April 16, 2012

Native Foods Cafe to Open Soon, Bringing Gluten-Free Vegan Food to Boulder

By Evan Sandsmark -  

There is gluten-free food, there is vegan food, and then there is the rare gluten-free vegan food. (There is also the related, and only slightly less rare, gluten-free vegetarian food.) It can be a challenge to find gluten-free food that accords with other dietary restrictions – going gluten-free is itself difficult, and being a gluten-free vegan or gluten-free vegetarian presents additional challenges. To eat gluten-free and vegetarian or vegan requires you to make and dream up most of your own food, demanding considerable ingenuity in designing meals (but happily there are good resources for gluten-free vegan recipes). Soon, however, there will be an excellent new place in Boulder to get gluten-free vegan food and gluten-free vegetarian food. It’s called Native Foods Cafe, and we couldn’t be more excited that it is coming to Boulder soon. What’s Native Foods Cafe in Boulder all about?

Primarily, Native Foods Cafe is a thoroughly vegan establishment (and by extension it is of course a vegetarian restaurant as well). We say “thoroughly vegan” because every single dish they offer is vegan, and moreover they have a vegan kids menu, making them the only kid-friendly vegan restaurant we know of in Boulder. Awesomely, they also have an entirely separate gluten-free menu (or what the restaurant calls a “wheat-free menu”) that guides you through the regular menu, pointing out what dishes can be modified to render them gluten-free. (In this sense, their menus are a lot like the menus of Aji Latin American Restaurant, which uses a similar “gluten-free guide” to help you through the menu.) Allow us to explain.

As a starter, say you want to order the Tandoori Kabobs, described on the regular menu as “grilled skewers of Native Original Seitan and tofu, marinated in Tandoori spices, topped with mango-apple chutney and served on a bed of baby greens with our homemade raita yogurt sauce.” If you know anything about seitan, you’ll recognize that the Tandoori Kabobs is emphatically not a gluten-free dish. (Indeed, the dictionary itself defines “seitan” thus: “a chewy, neutral-flavored, protein-rich food made of wheat gluten, used as a meat substitute in vegetarian dishes [our emphasis, obviously].) However, this is a fairly obscure thing to know, so the gluten-free guide will tell you that you need to remove the seitan to make the kabobs gluten-free. Furthermore, on the gluten-free menu Chef Tanya – the founder of Native Foods Cafe and the head chef – recommends that you add extra tofu to the kabobs as a consequence of ordering the dish without seitan.

There are also a number of “daily soups,” made fresh every day, that are gluten-free, although all of them must be ordered without the “soup cookie” (the Native Foods Cafe’s answer to croutons in soup). According to the gluten-free menu, these soups are gluten-free: Hearty White Bean, Wild Mushroom, Black Bean Chipotle, Moroccan Lentil, African Peanut, and Creamy Corn Chowder. A couple of minor adjustments must be made to two of these soups – the Black Bean Chipotle must be stripped of its cornbread croutons, and the Creamy Corn Chowder should be ordered without regular croutons – and of course these modifications are noted on the gluten-free menu.

This same policy of guidance, if you will, holds for the entire menu: dishes that can possibly be made gluten-free are listed alongside their required adjustments, which are themselves often accompanied by Chef Tanya’s replacement recommendations. Not surprisingly, there are a number of dishes that simply can’t be made gluten-free, meaning the regular menu contains substantially more items than can be made gluten-free, but overall the GF selections are fairly extensive. Most importantly, there is a decent variety of gluten-free dishes. There are a couple of starters, several salads, and a few so-called “earth bowls” – delicious-sounding creations involving such ingredients as vegetables, quinoa, hummus, tofu, and various sauces and seasonings – that can be made gluten-free. The salads and earth bowls are entrees, so there are plenty of full meals that are gluten-free. There is even a gluten-free dish on the kid’s menu: Freddie’s Mac and Cheese.

There are two more things worth pointing out about the gluten-free menu. One, in addition to listing all the dishes than can be made gluten-free, it also has a list of sauces, dressings, and cheeses (all vegan, of course) that are gluten-free. This is quite helpful for substitution purposes. You cannot, for example, have the Sesame Kale Macro Bowl (an “earth bowl”) with the Ginger Sesame Sauce, so it is advantageous to know that there are well over a dozen sauces and dressings that could take the sesame sauce’s place (although Chef Tanya, ever present to whisper advice in your ear [figuratively], recommends the Lemon Garlic Dressing). Second, there is a list of “menu items that contain a small amount of wheat and/or gluten,” which is a nice feature for those who have a gluten sensitivity, but can tolerate a small amount of gluten. This part of the gluten-free menu lists things like the Native Fries and Crispy Sweet Potato Fries, two starters that are cooked in oil (vegetable oil, we might add) that is also used to cook foods containing gluten. Obviously, this means that the fries are likely to contain some gluten, but they won’t contain much. There are several other dishes that fall in this liminal space, including a couple of the desserts: the Chocolate Love Pie (containing barley malt, and therefore a small amount of gluten) and Cheesecake, which contains oats, which because of the growing and milling process are subject to cross-contamination.

As we always strive to mention, Native Foods Cafe in Boulder is not a gluten-free operation, so even the dishes that are officially gluten-free (as opposed to the dishes that contain small amounts of gluten) could come into contact with gluten. The Native Foods Cafe gluten-free menu is forthright about this – “All menu items are prepared in our kitchen which also prepares items using wheat and gluten.” – and unfortunately this is simply inevitable. Obviously, this isn’t a problem that afflicts Native Foods Cafe specifically. Virtually every restaurant we write about isn’t exclusively gluten-free, so cross-contamination is a possibility, no matter how mightily the kitchen staff strives to avoid it.

Needless to say, we’ll be trying Native Foods Cafe as soon as its Boulder location opens. This is supposed to happen in May, so we’ve marked our calenders. Having written this article, we’re basically experts on the menu, so we already have a few gluten-free meals dreamed up to try. Check back soon – or better yet, subscribe to our newsletter – to see our reactions to Native Foods Cafe once we eat there in person.

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