Eat Your Heart Out (Carefully)
Navigating the Restaurant Scene in Pittsburgh with Food Allergies
I could feel the warmth from inside of the glass against my cupped hands. Huddled against the winter night air, I was just close enough that my breath fogged up the front window of Tram’s Kitchen as I leered at the patrons, faces planted in their bowls, slurping Pho that I know tastes like how comfort feels.
Have you ever been kicked out of a party?
Me neither, but I imagine this is what it would feel like.
Marina Keegan’s essay “Against the Grain” from her book The Opposite of Loneliness, divulges the details of a fellow Celiac sufferer’s deathbed meal. She pictures her family crying quietly by her bedside while she chows down on donuts, a chicken potpie, a French crepe, and a cold beer among a myriad of other forbidden foods. I resigned myself to a deathbed list like Marina. It is extensive— and Tram’s Pho is on it. But for the foreseeable future, I had to cut Asian fare out of my repertoire… short of loitering outside Tram’s.
It’s been a surreal few years for me.
Unlike Marina, who was diagnosed as a child, I didn’t know all of my favorite treats were killing me until I was 29 years old. I’m cursed with knowing exactly how delicious everything I can’t eat anymore tastes.
While I love Asian food, it’s hard to come by when you’re allergic to soy and sesame. Most food is hard to come by when you’re also allergic to gluten (wheat, barley, and rye), corn, peanuts, walnuts, and white potatoes as well. But when confronted with endless pain and brain fog, I knew nothing would ever taste as good as how not being violently ill and inflamed felt.
A year and a half later, I was spared the existential crisis that often accompanies a sudden cancer diagnosis when I learned about the link between Celiac disease and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Abstaining from my allergens for the prior 18 months had healed my body, resulting in a 90-pound weight loss. And yet, as I fondly recalled my lifelong affinity for donuts and the stash of oatmeal cream pies I used to hide in my car, I knew exactly how I got cancer. I also have to admit that last 20 of the 90-pounds I lost was definitely cancer and not my impeccable self-discipline.
Clean eating sustained me. It helped me survive another year and a half of chemo, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant. My experience transformed the way I approached food forever.
Ordering food used to be anxiety-inducing, especially in a group setting. Will the wait-staff and kitchen take my dietary restrictions seriously? What if they forget something? What if there is cross-contamination? Will I hold up everyone else’s meal? Am I high maintenance? (The answers are: Hopefully, it’s possible, it’s a calculated risk, perhaps, and absolutely, but if I’m going to carefully and consistently maintain something, shouldn’t it be myself?)
I’ve run the gambit on culinary encounters, choking down disappointing meals from promising-looking establishments that haunt me for several weeks. Since adapting an allergy-friendly etiquette for dining out, I have been met with kindness, understanding, and enjoyed delectable feasts.
I’m excited to share my most valuable advice for navigating the food scene and my most recent favorite find: the magical summer evening my best friend Steven and I walked into Soju.
Before we take a bite into this culinary adventure, if you need one, make sure you always carry your EpiPen. You can’t ask, “Excuse me, are you sure this doesn’t have peanuts in it!?” if your throat is swelling shut. Conversely, if you do not need an EpiPen, don’t let anyone make you feel as if your dietary restrictions aren’t just as serious or important.
Planning ahead is an excellent way to maximize the restaurants ability to best accommodate your needs. Check out the menu online and if you have enough time, call the restaurant or stop in and ask to speak with someone about your allergies and whether they can accommodate you. This way you won’t be sweating before it’s time for you to order and you can be present and attentive to your table conversation.
This also gives you an opportunity to pack your own condiments. Going to an Asian restaurant, but you’re allergic to soy? Stash a travel-size bottle of coconut aminos in your bag (it tastes like a less salty version of soy sauce). Want a salad, but you’re allergic to all the additives in most commercial salad dressings? Tessamae makes Whole30-approved, allergy-friendly dressings and sauces in packets and small bottles.
Full transparency? Steven and I did not prepare for our meal at Soju in the least. I broke my own rule. I wasn’t planning on eating anything. We had been having a rough day and I think the collective concern was a cold cocktail rather than a warm meal.
A note on picking a dining establishment:
When possible, eat local and skip chain restaurants and big corporate companies altogether. In fairness, chains and major brands try their best to cater to your needs and if you’re only allergic to one or two small things you could potentially walk away having a semi-decent meal. However, if you’re anything like me, at best you will receive a bland slab of meat with steamed unseasoned vegetables. It’s best to practice radical acceptance and manage your expectations. I can’t eat a thing at Primanti Brothers. If my friends want to meet there, I know I’m going for the company, not the food. I eat ahead of time and bring purse snacks.
If you go local, you will not only support small businesses, but they are more likely to cook with fresh ingredients. I can always tell the quality of the food everyone else is eating by how well a restaurant can accommodate my allergies.
We did follow that rule and the moment Steven opened the door for me, our energy adapted to the bright clean welcoming ambiance of Soju. The interior is understatedly hip and minimalistic, but it’s accented with curated personal touches so it feels more like home.
The bartenders treated us like friends, sharing a round of soju— the inspiration for the restaurant’s namesake. Let me tell you a little something about the nectarous, clear, rice-based, distilled liquor soju: It might mean "burned liquor" in Korean, but it doesn’t burn going down. In fact, it’s the smoothest, tastiest, most dangerous liquor I’ve ever put in my mouth.
On the subject of libations: know your cocktails. It could be the difference between an elixir at the end of a stressful day or pure poison that makes you question all your life choices for the following two weeks. Most alcohol is made of wheat, rye, barley, corn, or white potatoes, which dramatically limits your options. Until February, my only option was Ciroc and Disaronno, but now that Kingfly (kingflyspirits.com) has opened up in The Strip, I have a bevy of delicious allergy friendly spirits to choose from.
The bartenders at Soju are helpful and knowledgeable. They make all their own syrups and mixes in house and from scratch. I was treated to a special allergy-free Kimchi Bloody Mary and Steven was a big fan of the Soju Punch. They walked us through the ingredients of our drinks so expertly that I felt comfortable showing them my list.
This is my most significant piece of advice and the most useful tool in my arsenal: write your allergies down ahead of time. If your allergies fit on a business card, that’s great! I need a whole sheet of paper. I turned mine into a love letter to the kitchen and wait staff. I lay out my allergies, crack a joke or two, and humbly thank them for feeding me.
Whatever format you choose, don’t leave home without your list and carry multiples so you can send a copy back to the kitchen for the chef to double-check it as they’re cooking-it’s okay if it never comes back to you.
My list not only alleviates my anxiety about ordering, it gives me confidence that I can communicate my dietary needs to the staff and that we’re working as a team toward a solution.
Simon, the head chef and owner, came out personally to collaborate on a meal for me. We went over my list together and then he and his staff created a steamy, tangy, gooey, divine adaptation of kimchi fried rice that made my eyes roll into the back of my head.
I wasn’t the only one performing the happy-tummy-tappy-toe dance. Steven swooned over his Korean BBQ Combination.
Simon came back out during the meal to check in (as he does to all his patrons every time I’ve visited since then). He said that with a few days' notice, they could prepare a marinade custom to whatever specific dietary restrictions I, or any patron, needs. Simon and his team are dedicated and emotionally invested in giving you the best experience possible. The food is authentic, delicious, and filling. My meal at Soju was so delightfully satisfying that I added it to my deathbed dream menu just the way that it is.
With our spirits lifted and bellies full, we left that night lighter in some ways and heavier in others. Eat well, my friends, and remember: you can’t get kicked out of a party if you are the party. Keep it inclusive.