Back in December I received a crushing blow: A medical diagnosis of celiac disease. As a food lover, this hurt and I’m still grappling with it every day. But I am determined to continue on with my life, with a few minor, okay kind of major, changes.

The gluten free lifestyle sounds simple at first: no bread or pasta. Except that it’s not just wheat. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. So guess what else is out? Beer. Malted milkshakes. Regular soy sauce, and some vinegars.

As if that’s not complicated enough, cross contamination is a big issue for those who go gluten free for medical reasons. Gluten is very sneaky and hides in places you wouldn’t expect, like in the grains of your wooden cutting board and in plastic bowls. A gluten free pizza crust is great, but if it’s cooked on the same surface as wheat-flour pizzas, the wheat particles can get into the gluten free pizza and make someone with celiac very ill. French fries are safe, right? Only if they’re cooked in a dedicated fryer. French fries cooked in the same oil as breaded chicken strips may absorb some of the gluten from the breading left behind and make someone with celiac very ill via cross contamination.

Having celiac disease, or even just eating gluten free, can be challenging but it doesn’t mean you have to completely give up going out! In the last decade, many restaurants have become more aware of gluten free dining and have adjusted accordingly. This is particularly wonderful for those who have to be especially cautious with cross contamination, as it really is a tricky issue. Places with separate gluten free menus, dedicated fryers, and well-informed staff are out there and when you find a good one, it’s a really marvelous thing.

I've put together a list of places I've had successful and pleasurable dining experiences. Happy (GF) dining!

Destihl

Destihl is already a popular choice in downtown C-U, and offering lots of variety for different dietary restrictions just makes them even more palatable. We went there for a work party and I found the staff to be very knowledgeable about celiac disease. I ordered the fish tacos with seasoned rice. The whole dish was bursting with fresh flavors. The fish had a light grilled flavor and was topped with pickled onions, slaw, and a kind of avocado mousse served on a warm corn tortilla. With a squeeze of lime, these flavors came together beautifully to create such a delicious bite. The seasoned rice was dotted with corn and black beans and packed a hearty punch that balanced the light, airiness of the fish tacos.

Destihl
301 N Neil St
Champaign
M-Th 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Maize

While we’re talking about fish tacos, Maize is another great gluten free restaurant option. Their entire facility is about 95% gluten free. The only things to watch out for are the flour tortillas and the bread for tortas. Everything else is fairly safe and the staff is very accomodating for dietary restrictions.

Since their tortilla chips are made in a dedicated fryer, chips and salsa are back on the table! Both of their salsas are fairly spicy, but have a lot of fresh flavor packed in with the heat. I ordered a simple fish taco and nachos with chicken. Maize’s fish taco comes on a corn tortilla and has only onions and cilantro as toppings. I had to pass on the cilantro (sorry, but I’m firmly in the “tastes like soap” camp), but the fish stood on it’s own. It was light and fluffy with just a hint of golden crispness. Topped with the onions and a bit of salsa, it made a commanding bite for having so few ingredients. And the nachos —these are nachos. Thick, hearty tortilla chips are loaded with beans, cheese, and chicken then topped with pico de gallo, sour cream, and cilantro. The server was kind enough to keep the pico and cilantro on the side for me. While I did enjoy the freshness of the pico, it does have have a very strong cilantro influence. Cilantro aside, the nachos are absolutely wonderful. Crunchy and warm and cheesy, all the things good nachos should be!

Maize
60 E Green St / 100 N Chestnut St
Champaign
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily / Su-Th 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; F + Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Crane Alley

Crane Alley has a separate gluten free menu (just ask for it). You still have to be careful because they do not have a dedicated fryer. However, they are very accommodating and will work with you to find something delicious you can eat.

I couldn’t resist the Champagne Salad and asked to add grilled chicken for a bit of protein. This is a really great salad, as in one of the best I’ve ever had. It comes with dried cranberries, bits of fresh apple, and sunflower seeds on a bed of mixed greens. What really ties it together is the creaminess of a large wedge of warm brie cheese playing against the tartness of the champagne vinaigrette dressing. I definitely recommend adding grilled chicken; it was tender, juicy, and had just enough seasoning to give the dish a bit of a salty bite. This salad is just really satisfying and stands on its own as a very strong menu offering.

Crane Alley
115 W Main St 
Urbana
11 a.m. to 2 a.m., daily

Courier Cafe

Salads and seafood are staples on many gluten free menus, but there’s one meal that is completely lacking for most with a celiac diagnosis. I’m talking of course, about breakfast. Breakfast is difficult to do well on a gluten free diet, since many favorite American staples are wheat-based. Courier Cafe saw that opportunity and offers an entirely separate menu for gluten free breakfast. It’s mostly how to make their standard breakfast offerings gluten free with substitutions, but it’s more substantial than any other I’ve seen so far. I chose the Courier breakfast, which came as two eggs (over medium is my fave) with hash browns and turkey sausage. I opted to sub a cup of fresh fruit instead of toast. The eggs were perfectly cooked so the whites were firm, but the yolks were oozy, the hash browns were appropriately crispy, and the turkey sausage was expertly balanced. When I got a bite with a little bit of everything, it was breakfast perfection. Salty, crispy, soft, and yolky — it all worked well together. The fruit was a great addition, as the lightness and acidity helped to cut through the heaviness of the sausage and hash browns. If I’m honest, this is the only place I’ve felt safe eating gluten free breakfast food.

Courier Cafe
111 N Race St
Urbana
Su-Th 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
F + Sa 7 a.m. to midnight

Outback Steakhouse

Outback Steakhouse does a particularly great job at catering to dietary restrictions. They have a separate gluten free menu and the staff are all very knowledgeable and accommodating. A lot of gluten free fare is seafood, rice, and tacos, but if you’re in the mood for something more traditionally “American,” Outback is a great choice. Recently I was there for surf and turf: a 6oz sirloin steak and lobster tail with a baked sweet potato on the side. The steak was well seasoned with a beautiful crispy char on the outside and a warm reddish-pink center. The lobster tail was tender, succulent, and surprisingly well executed for a very landlocked area. And the sweet potato was the perfect accompaniment to the buttery, salty goodness of the steak and lobster. Not sure about the salt, pepper, or steak sauce on the table? Just dip everything in the butter that comes with the lobster. It sounds like a fattening idea, but it makes you completely forget about steak sauce.

Outback Steakhouse
2402 N Prospect
Champaign
M-Th 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F + Sa 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Photos by Sarah Meilike