Gluten-Free Friendly Restaurants in the South Bay: Oaxacan Kitchen in Palo Alto, California

July 28th, 2009 yum Posted in Bay Area, Ca, California, Gluten Free Dining, Mexican, Palo Alto, Restaurant Review 3 Comments »

oaxacankitchenbOaxacan Kitchen
2323 Birch Street • Palo Alto • California
Just off California Avenue!
(650)321-8003

*Their restaurant location has closed, but you can still get their food at farmer’s markets and on a new mobile truck that will be traveling around the Bay area! See their web page and Facebook page for details.

Some time ago I heard about an amazing Oaxacan restaurant in Palo Alto that offered a wide variety of naturally gluten-free fare, with only a few gluten dishes. How rare is that? Some local Bay area Celiacs had discovered this restaurant and were very impressed by the owners’ careful attention to detail and ingredients. They enjoyed the freshly made corn tortillas, made from their most basic components with no wheat tortillas on the premesis, and wonderful naturally gluten-free chocolate dessert. The DH and I wanted to go check it out as soon as we heard about it, but they have rather specific hours and open days (being closed on Saturdays for lunch and Sunday and Monday for both lunch and dinner) and we didn’t manage to make it in at the right time.

However, this Thursday was my birthday. I had initially thought of going to the vegetarian restaurant Millennium in San Francisco, but as a work weekday, it wasn’t a good time for the DH. I got the idea that maybe this would be a good day to check out the Oaxacan Kitchen, and when I checked their website I found that they were back from vacation and open for business. We walked into a cozy, warm place painted cheerfully with a good number of customers without being excessively crowded. When you first walk in, you can see the tortillas being shaped right there- and I was nervous when I noticed white powder on the trays. My Celiac contacts had said the tortillas were safe, but what could that substance be besides flour? I was nervous, but stuck around to ask the waitress about it and other gluten-free offerings. Happily, it turned out the white powder was cal, a mineral used to make corn more digestible, so those luscious tortillas were completely safe.

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We ordered a variety of appetizers because I wanted to try as many things as possible. I was assured that all the ones I ordered were gluten-free- in fact, few dishes actually contained gluten. Also, they told us that a new menu was in the works with gluten-free dishes clearly marked. Great news! I’m looking forward to the next visit.

oaxacanstarter Our meal started with lightly seasoned pumpkin seeds, toasted with salt and citrus zest. While ordinarily I’m not a huge fan of pulpy pumpkin seeds, these were refreshing and tasty and I gobbled them up.

oaxacandishes4 On our server’s recommendation, I ordered Memelas – Vegetariana. On the menu they are described as “two thick handmade soft corn tortillas, crispy on the bottom and then topped with black beans, mole negro, queso fresco, cabbage, guacamole, and salsa.” These small, round disks of corn reminded me of a cross between tortillas and arepas, but instead of being filled, they were topped like a tostada. The corn base was a little dry but the topping was tasty and I enjoyed them.

oaxacandishes3 Next I had to order their unusual Empanadas Con Champiñones, described as “two fresh corn tortillas folded and stuffed with mole amarillo, quesillo, and epazote, with sautéed mushrooms with garlic.” It is very rare that empanadas be made from a gluten-free base, and I was very excited to try them. Unfortunately, although their fresh corn tortillas were soft and flavorful, the mushroom filling was somehow not terribly appealing to me- and I couldn’t really taste the garlic. This dish was probably my least favorite of the things I ordered and I wouldn’t order it again. Another filling might be more appealing, but I believe mushroom was the only vegetarian option.

oaxquesadilla Finally, on the DH’s request, I ordered Quesadillas Vegetariana, described as “Two fresh corn tortilla folded and stuffed with quesillo, and epazote.” I hadn’t really heard of quesillo before, but apparently it is a special salted cheese used in the region for dishes like quesadillas. The tortillas were soft and heavenly, with a distinctive and unique flavor of minerals and corn that comes with a truly fresh and traditionally made tortilla- a world away from those nasty preservative laden things in the grocery store. The cheese melted in the mouth and was pleasant, but the overall flavor of the dish was very mild and needed the accompanying salsa. This was probably the DH’s favorite dish. I enjoyed it but might have liked the oomph of more ingredients in the filling.
pescatarianmainFinally, for his dish the DH ordered a pescatarian non-vegetarian dish, Camarones con chipotle, described as “pan-seared fresh Gulf shrimp with spicy chipotle sauce. Served with rice, black beans and market fresh vegetable of the day.” As you may know, I occasionally venture into pescatarianism, and so I did try a bite of the shrimp. One thing I enjoyed about this restaurant was the purity of the ingredients. Most restaurants make me very uneasy when I’m eating their food for the first time because there are so many odd flavors and ingredients that could contain gluten- but the food here all tasted pure and fresh, and I felt like I could taste each and every ingredient and it was made with real food. That being said- the shrimp wasn’t very exciting in flavor, so I left it to the DH. However, the traditional black beans on the side were prepared perfectly and melted in the mouth like butter. The real star was the fresh vegetable of the day- which turned out to be lightly seasoned caramelized sweet veggies including carrots and I believe parsnips. There was a faint flavor of cinnamon and some other spices I couldn’t identify- but whatever they were seasoned with, they were just perfect and I’m afraid I stole quite a few from the DH’s plate. If only I could order a whole plate of them! Yummy.

We closed the meal with a delicious cup of traditional hot chocolate and Oaxacan coffee. The latter was just okay, but the hot chocolate was wonderful with a unique corn flavor that really grew on us. Do be careful though as some Oaxacan hot chocolates can be made with gluten grains- luckily this restaurant’s was safe and absolutely delightful. After eating so many savory dishes, we had no room for more dessert, but I have heard reports that their chocolate experience 3 part dessert may be gluten-free. Please confirm with staff and/or owner before ordering.

This meal was a lovely birthday treat. Once I quizzed the wait staff I felt very comfortable about the gluten-free status of their dishes and I enjoyed the purity of ingredients and flavors. While I may not have identified my favorite dishes to order the first time around, there are so many options that I’m sure I’ll be able to find things that are perfect for my palate over subsequent visits.

I think it is wonderful that this very specialized international restaurant has started catering to the gluten-free community. According to the owners’ educational web page, they will even be offering a class on “Mexican Fiesta -Gluten-free Dinner on September 28, 2009 6:30 – 8:30 PM.” It would be great to see more local restaurants turning their attention to gluten-free diners. Let’s make sure to respond to the efforts at the Oaxacan Kitchen with our business!

Just so you know…
Service is somewhat slow and relaxed. Prepare for a relaxing dining experience and not fast food.
Prices are a bit high thanks no doubt to Palo Alto rents. I hear their farmer’s market offerings are tasty and inexpensive (but haven’t researched their gluten-free status yet).
We didn’t find it a problem on a Thursday night, but they are reported to be busy and crowded some nights.
Gluten churros are fried in the oil so deep fried dishes are out. Chilies rellanos are also said to contain gluten.

Review of more Oaxacan Kitchen dishes and article on their presence at the Sunnyvale farmer’s market – Sep 2009

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Bay Area Oakland, California Gluten Free Bakery Review: Mariposa’s Latest Developments

June 11th, 2009 yum Posted in Bay Area, Ca, California, Coffee shop, Gluten Free Dining, Gluten Free Product Review, Gluten Free bakery, Mariposa Bakery, Oakland 7 Comments »

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mariposarye1 Mariposa gluten-free Rye Round $4.95 (as of June ‘09)- This new product immediately piqued my interest with its lovely artisan shape and promising caraway flavoring. When I asked the bakers at mariposa which of the new loaves they recommended, they mentioned that the un-rye bread had been selling very well. It was also quite reasonably priced, for a bakery-made artisan loaf. But how did it taste? The first day I found it had nice texture and was great sliced with butter, and then after that I enjoyed it toasted in small sandwiches with baba ghanoush, tahini sauce and arugula. Of all the breads I’ve tried at Mariposa, this is definitely my favorite, and one I would purchase again.

mariposalemonmuffinI swooned when I saw this gorgeous lemon poppyseed muffin in the case. It was fluffy and light and seemed to defy gravity with its lovely top. The white icing added just the right delicate and lovely touch, and I was sold. I took it home and hoarded it for a day or so before finally trying it. I found the texture to be excellent, and I enjoyed the delicate flavors. The poppyseeds really popped- and the lemon was interesting without being cloying. I did find it to be sweet- and I tend not to eat sweet muffins very often, so I don’t know how often I would buy it, but I did enjoy it.

mariposacake When I saw the beautiful White Cake Layer slices for $4.50 in the refrigerator case at Mariposa, I knew I had to have one. The sign advertised cream cheese frosting with raspberry filling, and the cake was also garnished generously with sliced, toasted almonds. Gorgeous! The DH and I shared a piece right there in the bakery. Our estimation? The cake texture was good, and the flavor was nice as well. The cream cheese frosting was thick, and a bit too sweet for my taste buds, and I wasn’t wild about the almonds in combination, but it was everything a white layer cake should be. I don’t think I would try that flavor again (although I confess a strong curiosity about the chocolate) but it was a satisfying and pleasant cake experience. Love that they are offering them in slices now!

marinutmealcookieI’ve raved about these nutmeal raisin cookies before, and my opinion hasn’t changed. This time I was able to snag about four to take home with me… which I kept in the bag and treasured for days. Of all the cookies at Mariposa (Chocolate chip and sugar cookie) I like the texture and flavor of the nutmeal raisin the best, and they are the only ones I buy regularly. Delicious!

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mariposagrocerymariposagrocery2 I’d heard that changes were afoot at Mariposa, including some un-rye bread, new freezer cases, and of course gluten-free ravioli. When we got there I noticed immediately that they had expanded the non-Mariposa offerings into a small gluten-free grocery selection. They are now carrying DeBoles pasta, Tinkyada Pasta, Glutino snack bars (yuck), Mesa Sunrise, Bakery on Main, and Amazon Corn Flakes, and Pamela’s mixes, among many other things.

mariposafreezer2 mariposafreezer3The freezer case was especially impressive, with offerings including bagels, cheese ravioli, butternut squash ravioli (GF DF NF), multi-grain bread, scones, baguettes, quiche in a pastry crust, rosemary rolls, and of course, pizza. I made sure to snag some of the gluten free cheese ravioli right away, although the price (10 pieces for $9) did give me serious pause. I know it is time intensive (trust me, or I’d make it more) but that is a pretty steep price for something I can make myself. But- luckily this blog gave me an excuse to try it at least once. I also bought the cheese quiche because I can’t resist a tasty looking crust that I didn’t have to make myself. And- last but not least, their poppyseed challah also went home with me. The DH and I of course had to have a slice of their gluten-free pizza, which in the past I’ve referred to as the best pizza on the West Coast.

mariposapizza2I always love Mariposa’s all-vegetarian pizza, and it’s one of the things that brings me back time after time. They have an excellent crust and toppings are generally very creative and tasty. I have to admit, this time I was slightly disappointed. The crust was underdone, so it wasn’t as gorgeous and crispy as usual, and the toppings were… not quite as inspired as usual, being just cheese, tomato, peppers, and herbs. I hope that they can keep their creative juices flowing and impressing us with their fun toppings that set them apart from the rest- and also, make sure that the crust is baked long enough to really do it justice. I’ll order their pizza again, of course, but it was a little bit of a bummer this time around.

mariposaquicheI took one of these quiche home and had it with a lovely arugula salad for dinner one night. Actually, it made several meals (but two of them were more like snacks). The crust was gorgeously browned and golden, but I found it slightly flat in flavor. I don’t know exactly what the ingredients are, but I don’t think it contains butter, and I miss that a little bit. The egg-cheese filling was pleasant, but I did want to add some kind of flavor element- I wish it had a vegetable, herb, or even more seasonings of salt and/or pepper. I loved being able to take the quiche home and bake it, and it is a very smart offering, in my opinion, that made this savory girl very happy. However, I probably wouldn’t get it again unless there was an option with the pow of additional (vegetarian) ingredients. You should definitely try it for yourself, though, and see what you think.

mariposachallah2The challah at Mariposa ($6.50) is a thing of absolute beauty. I have never seen a gluten-free challah with gorgeous, glistening braids like this one. The poppy seed topping is also fantastic (and they have them without if you prefer). The challah came frozen, so I left it in the freezer for a few days and then took it out for breakfast. I cut off a piece of the loaf and microwaved it…. and then it was time for a taste test. I think because the bread is based in brown rice flour, it has a distinctive “brown” bread flavor, with a sweet, almost fruity element. I tried the first piece with butter. The texture was pleasant, and the flavor wasn’t bad, but for me the real strength of the bread is its beauty. It makes me proud to see where gluten-free bread has come since my diagnosis. However, I do have to say that I wasn’t wild about the flavor and found it rather sweet and bland. I tried it with cream cheese, and it was also pleasant, but I don’t think the flavor of this particular bread is my thing.
2/18/09 Update
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*photos taken from experience in February- I just didn’t get around to posting about our trip, but this seemed like a good time to tell you about it!

valdonutsI was delighted when I heard about Mariposa’s special gluten-free doughnut day celebrating Valentines Day. They don’t normally offer doughnuts, so it sounded really fun and different. Their pretty cake-style (not fried) doughnuts looked enticing and I went a little crazy, buying a whole box full. Unfortunately, when we actually tried them, both the DH and I were not that crazy about them. They were pretty heavy, not all that sweet, and tasted pretty firmly gluten-free. They didn’t pass the glutenoid taste test, and the DH stopped eating after the first bite or so. I nibbled at a few, but to tell you the truth, most ended up sitting in our refrigerator uneaten and finally ended up in the trash. I hate to say this, but I much prefer the mass marketed donuts produced by kinnikinnick. These aren’t a regular offering at Mariposa. If they are offered again, perhaps the recipe will be tweaked a bit. I don’t think we’ll be making it to doughnut day anytime soon, though.

valcupcakes2valcupcakesStarting on Valentine’s Day (or perhaps prior to), Mariposa began offering chocolate, vanilla, black bottom, carrot cake & seasonal cupcakes made by Miglet’s Gluten-Free Cakery. ($2 each) For Valentine’s Day they had red velvet cupcakes that were bewitchingly sweet and as appealing to look at as they were to eat. I bought one carrot cake cupcake and one red velvet cupcake- in the interest of science, you understand. Both were tasty, but the cream cheese and other frosting was a bit sweet for my taste. They would be perfect for anyone with a strong sweet tooth, though- and I’ve never seen a cuter gluten-free cupcake. How great would it be to be able to bring home a box for a newly diagnosed child or family member? Now that they have a lovely refrigerated case, these cupcakes appear to be offered year round, and are a wonderful addition to the offerings at Mariposa.

valchocolateheartI have to say, though, that my absolute favorite Valentine’s Day treat was the Valentine’s Day flourless chocolate cake. The DH bought it for me, but if I remember correctly it was either just under or over $10.00. It sounds like a lot- but it was a beautiful, toothsome looking creation. When I cut into it, I found it was my idea of a perfect, fudge-like cake without any heavy bread or cake bits to get in the way of my enjoyment of the cake. The ganache-type coating was delightful, and I’d definitely order it again.

To conclude- Since my last Mariposa report, there have been lots of additions to Mariposa’s gluten-free baked good lineup lately. On our last Sunday afternoon visit, I was very pleased to see a great deal of foot traffic into the bakery. I noticed visitors often picked up some gluten-free cereal or other groceries along with their gluten-free cookies or cake- and in this tough market, anything that contributes to the bakery’s success is a good thing. I think Mariposa has been very smart with their gradual expansion of bakery offerings, and I’m thrilled to see them offering more savory items to the Bay Area like ravioli and quiche. I look forward to seeing what they make next, and hope you will all consider visiting their location and supporting their efforts for the gluten-free community.

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