Livin' la vida sin gluten: Baltimore bakeries are turning out gluten-free products that are actually tasty

Sometimes gluten-free diners want to eat like regular people, too.

The thing about living gluten free, whether by choice or by medical necessity, is that everyone who is not living gluten free always has lots of helpful suggestions. Suggestions about where and what to eat that don't involve the usual pitfalls of GF life: bread, pasta, baked goods. And don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for these suggestions—helpful friends and co-workers have turned me on to all kinds of truly terrific gluten-free finds, such as the unbelievably delicious arepas at Alma Cocina Latina, in Canton (2400 Boston St., [667] 212-4273, almacocinalatina.com).

But those of us living la vida sin gluten know already, by necessity, all about cuisines where gluten isn't really a thing. Thai, sushi, Indian, Caribbean, etc., etc.—yes, they're great. It's good to have options. But there are times when we want to eat like regular people, too. Those who can still handle wheat protein in their diet simply can't understand what it's like to have bread simply vanish from yours. Or to be relegated to a life of eating pasta with the texture of gummy worms, or pizza crust apparently created from ground-up dumpster-dived asbestos ceiling tiles. Or to know what it's like to be afraid to eat in a new restaurant, lest they forget to tell you about the flour that went into thickening the sauce on your supposedly gluten-free entree.

Gluten, the protein component of wheat, is an essential element in baked goods and other flour-based dishes. It is what gives bread its lightness, cake its tender crumb, linguini its al dente springiness. (Don't even speak to me of the abomination that is gluten-free pie crust.) And there are all kinds of gluten-free products these days, as ever more people adopt a GF lifestyle and manufacturers rush to capitalize on this latest food trend. The problem is that most of these gluten-free products taste like ass. They just do. I remember the first time I ate a slice of Udi's "Gluten Free Whole Grain Bread" and thought, wow, so this is how they recycle those styrofoam coolers. I keep a loaf in the freezer anyway, because sandwiches. These are the kind of foods you eat because you have to, not because you want to.

So gluten-free folks trade tips about where to find genuinely delectable, yet safe to eat, goods like stockbrokers name-checking a hot IPO. You learn to not get your hopes too high—the longer you're in the life, the lower your standards get. Happily, my personal understanding of what makes great bread has been restored, thanks to some local vendors turning out gluten-free baked goods. About six months ago Atwater's Bakery (multiple locations, atwaters.biz) started baking artisan bread using gluten-free alterna-flours. The idea, according to Atwater's overseer of bakery operations Tim McGuire, was to produce a loaf "worthy of sharing a shelf with our other breads." Its Seedy Sandwich bread is a hearty country-white-style loaf, with just the right amount of tender heft. It's so good I have to fend the rest of my (not gluten-free) family off it, and costs $6 per loaf at any of Atwater's locations—call first, because it sells out fast—or you can just, you know, sit down and enjoy a restaurant sandwich like a normal person. They also sell a peanut butter cookie that is very very good—sweet salty savory, melt-in-your-mouth gluten-free goodness ($4 per six cookies). Atwater's produces its gluten-free products in its main bakery, but in a separate, closed-off room. McGuire says that they test "constantly" and while still not quite able to get under the 10 ppm required for certification by the Gluten Free Certification Organization, Atwater's gluten-free products do fall below the 20 ppm federal standard.

I admit to approaching Hampden's Harmony Bakery (3446 Chestnut Ave., [410] 235-3870) with a bit of trepidation. Harmony is an entirely gluten-free eatery, where everything is made from scratch—but most of its products are also vegan. It's my emphatic opinion that GF baked goods are already seriously hampered enough without taking away the butter, eggs, etc., that can help save them from awfulness. I was delighted to find that many of Harmony's items succeed at being both healthy and tasty. Harmony's chocolate cupcake ($2.75) is good by any standard—just perfect fudgy richness, without crossing over into the doorstop density that ruins so many GF/vegan baked goods. The "Donuts of the Day" ($2.50) are baked, with a cakey texture emerging beneath a crisp first bite. They won't fool any Dunkin' Donuts devotees out there, but are very good nonetheless. Harmony's dense and chewy bagels ($2.50) fall in the same category: not a regular bagel, but a really good version of whatever it is they are.

Where Harmony really shines is actually on the savory side. Its "pasta" salad, utilizing zucchini "noodles," is seriously clever ($6). The squash pasta sports an astonishingly real al dente texture, and the accompanying vegan pesto sauce is bright and rich and fork-lickingly delicious. This is one of those happy inventions that is so good, I don't miss the standard version. The heartiest offering is a varying selection of savory tarts ($6). I tried the stuffed chickpea tart, which offered an impressively flaky, crisp crust cradling a curry-scented filling. Like a standard samosa's hip, super-fit culinary cousin.

My GF friends are all enamored of Sweet 27 (123 W. 27th Street, 410-464-7211), a cafe and accompanying restaurant that is entirely gluten free, with a wide-ranging fusion menu. Sweet 27 does its own gluten-free baking, and its cupcakes ($2.85) get rave reviews. We tried a rainbow of flavors—lemon buttercream, chocolate peanut butter, vanilla birthday cake, nutella—and each one was fantastic. The bakery has a way with buttercream, which never hurts, but the cake part itself was indeed wonderful. Light, airy, flavorful, with a perfect crumb—everything a cupcake is supposed to be.

Hopes hoisted by cupcake excellence, I returned to try Sweet 27's gluten-free pizza. Every version of GF pizza I've tried has been truly dire—chalky cardboard crusts falling apart as soon as you attempt to pick up a slice. After nearly two years of searching for a reasonable rendition of 'za, so lonely for so long, I was hoping to have found The One.I ordered the veggie pie ($12) and waited eagerly. Alas. It, um, well. I hate to say anything mean about Sweet 27, a place I genuinely like for many reasons, but that was possibly the worst GF pizza I've ever had anywhere.

But onwards, my gluten-free warriors! That perfect GF pizza is out there somewhere. Let's keep eating—and supporting small local businesses!—until we find it.

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