugar rush, we note the Ferry Building is home to San Francisco’s best gluten-free and certified green bakery, Mariposa.
An open atrium, gourmet marketplace and farmer’s market share space in the building, whose primary mission is as a terminal for ferry commuters. I’ve been slathering in anticipation, and we practically rush the counter when we see warm cinnamon rolls being laid on shelves. The house specialty, it’s light, moist, and infused with just enough cinnamon that it melts in my mouth. I can’t get enough. At last, I lick my lips, and looking up am tickled by the breadth of Mariposa’s products: baguettes, cakes, endless pastries and breads. The good news? I can order online – and so can you.
Ready to get out in the cool morning air, we head across the trolley tracks and up California street for the 10-minute walk to Union Square, where we can’t resist jumping on the outside elevator up to the 31st floor for a quick view of the San Francisco skyline. At this height it’s spectacular. The rest of the morning is spent strolling around the square until it’s time for lunch at E&O Asian Kitchen, an Asian fusion restaurant. We settle into Ahi Tuna Poke, Japanese Bop, Black Pepper Shaking Beef and a Prawn Salad. The food is spot on, the setting with several contemporary rooms filled with art is a treat, and we blow off two hours relaxing and tasting. Try ordering Chinese-style and share plates. It’s a guaranteed gluten-free dream meal.
Well fed, we head to Powell Street to take a quintessentially San Francisco cable car ride back down to Pier 39, hanging our heads off the sides just enough to feel a good breeze.
The city is rife with activities. And despite looming clouds and a decent breeze, we rent bikes at the wharf, pedaling over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, a charming little town on the Marin county side of the bay. The views as we cross are really more like vistas, beautiful but somewhat nerve wracking due to the height.
The day is warming up and we’re headed to Copita Tequileria y Comida, a restaurant whose 100 percent gluten-free menu, we’ve heard, would be a crime if missed. On arrival, we’re famished and overjoyed. We dig into tortilla soup with roasted chicken, zucchini, avocado and carrots. With offerings nothing short of spectacular, Copita Chef Joanne Weir stops by the table. She tells us she eats gluten-free herself, and the kitchen’s veggies and herbs are sourced at their organic garden up the street.
What more can I say? With like-minded folk, I’m feeling as close to normal as it’ll get. We soldier on, trying the Mexico City Style Quesadillas and 24 Hour Carnitas – both loaded with flavor. The open fireplace and warm tiles are so cozy we linger, but the place is packed and we feel compelled to let others in on the secret. It’s hard, but the day’s getting on so off we trot, bikes in hand to catch the ferry back.
One must-do in San Francisco is a trip to Alcatraz, the infamous former prison on an island in the San Francisco Bay. Another is to wander Pier 39, a hub of restaurants, ferries and gift shops. Keep an eye out for the now-famous sea lions that came ashore after an earthquake and decided to stay. While there, be sure to nip into the Fog Harbor Fish House for a 100-percent sustainable seafood restaurant serving their “stars,” seafood that is not depleting fish populations, destroying habitats or polluting the water. That includes Dungeness crab, king salmon, mussels and Oregon pink shrimp. The restaurant’s panoramic views of San Francisco Bay make dining a double pleasure, and more than half the menu items have gluten-free indicators, so go wild.
Being back in the city gives me a chance to visit the earthquake simulator at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, and despite being in quakes regularly I still have a ghoulish fascination for them. The park is massive and home to botanical gardens, museums, even a flower conservatory. But it’s the simulator I’m curious about. Staged in what looks like a typical family room, it indeed delivers a high-magnitude jolt as promised, and turns out to be a must-do. We also check out the immersive planetarium show that has us flying over and into the planet as we explore the impact of the historic 1906 earthquake and fire. What more could a ghoulish gal hope for?
Our days are busy with walking and eating and riding various cable car lines. Really, it would be easy to morph into this life with its easy transportation, forever views and something interesting on every corner. But home beckons, and at this rate I may have to move the button over in my coat.
San Diego Dining
La Jolla Dining
San Diego Resources
Santa Barbara Dining
➥ La Super Rica (Mexican)
622 North Milpas Street
Santa Barbara, CA805-963-4940
Santa Barbara Resources
San Francisco Dining
➥ Fog Harbor Fish House (sustainable seafood)
San Francisco Resources
➥ San Francisco Travel: San Francisco’s official website
Andrea Kitay, a former Los Angeles Times columnist, is thriving gluten-free in Southern California, where the temperature is quite a bit warmer than the Canadian north. She is a regular travel contributor to Gluten-Free Living.