New Orleans is well known for its rich culinary traditions and delicious Creole and Cajun cuisine. From beignets to gumbo to po’ boys, the city offers iconic dishes that foodies travel from around the world to sample. But for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, navigating the New Orleans food scene can seem daunting. With so many dishes containing wheat, barley, and rye, is it possible to enjoy the flavors of New Orleans while maintaining a gluten-free diet?
What is Gluten and Why is it Problematic?
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For most people, gluten is harmless and does not cause any issues when consumed. However, for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten can cause serious health problems.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Even small amounts of gluten can trigger a reaction. Symptoms of celiac disease may include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, fatigue, headache, and anemia. The only treatment for celiac disease is adopting a strict lifelong gluten-free diet.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition where gluten ingestion leads to digestive and extra-intestinal symptoms, but does not cause the intestinal damage seen in celiac disease. People with NCGS may experience issues like brain fog, fatigue, and gastrointestinal upset when they eat gluten. An estimated 6-7% of the population suffers from NCGS. As with celiac disease, the only treatment is following a gluten-free diet.
Clearly, for those with gluten issues, avoiding products containing problematic grains is critical to maintaining health and wellbeing. But is it doable in a city so renowned for its breads and wheat-based specialties?
The Challenges of Gluten-Free Dining in New Orleans
For the gluten-averse, navigating New Orleans cuisine does present some unique challenges:
- Bread, crackers, baked goods. From beignets to French bread to biscuits, wheat flour is integral to many classic Big Easy dishes and sides.
- Thickening agents. Roux made from wheat flour are used to thicken and flavor gumbos, etouffees, and other local specialties.
- Battering and frying. Cornmeal notwithstanding, wheat flour is usually the coating of choice for fried seafood, chicken, okra, and other deep-fried local favorites.
- Sauces and gravies. Roux again are ubiquitous components of many sauces and gravies served over entrées.
- Cross-contamination. Even if a dish looks gluten-free, cross-contamination is a risk in kitchens regularly utilizing flour and breadcrumbs.
Additionally, awareness and training on gluten-free needs varies greatly between restaurants. While some places take great care to offer gluten-free options and prevent cross-contamination, others may have less understanding of how to properly accommodate dietary restrictions.
For these reasons, those seeking gluten-free fare in New Orleans must carefully vet menus and ask detailed questions when eating out. So is it possible to enjoy the cuisine of the Big Easy while adhering to a gluten-free diet? Let’s explore further.
Tips for Sticking to a Gluten-Free Diet in New Orleans
While challenging, there are definitely ways to savor New Orleans’ iconic dishes and flavors while avoiding gluten:
- Seek out expressly gluten-free menus. Many restaurants now designate specific gluten-free offerings and preparation protocols.
- Ask about roux and breading. Request dishes made without wheat-based thickeners or coatings.
- Specify preparation. Ask for food to be prepared in a clean skillet rather than one used for breaded items.
- Avoid sauces and gravies. These often contain roux as thickeners.
- Check the side dishes. Choose potato, vegetable, or rice sides over those with biscuits, toast, etc.
- Enjoy raw and grilled items. Oysters, shrimp, grilled fish, steak, etc. are less likely to come into contact with glutenous ingredients.
- Research options. Consult gluten-free restaurant lists and reviews to identify accommodating establishments.
- Try dessert elsewhere. Bakery items like beignets pose a very high cross-contamination risk.
- Drink wisely. Stick to wine, cocktails, cider and gluten-free beers.
Arriving prepared with knowledge of menu items and potential pitfalls is key to finding gluten-free success in New Orleans. Being ready to ask detailed questions about preparation and ingredients is also crucial when navigating restaurant offerings.
Best Gluten-Free Friendly Restaurants in New Orleans
Through careful offerings and conscientious processes, a number of New Orleans restaurants make it much easier to follow a gluten-free diet. Here are some of the most accommodating options in the city:
This cozy café offers a separate gluten-free menu featuring brunch items like huevos rancheros, crab cake eggs benedict, and vanilla bean pancakes. Sandwiches, soups, salads, and bowls are also available. Dessert highlights include chocolate pot de crème and brownies.
The Beachcorner Restaurant & Bar
Gluten-free offerings are clearly labeled on the menu at this seafood spot. Opt for fried shrimp or catfish with gluten-free hushpuppies, grilled fish, steak, or crab cakes. There are also dedicated fryers for gluten-free items.
The Court of Two Sisters
This famous French Quarter restaurant has an extensive gluten-free menu with appetizers, entrées, and desserts. Guests rave about options like shrimp and tasso henican, crawfish enchiladas, and New Orleans barbecue shrimp.
While not exclusively gluten-free, this highly rated local favorite has a separate allergy menu with fried chicken, shrimp, and alligator sauce piquante and other entrees modified to be gluten-free. Corn bread rather than biscuits are served alongside.
At this cozy neighborhood eatery, nearly everything can be modified to fit a gluten-free diet. Guests particularly praise Feast’s fried chicken, jambalaya, gumbo, shrimp and grits, and service.
Upscale The Franklin states that almost every dish can be modified for gluten-free needs. Standouts include blackened redfish and jumbo lump crab cakes. Desserts like crème brûlée round out the options.
In addition, chains like Another Broken Egg Café and Ruby Slipper Café provide dedicated gluten-free menus at their New Orleans outposts. Despite the ubiquity of glutenous fare in New Orleans, sticking to safe gluten-free eats is very feasible with planning and research.
Is New Orleans Safe for Those with Celiac Disease?
For those with celiac disease, dining out in New Orleans does require extra precautions and thorough vetting of restaurants. Key factors determining safety include:
- Dedicated prep areas – Gluten-free dishes should be prepared away from sources of contamination.
- Dedicated fryers – Frying items in dedicated, uncontaminated oil reduces risks.
- Staff knowledge – Well-trained staff aware of celiac concerns increases safety.
- Understanding of cross-contact – Kitchens must know how to avoid cross-contamination when prepping multiple dishes.
Sticking to restaurants with strong gluten-free reputations and protocols is advised. Being upfront about having celiac disease when ordering so extra care is taken can further mitigate risks.
However, the possibility of inadvertent exposure from utensils, surfaces, toaster ovens, etc. may still exist at even the most careful establishments. Those with celiac disease very sensitive to trace gluten may fare best sticking to whole, minimally processed gluten-free foods purchased from grocers during their New Orleans stay when possible.
Gluten-Free Groceries, Bakeries & Markets in New Orleans
Fortunately, New Orleans offers a nice variety of stores carrying gluten-free products to stock up on during visits:
The Gluten Free Shoppe
With two locations, this shop offers a full range of gluten-free bakery items, pizzas, crackers, cereals, pastas and more. You’ll also find gluten-free beer and wine.
TK Baking Company
Specializing in gluten-free baked goods, this bakery sells breads, cakes, cookies, muffins, cupcakes, and cinnamon rolls perfect for those with dietary restrictions.
Whole Foods Market
With dedicated gluten-free sections, the two Whole Foods in New Orleans stock gluten-free snacks, meals, desserts, beers, and more mainstream and specialty products.
This regional supermarket chain labels gluten-free offerings with a ‘GF’ on shelf tags. Their selection includes bread, bagels, cereal, frozen meals, pasta and other staples.
Robert Fresh Market
At Robert, look for gluten-free packaged items plus freshly made meals, pizza, sandwiches, muffins and breads from their specialty gluten-free deli counter.
Making use of these resources allows those avoiding gluten to still enjoy delicious meals in their accommodation kitchens while visiting New Orleans.
Can You Eat Beignets if You’re Gluten-Free?
The quintessential New Orleans temptation, Café du Monde’s powdered sugar-dusted beignets sadly are not gluten-free. Made with yeasted, deep-fried dough, beignets are a very high-risk food for those avoiding gluten due to:
- Wheat flour dough
- Frying oil cross-contamination
- Powdered sugar likelihood of carrying traces of wheat starch
- Airborne wheat flour particles in the cooking area
Some local bakeries like TK Baking Co. offer gluten-free beignet mix for frying up at home. But traditional beignets from Café du Monde and most other local spots are decidedly not gluten-free.
Fortunately, New Orleans has lots more sweet treats to offer. Gluten-free-friendly desserts like crème brûlée, chocolate mousse, sorbet, and gelato can sate your sweet tooth after a Creole or Cajun feast.
Mardi Gras Considerations
Mardi Gras draws over one million revelers to New Orleans annually. And when it comes to gluten, Mardi Gras does present some unique concerns:
- Parade throws may contain gluten – Think Moonpies, Sno Balls, etc.
- King cakes are made with wheat flour.
- Beads may be dusted with flour during production.
- Alcohol consumption can lead to lapses in judgment.
Those avoiding gluten absolutely can and should enjoy Mardi Gras. But special care is required.
Firstly, be selective with caught throws. Candy and plastic trinkets are safest. Avoid potentially glutenous food items.
Seek out gluten-free king cake options from bakeries like TK Baking. Or make your own with Pamela’s or King Arthur gluten-free mixes.
Consider a medical alert bracelet disclosing your gluten-free needs, as Impaired judgment could lead to accepting unsafe foods from revelers.
With planning and prudence, it’s possible to parade, feast, and celebrate Mardi Gras the gluten-free way.
Traveling Outside New Orleans
Beyond the city, other parts of Louisiana present fewer gluten-free challenges thanks to cuisine focused on naturally gluten-free ingredients like seafood, meat, and rice. Still, caution is warranted.
In Cajun Country, beware gumbos, étouffées, and stews potentially thickened with roux. Request no wheat flour.
In plantations along River Road, check that menu items don’t contain wheat-based components before ordering.
If opting for roadside stand seafood boils, specify no seasoning blends that may contain wheat/gluten.
Wherever you roam in Louisiana, do research ahead to identify safe gluten-free restaurant options. And when in doubt, stick to minimally processed fresh foods.
Is New Orleans Gluten-Free Friendly? Conclusion
In summary, while New Orleans cuisine is undeniably gluten-centric, sticking to a gluten-free diet is very possible with knowledge and preparation.
By seeking out specialty menus, asking detailed questions, and carefully vetting restaurant practices, those avoiding gluten can partake in the city’s famed flavors safely.
Stocking up on gluten-free groceries enables preparing some meals in-accommodation when needed. And there are now sufficient gluten-free dining options to experience true New Orleans fare at minimal risk.
So with proper planning and care, New Orleans can absolutely be enjoyed gluten-free. The city’s celebration of food needn’t exclude those with dietary restrictions. The joie de vivre, history, music, and culture of New Orleans await gluten-free guests, and are well worth experiencing.