A Limited Diet Meets a City of Excess

The Bellagio, as seen by the author while hunting for food. Photo by Daisy Rosario

By Daisy Rosario

This summer I went to Las Vegas for a convention. I had been to Sin City many times, but this was the first time I went since finding out I could no longer eat gluten.

Despite the wealth of restaurant options Las Vegas had available, I ate as if was on a survival show; dried fruit, protein bars, and whatever nuts or raw vegetables I could find.

I have Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that requires me to keep a 100% gluten free diet lest I get very ill. So while everyone else in Vegas was indulging in everything from overstocked buffets to high-end grub prepared by celebrity chefs, I was foraging.

I also couldn’t drink the free booze so commonly found in Vegas, thanks to a celiac related intestinal inflammation that made it unbearable to eat for many days. Even simply drinking water hurt for a few.

Sober, hungry, and much too much a full-time student with two part-time jobs trying to make ends meet to even consider gambling, Las Vegas felt less like a destination for fun and more of an experiment on my sanity.

At the same time, I was excited for the trip. I was a grad student attending my first journalism conference.

But then the mental and physical cloud of hunger kicked in.

Being the research hound that I am, I started looking into my options weeks before the trip. There wasn’t much of a web presence on the topic. The most helpful site was a local Vegas woman’s blog. Some of the options were just too far away to reach from the strip without a car or knowledge of the area. Others weren’t safe enough. These were menus that said a particular item could be gluten free, but only if you removed one or some of the ingredients.

Ever since finding out I could no longer have gluten, I have only ever eaten it accidentally as a result of cross contamination. So this “remove one ingredient” stuff didn’t suffice for me.

My body is so sensitive to gluten that even the smallest crumb can kick off days, or even weeks of symptoms.

Extreme nausea, debilitating migraines, bloating, sharp stomach pain, bulbous eczema on my feet, and worst of all, forgetfulness on a level that would make you think I’d had a previous career as a boxer – the kind that only ever got punched in the head. Seeing as those symptoms would make the conference and the weeks that follow a wash, I wasn’t taking any chances.

The other problem was the aforementioned intestinal inflammation. Since then I’d been eating like it was perpetually the day after food poisoning. A lot of plain white rice and boiled chicken. Dairy was out, as was anything too greasy. This made the sign for In-N-Out Burger I could see from my hotel window a tease.

The only things at In-N-Out that have gluten are the hamburger buns. I’ve happily had many lettuce-wrapped burgers there, but on this trip I couldn’t do the grease.

After two days of eating mostly almonds I got a lead on some potato salad. Canter’s, the famous Los Angeles delicatessen, has a Las Vegas location at Treasure Island. A big fan of the original West Hollywood location, I made the trek hoping to eat something substantial, even if it were low on protein.

The truncated menu showed only sandwiches as an option. No platters. No food by the pound.

I explained my situation to the counter guy. His eyes bulged when I mentioned having barely eaten in two days. He and a kind woman from the kitchen staff agreed to make me a small plate with some potato salad, cole slaw and greens for much less than they usual charge for any of theirsandwiches.

My body shook from the influx of calories. I sat at the counter until I felt strong enough to stand.

The following day I attended more conference workshops. Thanks to the magic of Disney, I had a plate of grilled chicken, vegetables, and mashed potatoes.  Minnie Mouse and a Public Relations executive hosted a catered lunch presentation. There was only one meal option. This allayed my fears of cross contamination. I asked a server to double check with the kitchen that there was no gluten in the food, and ate slowly and joyously as Disney characters tried to draw parallels between theme parks and journalism.

The author poses with a character with the same name shortly after eating an actual meal courtesy of Disney

I got through the rest of the day on more almonds.

Finally, it was the last morning. I woke up well but felt weak as I scrambled to fit everything into my luggage. By early afternoon I’d be in the Bay Area visiting my brother where we could cook at his home. I would be sure to eat and eat well.

If you go to Vegas and need to be gluten free, here is my advice: Either be rich enough to eat at the high-end restaurants that are always happy to cater to such illnesses, or stay somewhere that has a kitchen you can use.

That might take you off the Strip, but at least your trip will remain a quest for fun and not one for calories.

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