That tiny protein that holds wheat together is a lot easier to avoid than it used to be. As long as you're willing to spend a bit more, even mainstream grocery stores carry a handful of gluten-free items. Local co-ops and health food stores are a practical wonderland of gluten-free delicacies. But dining out is still a challenge. Breweries and Italian and Chinese restaurants offer some gluten-free selections (usually salads), but it's generally a matter of chance.
Sushi, however, offers a plethora of choices. Sushi rice, nori, raw fish and miso soup are all gluten-free; sadly, tempura (delicious, delicious tempura) and soy sauce are not gluten-free, and nearly every sushi sauce has a soy or teriyaki base. Among the three heavy-hitters of HumCo sushi — Tomo, Kyoto and Sushi Spot — which is your gluten-free go-to?
Tomo (708 Ninth St., Arcata), though delightful and yummy, falls a little short in reliability as a gluten-free dining option. Prior to speaking with head chef Arianna Miller over the phone, it was hard to get a straight or confident answer out of some of the staff. Many of them were eager to get to the root of the question, but often their efforts fell short. Miller said Tomo doesn't have special gluten-free options (other than the items that are inherently gluten-free), but the chefs are happy to make any of their sauces with a tamari base. This opens up a few more options, but still takes tempura off the table (literally). For now, stick to sunomono cucumber salad and raw items like the nigiri Hamachi (yellowtail) or the negi hama roll with yellowtail and green onions.
Sushi Spot (670 Ninth St., Arcata) has a few more options. Waitress and floor manager Laurel Utman says the restaurant is in the middle of adding a large gluten-free section to its menu. For the time being, though, the restaurant focuses on keeping the staff informed about dietary concerns, and a full allergen breakdown is posted in the back for the cooks and wait staff. This is a huge plus; it's a relief when questions about the menu aren't met with looks of confusion or phrases like, "I'm pretty sure ... ." Depending on your degree of gluten-intolerance, "pretty sure" may not be a risk worth taking. The tekka-hama roll with red tuna and yellowtail is gluten-free, and Sushi Spot will steam ingredients that are normally fried. Tamari is available, too, and if you miss tobiko, masago (a gluten-free smelt roe prepared without soy sauce) is on the menu.
Kyoto (320 F St. in Eureka) has the most options by far. With gluten-free tempura, soba noodles and ponzu sauce, a world of options is open to the gluten-free diner. The tempura is cooked in a dedicated, gluten-free fryer, and all of Kyoto's sauces can be made with a tamari base, as opposed to soy sauce. According to owner Jeni Masaki, the only item the restaurant hasn't made gluten-free yet is the unagi sauce. For people who don't enjoy scrumptious, buttery eel, the menu is virtually gluten-free! The tempura yam roll is so good — sweet with a little kick and crunch. Gluten-free tempura is not quite the same, but you still get your fix.
A few restaurants are leading the charge in HumCo, and Kyoto is one of them. Let's remember that just a few years ago most restaurants had no gluten-free options, and a very select few even knew what the deal was with gluten. The gluten-free movement has gained momentum thanks to the growing number of people who've given up gluten for dietary benefits, people with allergies or intolerances and those with celiac disease who are following doctor's orders. Really, it's a simple issue of supply and demand; even though some places may not have an abundance of gluten-free options now, they're more likely to make changes if customers ask for them. So, be politely persistent, gluten-free diners, and we'll keep the sushi rolling.