Monday, April 26, 2010

1,000-year-old Chinese chef breaks the gluten-free world open wide

Kwan's of Salem is very unassuming. From the outside, it looks like a run-down version of Disneyland's interpretation of a Chinese temple, like one that would be located in Yuma, AZ. On the inside, it looks like the kind of generic Asian restaurant Lucy and Desi would have gone to, where Lucy would have loudly mangled dishes' names and spoken in exaggerated fake Chinese to the server. Lucy and Desi when they lived in 1950s Hollywood, not Lucy and Desi in New York. Got the picture? Lots of Chinese jade souvenirs, plastic swords, faded red- and gold- lacquered tables, servers in cheap tuxes, etc.

But we were desperate for vegetables and rice, and had developed a deep suspicion of past go-tos. We pulled out the iPhones, searched the GlutenFreed app, and found one option, Kwans. Kwans opened in Salem, OR 33 years ago after the chef came to America sponsored by Gerry Frank's family.

We called. After a year of this life, we can tell the safety of the food by the tone of voice on the phone.

Kwan himself answered. When JFG asked about GF food, Kwan assured us that his staff understood both wheat allergies and celiac disease (the mere comprehension of the difference is a positive sign!), and that they had more the forty dishes they could prepare safely.

When we arrived, Kwan met us at the door. He led us to the table, handed us menus, explained at length his culinary philosophy (we couldn't really understand it but he seemed very sincere). JFG explained what he'd like to order and Kwan made it immediately, making sure we understood the changes in the dish that would be required to make the food GF. He also asked about every other possible food issue -- water purity, eggs, yeast, meat, shellfish, dairy. Not sure this was necessary but it certainly was thorough.

Here's how you know your restaurant understands celiac disease (see right). The check is itemized by the ingredients the food does not contain, and he was even more conservative then we might have been in our own kitchen.

So here's my review. The food was fairly conventional Chinese, the kind you'd get at a restaurant that also serves french fries and hamburgers for the kiddos. But the vegetables were fresh -- he even substituted green beans for peas in one dish because he'd just gotten the beans that morning -- and most importantly, JFG could eat anything on the menu including the ginger-chocolate ice cream sundae. We showed Kwan the app we used on the phone to find him, and while I'm sure that he can survive another 33 years without the celiacs of mid-Oregon, I hope others use it too.

Old school Chinese cooked by a restaurateur who really cares that it's safe. Tell him you read about him on a blog -- it will blow his mind. Be prepared to have him sit down at your booth to see it on your iPhone.