A Celiac’s guide to living in Mazatlan.

By Sheila Madsen, Celiac, May 2024

 Your doctor has just confirmed that you have Celiac disease – an autoimmune condition that attacks the body’s tissues. There is no cure. But it can easily be managed through diet – a gluten-free diet. Don’t feel sorry yourself – imagine if you had multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s or some other horrible medical problems like ALS or Parkinson’s. If you are going to have an autoimmune condition you should feel lucky you are a Celiac because you are about to embark on a healthy lifestyle.

I am assuming you’ve had the correct tests: either through a blood test [while you are still consuming gluten], or an upper endoscopy. You haven’t been diagnosed by Dr. Internet thinking “oh, I MAY be Celiac, or it could be irritable bowel syndrome, or this or that.” People used to call Celiac disease the iceberg disease as it’s so difficult to diagnose and befuddled doctors just saw the tip of the problems – diarrhea, bloating, etc. – and would send me off for colonoscopy tests convinced that it was irritable bowel – and that was 35 years ago! Take the proper test and be 100% sure you are Celiac – because it does affect the rest of your life.

You’ve read the literature – no wheat flour = no pizza, no breads, no cookies, pies, pancakes, waffles, it’s a very long list. Don’t cry in your beer, because you can’t drink beer either!

AT HOME

You are in control. I’ve found over the years in Mazatlan, one of the best sources of gluten-free products is on Amazon Mexico. Items in supermarkets, like Soriana, Sam’s and Walmart come and go but you can always find: gluten-free bread, power/protein bars, pretzels, cookies, crackers [Mary’s Gone Crackers], pasta etc. on Amazon Mx.  If you have a craving for pizza make your own with a corn tortilla and your favourite toppings. Use fresh lettuce for sandwich wraps. Be sure to add Chia seeds to your smoothies for extra fiber. Gravies and sauces can easily be thickened with rice/potato/or corn flour/corn starch/coconut and almond flour. For breading items like chicken or shrimp, the very best source is Kellogg’s corn crunchy flakes. Many people think Panko is gluten free, it is not. You are at home, so make sure everything says “sin gluten.” Soy and teriyaki sauce often contains wheat, that needs to be checked thoroughly. Tamales are a popular in Mazatlan [pork, pineapple, chicken,] – usually made from corn flour – however some cooks add a “pinch” of wheat flour. Look the cook in the eye and make sure they are 100% corn flour.

If you eat meat – you need to be super careful around sausages, burgers, chorizo, hot dogs, pates– they often sneak in fillers which means bread crumbs. The package must say “sin gluten.”

During tourist season there are many small markets where independent vendors sell gluten- free items. The baker makes them in their own kitchen but still ask the questions for those delicious sweets, pies and breads you see. Currently, Mazatlan has many larger bakeries – some may offer corn bread. Personally, I wouldn’t risk it – the baker may have used corn flour, but again may have added that dreaded pinch with wheat flour, you just never know. Meet the baker!

There are many options for gluten-free pancake /crepe mixes – but I’ve found over time, that I don’t care anymore and I really prefer to eat a fresh fruit bowl dressed with peanuts and raisons and shredded coconut or a bowl of corn flakes. Lunch can be a smoothie, a large salad, eggs, and dinner is really wide open. Just be careful of store-bought sauces and condiments. There is no gluten in fruit or vegetables!

For snacks: gluten-free power bars, popcorn, rice crackers, rice cakes and all the corn tostadas/tortillas you can eat. Put a rice cake in the toaster [ a few seconds]  and add a bit of peanut butter. Eventually, you’ll discover that your appetite shrinks and you do lose the desire for heavy breads etc. People often say, “I’m so sorry, I couldn’t live without my toast in the morning, or my pizza at night, you poor thing.”  That’s just ridiculous – it’s a small price to pay and the desire for carbohydrates dissipates every year. Or, learn to bake with gluten-free flour or other substitutes if you have a  sweet tooth. Flourless chocolate cake is a favourite among Celiacs. I have no clue of how to bake one but I know where to buy it! [Hint – Héctor’s Bistro.]

GOING TO A FRIEND’S HOUSE.

If you know the person well, review the menu with your host. If this person can only make gravy with wheat flour then bring your own. I always carry crackers or tostados in my purse for the possible appetizer – it could be cheese, guacamole, pre-packed meats, or a full-blown charcuterie board  – don’t embarrass your host because he/she has served wheat crackers, have your own handy. Tell your host in advance that “I never eat dessert, please serve your cake/pie whatever to your other guests.” A good hostess gift [besides a bottle of wine] is a small box of handmade chocolates. That way you can participate in dessert too. And there’s always ice cream. Remind your host- CPR – corn, potatoes and rice are safe for Celiacs, it a good acronym to pass on. I can’t tell you often I get asked “can you eat rice?” Rice is grass not a grain and even the most intelligent people have trouble navigating this information. Imagine this scenario in a restaurant -see section below.

GOING TO A PERSON’S HOUSE FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME.

Thank them for the kind invitation and tell them right away that you’re a Celiac. Explain what you cannot eat. Don’t keep it a secret and arrive there when the proud host offers you a sizzling home-made pizza or breaded coconut shrimp. That’s just embarrassing and the host will feel terrible. Gently ask what they are planning to serve and review all the dishes with them. Give them CPR. If the host has trouble working with your ingredients, perhaps pass on the invitation and invite them to a restaurant or to your kitchen – where you are in control. Don’t stress them out. I’m often asked “what happens to you if you eat wheat flour?” I say “it’s like food poisoning, I’m in the bathroom for 48 hours, but I won’t die.My body can not process the enzyme in wheat and every orifice fights to eliminate it. It’s gruesome and in reality, it’s about a four day recovery from the strain on your tummy and bowels.” It’s a little too much information, but the key is to let people know you are not going to die or have an anaphylactic reaction.

GOING OUT TO A RESTAURANT.

Rule # 1 – look at the menu online and when you arrive at the restaurant:

It’s true you need to be on high alert, and ask a lot of questions. Even if your waiter is bilingual – “I can’t eat wheat flour/ no puedo comer harina de trigo” – they really won’t understand, as most people think flour is flour and can’t distinguish between corn, rice and potato. Most likely your request will not make it to the chef. It is tedious, and can be a tad embarrassing but you’ll need to ask about almost every dish – except the obvious ones. Omelets may contain pancake butter to make them fluffier, baked potatoes may be coated with flour to make the skin crispier, does the soup have noodles and does the dish have artificial bacon bits? Salads – no croutons, be careful of burgers – make sure they are 100% meat with no fillers, and that goes for sausages too. Some restaurants will say, “oh, we use Panko” – but that’s not gluten-free. If you have a craving for coconut shrimp don’t make the chef cook that – it’s almost impossible to make without flour. Be kind and considerate and order the obvious gluten-free dishes. Ask how the fish, seafood is sauteed – makes sure it’s just butter and oil. Please remember, it’s your problem, not the kitchen’s. Soups are tricky – flour has a habit of sneaking into them.

Mexican chefs and wait staff are kind and warm, they will want to please you but often are afraid to delve deeper. It’s your job to ensure you are not eating any wheat. Dishes are often garnished with bits of chorizo etc. – check that out. Mazatlan has several good Italian restaurants. If your friends suggest one, review the menu online. If you see a risotto [and like it] then join them. Otherwise, when you arrive at the restaurant it can turn into a pity party – oh, I can eat that, can’t eat that, can’t eat that, perhaps the chef will make me something special. No! It’s an Italian restaurant proud of its pastas and pizzas. Just respond, “you go ahead, I’ll join you another time at another restaurant.” When you find a restaurant, you really enjoy, get to know the chef or sous chef and familiarize yourself with the menu.  Be sure to be specific – corn tortillas/tortillas de maize, no flour. This whole “no flour” thing is new to Mexico and to Mazatlan – they would find it unbelieveable that you can’t even drink a beer/cerveza!

SPECIAL EVENTS, POP-UP DINNERS, WINE PAIRINGS.

I would avoid any special events that offer four courses – the chef has taken hours to plan the menu and cost it out so it’s profitable for the restaurant and a gourmet experience for the customers. You can’t go through every course – you can’t possibly know what’s in every dish. Just say “no” to these special events that can cost hundreds of pesos. Wine pairings also sound sexy but you have no idea of what’s in the food. Holiday meals are difficult too; turkey with stuffing, turkey with gravy. Just decide on how you are going to approach these “event dinners”. I never go to them, because it’s not fair to me, or to the chef, it’s just a waste of pesos. However, you may do ok with a buffet if you can get answers as to what’s in each pot. Remember, the waiters may smile and say “no flour” but you don’t know what’s gone on in the kitchen. I often eat a light dinner at home, so I’m not starving and can nibble on a few dishes that are gluten free. Again, this is your responsibility, not the restaurant’s.

UPSIDE, DOWNSIDE.

On the upside, there are hundreds of dishes available in Mazatlan that are gluten free. Fresh fish and seafood, sushi, vegetables, chicken, salads, steaks, you will have many choices and not feel deprived. On the downside, Mazatlan is a pizza town – it’s awash in pizzas, hot dogs, burgers, ribs and chicken wings. Even fries can be dusted in flour. Every time I feel a little deprived, I think of my brother who died from ALS, or several friends who have MS and I simply give my head a shake and say “snap out of it – I’m lucky to have this one small problem, I’m not going to die, or lose my motor skills.” Go home to your kitchen and treat yourself to a gluten-free pasta dinner once a week. Order in butter chicken from several take-out places that offer it and will make it gluten free. Mazatlan has many private chefs and several popular take-out places that will cater to your needs – just send a text saying you need it to be gluten free. [Hint: Jorge’s Asian Kitchen, Masala Magia.]

CONCLUSION.

Being Celiac just means asking a lot of questions and reading labels more carefully. It’s really that simple. I’ve lived in Mazatlan since 2008 and have had maybe four “episodes” – most likely with gravy but that was my fault. Or a sauce. It’s vital to remember that Mazatlecos aim to please, they hate saying “no”, or perhaps it’s a busy night and they don’t take the time to ask the chef the right questions. Make it your responsibility to know the ingredients.

A word about cross contamination. If you are a highly sensitive Celiac [I am not] and are concerned about cross contamination – utensils, pans, pots, etc. then there are only one or two restaurants in Mazatlan that would let you bring your own equipment – Gaia Bistrot is one of them, located in the Plazuela Machado. Your obvious best bet is to join your friends for an adult beverage, bring your own crackers and perhaps have an early dinner at home in your own kitchen.

Adopt a positive attitude and you are destined to lead a delicious life – no matter where you live.