Thursday, January 28, 2010

Restaurant Review: Pei Wei Asian Diner

P.F. Changs' unfussy younger brother, Pei Wei Asian Bistro, has 150 locations throughout the U.S., including one on Walnut Street in Cary, adjacent to Cary Towne Center. The big draw here is price and convenience; the chain boasts every item on the pan-Asian menu costs less than $10. This isn't relaxed dining, it's order-at-the-counter fast-casual, and it gets the job done without the frills.

Since Pei Wei is owned by P.F. Changs, a popular choice among gluten-free diners, we thought we'd check out the offerings at Pei Wei. But whereas Changs has a whopping 17 gluten-free choices, Pei Wei has a menu of just five items they call "Recommended for Gluten Intolerant diets." Three of those items are incarnations of chicken salad: Vietnamese Chicken Salad Rolls (order without the Thai peanut sauce), Asian Chopped Chicken Salad (substitute lime vinaigrette dressing and no wonton strips), and Pei Wei Spicy Chicken Salad (shrimp can be substituted). The other two recommended items are Pei Wei Spicy and Pei Wei Sweet and Sour, with a choice of chicken or shrimp in either dish.

Note the disclaimer at the bottom of the menu which reads, "Products containing gluten are prepared in our kitchen." In other words, BEWARE if cross-contamination is a concern. The good news is: the kitchen is open and visible from the dining area, so vigilant diners can keep a close eye on food preparation.

Ordering at the counter, it was evident that the staff had received training on Pei Wei's gluten free options. The woman we spoke with was able to answer specific gluten questions about each dish. When the computerized order went through, we could hear shouts of "Gluten-Free!" coming from the kitchen, as the information passed among the food preparers.

Even though my daughter is the one who MUST eat gluten-free, all three of us ordered off the gluten-free menu, in order to get a true idea of options. When I ordered, I asked that the non-gluten-free Thai peanut sauce be served on the side of my Vietnamese Chicken Salad Rolls. When our server brought the food to the table, he warned me that the side of sauce wasn't gluten-free, and asked if I wanted him to bring it back to the kitchen -- another sign of good staff training. The Chicken Salad rolls were tasty, if funny looking, and I skipped the peanut sauce altogether: chicken, fresh lettuce, mint, vermicelli thin rice noodles, and lime vinaigrette packaged in chewy rice paper. The rolls seemed a lighter option than the syrupy, sauce-laden dishes, all too prevalent at Amer-Asian restaurants.

My daughter chose the Pei Wei Sweet and Sour Chicken without the sauce (see above. Although rest easy, the GF sweet and sour sauce is gluten-free). The chicken arrived at the table breaded, despite the menu description as "non-battered chicken." When I inquired about the batter, I was quickly reassured that the GF chicken is breaded with potato starch, and is gluten-free. It was a comfort that all three of the staff members I interacted with were fully informed about the requirements of a gluten-free diet.

Here is a summary of the pros and cons of Pei Wei Asian Diner in Cary, as we experienced it:


* Quick, cheap and convenient dining option.
* Staff well trained in gluten-free dietary requirements.
* Kitchen visible from dining area.


* Risk of cross-contamination due to mixed kitchen.
* Limited gluten-free menu selection.

All in all, we plan to return to Pei Wei in the future, but with caution.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Challenge 1: Baking a Gluten-Free Cake

Gluten, a composite of gliadin and glutenin, is the protein in wheat grain, the elastic that binds together ingredients in dough. To bake without gluten is like trying to get two pieces of paper to stick to each other without glue. You can use tape; you can use paperclips or staples, but the end result is going to be different. Yesterday, I set out to use paperclips but make them act like glue.

V requested we bake a carrot cake and that seemed like an easier apprenticeship into gluten-free baking than, say, chocolate croissants.

I chose a carrot cake recipe from Rebecca Reilly's GLUTEN-FREE BAKING. Reilly is a graduate of LeNotre and Cordon Bleu cooking schools in Paris, so she knows how to bake, but here's the real sell for me: her book contains recipes for six different kinds of gluten-free biscotti. I have a *thing* for biscotti, so I'm looking forward to sampling homemade GF biscotti with my coffee.

Here are the ingredients I used to bake the carrot cake:

As you can see, it takes many ingredients to approximate the power of wheat gluten. Reilly's carrot cake is also dairy-free, egg-free, and sugar-free so it is great for people who have multiple sensitivities.

The cream cheese icing, on the other hand, is mostly dairy and sugar. So skip the icing if you are lactose intolerant or diabetic.

This is what it my dry and wet ingredients looked like before combining:

The house smelled divine while the cake was baking--a great sign!

Just out of the oven, you can see that the cake hardly rose. This is a dense dessert.

Here, I whipped up the cream cheese icing:

I'm not the world's best cake icer, but I thought the finished product looked pretty good, except for being really short:

Okay, so how about taste?

V loves it; I had to stop her from having too much. I like it, but would prefer using egg instead of tofu, if I can figure out how to make the substitution. Embracing my inner Betty Draper just a bit, I do believe the carrot cake passed the ultimate test. My husband, who is not on a gluten-free (or any other) diet took a piece with him to work. While I was writing this entry, he sent me the following text:

The carrot cake is totally yummy. It got me through the morning. No small feat.

If only "mission accomplished" weren't relegated to the linguistic trash-bin....
I'll have to settle for "challenge met".

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A New Life

My daughter--I'll call her V for now--was diagnosed with celiac disease on January 15, so she’s had just over a week to adjust to a total change in lifestyle. It’s been an emotional week for the entire family. Today we ran into Target and she said, "Mom, I just want a soft pretzel."

I'm going to use this space to occasionally chronicle what's going on with us, but also to pressure local businesses to provide gluten-free options. Luckily, we're coming into this at a time when gluten-free is HOT--celiacs have more grocery and dining options than ever before. So when a Cary business does a great job being gluten-free friendly, I want to commend that here in this blog. Later in this post, I am going to recognize Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano for doing just that.

Over at Gluten Free Raleigh, Zach mentions that it takes an average of 11 years for someone to be properly diagnosed with celiac. In our case it took seven years, and many visits to both UNC Children’s Gastroenterology and Duke Pediatric Gastroenterology clinics, unpleasant experiences at best. I give both hospitals an F. I could talk ad nauseum about UNC and Duke, but the bottom line is: no one at either clinic knew what was wrong with my daughter and she was never tested for celiac disease. I was not even aware of celiac until my mother was diagnosed with it.

In December, I finally found an independent pediatric gastroenterologist and requested the blood test. V tested positive for the celiac antibodies. The gastroenterologist then performed an endoscopic biopsy, a procedure in which a tiny camera is inserted through a tube which goes down the throat, through the esophagus, into the duodendum. Pictures and tissue samples were taken. Those samples were sent to a pathologist for analysis. The biopsy confirmed celiac disease.

The whole process of getting knocked out with general anesthesia before the endoscopy, the endoscopy itself, and waiting for the results frightened V, who is nine. Fortunately, our experience at WakeMed pediatric outpatient surgery was better than the UNC and Duke clinic visits. By the time we received confirmation of the celiac diagnosis on Friday morning, it was somewhat of a relief. If celiac is the sole cause of her problems, she will feel better very soon.

We wanted to do something at least a little fun Friday evening, so we ventured out for her first gluten-free meal. We went to Biaggi’s in Cary, which has a gluten free menu.

Biaggi’s was the perfect introduction to gluten-free restaurant dining. The atmosphere is relaxed but chic, with earth-toned d├ęcor, soft lighting, and plenty of space between tables.

A helpful server had the kitchen bake up a fresh batch of GF bread. They use their gluten-free pizza dough, which is salty and flavorful, and goes down easily drizzled with the olive oil at the table. I asked for the croutons to be left off my salad and that was no problem. V ordered the gluten-free pasta with pesto sauce, and she loved it. She said she couldn’t taste the difference between hers and regular wheat pasta, the ultimate compliment. When the Chef heard from our server that we were brand new to gluten free living, he sent over a paper copy of the GF menu and his business card with an offer to answer any future questions that we have. I plan to take him up on this, and we will definitely dine again at Biaggi’s.

More later. In the meantime, please leave a comment if there is a local gluten-free friendly business you'd like me to visit.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Whole Foods - Gluten Free Tour

Sunday, January 24th

Gluten-Free Tour

4 p.m. free, pre-register

If you suffer from gluten sensitivity, Celiac Disease, or you just want to know about our gluten-free products, then this tour is for you! We will show you where to find our various gluten-free options, as well as direct you to other resources. Along the way we will stop in our different departments to sample some yummy and satisfying gluten-free nibbles. Everyone who takes the tour will be sent home with a goody bag of our gluten-free products. Space is limited so we ask that you pre-register at our customer service desk.