I’m writing this blog post from the road – from a hotel room in Montrose, Colorado, to be exact. Thursday began a whirlwind tour of western Colorado, and I’m just about at the halfway mark, having completed stops in Durango, Silverton and Montrose, and with stops in Aspen, Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction still to go.
I often find that traveling is an opportune time to reflect on my gluten-free diet, since I’ve left the comfort and security of my home kitchen and pantry behind. For me there’s an uncertainty to eating on the road – where will my next meal come from? Will I be able to find good gluten-free food? Or will I get sick from a contaminated meal eaten at a restaurant?
To combat such uncertainty, I’ve adopted the practice of traveling with a soft-sided cooler bag filled with GF foods. I’ve written about it before on this blog, so I won’t belabor the issue. But consider it my culinary security blanket. (Anecdotally, I also find that eating from my travel bag, and replenishing it with stops at supermarkets along the way, is cheaper, healthier, and on the whole, more enjoyable.)
As I rolled into Montrose earlier today, the community – on the face of it – didn’t strike me as one that’s particularly friendly to the gluten-free diet. I sat in my hotel room pondering dinner, and reconciling the restaurant listings in the phone book with internet searches for gluten-free dining. My search didn’t turn up much, but I did find a healthy serving of Mexican restaurants here in town.
Over time, on the average, I’ve found Mexican cuisine an agreeable way to go. Some restaurants, like Mi Casa in Breckenridge, have dedicated GF menus. At many others, it’s pretty easy to follow the GF straight and narrow with 100% corn soft tortillas, meat and veggies, and rice. That hasn’t always been the case, though. One particular instance really comes to mind…the night before a ski mountaineering race in Snowmass, when the owner of the restaurant emphatically insisted I was okay to eat the food, and that turned to be very much not the case.
I was tempted to eat at one of the local family run Mexican restaurants tonight, but part of the reason why I’m on the road is because I’m racing in The Heathen Challenge at Sunlight Mountain Resort on Sunday. It’s the first ski mountaineering race of the season for me, and I don’t fancy the idea of getting sick 48 hours before the event. In the end, rather, I decided to eat dinner at Panchero’s Mexican Grill.
Panchero’s has locations in almost 20 states, including two restaurants on Colorado’s Western Slope (here in Montrose, and also in Grand Junction). I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before tonight! In many ways, it’s like Chipotle, serving burritos and burrito bowls with a choice of meat, rice, beans, salsas, etc. And also like Chipotle, they had a basic gluten statement on the website. Notably, almost everything on the menu at Panchero’s is gluten-free, with the exception of the tortillas and the chicken (whose marinade isn’t GF).
For my dinner this evening, I settled on a burrito bowl (of course) with Spanish rice, steak, tomato-based salsa, and a corn-cilantro-lime salsa. It was delicious, but I ate the meal with some nervousness. Unlike Chipotle, where I’ve eaten without incident oodles of times and consumed more burrito bowls than I can count (with one glaring exception of cross-contamination over the last two years), Panchero’s was virgin territory for me. And I did see potential for cross-contamination with how the ingredients were handled and prepared.
Enough time has passed this evening that I know I’m in the clear and in all likelihood won’t get sick, but I do have the distinct feeling of having dodged a bullet. My recommendation to you: Panchero’s is a realistic option for good GF Mexican food in the Chipotle style, but while you’re waiting in line behind the customers ahead of you, watch how the burritos are prepared, and judge for yourself the potential for cross-contamination. If in doubt, it might be prudent to bow out.