It’s easy for folks with food allergies or other dietary restrictions to feel like they’re stuck eating pale imitations of the "real" thing: the gluten-free version of something that’s supposed to be made out of wheat, or the sugar-free version of something that’s supposed to be sweet. After all, how much deliciousness can you preserve when you strip a food of its essence?
But point-counterpoint: The Grease Box mobile kitchen, an Oakland-based gluten-free food cart, has been popping up at various Bay Area events for the past year — most notably at the First Friday festivities in Temescal Alley. The very name of the cart bespeaks decadence and plenty — not the kind of austerity you might normally associate with a gluten-free (or whatever-free) diet.
More importantly, chef-owner Lizzy Boelter’s mostly-fried offerings are the real deal, especially her bread-and-butter dish: gluten-free fried chicken that has all the crispy, juicy, lip-smacking goodness you could ask for.
Three years ago, Boelter was diagnosed with celiac disease and switched to a gluten-free diet. Suddenly she was healthy after feeling sick for most of her life, but she also could no longer eat many of her favorite foods — especially the foods rooted in her Southern upbringing, like fried chicken.
“I’m from Louisiana,” Boelter said. “Everything is fried — not just the chicken.”
Boelter didn’t know of any restaurants that were serving gluten-free fried chicken, so — necessity being the mother of invention — she started making it herself. One thing led to another: Her friends loved her food; one of them, who runs a construction company, built her a cart; and all of a sudden she’d made a business of it.
According to Boelter, as soon as she became gluten-free, she discovered that she had a basic philosophical difference with a lot of the other companies that were making food for that demographic. For instance, there were gluten-free bakeries that were using all kinds of gums and other artificial ingredients to make bagels and French baguettes — foods that, according to Boelter, are just about impossible to make gluten-free and
“I just hate that kind of food,” Boelter said.
From her perspective, there were already so many foods that were naturally gluten-free — why not eat those? So when Boelter started her own food business, she swore she would keep to the slow-food, everything-from-scratch philosophy practiced by restaurants like Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service. (The latter is where she has her day job, though she can’t eat much of the food she cooks.)
Boelter explained, “I just had to start figuring out what I could make that was a ‘real thing’” — that could sourced locally and made from natural ingredients.
Take her signature fried chicken, a recipe she’s gradually perfected over the course of the past few years. An earlier version had a batter made with masa harina (a kind of corn flour typically used when making tortillas) and an egg-and-buttermilk wash. But at the time, she had a business partner who couldn’t eat dairy, so she started experimenting with dairy-free alternatives.
Eventually, she came up with a wine-and-flour-based batter similar to the kind used to make an Italian fritto misto
(“mixed fry”). Instead of a wheat-based flour, she uses a mixture of chickpea flour (for a light and flaky texture), rice flour (to make it crispy). The wine adds flavor and helps tenderize the meat.
Boelter uses organic chicken thighs — typically the boneless and skinless kind, in part because bone-in chicken cooks too slowly to be practical for high-volume street vending. She deep-fries the thighs in peanut oil (for the best flavor), usually in a big cast-iron skillet (her cooking vessel of choice).
The result is fried chicken that, gluten-free or not, is amazingly good. The meat comes out unimpeachably juicy and tender. Best of all, each piece is coated in a thin batter that’s fried to a beautiful walnut-brown and is shatteringly crisp. Though I tend to favor chicken that’s fried on the bone, one of the advantages of the boneless thighs is that the batter stays crispy all the way around.
As my gluten-free editor (and fellow admirer of Boelter’s chicken) put it, “It’s definitely the texture that’s A-plus.”
Boelter has a light hand with spice, belonging to the school of thought that favors highlighting the ingredients’ natural flavors. But if you like a bit of heat, she provides some homemade spicy ketchup — also gluten-free, of course.
The Grease Box’s prices are reasonable, too — $4 for a fairly hefty thigh and, during my visit, $10 for a combo plate that included a chickpea-flour flatbread, a salad, and iced tea.
Boelter told me she’s especially drawn to “low” foods, inspired by Nineties’ state fairs and such, that she elevates by using high-quality ingredients and adding a slight touch of fanciness — but not so much that the food doesn’t still hit what Boelter calls “the guilty pleasure area of your palate.”
So she’s been experimenting with a gluten-fried version of deep-fried butter
(basically a pancake on a stick, with — surprise! — melted butter inside). She wants to make a gluten-free funnel cake. And one of her most recent menu additions was a deep-fried corn on the cob that she invented to give gluten-free vegans — “the most impossible way to eat ever” — an experience as hearty and satisfying as chomping away on a piece of fried chicken.
Boelter had hoped to start setting up her Grease Box cart in the Temescal Alley more regularly. However, due to some permitting issues, even her First Friday appearances are on hold for now. (Basically, she’d been operating there under Pizzaiolo’s business permit, but the Temescal Alley landlord got nervous about that arrangement.)
But hopefully, there will be more opportunities for people to buy Boelter’s gluten-free goodies in the near future. Her next gig is tomorrow night’s Ships in the Night
gay dance party at The Inner Circle (410 14th St.) in Oakland. Fried chicken will
be on the menu. The Grease Box is also a regular at San Francisco’s Underground Market
, a monthly showcase for up-and-coming food entrepreneurs — the next event is on Friday, September 7
, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., at Public Works (161 Erie St.).
Boelter will also start selling lunch items on Good Eggs
, the Bay Area-based online marketplace for locally produced food
. Fried chicken won’t be available through the website, but she’ll be selling a variety of Southern-style cornbread sandwiches — Texas-style brisket, smoked chicken, and some vegan options too. She’ll also have her cart set up each week at the Uptown Farmers’ Market
, which is slated to launch in the spring.
Boelter’s ultimate goal? To open a gluten-free restaurant of her own. Here's to hoping it happens someday soon.