Gluten Free Airports: Minnesota

Which came first: the airport food or the college food? The world may never know, but I'm okay with that as long as it means that some of the familiar food I'm used to from college is available at airports like Minneapolis-St. Paul. What an unexpected - and welcome! - surprise to find the same retail pizza place, frozen yogurt place, and grab-and-go favorite from college all at MSP. 

Minneapolis-St. Paul is one  of the few airports in the US I actually I enjoy being in, not only because flights are usually on time (something that shouldn't have to be a huge plus at an airport, one would think), but because it has a really nice main drag of shopping and restaurants/retail dining locations that allows you to pretend for a minute that you're at a high-end mall. That there's familiar fare where I know exactly what to order and how it will taste at Famous Famiglia Pizzeria, Freshens, and French Meadow Bakery takes each visit to the next level.

Yes, I did lean on a column creepily to get a good picture, how did you know?

Yes, I did lean on a column creepily to get a good picture, how did you know?

Now, on to the gluten free! At school, French Meadow was an addition about halfway through my college experience, first as a small stand in the campus center concourse, and eventually growing into a bigger store after I graduated. Their top-notch lattes, large variety of pastries, healthy but filling salads and and ready-to-toast sandwiches were on, as the kiddos say, fleek. 

So imagine my surprise when I find BOTH a ridiculously expansive grab and go section and a restaurant with a full bar. Sadly I didn't have time to hit the full restaurant up, but I did have enough time to say hello to an old friend, the salad with salmon.

Although there are a whole bunch of top-notch salads on offer, the French Meadow House Salad with Salmon was always my go-to.  In between classes I could grab this and feel like I was eating a super fancy lunch that I would never go to all the work of making at home. I'd walk away both contentedly full and feeling quite important since I managed to eat healthy while rushing around.

This bad boy is packed down with mixed greens, like really seriously packed. It was probably cheaper at the student price in college to buy one of these instead of going to a supermarket for salad mix for the week (airport prices not so much). Then we have a whole array of shredded carrots, shredded beets, plump cherry tomatoes, and toasted sunflower seeds. On top of all that is a big hunk of salmon, perfectly flaky and very thick, with a side container of their white balsamic vinaigrette. It's hard to explain the taste of the dressing - this small container really packs a lot of punch. I would probably try to explain it as sweet and tangy, with a consistency on the lighter end of a Creamy Italian dressing. The only difference between the MSP salad and college version was that at school, the beets were more finely shredded (same size as the carrots). Otherwise, this was exactly the same treat.

With everything above  - the fresh taste of the salmon with the warmth of the toasted sunflower seeds and sweetness of the beets and other veggies - this is truly a monster of a healthy meal, that hits every sweet, savory, tangy flavor component I can think of. My only qualm here is that I've never been able to finish it - which is remarkable when you think of how many delicious healthy foods in your life you haven't been able to finish (none, right?). It definitely took me a while to pick out what I needed (even now I can hear my mom in the back of my head telling me I don't "need" anything) with all of the hot soups, salads, made-to-order meals and desserts, so if you're anything like me, decide what kind of food mood you're in waaaay before you go near the storefront or else you'll never decide.

While the right side of the location is a full-service restaurant, the left side has plenty of well-lit and comfortable seating for you to hide away from the world and eat in peace. It felt like a much nicer - newer and brighter - version of Panera, and although the location I went to was right in the middle of the main drag after security in the North Terminal, not many people seemed to notice it was there. I really appreciated finding a place to hide in plain sight, where I could pretend to be relaxing after work instead of waiting for a flight. Definitely a big win over the people who bought McDonald's and sat eating it outside their gate.

I loved that a lot of the items - especially in the pasty section - were clearly labeled Gluten Free. I was there rather late at night so there weren't a lot of people working to ask, but I'm curious about the cross-contamination risks and any measures this location may take to make this food as safe as possible for any Celiacs or those with gluten allergies. I'll ask next time, but if you know already keep me in the loop please!

I'm headed back to Minnesota in a few weeks and I'm really looking forward to heading to French Meadow again! Unfortunately, I did discover the answer to my mystery at the beginning of this post: French Meadow Bakery started as a series of restaurants with different names in that area, and has since expanded in the Twin Cities area as well as in a few other airports (like Atlanta - although it's more of a tiny stand of refrigerated items in the walkways of the terminals in my experience). I'm sad that I answered my own chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, but excited to try out the original locations on my next trip! Until then, anyone nearby should definitely stop in and have some French Meadow for me!

Have you tried French Meadow before? Any other gluten free friendly locations in the Twin Cities area or airport I need to check out?

Gluten Free Restaurants: Minneapolis

Welcome to beautiful Minnesota, where 9° could be positive or negative and you mention the Vikings at your own peril! As soon as I landed I headed to the Mall of America. Of course. The parking lot I ended up in was named Indiana and totally marked up in yellow. There are so many parking lots within the garage they are named after states, blasted with color and you can text a number your state to help you remember where to find your car. Oh man. So I was pretty pumped to get inside, but after coming in in one of the most central parts of the mall, I wandered for a bit and found I wasn't blown away. 

I was lucky in that I ended up at the Mall around 2pm on a Monday, so there weren't many people to keep me from seeing everything I wanted - from See's Candy samples (see what I did there) to the amusement parks to a sneak peak of the aquarium on the "negative first" floor. Seriously between the weather and the mall there is a strange negative trend.

For those who haven't visited the Twin Cities (about whom I'd like to have a separate conversation in the future), the mall is basically a giant square, with classic department stores flanking each corner at the points and views into the center amusement park halfway through each side of the square. There were climbing games, a roller coaster, carousel, ferris wheel, a water ride, and all sorts of Dora and Spongebob themed rides. Having no one around made me equally comfortable to snapstory away while also feeling like a pretty obvious tourist for the few people wandering with their kids or significant others.

I mentioned a negative level - that's the aquarium! There are four levels otherwise, but if you go deep deep down you can pet de-barbed stingrays and hang out with other water creatures. I considered it, but it was $18 for an adult ticket and I had a bit of a ride in the snow to my hotel. A lovely employee there did let me look at the different areas for a bit though - the stingrays are really something else.

So, the food!! After stalking restaurant reviews at the mall and comparing their gluten free menus, I had to go with Tucci Benucch. This little Italian place is not that little - I sat on the right hand side of the "patio" and people-watched (or, people-watched while being people-watched since everyone's always so confused by someone eating alone and reading a book/casually staring at them) - there's a pretty big, semi-dark restaurant off to the back that looks really cozy for large groups.

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I wasn't having any of that though, especially when there are happy hour deals to be had on the patio. Although I ordered my main off the gluten free menu, I did accept the bread that came over because 1 I was hungry and 2 why pretend I can't have it? I told the waiter that I was trying the gluten free Fusilli Tomato Cream for my dad, just so he wouldn't worry that someone had brought me bread and I'd already went in on it while ordering a gluten free entree.

And boy was this WORTH IT. Like my taste buds didn't think gluten-full or gluten-free at all. My waiter told me Tucci Benucch makes all their own sauces and soups etc. from scratch, including the mozzarella. This stuff was added in tiny pockets to the fusilli along with slightly crunchy chicken and this insanely delicious tomato cream sauce. With every bite of the pasta and chicken a little piece of mozz would come along, and I would swirl my fork waiting for it to snap and it just wouldn't. It was almost a sport to see when it would finally snap but that baby just kept on going. Super impressive. The sauce itself was sweet with a little spicy warmth that wasn't truly spicy, but kept things interesting. The cream took it too the next level without being overwhelmingly lactose-y. Kind of a gross way to word that, right? My point being it had all the taste elements of a traditional tomato cream sauce without the gross feeling people get after having a meal with cream in it.

And the pasta itself! It was perfectly al dente, with just the little bite you need along with all the normal gluten-full taste, so you don't even notice that it's gluten free. I was so impressed I asked the waiter where it was from, and after checking with the kitchen he said it was Heartland brand. I'd recently read that that's one of the best gluten free pasta brands but that it's a really only found in the Minnesota area, so it's definitely on my list now and I'm sure a product review of trying it at home will follow!

All in all, from the pretty solid gluten free menu to the attention that the staff provided and the incredible quality of the food, I'd highly recommend checking out Tucci Benucch next time you're dragging yourself around the Mall of America. Honestly it might be my only reason to go again!

Have you been to Tucci Benucch? Any other gluten free places in the Minneapolis area I should check out?