Thursday, October 9, 2014

Eating Gluten-Free With Food Allergies in Las Vegas

So many of you know recently I had the honor of speaking at the FABlogCon 2014 conference in Las Vegas, Nevada about dating with food allergies.

Maya at the podium talking about her dating experiences
Talking about my experiences in 'Tell Then Kiss'
 After the conference, my mom and I had booked a couple more days at MGM Grand. Little did I know the severely limited options for someone with anaphylactic allergies and a severe soy allergy. Oh and let's not forget my severe gluten intolerance.

  • Can't have eggs unless USDA Organic, tried and tested (due to hives and eczema from soy feed).

  • Can't have bacon unless its Applegate Farms brand (due to hives and eczema from soy or gluten reaction from gluten feed)

  • Can't have dairy (due to mild cumulative allergic itchy, peeling skin reaction and gluten reaction)

  • Can't have olive oil at any restaurants because its usually fake and diluted with vegetable oil or soybean oil. (Read more about this here) unless its USDA Organic or tested and known to be safe.

  • Can't have fruits that are not USDA Organic due to soy waxes on most regular fruits.

  • Can't have drinks due to 'natural flavors' (usually GMO soy)

Can't have...can't have...can't have.....and the list goes on...

I found myself having a breakfast of a Banana Nut Chia Bar and an Americano at Starbucks an hour later, my Amazing Grass with water. YUM. #eyeroll (It was good, until I was forced to eat it daily). I had a gluten reaction early on for 6 out of the 7 days in Vegas and did my best to eat as carefully as I could since this along with an allergic reaction (from the clouds of soy-laden cigarette smoke everywhere and taking Zantac (which contains soy derivatives..but of course I forgot) the two nights leading up to my speaking event had already caused a drop in my immune system along with hand eczema and a bit of mouth eczema.

So I came back having lost about 7 lbs and one dress size. That's my new diet plan. To travel more often.

Female skeleton in a hat and dress which looks like its from the Titanic time period.
Don't I look skinny? I was channeling the Titanic exhibit.

Thank God dinner was a different story. The first evening, I had made a reservation on for Le Village Buffet in the Paris Hotel and listed my allergies so that they knew what to expect, somewhat. And I bought it with a Groupon a month or two prior.
I know what you're thinking. Are you insane? A buffet with all of your food allergies?
Well, yes.
But first, I took a few steps.  
Upon arrival, they took us through a tiny 'VIP' area where we were given the option to wait there or be seated and the manager would come talk to me. We opted to sit (since it is about a 15-20 minute walk from MGM) and within 5 minutes, the manager came over to let me know that the chef would be out to speak with me shortly. Within 5 minutes, our waiter Don had brought us our complimentary bottle of red wine (which came with the Groupon purchase) and I sipped while waiting and admiring the surroundings.
A panoramic picture of Le Village in the Paris Hotel
I felt like I was in the town from Beauty and the Beast. It was beautiful.
  Soon after, Chef William came out and asked what my allergies were. I was very clear that I couldn't have anything with powdered or cubed broth or stock because of soy proteins, so the rice looked like it was out. I also was clear that I couldn't have any gluten or soybean oil, which also meant vegetable oils or any blends. He offered a tour of all the buffet sections (which were sweetly themed after the many provinces in France) and said that although they do not use any peanuts in any of the dishes, many of the dishes are cooked with a blended oil, so they would not be safe. As he went through every single option very patiently and carefully answering my questions along the way, I realized the safest dishes were really the simplest, cooked with steam or braised only in olive oil, salt and pepper. I was thrilled to find out there were French lollipop 'cookies' known as French macarons made from almond flour with rich chocolate middles in the dessert section that were completely gluten-free. I thanked him and grabbed some roasted duck and candied sweet potatoes after walking by those dessert cases like a circling hawk.
Maya smiling with her plate of roasted duck and sweet potatoes!
Me and my duck. Quack.
Five minutes later I called Chef Will back out and apologized to ask if the mussels and clams were steamed. He said, "Oh no worries! We get 3 or 4 people per day who have allergies and I am happy to do what I can. Unfortunately, those do contain a bit of the blended oil. If you would like, I can make you a plate of anything here you wish and I will be sure to only use olive oil." How sweet! (FYI, I don't know any other buffet in Vegas that would do this. I know the one in MGM Grand didn't offer so I ended up getting a refund after realizing I couldn't eat anything there.)
That was when I told him I would love a plate of mussels and clams and that using only olive oil, garlic and spices would be totally fine. I knew I was taking a chance on the oil, but I hadn't eaten all day and I was starving. He then asked if I wanted anything else and I asked if he could prepare a side of steamed white rice and steamed vegetables? He said yes and let me know it would take some time, about 20 minutes. I smiled and said, "Sounds good. Thank you.." while I sipped my second glass of wine. At this point I was starting to think that I was actually in Paris.
Twenty minutes later and well worth the wait, this came out.
A close-up of the tender, juicy mussels and clams
The perfect plate of heaven.
And that wasn't the end. In his other hand was my plate of steamed white rice and fresh steamed vegetables where I ended up moving my duck from earlier.
Perfectly steamed and so fresh!
Chef Will came out to check on me a few minutes later and I let him know I couldn't have been happier; the food was absolutely delicious! After devouring my entire plates, I discovered the macarons and I kid you not, I would fly back to Vegas for just one more bite of these delectable, colorful morsels that looked like they belonged in a Charlie and The Chocolate Factory scene (if you cannot get to Vegas, here is a recipe I will be experimenting with very soon). The first bite literally made me say, "oh my God" out loud, to which my mom smiled and said I sounded like Andrew Zimmern. Thanks, ma. They have a crisp exterior but when you bite down they are soft and slightly chewy, but also melting in your mouth.

A macaron dessert case I could actually eat from! Colorful little almond cookies
My eyes wanted to eat this whole case, but my stomach could only fit two.

The other great thing about Le Village is that it is a bit of a distance from the casino so you aren't choking on smoke while eating, which I found to be the case in most hotel restaurants.

I also adore that they didn't treat you any differently just because you're using a Groupon; you still got VIP service as long as you made a reservation and there was no attitude whatsoever.
When service at a restaurant is this good I recommend planning on tipping both the waiter and the chef. Although many people tip less at buffets, this was a specialized, personalized service which kept me safe, so you treat it not as a buffet but as a restaurant. Its important to always show your gratitude for a job well done!

Speaking from a safety perspective for those with food allergies, I have to say that this is by far the best buffet place I've ever been to and sets a high standard with the care the chef took to listen and show me my options. If I ever go back to Vegas, this will be my main buffet place and quite possibly my dinner destination every day that Chef Will is manning the kitchen.

I went to one or two restaurants after this, including R Steak and Seafood at the Riviera (which was quite a long cab ride from MGM Grand so wouldn't recommend it unless you're very close by to Riviera). However the staff at R Steak and Seafood was also very friendly and our waiter was excellent. I kept asking him questions and he kept running back to ask the chef with nothing but a friendly smile when he came back, which goes a very long way in any restaurant. The food was good, but I didn't have many options. I was able to eat the breaded, fried artichoke because the chef said he used rice flour and ended up ordering two orders of steamed oysters and a side of melted butter and lemon wedges as my dinner.

Not sure if it was the oil from the fried artichokes or the butter and lemon combo or if I was glutened (since I was still reacting from days prior) but I definitely got very nauseous about twenty minutes later during the cab ride back to MGM.

Four hours later I was hungry.

So mom and I took a stroll around MGM Grand to check out all the restaurants. It was almost 11PM and most of the restaurants were about to close. Then we approached Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill and found out they were open 24 hrs! And the best part? Quoting the hostess just after she took about 5 minutes to enter all of my allergies into the computer, "We take food allergies very seriously here." Mom and I smiled from ear to ear as she pulled out a separate gluten-free menu just for me.

Our waitress was the lovely Stephanie who reassured me that the kitchen is very careful with allergies. On the gluten-free menu, I didn't have too much to choose from because all other entrees were beef or chicken or fish (which had to be grass-fed or wild caught for me to eat them safely). My choices were gluten-free ravioli or spaghetti with plum tomatoes and sauce. I was craving a rich Italian food so I opted for the ravioli with fresh basil, fresh minced garlic and olive oil, figuring I would deal with my lactose intolerance (hey, isn't much different from the gluten reaction I was already having..) and very slight dairy allergy the next day with some Atarax (hydroxyzine) and extra sleep.

close-up of the gluten-free ravioli and sauce topped with fresh pieces of basil!
Gluten-Free ravioli at Wolfgang Puck's in MGM Grand

The ravioli was spot-on delicious and the texture of the gluten-free ravioli was so perfectly cooked, I couldn't even notice a difference from what I remember real ravioli pasta to taste like. I finished every piece on my plate and of course, wanted to know if I was going to get lucky here...with dessert options! Forget winning in the casino, if I could actually eat another dessert, I could come back to NY very happy. Well, Stephanie didn't disappoint; she came back after speaking with the chef and found out the Crème Brulee was completely free of all of my allergens. Of course the fruits on top were not organic but its more the shiny ones (like apples, oranges, etc.) that we soy allergy sufferers have to worry about, so once again I was safe!

Half eaten gluten-free Crème Brulee at Wolfgang Puck's  
See those black specks to the right of the fruit? That's powdered vanilla bean sprinkled all over the inside of the ramekin underneath the crème brulee which I was desperately trying to pick up and intermingle with each rich, creamy bite. Genius.

Oh, but my skin wasn't going to be happy. More dairy in my tummy. However, it was definitely worth it. A girl's gotta eat! The next day all they had to do was pull up my room number and my allergens were already listed! Quite impressive and a good example for how other restaurants should be, in every hotel. If you have to eat gluten-free in Vegas and need a place you can truly feel safe, I highly recommend Wolfgang Puck's Bar and Grille due to the extra gluten-free menu options, the fact that they input your allergens into a computer and the main fact that they seem quite knowledgeable about the serious nature of food allergies.

Vegas Tips For Food Allergy Folk and Gluten-Free Travelers

  • Drink a TON of water. I do this anyway. I'm like a camel and drink practically quadruple my usual amount when I'm taking antihistamines (which I had to on this trip due to the smoke and dairy intake). So you can imagine how I almost fell over when I went to Starbucks downstairs in MGM Grand and it was almost $7 for a bottle of normally $2 Ethos water. Save your money (which is almost impossible to do in Vegas) by buying a gallon of water in a known brand (such as Poland Spring or Kirkland) because anything else was likely taken from someone's garden hose (haven't you ever seen any water documentaries?). You can find gallon-sized waters at a couple of the cheap souvenir shops on the strip.

  • Wear scarves. Match them to your outfits and bring a couple. You can always cover your nose and breathe through them when the smoke gets too intense. I got looked at funny and laughed at by younger girls, but seriously, just punch them in the face. In your mind. That always makes me smile then they wonder what I'm smiling at.

  • Bring safe snacks and drinks. I wouldn't have been able to put anything in my stomach until lunch or dinnertime if I didn't do this. I wouldn't be skinny, I would have disappeared. Here are some ideas in case you have no clue what to bring. I also brought a box of USDA Organic Honest Kids Grape Juice in those foil pouches (since organic juices are hard to find when traveling) and this time, a girl nudged her young mom to alert her to the weirdo (me) when they saw me drinking it at Starbucks. You'll get used to this, I promise. I actually thought about bringing a small, tightly plastic-wrapped bottle of USDA Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil in my luggage to carry in my massive lady-purse at restaurants to be sure the olive oil in my food is olive, but thought it might look too neurotic, however, after this trip, I don't think its a crazy idea at all. Oh yeah, bring crackers or a few different snacks in your carry-on, too. I happened to have Luke's Garden Vegetable Crackers from the conference swag bags we received and was so hooked, I pulled them out of my carry-on for breakfast at the airport. I couldn't have a single thing at any food place in the airport...except butter from the place I got my hot water from (even brought my own USDA Organic Yogi tea bags due to eczema reactions to most teas from soy-derived 'natural flavors').
Unfortunately, I had to gluten myself (again) using the pure butter on the crackers (I can only usually eat grass-fed) and let me tell you, when you can't eat anything, gluten-free crackers and butter hit the spot like nothing else. But these multigrain crackers were actually really good and honestly, the company owner whom I met at the conference doesn't even know I've written this post!

Hopefully you now have a pretty good idea of at least two safe places on the Strip you can book! If you know of any other places on the Strip that are allergy-friendly and/or offer a gluten-free menu, feel free to add them in the comments below!

      1 comment:

      1. "A study of mouse mast cells shows that cigarette smoke can prevent allergies by decreasing the reaction of immune cells to allergens smokers need to purify their air