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Breaking Free: Meat- and gluten-free dining in Boise

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For years, vegetarians have grumbled through cheese plates and sighed at side salads. With limited—often uninspired—vegetarian and vegan dining options in Boise, going out to eat has been an exercise in disappointment.

While neighboring cities like Portland, Ore., have entire diners devoted to vegan soul food and street carts hawking vegetarian "fish" tacos, Boise has struggled to provide anything more than pre-frozen veggie burger patties or chopped broccoli and ranch dressing.

But that's changing. According to a study conducted by Vegetarian Times in 2008, 3.2 percent of U.S. adults, or 7.3 million Americans, are vegetarians while an additional 22.8 million consider themselves "vegetarian-inclined." Though Boise restaurants have been slow to hop on the vegetarian/vegan bus, there are a number of veg-heads out there—around 6,500 according to the above stats—hungry for viable local dining options.

According to Tristan Sluder, pioneer of the website Boise Vegan, local restaurants that cater to vegetarian and vegan palates are on the rise.

"I know when I was growing up vegetarian, there was not a lot [of options]. With the popularity now, a lot of places try to at least have one or two vegan items on their menu," said Sluder.

One of those spots is the downtown joint Jenny's Lunch Line. Proprietress Jenny Sledge offers a seasonal menu that varies depending on the day of the week. For example, on Mondays in February, she offered vegetarian tortilla soup and a toasted baked brie sandwich in addition to more meat-centric fare like organic local beef chili with ancho and mole.

"I try to walk a really good balance ... most of my clientele, they're not vegetarians, so I have to make sure that I have offerings for everybody—the vegans, the vegetarians, the gluten-free, the dairy-free," says Sledge. "But we always have meaty options because I don't think I'd be in business if I didn't."

Andrea Maricich, owner of the recently opened State Street cafe Salt Tears Coffeehouse and Noshery—and former owner of The MilkyWay and Tapas Estrella—agrees with Sledge. Though Maricich offers a number of vegetarian items on her small menu, like pan con tomate and a house-made mozzarella sandwich, she says she couldn't make it without serving some meat.

"We've lost two restaurants already, and they had meat. I guess there's a niche and you can fill it, and if you're lucky, you'll hit it right on the mark. And if you're not, you're going to lose your shirt on it," said Maricich. "It would be hard for you to stick your neck out for that, I think."

But Bob and Toni Hodge did stick their necks out. Their vegetarian restaurant and teahouse on Federal Way, Shangri-La Tea Room and Cafe, is the only completely vegetarian restaurant in Boise and has been steadily growing its customer base over the last few years. They also get a lot of out-of-town business.

"[Non-Boiseans] are surprised that we're the only vegetarian restaurant choice," said Toni Hodge.

But Shangri-La isn't a vegetarians-only, exclusive establishment. According to Hodge, their eclectic menu—which features items like mock toona salad with raw crackers and wild mushroom miso—draws in meat eaters as well.

"There's people that are our customers who actually are not vegetarians but happen to just love our food," said Hodge.

Vegans and vegetarians aren't the only ones seeking more viable alternative dining options in Boise. Nationwide, the number of wheat-intolerant and celiac individuals is steadily growing. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, more than 2 million Americans—or about 1 in 133 people—have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition in which the consumption of gluten damages the small intestine. For Wendi Flores, founder of glutenfreeboise.com, it's a challenge to find restaurants that take gluten-intolerant diners into consideration.

"What a lot of people don't understand is, for those who are celiac that maybe have an extreme case, even making food in a kitchen where you prepare gluten foods can make that person sick ... there's a huge risk of cross-contamination when you order 'gluten free' foods at a regular restaurant," said Flores.

Rob Lumsden, owner of Flatbread Community Oven, caters to the needs of celiacs and is vigilant about avoiding cross-contamination between his regular and gluten-free pizzas.

"We take all the steps that we can in order to protect the gluten-free product from the wheat products," said Lumsden. "We use a separate cutting board, we use a separate pizza cutter, the crust is actually baked in our wood-fired oven on a pizza screen so it doesn't come into contact with the flour that's already in the oven."

But rice-flour pizza isn't the only gluten-free option at Flatbread, Lumsden also offers gluten-free booze.

"We have a beer called Red Bridge, which is a gluten-free beer, so the people who come in and have a gluten-free pizza can have the full-blown pizza and beer experience," said Lumsden.

And while vegetarian and gluten-free options are becoming more commonplace on Treasure Valley menus, there's still lingering resistance among the meat-and-wheat-eating majority.

"We're a meat-eating state, you know, for the most part," said Maricich. "I think that's changing a little bit, but there's still a lot of people that want steak and potatoes for dinner."

While that might be true for now, Sledge sees changes on the dietary horizon.

"I think society, in general, is becoming more conscious of where their food is coming from," said Sledge. •

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