I love Mexican food and for all intents and purposes, the cuisine, as a whole, is very gluten-free friendly. However, there are a few potential pitfalls to be aware of when enjoying Mexican food, particularly at a restaurant. This post about avoiding gluten at Mexican restaurants will get to the bottom of it all. Please see my disclosures.
Mexican food is a staple for those of us on a gluten-free diet. That’s because so many Mexican foods are naturally gluten free. Beans, rice, corn and avocados are all naturally gluten-free foods… and delicious staples of the Mexican diet.
Mexican food uses corn masa (corn flour) in most of its authentic dishes, although more Mexican restaurants are incorporating wheat tortillas to meet the demands of Western palates.
However, the good news is that many people with celiac disease and gluten-free eaters can enjoy a safe meal without gluten at a Mexican restaurant, with a few precautions and exceptions, of course.
Possible Gluten Exposure at Mexican Restaurants
Below are some of the many ways your food can become exposed to gluten at Mexican restaurants, and why you must take precautions when eating Mexican food, particularly outside of the home:
Burritos: Burritos are typically made with wheat flour tortillas. See more details in the “tortillas” section below. Avoid.
Cheese: While shredded cheese is naturally gluten free, some store bought shredded cheeses are coated with some sort of flour or starch to prevent the shredded strands from sticking together. Most brands use corn or tapioca starch vs. wheat flour.
Chile relleno: A chile relleno is a green chile pepper stuffed with meat and coated with a flour-egg mixture and deep fried. These are typically not gluten free unless the restaurant uses a gluten-free batter and dedicated gluten-free fryer.
Chips & Salsa: One of my favorite things to enjoy at Mexican restaurants is the chips and salsa. I don’t know why, but chips and salsa taste 100 times better at a Mexican restaurant than at home. That said, beware of corn tortilla chips cooked in the same deep fryer used to cook battered foods. When your food comes in contact with foods made with gluten, this renders your food cross contaminated and no longer gluten free nor safe to eat.
Enchiladas: Traditional enchiladas are made with corn tortillas and may be safe for gluten-free eaters. Always inquire with your server.
Fajitas: Fajitas are almost always gluten free (except at Chuy’s, as they marinate their fajita meat in beer, which contains gluten). Order fajitas with corn tortillas vs. wheat tortillas and always inquire if they’re safe for you to eat. I’ve tested the fajitas at Chili’s for hidden gluten and they tested a-okay.
Margaritas: If you’re like me, you’re wondering, “Are margaritas gluten free?” Yes, margaritas are made with tequila (gluten free), fresh lime juice (gluten free) and an orange liqueur called triple sec (gluten free). Most triple sec brands that I know of are gluten free and just fine to consume on the gluten-free diet. However, some restaurants use store-bought margarita mixes, so you’ll need to inquire about whether or not those mixes are gluten free as well.
Queso: Queso is a thick cheese that is often thickened with some sort of starch or flour. Ask specifically what ingredients are in the queso to be sure there’s nothing in there that will sabotage your gluten-free diet.
Rice:While rice is naturally gluten free, Mexican restaurants often season their rice. Those seasonings may or may not be gluten free, and sometimes the rice is even cooked in a chicken broth that may contain gluten (a lot of store bought chicken broths contain gluten, unfortunately).
Sauces:Some sauces are often thickened with wheat flour or a starch, so it’s important to ask what’s in the sauce before taking a bite.
Seasonings and Marinades: Ask your server what is in the marinade used for proteins and vegetables to ensure it doesn’t contains gluten. Remember, some store bought taco seasonings and taco seasoning mixes contain gluten.
Tortillas: While corn tortillas are typically made with corn masa and water, unfortunately some “corn” tortillas can contain wheat flour too. This is unfortunate and rare. Be sure to ask what ingredients are used to make corn tortillas and make sure it’s pure corn flour only. Also, if a restaurant is pressing their own tortillas, make sure they are not using the same tortilla press for their corn and wheat tortillas. This, too, will expose you to that same cross contamination risk posed by the deep fryer.
As always, ask for your meal to be cooked on a clean surface with clean hands/gloves to ensure minimal cross contamination. Discuss your needs with your server. Use the word “allergy” even though you can’t be allergic to gluten. Order the safest, least risky menu items (aka, the items least likely to contain or come in contact with gluten). Always advocate for yourself.
Download my free Gluten-Free Safe Dining Card. Show this card to your server to ensure you get a gluten-free meal every time!
Gluten-Free Mexican Restaurants
There are hundreds – if not thousands – of Mexican restaurants across the U.S., so coming up with a list of Mexican restaurants with gluten-free options would be impossible.
I can say, in Colorado (near and around Denver), we have several popular Mexican restaurant chains that offer plenty of GF options.
Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant: The Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant offers gluten-free options galore! It’s my favorite Mexican restaurant because you can eat the chips and salsa, and just about everything on the menu except for items made with flour tortillas. Choose from nachos, fajitas, enchiladas, tostados and rellenos. A complete gluten-free menu is available online.
Hacienda Colorado: Hacienda Colorado is a staple gluten-free Mexican restaurant in Colorado and loved by the locals. You can also enjoy the delicious chips and salsa, both GF. I could not find Hacidena’s gluten-free menu online, but they do have one. Ask for it when you arrive.
On the Border: On the Border is a large Mexican restaurant chain with more than 150 locations nationwide. Check out On the Border’s gluten-free menu, which they call “suggested gluten sensitivity menu options” (this is a red flag to me). The No Gluten blogger has more details on what you can and can’t eat safely at On the Border.
Chipotle: While I know Chipotle is not considered a Mexican restaurant by some, it does offer plenty of gluten-free options, Mexican and southwest fare, and a fast and casual environment. I wrote all about how to eat gluten free at Chipotle. Other fast casual Mexican-style restaurants include:
Avoid eating at Chuy’s. This Mexican restaurant doesn’t have a gluten-free menu. All fried foods are off limits, including the chips, due to a shared fryer. Chuy’s also marinates its fajita meat in beer. It feels much too risky to eat here based reviews.
Avoid eating at Taco Bell. I wrote an entire article dedicated to why you shouldn’t eat gluten free at Taco Bell. Read it and heed my warning.
Use Your Nima Sensor
In addition to discussing your needs for a safe, gluten-free meal with your server, you can also protect yourself from cross contamination by testing your food with a Nima Sensor, which is a portable gluten detecting device that is highly accurate at detecting gluten in your food.
To use your Nima Sensor, simply put a pea-sized portion of your food in the single use test capsule, insert the capsule in the Sensor, and in about 1-2 minutes, the Nima Sensor will tell you if the meal contains gluten or is gluten free.
Please note the Nima Sensor has new owners as of March 2020, and the fate of the device is unknown. Many speculate the company may be going out of business.
Remember, Nima only tests a small portion of your meal, so other parts of your meal could have come in contact with gluten. It’s not a foolproof way of testing your food for hidden gluten, but it is a great tool to use if you have it.
Related Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Out Gluten-Free (best ebook for safely eating out gluten free)
I Need Your Help
Please leave a comment to share additional Mexican restaurants near you that offer gluten-free options. I will add to this list as I learn of new places.