GF Friendly Restaurants, Travel

Gluten-Free Knoxville: 5 Strikes and You’re OUT!

16 Comments 03 September 2012

Gluten-Free Knoxville:  5 Strikes and You’re OUT!

While traveling last month we stopped in Knoxville, Tennessee for several reasons.  We were hoping to catch a quick visit with my Sweet Cousin. The Husband also had to make a conference call in a parking lot.  And it was lunch time, so I definitely needed to check out the gluten-free scene.  Following my tried and true Eating Out Gluten Free Tip #1 Do Your Homework, I was confident that I’d be able find a safe place to eat.

Sweet Cousin and Me

I was all excited about The French Market Creperie.  I can’t remember the last time I had crepes, and I had read that the French Market Crepery made Buckwheat Crepes!

I found several reviews that reported these buckwheat crepes to be gluten free!  Yippeee! Should I choose a sweet or savory crepe?  There were just so many to choose from.  I finally settled on the Vegetarian Delux and pranced up to the counter to place my order.

Thankfully, I also followed Eating Out Gluten Free Tip #4 Ask Questions.  It only took a few moments to learn that their flours come from France, and the buckwheat flour comes through the same chute as the regular wheat flour.  Their crepes were not gluten free. Strike One Knoxville.  I was very disappointed, but so thankful for a cognizant server who saved me from starting off vacation doubled over.

Since I had done my homework, and had a tip from the Sweet Cousin, we went to The Tomato Head.  Sweet Cousin had told me that they were vegan/vegetarian friendly and that they had gluten-free pizza crust.  Sweet!

The restaurant was packed with college kids, both behind the counters, in the line for take out, at the tables, and spilling out into the courtyard.  And this cute little girl was attracting animal lovers like me out front.

After perusing the menu, I had my heart set on the #5.  A gluten-free, vegetarian pizza with mushroom, artichoke heart, red and green peppers, and red onion was calling my name.  But then I heard the dreaded phrase…

“We’re out of gluten-free crust.”

Strike Two.  At this point, we had two choices.  Walk out and try a third restaurant, or stay and see what other gluten free options they had.  Considering that it was already late, we were hungry, and our travel destination was still 2 hours away, we opted to stay.  And since we were staying, it was time to use Eating Out Gluten-Free Tip #2 Be Nice To Your Server.  It wasn’t her fault that her restaurant was out of gluten-free dough.

I was immediately impressed when the server said that she could give me any of their sandwiches on a corn tortilla.  This girl knew customer service.  And she seemed to understand gluten. She knew that the baked tofu contained gluten, but the marinated tofu did not.  She even pulled out a binder that listed all of their menu items that contained gluten and checked. BUT SHE WAS WRONG. (More on that later.)

We were starving.  So we ordered hummus and organic blue corn chips.  Guess what they were out of.  Blue corn chips.  Strike Three.  But we asked for the hummus with corn tortillas, and she was glad to accomodate.

Their hummus, gluten-free of course, is out of this world.  A little powerful on the garlic scale, which I love, and chunky.  If we weren’t heading out of town I would have picked up a few of these for home.

I ordered the Veggie Chef Salad, and as soon as it arrived, all disappointment from not having gluten-free pizza dissipated.  This salad was packed with color, flavor, textures, and nutrients.

Veggie Chef Salad with romaine lettuce, organic marinated tofu, broccoli, artichoke hearts, mushroom, red onion, cucumber, tomato, black olive, green pepper, carrot, red cabbage & sprouts

Incredible salad.  And far healthier than any gluten-free pizza on the planet.

Or so I thought.

The marinated tofu was NOT gluten-free.

Strike Four!

For the next day my stomach twisted and turned, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I thought I had eaten a clean salad for lunch at The Tomato Head, and I had an incredible dinner at Posana, a 100% gluten free restaurant.  Thankfully, my reaction was not severe.  But I was exhausted, slept long hours, and I dealt with the intestinal distress knowing it would pass in a few days.

On the way home, we decided to stop through Knoxville again for a late lunch.  Feeling better, I was hoping that The Tomato Head would have gluten-free pizza to try.

Strike Five.  They were still out of gluten-free dough.  So I tried to order that same delicious Veggie Chef Salad with marinated tofu, and I double checked that I was ordering the tofu that was gluten free.  Apparently, NEITHER tofu option is gluten free!  No wonder I had been sick over the weekend.  Mystery solved, but I was more than a little miffed that a restaurant that claims to be gluten friendly could make such a terrible mistake.

The food at The Tomato Head is definitely delicious and fresh.  I enjoyed this Southwestern Salad immensely (as well as my glutenous Veggie Chef Salad), but my recommendation comes with a caution.  Ask lots of questions, and ask for proof.  Look at that allergen binder yourself! The servers are not all on the same page.

How about that gluten-free pizza?  I tried twice and they didn’t have any in.  (Let me know if you ever have the chance to sample it, because this cat is done with The Tomato Head!)

Tomato Head on UrbanspoonThe Tomato Head
12 Market Square
Knoxville, TN  37902


Readers, dish!

  • Have you tried The Tomato Head?
  • How do you handle disappointment when gluten-free options are not available?
  • What is your favorite gluten-free pizza restaurant?

Your Comments

16 Comments so far

  1. Oh Heather, what a drama! Sorry to hear that it didn’t work out in Knoxville. I couldn’t help but laugh a little as I read your post, since I’ve had such similar experiences at restaurants before. How many times have I walked out thinking “this cat is done with this place!”… LOL. Glad you are able to keep a light heart about it even when you get contaminated! Better luck on the next trip, I hope. :) xoxo–Hallie

    • Heather says:

      Thanks, Hallie. It IS frustrating. I think I must have written this post 5 times. The first was an angry rant. But each version after that softened when I remembered all of the positives. Restaurants are getting so much better. And I’m thankful for managers and owners who listen and make changes.

  2. Linda says:

    Though I don’t have the gluten issues that you do, I do have shellfish/seafood issues which result in anaphalaxis, therefore, like you, I ask LOTS of questions! And I always drive home the point by mentioning that ambulances in front of the establishment are bad for business. So, yes, always ask questions!

    • Susan says:

      Heather, I am really sorry about this experience! I have always loved TH because they use local, wonderful, fresh ingredients. Since we live in Maryville, just south of Knoxville, we have eaten at the Maryville location much more frequently than the Kville one. When they introduced their GF crust a couple of years ago, we were thrilled, because my son has celiac. He has never had any issues with their GF pizzas, nor have they ever been out of GF crusts – thank goodness!

      Your experience is very disappointing, on many levels. I don’t blame you a bit for being done with them.

      And just as an aside, my son says Mellow Mushroom’s pizza is better than TH’s. Compared to most of his peers, i woud say he is fairly adventurous in his eating. Nevertheless, he does have the undiscerning palate of a 14-yr-old, so take that recommendation with a grain of salt.

      Love your blog! I learn something every time I read it.

      • Heather says:

        Susan, I wanted soooooo badly to love Tomato Head! The food was truly delicious, and I too love that they use fresh, local ingredients. So glad that your son has had positive experiences and has actually sampled their gf crust too! :)

        We LOVE Mellow Mushroom pizza, so I agree with your son’s assessment! :)

        Thanks so much for your comment, Susan!

  3. Lynne L says:

    Oh dear! I can totally relate. This past weekend our dear friends treated us to dinner out & I had something that was supposed to be GF. I spent the evening & all night in total agony. As far as your experience goes…I will never understand why an eating establishment advertises something on their menu & they don’t have it (stock up!). Although, it sounds like they don’t understand fully what GF means & they don’t train their staff properly either. I’m very glad your experience wasn’t as severe as it could have been! Hugs..Lynne

    • Heather says:

      Lynne, I’m so sorry! And I feel your pain! The good news is that restaurants are listening. They are improving, beginning to train their staff, and learning how to serve GF food safely. They’re learning that GF isn’t just a fad. It’s a health requirement for so many, and if they don’t figure out how to do GF safely, they’re going to lose customers.

  4. Donna B says:

    Yep! Stopped at the same Tomato Head in July. Guess what….no gluten free crust or blue chips then either! Do they really have these items?

  5. Moji says:

    Dear Heather,

    As someone who has to eat gluten free and explain to my son why he can’t eat most of the things on the kids menu, I can totally understand your challenge. It is really sad when servers have no idea what is gluten or dairy and get annoyed because you are slowing them down. But it sure is nice when you run into the smart ones who take the time to know what they are serving. Finding organic gluten-free menu is a challenge when not cooking at home.

  6. Scott Partin says:

    Hi Heather,

    I am terribly sorry that we served you non-GF food on your visit to The Tomato Head. It is certainly our goal to give every customer a meal that delights them, both while eating it and afterwards. Our servers are trained to understand gluten-free diets and, as you saw, we have a book of lists to help you and our staff decide what to eat. I’m not sure where on our end the breakdown was on your visit but I will definitely be investigating it immediately. We are also increasing our ordering level for GF crusts to avoid running out again.
    Sincerely, Scott

    • Heather says:

      Scott, thank you so much for your response! I’m thankful for restaurants that go the extra mile to ensure that those with allergies can eat safely. I’m so glad to hear that your servers do understand gluten. I’ve run across many a server that don’t even know what gluten is! Thanks for all that you are doing to serve gluten-free meals. Thanks for looking into the breakdown in my experience. And I’d love to give the GF pizza a try next time we’re driving through Knoxville. Thanks for increasing the ordering. With 1 in 133 requiring gluten-free food, it’s becoming necessary.

  7. Oh no, Heather!! So bummed that you got glutened.. :( We have had a similar experience at a restaurant that is supposed to be very knowledgable about gluten free. Makes it really hard to feel confident about eating out. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and reminding us of all of your great tips!! :)

  8. Stephanie says:

    I live in Knoxville, very close to downtown where this restaurant is located (and my family lives near the Maryville location). We like Tomato Head and have always had good food/service/experience there. I recently weaned myself off gluten and discovered that, sure enough, gluten sensitivity was behind most issues I suffered. I had no idea Tomato Head even offered a gluten free pizza – now maybe I’ll have another option! (Many comments I’ve seen about Mellow Mushroom and Jason’s Deli, both seem to have no idea about cross contamination…) It’s nice to see a restaurant owner taking an interest and caring – though, in this case it does not surprise me that Scott did – they’re just cool like that.

  9. John Speed says:

    Heather sorry to hear about this experience. The TH is one of our favorite restaurants but it is dissapointing to hear. We have not had that probelm before.
    There is a place in West Knoxville that is a market and bakery that is 100% gluten free and most everything that is baked or sold is organic as well. They have pizza crusts and some of the best baked (gluten free of course) treats around. The store is called Benefit Your Life and they also offer soups daily as well as items like chicken salad. next time your are coming through you should look them up.

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A Curious Girl in the Gluten-Free World

I'm a curious girl, wife, teacher, fitness fanatic, gluten-free foodie, high-raw vegan, and Mama Cat living in NYC. I've made the transition from baking and cooking gluten-free to creating raw vegan recipes that are naturally gluten free. My gluten intolerance opened up my diet to a whole new world of nutritious plant-based foods. While I'm not 100% vegan, it's my favorite way to eat, and making and sharing raw foods makes me giddy. Living in the City has its joys and challenges, and I enjoy sharing my experiences with you.

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