Mexican food is a staple for those of us on a gluten-free diet. That’s because so many Mexican foods are naturally gluten free. Beans, rice, corn and avocados are all naturally gluten-free foods… and delicious staples of the Mexican diet.
Mexican food uses corn masa (corn flour) in most of its authentic dishes, although more Mexican restaurants are incorporating wheat tortillas to meet the demands of Western palates.
However, the good news is that many people with celiac disease and gluten-free eaters can enjoy a safe meal without gluten at a Mexican restaurant, with a few precautions and exceptions, of course.
Possible Gluten Exposure at Mexican Restaurants
Below are some of the many ways your food can become exposed to gluten at Mexican restaurants, and why you must take precautions when eating Mexican food, particularly outside of the home:
- Burritos: Burritos are typically made with wheat flour tortillas. See more details in the “tortillas” section below. Avoid.
- Cheese: While shredded cheese is naturally gluten free, some store bought shredded cheeses are coated with some sort of flour or starch to prevent the shredded strands from sticking together. Most brands use corn or tapioca starch vs. wheat flour.
- Chile relleno: A chile relleno is a green chile pepper stuffed with meat and coated with a flour-egg mixture and deep fried. These are typically not gluten free unless the restaurant uses a gluten-free batter and dedicated gluten-free fryer.
- Chips & Salsa: One of my favorite things to enjoy at Mexican restaurants is the chips and salsa. I don’t know why, but chips and salsa taste 100 times better at a Mexican restaurant than at home. That said, beware of corn tortilla chips cooked in the same deep fryer used to cook battered foods. When your food comes in contact with foods made with gluten, this renders your food cross contaminated and no longer gluten free nor safe to eat.
- Enchiladas: Traditional enchiladas are made with corn tortillas and may be safe for gluten-free eaters. Always inquire with your server.
- Fajitas: Fajitas are almost always gluten free (except at Chuy’s, as they marinate their fajita meat in beer, which contains gluten). Order fajitas with corn tortillas vs. wheat tortillas and always inquire if they’re safe for you to eat. I’ve tested the fajitas at Chili’s for hidden gluten and they tested a-okay.
- Margaritas: Margaritas are typically made with tequila (gluten free), fresh lime juice (gluten free) and triple sec. Most triple sec brands are gluten free, but you must check to be certain. Some restaurants use store-bought margarita mixes, so you’ll need to inquire about whether or not those mixes are gluten free as well.
- Queso: Queso is a thick cheese that is often thickened with some sort of starch or flour. Ask specifically what ingredients are in the queso to be sure there’s nothing in there that will sabotage your gluten-free diet.
- Rice: While rice is naturally gluten free, Mexican restaurants often season their rice. Those seasonings may or may not be gluten free, and sometimes the rice is even cooked in a chicken broth that may contain gluten (a lot of store bought chicken broths contain gluten, unfortunately).
- Sauces: Some sauces are often thickened with wheat flour or a starch, so it’s important to ask what’s in the sauce before taking a bite.
- Seasonings and Marinades: Ask your server what is in the marinade used for proteins and vegetables to ensure it doesn’t contains gluten. Remember, some store bought taco seasonings and taco seasoning mixes contain gluten.
- Tortillas: While corn tortillas are typically made with corn masa and water, unfortunately some “corn” tortillas can contain wheat flour too. This is unfortunate and rare. Be sure to ask what ingredients are used to make corn tortillas and make sure it’s pure corn flour only. Also, if a restaurant is pressing their own tortillas, make sure they are not using the same tortilla press for their corn and wheat tortillas. This, too, will expose you to that same cross contamination risk posed by the deep fryer.
As always, ask for your meal to be cooked on a clean surface with clean hands/gloves to ensure minimal cross contamination. Discuss your needs with your server. Use the word “allergy” even though you can’t be allergic to gluten. Order the safest, least risky menu items (aka, the items least likely to contain or come in contact with gluten). Always advocate for yourself.