Two words: Blown. Away.
Gluten free at a Japanese hibachi restaurant? I was skeptical at first. No, make that slightly terrified.
Ooka’s website, while beautiful, is suspiciously silent on the subject of gluten. No gluten-free menu. No lawyer-approved small-print disclaimer. All I had to go on was that my friends take their gluten-intolerant sister-in-law there all the time.
I’ve eaten “gluten-free” at all kinds of restaurants with varying degrees of success. From the great (Adventures in Gluten-Free Eating) to the not-so-great (The Great Gluten-Free Pizza Debate) and everything in between. Ooka was by far the best gluten-free restaurant experience I’ve ever had.
The menu is modern and minimalist. No mention of gluten-free in print either. It’s something like In and Out’s Secret Menu. That’s a shame, because every gluten-free diner within 50 miles of an Ooka restaurant should know about it.
It’s refreshing to order off the regular menu and then simply add “gluten-free”. The staff seem experienced with handling diners who have food restrictions. I ordered the salmon dinner, gluten-free. Before I could say anything more, the server politely inquired if I was able to eat rice. (Which I’m not due to a grain intolerance beyond gluten.) Wow! Did she read my mind? When I told her I couldn’t eat the rice, she offered me the choice of an extra salad or soup in its place. Nice!
Let’s start with the salad and soup.
The salad, with a dressing made from ginger, garlic, and carrots, was a delight to both eyes and mouth. Fresh, flavorful, and refreshing.
The soup was a clear beef broth with mushrooms and sweet onions. Not the usual Japanese restaurant miso soup. Although I like miso soup, I really enjoyed trying something different.
This. Changes. Everything.
When you think of gluten-free dining, Japanese hibachi is not the first thing that comes to mind, or even the second, or the third. Done right however, it can easily rise to the top of your list.
Haven’t you ever wished you could go into the kitchen of a restaurant and watch over the preparation of your food to make sure it doesn’t get cross-contaminated? I know I have.
With a teppan grill, the chef brings the ingredients to you and cooks your food right in front of you. Not only do you get to supervise the cooking of your food, you get to be entertained as well. One of the best kinds of entertainment for those of use who happen to be food-obsessed. The only thing that might make it better is if the chef let me get behind the grill and taught me a tip or two about using those awesome knives. Of course that would be a horrendous nightmare for the legal department. Finger with your teriyaki chicken, anyone?
At Ooka, the chef removed my food before the noodles and gluten-filled sauces hit the grill. Genius! I felt perfectly at ease eating my food.
Marinated in lemon juice, the salmon was divine. Proving once again that quality ingredients don’t need excessive adornment. I didn’t even miss any of the accompanying sauces. The hibachi vegetables and shrimp were delightful too.
Salad, broth, salmon, and veggies. The perfect paleo meal. Not a single ill effect. I slept well that night and ran 5 miles early the next morning. I want to take one of Ooka’s chefs home with me. I could eat this meal every day.
Another gluten-free benefit I’d never thought of before: The grill is cleaned after each and every time its used (right before your eyes, too). Spotless. Glutenless. After all, nobody wants to sit down at a table right in front of a dirty grill.
Congratulations Ooka, you won me over. Gluten-free dining now has a new standard to aim for. And as for all you other gluten-free hopefuls, time to step up to the plate.
Ooka has restaurants in Riverside, California, where I ate, as well as Montgomeryville, Doylestown, and Willow Grove in Pennsylvania.