April 11, 2014

Eating Gluten-Free Chinese Food at Zoe Ma Ma in Boulder

By Evan Sandsmark -  

Chinese food almost always sounds good, even at 11:00 AM on a Sunday after a late Saturday night. Partially by desire and partially by necessity, we found ourselves at Zoe Ma Ma in Boulder to sample their gluten-free Chinese food on a recent morning. We went out of desire because we’re fans of Chinese food, which thanks to rice noodles (and despite soy sauce) is often gluten-free, and we went out of necessity because the distant shores of Italy call, temporarily removing us from Boulder and its abundance of gluten-free restaurants. We’ll still write about Boulder’s gluten-free scene while away based on past experiences and our sources on the ground, but we wanted to get in one more traditional review before fleeing the country again. While Zoe Ma Ma doesn’t have a ton of gluten-free options, the GF dishes they do have are worth trying, at least based on the excellent meal we had a few mornings ago.

Zoe Ma Ma

Zoe Ma Ma is a Chinese restaurant for the people of Boulder (occasionally and obnoxiously referred to as the Republic of Boulder, as if a town loosely united in its “philosophy” warrants its own republic inside the republic constituted by these United States). Unlike other “Americanized Chinese restaurants,” to use the restaurant’s somewhat dismissive phrase, Zoe Ma Ma freshly prepares all their dishes using high-quality ingredients, including cage-free eggs, all-natural meats, and homemade organic noodles. They are also sensitive to dietary restrictions, as their selection of gluten-free dishes shows. This is exactly what the residents (or must we say citizens?) of Boulder treasure, and not without reason. You can taste the freshness in Zoe Ma Ma’s dishes, and they are indeed freshly prepared, as our partial view of the kitchen revealed.

Located at Pearl and 10th, Zoe Ma Ma is right in the heart of Boulder and is part of the more or less thriving culinary scene of downtown. The restaurant is tucked away along 10th Street, right behind Pasta Jay’s. It’s a small place, containing about eight tables inside and a modest seating area outside. The two areas are blended in the warmer months, as the large windows that separate the two can be opened wide, allowing a nice breeze to permeate the restaurant’s interior. We sat right along the outside-inside border, technically in the restaurant, allowing us to utilize a full table (which features Chinese newspapers under a glass tabletop) while feeling like we were sitting outside.

Of the restaurant’s dozen or so dishes, four are entirely gluten-free. Two of these are appetizers – the Vegan Dumplings and the Pearl Meatballs – and two are entrees. One of these entrees, the Chicken Salad, is effortlessly gluten-free, as salads are one of the default gluten-free options at a good portion of restaurants. The other dish, Ma Ma’s Chicken Noodle Soup, which is what we ordered, is more purposively gluten-free.

According to the staff, who overall was helpful, the Za Jiang Mian dish can be made “gluten-free” by substituting rice noodles for the egg noodles that come with it. (Seemingly this same logic can be applied to the Vegetarian dish – its name is simply “Vegetarian” – to render it gluten-free, but for whatever reason no one indicated this, so ask someone before assuming this is the case.) We were also told that the “CPR” dish, being made with rice, is essentially gluten-free as well. However, the dishes that are not specifically listed as GF still have some gluten in them because they are cooked with soy sauce and fermented wheat. The staff said that those with only a gluten sensitivity, as opposed to a gluten-intolerance, could handle these dishes, but we didn’t decide to go that route. (For the record, the line between a gluten sensitivity and an intolerance is hard to define, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. It is, indeed, difficult to determine exactly what “gluten-free” even means.)

Ma Ma’s Chicken Noodle Soup is the most popular gluten-free item on the menu. Of course, this has something to do with the fact that it is only one of two entrees that are explicitly advertised as gluten-free on Zoe Ma Ma’s menu, but it is also popular because it is really good. With extremely thin rice noodles, green onions, and cilantro, it tasted a bit like pho, the popular Vietnamese dish offered in Boulder at places like Black Pepper Pho. However, what made the dish so interesting and delicious is that it also tasted a lot like regular chicken noodle soup. (And how could it not, given that it featured shredded chicken and chicken broth?) So, we were essentially eating chicken noodle soup with Asian elements, or pho with elements of chicken noodle soup, and in any case it was tasty, particularly with a little hot chili sauce, the one sauce on the counter that didn’t include soy sauce and was therefore gluten-free. In an era of many failed fusion cuisines, we are happy to report a success with Zoe Ma Ma’s gluten-free chicken noodle soup.

Again, Zoe Ma Ma’s doesn’t have the largest gluten-free selection we’ve come across, but what they have is good. Moreover, it helps fill the crucial “Chinese food” niche in Boulder’s gluten-free scene. So, we don’t hesitate in recommending Zoe Ma Ma’s, and encourage you to give it a try next time you are in the Pearl Street area.

Note: Many of the places we visit merely offer gluten-free options, and hence are not necessarily 100% gluten-free facilities, so if proximal cross-contamination is an issue, call ahead. If you would like us to review a particular restaurant with gluten-free options, send an email to info@glutenfreeinboulder.com. We’ll try our best to check it out!

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