There’s nothing like the redolent mixture of ingredients like cumin, chili peppers, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro. These are just a few of the flavors that make Mexican food so appealing to the senses. Mexican food also appeals to American eaters because it is widely available as a fast food alternative and tends to be quite affordable.
Although some Mexican dishes can be loaded with high-fat cheese, sour cream, lard and other ingredients best consumed in moderation, there are also many healthy options, such as beans, heart-healthy avocado, grilled chicken, and delicious vegetable dishes.
For the gluten-free eater, however, Mexican restaurants can be challenging, and they vary widely in terms of how celiac-friendly their fare is.
(Plus, check out the end of the article for some of our favorite gluten-free products for your next at-home fiesta.)
Beware the Tortilla Chip!
Tortilla chips are usually made of corn tortillas. Corn tortillas are usually made without any wheat flour. However, there are several potential gluten sources in tortilla chips. Here are some questions to ask about tortilla chips before consuming:
- Are the chips made from corn tortillas or flour tortillas?
- If they are homemade (restaurant-made) from corn tortillas, are those corn tortillas definitely made from only corn?
- Are the chips fried in a dedicated fryer that isn’t used for frying gluten-laden items?
If they are not homemade, you may be able to ask to see the packaging for the chips. Most commercially produced tortilla chips contain only corn flour, but cross-contamination may be a danger with some brands.
Lastly, even chips that are made entirely of corn may be dusted with flour. I found this out the hard way at a Cheesecake Factory a couple of years ago…
The Burrito Blues
The star of many Mexican restaurants, the burrito, is off-limits to celiacs. This can lead to confusion about what to order. One option is to order the contents of a burrito in a bowl (the “burrito bowl” has become a popular, healthier option at many Mexican chain restaurants). If you’ve confirmed that the meat was made without any gluten ingredients in the marinade, you might choose to have a bowl with rice, meat, avocado, beans, cheese, sour cream, fresh tomato, and salsa.
Tacos and enchiladas, typically made with 100% corn tortillas, are also a good option. But beware of fried options, as they may be made in a fryer that is also used for gluten-containing items. Fajitas may be an option as well, but ask for them to be served with corn tortillas or corn chips rather than with the customary wheat tortillas. Many restaurants will gladly compose a platter with meat or grilled vegetables, beans, rice and other fixings.
Taco salad shells are made from wheat tortillas, so have your taco salad on a plate or in a bowl instead. Be sure to check the ingredients of the dressing, or just use salsa, guacamole, or lime juice in place of the dressing.
Mexican Chain Restaurants with Gluten-Free Menus
Taco Bell, unfortunately, has almost nothing on its menu that is free of gluten and not prepared in equipment shared with gluten.
However, other Mexican chains are much more dedicated to serving gluten-free customers. Chipotle Mexican Grill has a web page that clearly lists gluten-free items. They train their staff to use separate preparation surfaces and change their gloves if requested by a food-allergic customer. As long as you instruct the preparer of your food to use clean equipment, they can prepare a gluten-free meal for you. Gluten-free options include burrito bowls and crispy tacos. IMPORTANT, when adding salsas and toppings to your meals, be sure you only choose toppings served with a serving spoon. Often times, shredded cheese and lettuce are added by hand and are cross-contaminated.
Qdoba has options similar to Chipotle. Their corn tortilla is gluten-free, as are most of their vegetables, rice, beans, and proteins.
If you really have a craving for Mexican flavors, but don't want to risk getting glutened, throw a taco party. There is an abundance of gluten-free Mexican items available at most grocery stores — just pay special attention to the pre-mixed taco seasonings, tortillas and beans for hidden gluten. Some of our favorites are the Frontera Taco Skillet Sauce and Mission soft white corn tortillas. Oh, and don't forget the margaritas!