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. But then there's The Grease Box mobile kitchen, an Oakland-based gluten-free food cart that has been popping up at 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 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 signature dish: gluten-free fried chicken that has all the crispy, juicy, lip-smacking goodness you could ask for.
The Louisiana native (who works at Oakland's Boot and Shoe Service by day) said that ever since she was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago, she's hated how many of the other gluten-free food companies would use gums and other artificial ingredients to make things like bagels and French baguettes — foods that, according to Boelter, are just about impossible to make gluten-free and delicious. There were already so many foods that were naturally gluten-free — why not eat those?
Take Boelter's 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) 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) and rice flour (to make it crispy). The wine adds flavor and helps tenderize the meat.
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. And even though I usually favor chicken that's fried on the bone, one of the advantages of the organic boneless-and-skinless thighs Boelter uses is that the batter stays crispy all the way around.
Boelter had hoped to start setting up her cart in the Temescal Alley more regularly; however, due to permitting issues, even her First Friday appearances are on hold for now.
Hopefully, though, there will other opportunities for people to try The Grease Box's gluten-free goodies in the near future. For one, Boelter is a regular at San Francisco's Underground Market — the next event is on Friday, September 7, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., at Public Works (161 Erie St.). She's also about to start selling Southern-style cornbread sandwiches on Good Eggs, the Bay Area-based online marketplace for locally produced food. And she'll have her cart set up each week at the Uptown Farmers' Market, which is slated to launch in the spring.
New Menu at Cal Memorial Stadium
After 21 months of construction work, Cal Memorial Stadium reopened this past weekend with Saturday's season opener against the University of Nevada.
Easily overlooked among news of some $321 million in pledged funds is another, perhaps less glamorous, change: The stadium's concession stand menus have also been given a facelift, adding globally-inspired items like hummus, sushi rolls, chicken bao, and Sriracha-spiked buffalo chicken sandwiches to the usual array of burgers and hot dogs.
In May, Cal Dining — the operator of four UC Berkeley dining halls and a dozen different retail locations, making it the largest food provider on campus — was awarded a fifteen-year contract to oversee concessions at all of the university's athletic facilities.
Shawn LaPean, the program's executive director, explained that his approach was to keep all of the foods football fans would normally expect (the popcorn, burgers, and hot dogs) and then to simply expand on that — adding more variety and a greater number of healthy options, made from local and sustainably sourced ingredients when possible.
For instance, he touted the Sabra hummus bowls, which — granted — are neither freshly prepared nor local, but are conveniently packaged for quick-service dining and make for a "healthier option than nachos with cheese sauce." He added that Cal Dining is uniquely attuned to what UC Berkeley students want to eat, given that the program serves 29,000 meals a day on campus.
LaPean said he also aspires to develop a signature menu item — something along the lines of the $16 soft-shell crab sandwich at San Francisco's AT&T Park, where the Golden Bears played last season. What that blockbuster item might be, however, is still a work in progress.
"We don't want to put everything out there the first game," he said.