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Gluten-Free Dining in Miami: Local Resources For Diners With Celiac Disease

If you like lots of dining options, Miami is your kinda place. Whether you crave International deliciousness or  vegan, low-fat or sugar-free fare, it's all right here. Or so it would seem. Because there's one option noticeably missing from this metro melting pot: gluten-free.

Even so, there are a growing number of eateries diversifying their menus with "gluten-free friendly" options-- foods deemed gluten-free, but prepared in the same environment as those containing the grain protein.

While the difference may seem negligible, it's anything but to someone diagnosed with celiac disease, a serious medical condition that mandates total gluten elimination. Diagnosed two years ago, Jen Diaz, a Miami customs and patent attorney who also blogs at glutenfreebeat.com, says that all-too-often while dining out she has experienced the side effects of "cross-contamination"-- unwittingly ingesting gluten.

"I felt like my stomach was going to explode," she groaned, before ticking off a number of distressing gastrointestinal symptoms that follow cross-contamination. In one instance, her reaction was so severe, she wound up in a car accident after leaving the offending restaurant. "I was so sick, I was running red lights trying to get home as fast as I could," she confessed.

So, considering the severity of celiac disease and the gluten-free lifestyle it mandates, as well as the growing number of diners who simply prefer gluten-free cuisine for other reasons, why aren't there more gluten-free options in Miami?

"There are two obstacles," explained Melissa Mokha, support and development director for Pizza Rustica. The first is taste and texture. As anyone afflicted with celiac disease knows, just because you can eat it, doesn't mean you'll enjoy it.

"We have to doctor it up," Mokha said of the gluten-free crust Pizza Rustica is currently test marketing, which is flavorfully improved with a few swipes of herb-infused olive oil, among other gluten-free things.

But Mokha explained that taste and texture are a small hurdle compared to the measures a restaurant must take to earn the "gluten-free" label. Everything in the work area, including the utensils, oven and, literally, the kitchen sink, must be completely isolated from gluten-containing products. "Even the gloves the workers wear" must be pristinely gluten-free, Mokha emphasized.

Because these measures are beyond the scope of Pizza Rustica (and many other restaurants that also serve traditional gluten products), the gluten-free crust comes with a disclaimer about the possibility of cross-contamination. While Mokha said Pizza Rustica employees are also educated with the same information, Diaz noted this isn't the case with many other establishments.

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"I've found that, a lot of times, the server will be clueless," she said, "so I ask to speak with a manager." She also advises fellow gluten-free diners to call a restaurant in advance, even one that claims to be "gluten-free friendly," to discuss options. Some, she said, have proven unwilling to make substitutions of menu items or other accommodations.

Still, she said, despite a lack of totally gluten-free establishments, Diaz has, for the most part, been able to manage her disease while frequently dining out. Steak houses are a good choice, she said, because the grills are used only for meats. And at least one restaurant, Thrive, has declared itself virtually gluten-free, as has the made-to-order bakery, Bunnie Cakes.

And gluten-free friendly options continue to expand, too. Lists of various gluten-free and gluten-free friendly establishments can be found at Diaz's glutenfreebeat.com, glutenfreeregistry.com and the Facebook page of Gluten Free in South Florida, a group that also hosts monthly support groups.

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