How To Eat Paleo At Restaurants
If you've read this blog for any length of time (or you know me personally), you'll know that I don't eat paleo all the time.
I cook paleo things at home (plus or minus some dairy products, rice and occasional boxes of mac and cheese), but I eat everything when I'm not at home. However, there have been many stints in my adult life where I've gone full-blown paleo and I've learned a lot about dining out. Eating paleo at restaurants is much easier than it was a few years ago, but it still involves some extra preparation and communication.
I thought it might be nice to share some tips if you're new to the paleo world—hope you find these helpful!
P.S. At the end I added some of my favorite paleo-friendly restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul for my local pals.
Do your research
Check the website. Check Yelp. Look up the menu online and scan for words like "roasted," "broiled," "grilled" and "sautéed." Those are the most likely areas to find something paleo, though you may want to ask about spice rubs and marinades to check on sugar, soy and oils. Avoid the words "creamy," "cheesy," and "crispy." There's clearly nothing for you there.
If you haven't been to the restaurant before, call and ask all the annoying questions before you get there so you don't have to be that person when you get there. The best time to call with annoying questions is when the restaurant won't be busy, like 3 pm. Do not call them at 7 pm on a Friday and expect a patient person to patiently answer your questions.
Be respectful, seriously
When you do have to be that person, be gracious to the staff and the chef — ask nicely and don't reach too far outside the existing menu if you can help it. You're not in your own kitchen and shouldn't make up your own dish out of nowhere and expect them to cook it. It is absolutely possible to go out of bounds and be the worst customer ever.
Things that are reasonable:
ordering a burger with no bun
substituting one side dish for another
ordering a salad with lemon and olive oil on the side instead of dressing
asking if they can fry an egg in olive oil instead of butter
Things that are unreasonable:
asking the chef to make zoodles for you instead of fresh pasta
bringing your own food to a restaurant
asking someone to make special olive oil-only mayo for your lobster salad (though I did have a chef offer to do this during my first Whole30 and it almost made me cry, it was so nice!)
What to order at American-ish Restaurants
Protein + vegetables
Roast chicken and fennel (hold the cream sauce)? Yep. Poached salmon and asparagus? Yum. Grilled steak and sautéed vegetables (hold the demi glace)? Treat yourself! Raw oysters and a giant salad? Uh, sure... I guess so. Generally, this formula of protein + vegetables is relatively easy to find in most restaurants these days.
Burgers, no buns
I really hate when I have to order this, honestly. It's usually such a sad, lonely puck of meat there on the plate. But burgers without the buns are usually paleo-friendly and, hey, it's food... sometimes it's the best you're going to do. Depending on how strict you are, you will likely want to substitute a side salad or another paleo-friendly side for the fries. Ketchup (which is pointless anyway — don't argue with me, it's the worst) is also out because it's all sugar. Mustard's usually okay!
Ask about cheese, croutons and dressings. A fair bet is that you'll have to order the salad with lemon and olive oil instead of the dressing it comes with (dairy, sugar, etc.). If there's protein on top, check to see how it's prepared or ask to substitute grilled something-or-other.
Breakfast + Brunch
Eggs are kinda sneaky sometimes, but breakfast is one of the areas of the menu I like best for paleo options. Poached eggs will always be A-OK since they are made with water. Fried eggs are great too if you request that they are cooked with olive oil instead of butter or canola oil. Scrambled eggs and omelets usually have some dairy (or even flour!) in them to make them extra fluffy (some restaurants may even use that giant Sysco bag of liquid eggs), so it's best to ask about those before you order. If you can request olive oil, hash browns and breakfast potatoes might be ok. At my work cafeteria they do made-to-order breakfast and I always request breakfast potatoes with veggies and a fried egg on top. Avoid eye contact with pastries, pancakes and waffles.
Paleo Tips for Global Cuisine
90% of the time, I'm not eating a bun-less burger or a fancy steak dinner — I'm eating kebabs or green curry.
In my experience, the easiest restaurants to find paleo-friendly fare are Middle Eastern, South American, Greek, Mexican, Japanese, Thai and even Indian. I manage pretty well at Vietnamese restaurants, but the hardest is Chinese. As in, just forget Chinese takeout and start mourning the xiao long bao now.
But don't fret, there's hope.
Middle Eastern + Greek
If you're choosing the restaurant, a Greek, Iranian, Israeli or Lebanese restaurant will likely have so many more options for you than a pizza place. Shish kebabs, baba ghanoush, grilled vegetables, lamb shawarma, roast meats of all kinds, olives, salads, even creamy avoglemono (Greek egg-lemon sauce)... YES. Tahini-based sauces and dressings are usually fine, as are the simple vinaigrettes. There's SO much paleo stuff to eat without changing anything, yay! Most commercial gyro meat is from the same company and has breadcrumbs in it, but you can always ask and hope for homemade. Toum garlic sauce will most likely be made with canola oil. Avoid the sides of rice, cheese and hummus. Grape leaves are out too, unless you make them yourself.
Meats! If they are prepared traditionally, almost all the Mexican meats will be paleo-friendly (carne asada, carnitas, al pastor, tinga, etc.) so you can go nuts and order them with a side of vegetables or on top of a big pile of lettuce. Fajitas are also in. Rice, beans, tortillas, chips and tamales are out. Fresh pico de gallo and a lot of salsas are in(even certain mole sauces like mole verde can be naturally paleo) , but you'll want to ask just to confirm. And if you're at a certain Mexican fast food burrito place named Chipotle, you can safely order a carnitas salad with fajita veggies, pico de gallo, salsa verde, the hot salsa and guacamole. I also hacked the Chipotle carnitas recipe for the slow cooker if you want to try it at home.
South American food is fairly easy to navigate with a paleo plan. Argentina will hook you up with steaks and chimichurri, so that's an easy one. Brazil also loves their grilled meats so you'll likely find some paleo-friendly foods without substitutions. At Peruvian restaurants, you'll want to focus on things like ceviche, rotisserie chicken and plantains. Ecuadorian food is also paleo-ish already with encebollado (Ecuadorian fish stew), hornado (roast pork), plantains and aji criollo (green hot sauce). You'll want to avoid fried foods, rice, beans, llapingachos (cheese-filled potato pancakes) and empanadas.
Thai is awesome because there are a lot of naturally gluten-free dishes, but the main things to watch out for are added sugar, soy and peanuts. You will certainly want to ask questions to confirm the ingredients. Safest bets are usually curries, tom kha, salads, lettuce wraps (watch out for rice flour in the larb though) and satay sans peanut sauce. Our favorite Thai restaurant in San Diego used to have this awesome marinated steak salad that was paleo without any substitutions, and sometimes you'll find a really nice grilled fish with a simple lime-herb sauce that'll be fine too.
It's very unlikely for your favorite pho broth to be 100% paleo. There is likely a trace of hoisin sauce (soy) and fish sauce (sugar) in there, but I don't lose too much sleep over it. My standing order at Quang, Pho Tau Bay and Trieu Chau is the pho tai (beef pho) with vegetables instead of noodles. I really don't miss the noodles at all. Depending on the marinades, things like lemongrass shrimp and lemongrass pork chops might be okay too. The dressings usually have sugar in them though, so I don't even bother with bun (salad). You'll want to ask to make sure there's no flour to thicken it, but Vietnamese curry beef stew is sometimes paleo too.
Depending on the type of regional BBQ you're dealing with, you will either find lots of things to eat or very few. As a rule, BBQ sauces are almost never paleo no matter where you're eating, but the meats and even some of the sides like collard greens may be A-OK.
The land of pizza and pasta is not a place I usually like to go when I'm on the paleo train just to avoid temptation. Good pizza is my kryptonite. However, a big salad, seared fish or an antipasto platter is usually the way to go. Steamed mussels are usually an easy thing to make paleo if they aren't already (most will have white wine and/or butter, but can be prepared without). But you'll have to skip the broth-soaked bread which is the best part so why bother really? Some pasta sauces will be paleo too, so you can also see if they would serve something like a puttanesca on top of sautéed vegetables instead of pasta.
Indian is easy-ish, but you'll still have to ask questions because dairy is hiding around every corner. Normally I'd be all, GRILLED MEATS, but the unfortunate thing if you are being very strict is that some tandoori meats are going to be marinated in yogurt. There are a lot of curries and vegetarian dishes that will be just fine though. Vindaloo is a safe curry because it doesn't have any dairy, and other tomato-based curries (regular "masala") are usually solid as long as there's no cream added. Words to avoid: korma, makhani, paneer, tikka masala, josh. Ghee is okay though. Even though it's dairy, it's dairy without all the milk solids.
Sushi is easy! I like to eat at at the sushi bar so I can talk to the chef directly — they are often used to special requests and creating new things anyway. I usually will order a cucumber salad or a seaweed salad with some sashimi or tataki. Or I'll do a rice-less maki or hand roll with whatever sauce they have that's paleo (if they have anything). Sometimes (if it's not busy) I'll just ask the chef to create something awesome without rice, mayo or soy sauce. Ramen and other Japanese dishes are not as easy to navigate, but the great thing about Japanese food is that it's often very simply prepared so that makes paleo adjustments a little easier. Some yakitori is paleo-friendly. Words to avoid: tempura, tofu, miso, soy, mayo.
Filipino food isn't easy at all. There's a lot of soy sauce, sugar and rice involved in most of the dishes my in-laws cook on a regular basis. Some paleo-friendly dishes include lechon (whole roasted pig), kaldereta (goat stew), kinilaw (kind of like ceviche, but with vinegar), sauteed vegetables and some of the coconut milk-based stews.
Chinese is so hard, you guys. It's really unlikely that you'll find anything that's 100% paleo in a Chinese restaurant unless it's plain steamed vegetables. Even if something sounds paleo on a Chinese menu, you'll definitely still want to ask about the preparation of each dish since there's a chance you'll find some added soy or sugar or flour you might not expect. You can totally make paleo Chinese food at home though, and I have quite a few recipes on the site.
Fast food is really difficult to eat strictly paleo, but it's not impossible if you don't have alternatives. As I mentioned earlier, Chipotle is the easiest fast food place (carnitas salad with fajita veggies, pico de gallo, salsa and guacamole). I also hacked the Chipotle carnitas recipe for the slow cooker if you want to try it at home. At Wendy's, most of the salads can be customized to be paleo. At In-N-Out, you can order your burger "protein-style," wrapped in lettuce (get it "mustard-grilled" with onions, but hold the other condiments). I used to do that often in California. Oddly enough, Noodles & Company rolled out zucchini noodles that are actually pretty delicious. Panera has very adaptable salads, but also I've heard they have a secret paleo menu with some lettuce wraps and power bowls.
Paleo-Friendly Restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul
For my local friends, here are some easy-ish restaurants to eat paleo.
- Brasa (Northeast, Minneapolis + Summit Hill, St. Paul): I eat here often and usually get the pulled pork, collard greens and plantains. It's nice to be able to order something straight off the menu, huh?
- My pho spots! Quang, Pho Tau Bay (both Eat Street, Minneapolis) and Trieu Chau (Midway, St. Paul): I should caveat this one by saying I have never confirmed that any of the broths are 100% paleo so this might be more paleo-ish. I always order pho tai (sliced beef pho) with vegetables instead of noodles. Sometimes they charge a little extra but that seems fair.
- Filfilah (Columbia Heights): I also eat here all the time. There's a whole mess of shawarma and kebabs to be had, and all the entrees come with their super-delicious Greek salad (hold the cheese). Roasted potatoes are an option instead of rice, so that's easy. Tell them not to bring the puffy Turkish bread out though, because it's way too good to resist when it's right there in arm's reach.
- Foxy Falafel (St. Anthony Park, St. Paul): Foxy is explicitly paleo-friendly. They have paleo specials on rotation all the time, so even though you can't have their signature falafel, they always have something delicious on deck.
- Young Joni (Northeast, Minneapolis): Pizza's out, but some of the sides, salads and grilled things are in.
- Smack Shack (North Loop, Minneapolis): Shrimps, lobsters, yeah.
- Black Sheep Pizza (North Loop + Eat Street, Minneapolis + Downtown, St. Paul): Oddly, I've had really good paleo meals at this pizza place. They have a solid grill menu as well as a tasty roasted veggie salad.
- World Street Kitchen (Lynlake, Minneapolis): Their gluten-free dishes are clearly marked, so you can easily narrow it down when you ask them questions about other ingredients.
- Mill Valley Kitchen (St. Louis Park): I haven't eaten there in forever... but I should really go back, it was great! Their menu is labeled well and health-consciousness is built into their concept. It's really easy to navigate and they are totally open to swapping sides to accommodate dietary needs.
- Agra Culture (lots of locations): Agra also has a well-labeled menu (P for paleo!) that includes a ton of options without needing to make substitutions.
- Burch (Lowry Hill, Minneapolis): Steaks! Sides! $$$plurge! Even if I'm not in the mood for steak, I love the roasted broccolini and the raw section of the menu (marlin crudo, etc).
Do you have any go-to restaurant tips for paleo pals? Comment below and let's add them to the list!