Serious Eats: Chicago

Laura's Chicago Gluten-Free Survival Guide

Editor's Note: While our writers are attempting to cover as much of Chicago's restaurant scene as possible, we occasionally forget that some can't indulge in quite the same way. That's where Laura Staugaitis's gluten-free guide comes in. Here are some of her favorite places to visit in the city without having to worry about gluten.

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Chicago's a city known for regional beer, hot dogs, and deep-dish pizza. Not great if you can't digest gluten—the delicious, but troublesome, protein found in barley, rye, and wheat (and thus beer, hot dog buns, and pizza crusts). But being a serious eater in Chitown when you're gluten intolerant isn't so bad after all. In fact, it's only become easier to find places that can accommodate gluten-free diets.

Like any mortal, I occasionally crave a fat slice of chocolate cake, but most of the time, I like to seek out all the wonderful cuisines that so happen to also be free of gluten. Here's a tour of some of my favorite places.

Favorite Brunch

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[Photograph: Laura Staugaitis]

In my ideal brunch world, I'm seated immediately, poured well-brewed and bottomless coffee by a genuinely friendly server, and don't have to ask for "no toast" with my inevitable scrambled eggs. I quit dreaming when I discovered Filo, a pint-sized new bistro in the Ukrainian Village. The quietly gluten-free menu is self-described "eclectic" but the vibe is decidedly European with beautiful pressed tin ceilings, classic narrow-paned windows, and unobtrusive techno. Everything from the breakfast menu is $5 and cooked to order.

I could smell the bacon sizzling for my perfectly cooked custom omelet (bacon, mushrooms, and spinach) and creamy home fries sprinkled with herbs, onions, and red pepper. Butter wafted over from the skillet of hearty cranberry-walnut buckwheat pancakes. But the true deal sealer was the homemade hot sauce—sweet, tangy, and so good I repeatedly squirted it straight onto my spoon.

Filo, 959 N Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 312-545-3929; facebook.com/filochicago

Favorite Alternative Fast Food

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[Courtesy of Facebook]

Ba Le Sandwich & Cafe in Uptown is worth a visit just for the sticky rice. Fear not! "Glutinous" or "sticky rice" is just the descriptor; It's safe for gluten-free folk. The delightfully sticky blob, dotted with black beans and sprinkled with shredded coconut, comes with an addictive crunchy topping of sesame seeds, sugar, and finely chopped peanuts. Strangely enough, it's best described as refreshing. The enormous noodle salads ($7.95) are essentially deconstructed spring rolls, brimming with fresh herbs and greens, peanuts, pickled veggies, rice noodles, and whatever grilled protein you'd like (shrimp, pork, chicken, and tofu are available).

Though you'll need to stay away from the bánh mì, they are widely considered Chicago's best, so invite your gluten-full pals to join you. The super-friendly staff is happy to answer questions. Near the Argyle stop and with a parking lot, you can eat there or grab and go.

Ba Le Sandwich & Café, 5016 N Broadway Street, Chicago, IL 60640 (map); 773-561-4424; balesandwich.com

Favorite Coffee Shop

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You'll need to get there early to snag a seat at The Grind, but your efforts will be rewarded. This Lincoln Square gem holds its own in our coffee-conscious city, and features this highly caffeinated writer's favorite dark roast drip brew for just $1.85 (and a free refill). The perfect accompaniment is the peanut butter chocolate chip cookie ($.75), which tastes just like mom used to make but without the gluten (or any dairy or eggs, actually).

If you're in for the long haul, fuel up with an espresso drink (regular, soy, or almond milk) and a PB&B ($5.75). Thoughtfully engineered with bananas sliced long to ensure there is fruit in every bite, the sandwich is anchored with the perfect amount of honey and peanut butter. Any of the many sandwiches are available on locally made gluten-free bread at no extra charge.

The Grind, 4613 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625 (map); 773-271-4482; grindchicago.com

Favorite Seasonal Treat To Share

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Now that winter is here, it's time to hunker down with gatherings of friends, or maybe just your favorite movie. Regardless, if you want a treat to share (or not), Mama's Nuts! comes to the rescue. This Chicago outfit offers an array of gloriously addictive nut confections. The makers amp up family recipes with homemade vanilla extract and nuanced blends. All the options are made without gluten. The new variety, Gingersnap Almonds, perfectly captures the spirit and spice of winter snacking, while Pauline's Pecans are also worth checking out.

Mama's Nuts!; available at Southport Grocery & Cafe and the Logan Square Farmers Market; 773-600-1991; mamasnuts.com

Favorite Place to Impress

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Italian's not the first cuisine that jumps to the gluten-free mind: bread and pasta don't exactly work. But Anteprima's enormous menu features many naturally gluten-free options (and the traditional emphasis on olive oil means it's a great option if you're avoiding dairy as well). There are an astounding number of choices, straightforward menu descriptions mean no hidden ingredients, and servers are extremely attentive to food sensitivities. (They even plated a no-no component of my friend's entrée separately so I'd be comfortable with trading bites.)

So, whether you're there on a date or with a group, you can focus on socializing in the lively atmosphere and enjoying the outstanding food rather than fretting over your order. I always succumb to the inventive flavor and texture combinations in their seafood preparations, like the parchment-baked cod. The heartier meats are also superb. Also, since they take reservations through Open Table and then call to confirm, you have two chances before your arrival to clarify your dietary restrictions.

Anteprima, 5316 N Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640 (map); 773-506-9990; anteprimachicago.net


Favorite Place to Bring a Visitor

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Guacamole and chips from Xoco. [Photograph: Suziedwards/Flickr]

Chicago's excellent restaurant reputation is well deserved, but if you're gluten-free what else stands out as Chicago's own? Well, even if you don't have the budget or foresight to get a table at Topolobampo or Frontera, XOCO in River North offers an excellent and affordable take Mexican cuisine. All of the gigantic caldos (stews) are fair game, especially the Slow-cooked Gunthorp pork carnitas ($11.50), which come with satisfying potato-masa dumplings.

Also, despite the fast pace, the staff was happy to check on ingredients for me. Take note: the chips and guacamole are a steal and worth ordering alone. Whether snacking or just getting a meal, top it off with the house-made hot chocolate and soft-serve ice cream.

XOCO, 449 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60654 (map); 312-334-3688; rickbayless.com/restaurants/xoco

...And More!

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Al Pastor Taco from Big Star [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Speaking of things quintessentially Chicago, tacos are one of the best gluten-free foods around. Check out this round-up for some inspiration (but keep in mind that, for example, Del Seoul may use soy sauce). If you're looking for an awesome burger, everything at Butcher & The Burger (reviewed here) is a custom order, so you can ask for lettuce as an actual option and not feel gypped of 30% of your food.

These are a few of my favorites, but what are some of your favorite gluten-free options in Chicago? Leave a comment below and let us know!


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