2323 Birch Street • Palo Alto • California
Just off California Avenue!
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, 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.