[Restaurant Review] Thuy Trang

Posted by Obake on Jul 15, 2011 in Advice/Tips, Naturally Gluten Free, Restaurant Reviews

This is a review of Thuy Trang on John R. Rd., Madison Heights, MI.

There is one thing you can eat without any problem among Asian food, and that is Phở. What is pho? It is a savoury soup made with beef broth, herbs (usually with a heavy anise flavour), rice noodles, and various kinds of meat and vegetables. Every restaurant has a subtly different way of making this. Most of the places along John R, also known by some of the locals as Lil Saigon, are air conditioned, making it a year-round meal. It is pretty much the only thing I got at Viet restaurants, even before I went gluten free.

There are four or five places you can get pho in this area alone. But my favourite of these is Thuy Trang. It is a tiny shop that seats maybe 45 if it were completely full, and it is late in the evening, so it is recommended to get there before 8pm. They serve other food, but if you look around at your fellow diners, you’ll see that the main attraction is the pho. This is a sit-down place, and I recommend that you have a bit of time to eat.

You can order your pho any way you like, from the medium-cooked beef slices with meatballs (my favourite), to a full deluxe bowl, which has medium cooked beef slices, beef tendon, beef tripe, and meatballs in it if you are feeling adventurous. The meatballs I should point out now are gluten free (I checked), and are nothing like any sort of meatball you’ve ever had. They’re chewy and dense, made of just meat, tendon, and spices, so you may not like them, but I recommend that you try them at least once. You can order any bowl with extra of something you like, or omit things you don’t like. It comes with a very large platter of bean sprouts, Asian mint, jalapeno slices, and slices of lime. You can put as much or as little of these as you like in your soup, and I am especially partial to the bean sprouts.

I also had a Vietnamese iced coffee, which is strong iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk on top. Very good and recommended.

Be aware that the hoisin sauce that is on the table is not gluten free, so avoid it. The sriracha however is gluten free, so you can have as much of that as you like, but it is hot, so don’t put it in unless you like hot condiments. Also, while beef pho is gluten free, chicken pho may not be (chicken boullion and soup starter often has wheat, while beef does not), so always ask. Likely though, every shop in this neighborhood does not use instant stock.

Though this place is probably not entirely safe to eat at if you eat the other food, the chances are strong you will come here for the pho, which is safe to eat. Thus, this restaurant gets an A. Highly recommended.

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Embracing Ethnic Food And Revisiting Old Favourites

Posted by Obake on Jul 10, 2011 in Advice/Tips, Gluten Free, Naturally Gluten Free, Shopping

One of the positive things about going gluten free is having to search for alternatives, and finding amazing things I never knew about. I have a real tenancy to reach out and try food that is unfamiliar. Before, it was adventurousness, now it is integral to widening my food choices. But it rekindled my love for trying new things and experimenting. I have the luck of living in Metro Detroit, and being surrounded by all kinds of cuisine from many countries with varying availability. In particular, there is a rather large population of people from Asia and the Middle East.

Don’t be afraid to go to these places for food. You’ll be amazed at the things you will find with a little bit of adventurousness. Also, a lot of things that are very expensive at a familiar market or a health food store are often very cheap at these markets, and it can save you serious money. If you have these places in the area you live, take advantage of it, even if it means a drive to the next closest city. It is actually worth the gas money to drive out of your way for this stuff.

Today, I went to Saigon Market and purchased 8 lbs of various gluten free flours and starches (rice, glutenous rice, tapioca, and potato) for about $10. I even found bags that already were mixed with starch so they were ready for baking! To get that same sort of thing elsewhere can cost as much as three or four times that much. I even found rice noodles in familiar and not so familiar shapes! And a sesame candy that I had to ask how it was commonly eaten. Fuji Market yielded shirataki noodles for $1 a package, which is a steal compared to the almost $4 the health-food store wanted for the same product. Tienda Mexicana had PAN, which I make arepas with (PAN is 5pts per million, which counts as gluten free). E-mart had brown rice, more rice noodles, and is one of the few places in the area that carries gluten free soy sauce.

Then there is the question of familiar shops like Aldi, Trader Joe’s, and Costco. If you have these in your area, its worth it to shop at them/get membership. Costco carries things like quinoa in huge bags for $7 for example, along with a large selection of naturally gluten free things in large supply. Their price for quinoa I’ve not seen matched anywhere in the area per pound. I am a somewhat uncommon shopper there in that I only get 5 very consistent items with a few impulse or “lets try this” items. I generally get my meat, cheese, soy milk, eggs, and mushrooms there.

Aldi and Trader Joe’s you should know are owned by the same corporate trust (the respective owners are brothers), and thus there is actually significant overlap of the same items with slightly different packaging. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t shop at them both, you should, but for different reasons. Aldi is better to shop at first, for all of your staples, frozen, and canned food. It has less of a selection (though that is changing!), but you’ll see that on almost all their packaging, they do clearly label allergens, including gluten. Trader Joe’s also clearly labels gluten free items, and it appears to me from reading labels during all of my shopping that Aldi is actually stricter in it’s labeling. Trader Joe’s is great for selection, you’ll pay about $0.50 more for staples, but their selection of snacks, coffee, and specialty items is competitive. Some things are better than others however, and I advise you to stay away from the sorry bread, but they just got in gluten free rolled oats. Certified. Dedicated fields, everything. And at $4 for 2lbs that is absolutely the best deal I’ve ever seen for them! I can have oatmeal again without going broke!

That is a theme that will recur on this blog. Cost. While I believe in shopping locally, and the point of organic food, the reality is that I can’t afford those things all the time. I do what I can. Personally, I’m gutted that the farm stand didn’t return to its post this year, because that was where I got all my produce all summer last year. But the farm that it comes from is an hour and a half from here. That is not a reasonable drive for me. I do what I am able to, and please don’t think less of me that I can’t do it all. If I could afford it, I would buy locally sourced everything, organic things, all of that. But I can’t. It is very likely I will never be able to. I am not alone either, and I consider myself lucky to have so many options.

Also, I want to prove that gluten free totally IS doable on a small budget. It doesn’t have to be expensive! It does however take a bit of digging to find the best deal. And a willingness to cook. And well, a willingness to try new things. I am finding that rather than try to mimic things that I’m familiar with, I can find delicious alternatives to eat instead.

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Coping With Big Changes

Posted by Obake on Jul 9, 2011 in Advice/Tips, Naturally Gluten Free, Ranting

I would not have taken this on if my hand hadn’t been forced. Though its more resistance to change than anything. I don’t deny that I eat better and healthier as a result of the change, and it has very noticeable health benefits for me. But it is hard. I want to say here that it will be easy for you, but it won’t be. I hoped that too. Unless you like things being overly complicated, it’s not going to be easy.

But, at the same time, the things I thought were going to be hard weren’t. I thought of it like a pathogen, or a poison, which helped get me into a mindset to avoid it, though getting sick from it later really was the thing that hammered it home. It forced me to really look hard into alternatives. And not just things that mimicked what I was used to, but new, exciting things I’d never tried to make before! It should be said that I do not have a job, and have a fair amount of time to dedicate to cooking, so my experience likely will not mirror many people’s experience. Though having time to cook, and having the ambition to are two different things. It’s further complicated by the fact that I tolerate heat poorly, and it is high summer without AC, making it unlikely that I will be doing much standing at a stove.

I have a slight advantage in that I was already familiar with checking labels and reading ingredients, because my father had wheat (celiac maybe, I am not sure and can’t ask), corn, and soy allergies. I had thought naively that I would dodge that genetic timebomb. Nope. I was taught to cook though, so I also had an edge there, I would not be starting from zero here. But the scale is really huge. Like corn, wheat is pervasive as an additive, and those first few days I had to adjust to the reality that I’d be checking ingredients again for myself.

Those first days were hard though. Because the scale is huge. There is suddenly this whole world of things that you can’t eat. And if you live in a culture that likes things like bread and noodles and the like, it’s very difficult to avoid. Comfort foods were suddenly not allowed. Whole aisles of food at stores were full of items I could not eat. Some of the enjoyment I got out of trying new things was now complicated by the question of whether or not it would sicken me to consume it. There is still a lot of frustration to pick up something and see its on the forbidden list. My quest for soy sauce or tamari that is gluten free has been a measure of hell. Its a horrible feeling to crave something and know it will make you sick to consume it and you want it anyway. It’s not about willpower for me though, its about not getting sick. I had a taste of what it felt like to be well, and it hardened my resolve. I still want a cookie dammit!

I find that I don’t miss bread that much, and that I treated it as a vehicle for carrying food, rather than ever enjoying it for what it was.

I am still working through it, and I didn’t tackle everything at once. A few days were dedicated to trying to figure out how to feed myself without noodles, which I’d been leaning on heavily as a source of cheap, quick food. The next day I cleaned out the wheat containing food in the upper cupboards, then the lower ones, and put them all in a box. I am still unsure what to do with the box, and though the husband has been given the go-ahead to eat some of it, he can’t cook, so some of it will have to be inevitably given away. I had to replace many things, and it cost a lot of money to restock everything that I’d had to eliminate. I am still not comfortable with that fact. Yesterday, I de-glutened everything in the kitchen, and with a heavy heart, put my beloved bread machine in storage. Not easy. Especially for someone that loved baking. There are still things I need to replace in my kitchen that are irrevocably contaminated that I don’t have the money or time to replace right now. I am now reasonably safe from contamination in my own home.

I didn’t expect eating out to be so difficult, frustrating, and infuriating. I burst into tears at a Thai restaurant yesterday because I ordered something that had wheat in the sauce, knowing that just the few bites I’d taken would have dire consequences later (and I unfortunately wasn’t disappointed). It’s hard because it’s hot, and I am disinclined to cook for myself in the heat, and eating while we do our other errands is convenient. Since getting sick from contaminated diner food, I am intimately aware that a misstep that I take or the ignorance of a chef or a server could put me in serious pain. But I’m also finding support in unlikely places too! I am becoming more aware of which places may have gluten free options, and which places have entire gluten free menus. Its a lot of information to absorb. It also excludes a lot of small eateries that are my personal preference to chains, so even though there is a lot of info, it’s incomplete. I feel like someone turned the lights out on me and my eyes are adjusting to the light, and it’s taking a long time for my surroundings to be clear.

I am intimately aware that I have 5 months in which to prepare for what I call the “eating” holidays. You know the ones, the major ones that you gather with family and friends and eat until you are so full you feel like you’ll burst. An added complication is that these are my in-laws, and none of them are intimately aware of allergies in the way my family was. It makes me want to cry thinking about it. Because most of the advice I have gotten is along the lines of eating before I go–which defeats the point of going, bringing your own food (rude), or trying to impress the seriousness of the situation to people that will likely not “get” it and risk being ill for a good meal, or worse–not going at all.  None of these options are great ones. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I have time to figure it out.

One step at a time, like everything else so far.



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