Ever play “Would You Rather?” You know, the game where you have to choose between one of two dreadful scenarios? Here’s one for you: Would you rather be that guy, the one who has to interrogate the server at a restaurant about what’s in every dish because of an ingredient intolerance – or would you rather be at the next table waiting for your drink while you listen to the exchange? Neither, right?
Whether the tiniest gluten-containing morsel lands you in the hospital, you just abhor, say, bell peppers in any context, or if you require a complete dossier on the ingredients and provenance of every dish on the menu, you’re a part of an exploding segment of the dining population.
And while going out to eat can be a minefield for anyone who faces dietary health concerns, the annoying trendiness of banishing certain ingredients has – in many cases – pitted kitchens against diners, with servers on the front lines of the battle. Some chefs have drawn a line in the sand, refusing to alter their creations for patrons who, let’s be honest, are sometimes just being picky.
Others want to accommodate legitimate needs, but, short-staffed and harried, don’t have the resources to adjust each meal. In the end, many folks who just want to eat out are relegated to cooking at home where they know they’re safe, or maybe visit a miniscule number of restaurants that cater to specific needs. Even then, good luck to a gluten-free vegan who wants to take a friend or date to a “special” restaurant.
The thing is, there’s a restaurant hiding in plain sight here in Louisville that is making everyone happy. If you didn’t know you were eating gluten or dairy free, well, that’s just fine by them. Thanks to manager Anne Shadle’s efforts behind the scenes at the Mayan Café (813 E. Market St.), the beloved NuLu eatery welcomes diners no matter their dietary needs.
You Are Not a Problem for Me
Forget the barely hidden look of annoyance a special request often garners elsewhere. The mantra here, Shadle says, is “you are not a problem for me.” This attitude infuses everyone in the restaurant. I’ve seen it firsthand dining with a friend with health issues who needed several modifications. The server didn’t bat an eye, instead made enthusiastic suggestions and assured my friend that her selections were safe (not to mention delicious).
From day one, employees are trained on an allergen menu that details common triggers like gluten and dairy, and notes vegetarian options. Shadle began developing the menu in 2009, well before gluten-free became a rallying cry. Her impetus? A family history of digestive issues – including a father with Crohn’s disease – put the need for more options on her radar. Then after her own prolonged search to identify the cause of her health issues, Shadle learned that she had SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth). Working with local herbal nutritionist, Myron Hardesty, she discovered that she needed to eliminate a wide swathe of ingredients from her life: everything from corn and sugar to lactose and legumes had to go. Even garlic and onions were off-limits.
Working in a restaurant became both a blessing and a curse. “Food is my enemy, and food is my livelihood” Shadle says. But she took this drastic change as an opportunity to help the restaurant create something new, using the kitchen as a testing ground.
A Safe Place to Eat
Behind the motivation to be healthy was a sharp marketing mind. “Folks with dietary restrictions have so few options,” Shadle says. “If we let them know this is a safe place to eat we’ll have a customer for life.”
Shadle challenged the kitchen, including her brother-in-law, Chef Bruce Ucan, to find substitutes that tasted as good or better than ingredients like wheat flour and dairy.
“We didn’t want to penalize the people who aren’t on special diets,” she says.
Swapping white flour for quinoa or rice flour, and milk or cream for coconut milk made the majority of the menu suitable for diners with some of the most common restrictions. “The coconut milk, allowed the Yucatan flavors to shine more brightly,” Shadle says.
When it comes to modifications other than gluten and dairy, Shadle will go through the menu line-by-line, if needed. “I am your champion,” she says. “Even if you’re not allergic, if there’s something you don’t want to eat, I want to bring you something you’ll enjoy.”
For example, ceviche is gluten and diary free. A braised lamb entrée is gluten and dairy free. The popular Tok-sel lima beans side dish is vegan, gluten and dairy free. The oven-roasted rabbit with pumpkin seed mole is paleo, gluten and dairy free, and the tikin-xic fish entrée (wild-caught Kentucky blue snapper in achiote-lime sauce) is gluten and dairy free.
The fact that everyone dining there–from paleo to vegan–enjoys the food so much is a testament to Shadle’s insistence on the absolute best. When something new is created, every single ingredient, every technique is scrutinized. “Every element has been loved on,” she says.
And that love is a welcome change for any diner with restrictions. No more confrontations with waiters, no worry about hidden ingredients, just a meal made with love – which, really, is all any of us want.