Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Gluten Free Road Trip: The Great Bite North

Having acceded to my wife's wishes for beach vacations the past few summers, I was excited to take a turn planning an early-August family trip. The itinerary included visits to Cooperstown, New York and Toronto and Niagara Falls, Ontario. One stop pretty low on our list of must-sees was the U.S. Border Patrol office in Lewiston, New York. (More on that later.)

Planning a drive like this required research into safe dining spots along the way and at our destinations. Helpful resources for the Canadian leg of the trip were the Gluten Free Ontario and Toronto Celiac blogs and Freshdaily's list of best gluten-free restaurants in Toronto.

We began the trip with an overnight stay in Oneonta, New York. The next day, we drove about 30 minutes to Cooperstown and spent the morning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As a rabid baseball fan, I walked through the museum awestruck by many of the artifacts on display - from the collection of baseballs from every no-hitter thrown since 1940 to perhaps the rarest, most expensive baseball card of all - the 1909 T-206 Honus Wagner card printed by the American Tobacco Company. Each team has a locker room of memorabilia on site, and there's a stash of items from the Phillies' 2008 World Series win. Of course, we were reminded - early and often - of last year's less successful Series outcome. 

After the museum visit, we strolled the town's wonderful Main Street, where my wife and I bought the boys Louisville Slugger bats engraved with their names. We lunched at the Doubleday Cafe, recommended by the owner of a local natural foods store in town whom I called before we left. Our server was knowledgeable and the kitchen prepared for our older son a plate of pulled pork, which I slid into a seeded sandwich bun from O'Doughs that we brought along. One place to avoid is the All Star Tavern, located at the Cooperstown All Star Village in Oneonta. There were few sit-down options near our hotel the night of our arrival in town, so we tried to wing it at this restaurant, which is on the grounds of a cleverly designed baseball "resort." We made our son's need clear when ordering a barbeque chicken platter - after an endless wait to find out if the sauce was safe. His late-arriving order came out on a bun.

From Cooperstown, we made the cross-state drive across Interstate 90 in New York into Canada. Famished, we stopped just past the border at Zappi's Pizza in festive Niagara Falls. The gluten-free barbeque chicken pizza was fantastic - and they had unlimited free plays on the table-style Ms. Pac-Man videogame to boot.

Niagara Falls as seen from the Canadian side
We spent five nights in Toronto, while taking two day trips during that time: to the Playdium in nearby Mississauga and back to Niagara Falls. The Playdium is Dave & Buster's writ small - for kids, that is. We bought unlimited activity passes, so the boys could take as many swings as they wanted at the complex's batting cages. Lots of sports-oriented video games grabbed their attention too, from fishing to multi-car auto racing. To my delight, they both enjoyed shooting some old-school pinball. Before heading back the the hotel, we had dinner at Boston Pizza, a chain serving personal gluten-free pizzas made with Kinnikinnick crusts.

Prior to the trip, the "picture" of Niagara Falls in my head was from Superman II, when our hero scoops up Lois Lane and prevents her from falling into the water. Seeing and hearing the falls up close - as we did on the Maid of the Mist boat ride - made Superman's feat all the more impressive. (Oh. It was all special effects? Forget it then.) We also caught the IMAX movie about the history of Niagara Falls and the dopes strong-willed individuals who sought fame by barreling over the rapids.

Before heading to the tourist area, we picked up some snacks at De Healthy Baker, a gluten-free-only bakery in the Chippawa section of town. Owners Estelle and Ron Friske gave us samples of their freshly baked products, and we ended up buying a variety of cookies for the road.

Guests can stop shots from All-Stars at the Hockey Hall of Fame
Among the highlights in Toronto proper were the activity-heavy Hockey Hall of Fame (skip the museum's movie about the Stanley Cup, though, if you don't want to be reminded of the Flyers' crushing defeat in the Finals this past Spring), a tour of retractable-domed Rogers Centre (where the Toronto Blue Jays play baseball), and the maze of underground PATH tunnels that shield commuters and residents from harsh winter weather.

The CN Tower soars above an open-domed Rogers Centre
Had I known better, I would have passed on visiting the CN Tower, Toronto's signature building. While it soars atop the city's skyline, we waited far too long - more than an hour - to ride the elevator to the observation deck. Unlike a great architectural city like Chicago, Toronto is comparatively flat. The wait and view weren't worth the many loonies we spent for the excursion.

Our downtown hotel, the Sheraton Toronto Centre, had an great indoor-outdoor pool. (Tip: Park in the underground public lot across the street, less than half the price of the hotel's $40 daily parking tab.) I had spoken to the hotel's executive chef before our arrival, and he had arranged for gluten-free cereal, cookies, cinnamon raisin bread and rolls to be available in the club lounge, where we had breakfast every morning. We were impressed with the kitchen's diligence in putting on clean gloves every time they brought out those items.

In the dining department, there were hits and misses. In the city's vibrant Kensington Market, the all-gluten-free Kensington Cornerstone restaurant is a must-stop. Other highlights were the new gluten-free breakfast and lunch spot Around the Corner, the famed Old Spaghetti Factory (where my son had Mediterranean chicken with gluten-free penne) and takeout pizza from the Pizza Pizza chain. (Yes. We ate lots of pizza.) Also, Tim Hortons. Best. Coffee. Ever.

Although on many lists of go-to gluten-free restaurants in Toronto, Asian eatery Riz isn't recommended. While the gluten-free menu was extensive, the pad thai three of us ordered was tasteless and mushy. Worse, the service was lacking. Don't look for anything gluten-free at Rogers Centre either. To her credit, the Aramark rep I emailed prior to the Jays game we attended was eager to please, but she seemed surprised as anyone that there was little available beyond packaged potato chips and fruit.

The Jackson-Triggs vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake
The last day of our trip was, um, eventful. (I thought the drive up had been interesting, when I narrowly avoided hitting deer on two occasions and a black bear on one.) The main highway out of Toronto was closed for construction on a Saturday morning (huh?), sending the GPS into a tail-spinning seizure. I wanted to take a tour of one of the many wineries in the Niagara region, and Jackson-Triggs Vintners, which allowed kids, fit the bill. After the engaging tour and wine sampling, we ate lunch on site. The kitchen took one of our gluten-free buns and plated a sandwich with its tasty simmered-in-wine pulled pork. (Yes. We ate lots of pulled pork, too.)

After we waited nearly an hour in traffic to reach the border-crossing post, the security officer asked if anyone in the car had had a stress test. We told the officer "no," but he wasn't satisfied. He directed us to pull aside and go inside the station, where we waited another 45 minutes to get "checked out." Only when we were given our passports back did another officer tell us that a woman ahead of us had the radioactive dye from a stress test in her system. That set off some alarms and the officials, apparently fearing an invasion from a glow-in-the-dark coalition of American and Canadian citizens, opted to make sure there was no threat.

With that hassle under our belts, I made the executive decision to scrap the planned overnight stop in Binghamton, New York and head straight back. It was enough packing and dining for one trip. What vacation is complete, though, without a card table flying of the top of a nearby car on the Ben Franklin Bridge and narrowly missing a tired family of four who was mere minutes from arriving home?
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  1. Sounds like an awesome family vacation!

  2. My husband and I are taking a trip to Niagra Falls and Toronto in October and can't wait to try your recommendations. Thanks so much!