I hadn’t had a crepe in nine years.
Then I set foot in Happy Tart, an all-gluten-free bakery in Falls Church, and I realized I could have anything on the menu. Anything!
I don’t have celiac disease (an immune reaction to gluten, the protein in wheat, barley and rye). But I do have a sensitivity to gluten, and my body has been much happier when I abstain. Which is why it was so exciting to discover Happy Tart.
When Emma Cech opened her first location of the bakery in Alexandria in 2011, it was the first gluten-free bakery in the Washington area. Now, finding local spots to eat gluten-free baked goods is both easier and harder, Cech says. Easier because there’s more awareness of what it means to follow a gluten-free diet and more places try to cater to that. And harder because many of these establishments are “trying to do it, but they’re not doing it well,” she says.
She’s right. When I set out to find the best gluten-free pasta, pizza and pastries in the Washington area, I thought it would be fairly easy. It wasn’t. I realized that some of my standbys have been eclipsed by other spots whose products are tastier. And I ate one meal that, while delectable going down, must have been tainted, because it left me with crushing abdominal pain and diner’s regret.
Some digestive tracts are more sensitive than others. Diners with extreme sensitivities might want to stick to restaurants where everything is gluten-free (like Happy Tart and Rise Bakery in Adams Morgan) or where gluten-free pizzas are baked in separate ovens. To be on the safe side, call restaurants in advance to discuss any concerns about cross-contamination.
Lasagna, crepes and pot pies, oh my! Happy Tart is the place to go if you’re supersensitive to gluten and are longing for delicate French and hearty American dishes. The decor is bright and friendly, as is the staff, and everything on the menu is gluten-free. The pastries are rich and flaky, never resembling the hockey pucks you might purchase in a grocery store’s freezer case.
It wasn’t just the delicious cinnamon apple crepe ($6.50), made of a blend of buckwheat and millet, that made it a special experience. It was just as delightful to be in a space without restrictions — where I didn’t have to grill anyone about the ingredients — as it was to taste something I hadn’t eaten in nearly a decade. Happy Tart is a place where gluten-free diners don’t have to feel socially isolated: The food is tasty enough that even gluten-eaters will be satisfied.
Happy Tart is the best bakery in the Washington area that’s wholly gluten-free, but it’s not the only one. If Virginia is too much of a trek, Rise Bakery in Adams Morgan is a solid runner-up. In addition to gluten-free items, they offer dairy-free, soy-free and nut-free delicacies for those whose diets are even more restricted. Their baked goods can be quite dense, but the eclair ($4.95) — when they have it; usually on weekends — is the perfect mix of gooey custard on the inside, chocolate pastry on the outside. And it’s the only local spot where I’ve found gluten-free challah that even gluten eaters enjoy. (They sell out, so preorder it a few days ahead.) Rise is also quite small, with seating for about five or six at a time, and it’s often crowded on weekends, so it’s best to plan on carrying out.
In downtown Washington, the hip and sleek Kintsugi on the ground floor of the Eaton Hotel stands out for its handful of gluten-free pastries offered on a rotating basis. The crumbly coffeecake and almond apricot muffins are standouts, and the scones are solid, too, without being too dense.
Happy Tart, 410 S. Maple Ave., Unit 110, Falls Church. Rise Bakery, 2409 18th St. NW. Kintsugi Cafe, 1201 K St. NW (1st floor of the Eaton Hotel)
Frankly . . . Pizza! owner Frank Linn mixes his own gluten-free dough in-house, a blend of buckwheat and rice flour, and it shows. To reserve a personal gluten-free pie, you’ll have to plan ahead and call 24 hours in advance. It’s worth the effort: The crust is bubbly and light enough to make you do a double-take and ask if it’s really gluten-free. And it’s cooked in a brick oven, meaning the bottom is satisfyingly charred.
However, a caution: The gluten-free pies share an oven with the regular wheat ones, so while I didn’t have a problem, those with celiac disease would be safer dining at a place such as Mellow Mushroom in Adams Morgan, which buys its dough elsewhere but uses separate ovens for its gluten-free pies. Mellow Mushroom’s crust, which is available only in personal size and can be customized with various toppings including caramelized onions, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and tofu, more closely resembles a flatbread than pizza dough, but it’s still crunchy and satisfying.
Frankly’s pies are American style and range from $10 to $17, depending on how many toppings (olives, basil, arugula, anchovies, etc.) you add; Mellow Mushroom’s start at $13.95. Both Frankly’s and Mellow Mushroom are family-friendly spots, with the latter more likely to be full of kickball teams celebrating a win or sports fans sharing a pie while taking in a basketball game at the bar.
Frankly ... Pizza! 10417 Armory Ave., Kensington. Mellow Mushroom, 2436 18th St. NW.
Sfoglina stands out for being a charming and elegant Italian restaurant where those who don’t eat gluten can still enjoy nearly anything on the menu. Any of the pasta dishes (with the exception of the tortellini or the lasagna) can be prepared with rice fusilli (which comes from elsewhere) or corn spaghetti that’s made in house and boiled in water that doesn’t touch the regular pasta. The corn spaghetti is strong and hearty, nowhere near the mushiness that often befalls gluten-free pasta from a box. The pasta offerings change seasonally (I enjoyed the lamb ragu) and range from $19 to $24 a plate. It’s a bit of a splurge, but worth it for sauces featuring such ingredients as lobster and barbecue pork ribs.
Plus, you’ll be treating yourself to a meal by Fabio Trabocchi, one of the top chefs in town.
Sfoglina, 4445 Connecticut Ave. NW, 1099 New York Ave. NW.