In a way, visiting a new place is even more fun now that I have celiac disease. You might think it would be the opposite, but discovering gluten-free food on menus and at markets is so exciting!
It could also be that the places I’ve traveled to since finding out I have celiac (all within Europe and North America) are very gluten-free-friendly. There have been no gluten-free wastelands. Instead, it’s been just the opposite.
When I went to Winnipeg for the weekend in June, I came prepared anyway (a key thing to do when you have celiac). I brought a package of nuts and a few gluten-free fruit and nut bars with me. It turns out I barely needed them. Winnipeg is full of gluten-free gems.
I went to Winnipeg to visit my friend Matt, who was born and raised in the city, and moved back about a year ago. We met in journalism school in Halifax more than three years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long). We were both living on the same floor in residence, a 12-room community called the Roost, designed for older students going to J-school. Living there was one of the best decisions I ever made – I forged really close friendships because of it.
Matt and I bonded over a shared love of music – we both play the piano – and I always loved his wacky sense of humour and his sincere, outgoing personality. The emails he writes me still make me laugh out loud every time. We both fell in love with radio at school and are both now working in the field. He’s a lover of sports, especially baseball, and is a reporter at a sports radio station in Winnipeg.
Having Matt as a tour guide around the city made Winnipeg seem like a crown jewel. I’d never been there before and several people had told me it wasn’t particularly nice. I couldn’t disagree more! It felt like a prairie city, but since it’s smaller than Edmonton, it was homier, and I loved the distinct neighbourhoods and huge, old trees. The level of green was also astounding – as we drove through the streets, it was sprouting up everywhere! I think I also saw Winnipeg in its best light, on a gorgeous June weekend that was sunny and warm.
Matt and his girlfriend Heather live in Osborne Village, the most densely populated neighbourhood in the city, full of young people, cute cafes and trendy shops. It’s quite close to the centre of town, where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet. The city has created a meeting place there called The Forks, where we went on Saturday morning. There’s a market and a building of shops, some restaurants and a beautiful place to sit and watch the river flow by.
Matt told me he usually takes all his visitors to the same restaurants – his favourites. But I threw a wrench into the works with and forced him to be more creative. Heather helped out too, though she wasn’t in town, by recommending a few spots. There were no disappointments. Here are some of my favourite eats from the weekend:
Prairie Ink Cafe
We came here straight from the airport to have lunch. The cafe is inside a large, independent, local bookstore, McNally Robinson. The store looked beautiful and I probably could have spent hours browsing there, but our focus was on food. The cafe is also beautiful, and we sat on the patio, with cute blue furniture and plenty of umbrellas for shade.
The cafe serves three meals a day and the menu is extensive, including lots of baked goods and desserts. They have gluten-free bread from Kinnikinnick, so I was immediately drawn to the sandwich section. I went for the roasted chicken club, which was delicious. Besides the tender, flavourful chicken, there was bacon, tomato, cheese and buttermilk-ranch dressing. The bread was toasted and crisp, and the coleslaw and pickle on the side freshened things up. Matt enjoyed his burger too. Our server was friendly and knowledgeable about gluten, pointing out that the BBQ sauce on several sandwiches was made with worcestershire sauce which was not gluten-free.
If you visit Winnipeg you should not miss The Forks (see second and third photos in this post too). It’s a great place to wander around, especially in nice weather. I even came across a cello performance outside. I also saw a sign for a farmers’ market there on Sunday mornings.
The Forks market has food stalls on the bottom floor, mostly prepared foods, with fresh produce down the centre. The top level is shops. Grass Roots Prairie Kitchen, on the bottom floor, carries gluten-free bread and baked goods from Gentle Grains Gluten-Free Bakery in the city. I tried their cinnamon buns, which tasted good but were quite dense. If I had been staying longer I definitely would have tried the bread as well.
I got a great cappuccino at a cafe called Human Bean, whose baked goods (not GF) also looked really good. Later on I had a gluten-free crepe for lunch at Caramel Crepe. They make the GF crepes on the same surface as the gluten crepes, but they clean them first. The crepe was delicious – full of smoked chicken, ricotta cheese and spinach.
The Bridge Drive-In
Known simply as BDI to locals, this is one of those old-timey places. The feel reminded me a bit of Frosty Treat in Kensington, PEI, except they focus solely on dessert. In particular, ice cream. In fact, there are so many different options/combinations of hard and soft ice cream, sundaes, milkshakes etc. that I found the menu a bit confusing and overwhelming (click on the photo with the menu further up to enlarge and see some of the options). I eventually settled on a chocolate/strawberry upside-down milkshake (i think?) which was a bit like a DQ blizzard made with chocolate and strawberry ice cream. When I saw it, I thought, there’s no way I’m finishing that. Um, well, I did. Quite handily. Matt went for a BDI favourite, called The Goog. It’s a blueberry shake with a hot-fudge sundae and bananas, topped with whipped cream. Intense.
The great thing about BDI is it’s right next to a pedestrian bridge across the Red River. The bridge leads to a beautiful neighbourhood on a little peninsula. The tradition is to buy your ice cream and then stroll across the bridge enjoying it. That’s exactly what we did, along with all the other couples and families doing the same thing.
Stella’s Cafe and Bakery
Stella’s seems like a Winnipeg institution. There are five locations across the city, with another opening soon at the airport (which is being rebuilt). And I can see why. We went to the one on Osborne Street close to Matt’s apartment. It’s homestyle food done well, with delicious desserts and baked goods. I think most people go there for breakfast, but they also serve lunch and supper.
The supper menu has several GF options, and I chose the chickpea curry. I was intrigued by the fact that it’s served with bananas, raisins and coconut. I often serve Indian food with raisins, and the bananas seemed like a great extension of that. The Curry itself was great, warming and spicy, and the sweet sides (it also came with peach chutney) complemented it perfectly.
Though we were really full, we decided to go for dessert too, since the server offered up a GF chocolate cake. Matt chose a raspberry-zucchini cake with cream-cheese frosting. Though my cake was the go-to flourless chocolate cake served at so many restaurants, this was a great version. It was Dense and fudgy but not too sweet. The raspberry sauce draped on top was a great touch. It was still too rich for me, though, and we both left half on our plates.
The service at Stella’s was a little slow, and though our server knew about GF options, she wasn’t the friendliest person. But that wouldn’t keep me from going back.
The Falafel Place
Matt definitely saved the best for last. We visited the Falafel Place for brunch on Sunday morning right before I left. It’s renowned for its all-day breakfast. The restaurant was packed, with a line almost out the door, though Matt said it’s often much busier.
We didn’t have to wait long for a table, and when I found out they have gluten-free falafel, I knew it was going to be good. I ordered a breakfast that came with 8 falafel, potato hash with banana peppers and onions, two fried eggs and hummus and tahini. I barely got through it. I noticed the GF falafel are smaller than the regular kind, but the flavour was amazing. They were moist and nicely spiced. I also loved the addition of the peppers and onions to the perfectly cooked potatoes, and the hummus and tahini. It was a really unique, delicious breakfast.
Matt knows the extremely affable owner, Ami, who kindly posed for a picture with us. When we first walked in he was standing near the front of the restaurant, taking care of seating people and chatting with all the patrons. When he found out I had celiac disease, he told me his daughter does too, which is why they have so many GF options. I found out they have GF bread too, after I ordered, though I didn’t miss the toast on my plate.
This breakfast was probably the best meal of the whole weekend, especially because the restaurant itself is so friendly and a bit raucous. It’s a casual room with booth, tables, and a bar, and you can see into the kitchen where all the good things are getting fried up. If you’re looking for GF breakfast in Winnipeg, this is the place to go.
I’m already excited about my next trip to Winnipeg. Not only to visit such a great friend, but to go back to these places and discover even more. Gluten-free food is becoming so common in North America that traveling is really not a problem. I’m looking forward to my trip home to the East Coast this summer, and I can’t wait wait to tell you about my GF finds there too.