Monday, November 28, 2016

A Break from Thanksgiving Leftovers

I have a ton of reasons to talk about my Thanksgiving meal and why it was amazing, including the apple-gooseberry pie that has been to die for (and has, admittedly, inflated me like a balloon with its treacherous deliciousness). But for now, I want to to get this out of the way while it's still fresh in the memory. 

Enter Marino's Pizzeria & Cafe...

Featuring one of the most lackluster websites this side of the 21st century, it is by all accounts an average pizzeria.  Even so, it's a place I've walked or driven by regularly on Irving Park Road, always enticing me with its giant pizza sign ever since I moved to Chicagoland. At the time I had promised to check this place out,... and then the Wheatless Era arrived, and suddenly this average pizzeria fell off into the wayside of inedibility. 

Then Thanksgiving 2016 weekend came, and I found myself taking advantage of the unseasonable warmth to have a long-walk, just like in the good ol' days of racewalk practice! A fit of curiosity made me head on over to that general direction road, and check out this average-looking pizzeria.

And so I came, marveled at the marvelous mini mall architecture betraying its really sad occupancy (where Marino's was probably the most interesting store there, unless you find Subways or dentist offices thrilling).  I walked in, noticed it was one of those hybrid sit-down places where you still have to order up front. 

All very average indeed. 

I took a copy of the menu cheerfully as a souvenir, and walked away to read through it carefully.

And then... I was in awe...

Not only did it have a token, gluten-free, "hockey puck" pizza offering (for a large markup of course), but it also had options for GF pasta, sandwich bread and pitas!!! Granted these were all just options with a nasty little markup and well hidden in the menu so that it wasn't really obvious... but still, WOW! This very average pizzeria in a very lackluster location attempted something that few other average pizzerias of its kind were brave enough to do!! 

I just couldn't resist.  And so today I stopped on over with the family to give it a try! 

For evaluation purposes, I ordered a 10" GF pizza with bacon, a GF focaccia sandwich, and an order of hot chicken wings as our control [as if we didn't have enough poultry over the week!].  Bear in mind that when I say these GF options have markups, I MEAN they have markups... this is not a very inexpensive average pizzeria.  Granted while Aurelio's (my gold standard for common chain GF pizzerias) isn't cheap either, the portions are at least hefty and it does have a dedicated GF menu with few visible markups, so I don't feel punished for eating there.  I should also mention that the "Order Here" model is a bit messy, so here too Aurelio's shows its supremacy by being a true sit-down restaurant with friendly service.

Of course, Marino's has a leg-up by offering free appetizers; but when said freebie is a bunch of regular bread you hadn't asked for and can't eat, I would really call this a pyrrhic point-in-favor. And they both tie in the use of hideous blended "olive oil" as their drizzle, so I suggest sticking with butter. ;)

As for the food itself...

The pizza was TINY, a la Domino's Pizza token GF offering. Unlike it's Domino's counterpart, however, this did not taste like cardboard (even Domino's regular pizza has ALWAYS tasted like cardboard to me). The rice flour-based dough was light, tasty and kept its shape admirably, and the toppings were filling and satisfying. They're both around the same price, so clearly Marino's offering is the better value versus Domino's. While Aurelio's still leads the edge here in offering a more family-friendly size for comparatively less money, and arguably better flavor, I can make the case that Marino's GF pizza makes for better "snack sizes". After all, there's also a 7" personal offering for less money!

The wings are naturally wheatless and a good hefty size, but they're expensive and I would hardly call them "hot" -- the sauce was probably more sweet than spicy, and I found myself wanting to reach into the kitchen and grab a bottle of Tabasco. They were still delicious, but I wouldn't get these again.

But saving the best for last was the surprise contender!  Ordered as a mere after-thought to cover my bases, the GF chicken focaccia sandwich did open my eyes to new possibilities! First off, unlike my medium-tier favorite Chicago's Pizza, they did not make actual GF focaccia bread which was a bit of a let-down. They did, however, offer a GF pita bread which was unlike anything I've had before! Also seemingly rice-based (like the pizza), it was firm and supple in its shape, but light, airy and savory in taste! Combined with the delicious slices of chicken -- topped with provolone, lettuce and tomatoes, and a drizzle of mayo on top -- I practically had a CHICKEN GYRO!!! And it felt just as nostalgic eating it as it sounds -- A true unexpected joy for a fairly-reasonable price!

So is this a great pizzeria for gluten-free offerings? 

Sadly, no. It is still very much an average pizzeria. However, despite that, it does at least make a good effort to cater to us compared to other comparable pizzerias. If you're in the area, and don't have severe allergies or Celiacs, I recommend you give them a try.

But if you're looking for gluten-free SANDWICHES, however -- and Chicago's Pizza is too far and Jimmy John's is too light -- then you might find this place a bit above-average!  Good effort, Marino's!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Short Notice and Sweet Ali

Question:  Do you like cake?


Well that's the short and sweet answer, pun intended.

The long answer is: depends largely on the cake, but I would say that 8 out of 10 cakes would end up being personally disliked by me.

While a large part of this is due to my current inability [and disinterest] in eating wheat-based baked goods), the truth is, even long ago during my pre-wheat years, I was never much of a cake person.  In fact I despised things that were too sweet, and cakes generally offered the opportunity to overdo it on the sweet factor, adding gobs of frosting, milk chocolate, strawberry preserves, raisins, fondant, caramel, sprinkles, whipped cream, maraschino cherries, ice cream, and, on top of that, several cups of sugar into the cake batter itself.  AND LEST WE FORGET... the wheat in the flour digests down to sugar as well...! It was just too much for my taste buds to handle, still is!

I like to joke that my disdain for sugary sweets was born out of a friend's birthday party at McDonald's when I was a kid, when I raided the sealed-off and unoccupied party room full of chicken nuggets and sweets using what I can only imagine was food-induced kung fu [because no one caught me].

...After gorging myself on chicken nuggets, I saw the McDonald's birthday cake, and on it were flat little sugar figures of the mascots at the time.  For reasons beyond me, Grimace looked particularly tasty , so that was the first figure I picked off the cake and greedily decapitated with my teeth.  While I have no way to recount the resulting sugar coma and hallucinations that ensued, I do remember screaming and crying from the disgusting sugar overdose (that sort of felt like a nauseating brain freeze), and then I bawled even more as all the kids and adults flooded in to catch me at the scene of the crime, writhing in pain and shame no less.  Since then I've had overly-sugary things, but I like to think that saved my life because... given my pre-wheat eating habits... I certainly did NOT need to eat more sugar!

There are of course exceptions to the anti-cake rule, those 2 out of 10 I alluded to earlier.  Lightly sweetened and buttery cake-like products such as pound cakes were always welcomed. Black forest cake,.. when it used real cherries and didn't overdo it on the white frosting... was always a favorite.  Cheesecake I adored, and luckily that's a cake that transitions well into the post-wheat world. And while not technically cakes, pies and tarts were always fantastic alternatives, and there are hundreds of way to make them naturally wheat-free and scrumptious!

And of course I always adored my mother's cakes -- once legendary for being rock-hard, they always had the right amount of buttercreme, consistency, and, of course, sugar-lightness that I was looking for.

So when it came time for her birthday one Saturday morning, and she playfully joked that she couldn't have a quick off-the-shelf birthday cake, I thought it was only fitting to try and find one to fulfill her wish, however fleeting.  Luckily for me, it turns out I didn't live far from Sweet Ali's Bakery.

Those of you who follow my Facebook/Twitter know that I LOVED Flur Bakery -- but if there's any gripe I do have about it, it's that its cakes are a bit too expensive and impractical to order.  So imagine my surprise when, just as I walk into the Sweet Ali's retail store in Hinsdale, IL, the first things I see in the refrigerators are an array of large, basic-looking chocolate and vanilla cakes! Eureka!!! But surely they cost an arm and a leg... NOPE!!  I mean they're not inexpensive, but compared to what I was expecting, they were a bargain!  They had more elaborate cakes that could be ordered online or through them, but those generally need more time in advance to order, plus they increase the cost significantly -- for my needs for this special day, a basic gluten-free chocolate cake was more than enough.  I also purchased some GF cheese rolls and GF challah bread to taste test, but those are a story for another day.

But I accomplished my goal and we had a birthday cake for my mother this year! And upon taste-testing it...

It was great!  You couldn't even tell the chocolate cake was gluten-free, it was remarkably convincing!

But by GAWD, they overdid it on the frosting!!! >.<

I think it tasted better as it aged, but it just goes to show you: gluten-free does NOT automatically mean healthy.  Watch it for all that darn sugar!  ;)

Still, I can't recommend Sweet Ali's retail location enough -- it has the most variety of any gluten-free bakery I know, and it seems intent on improving its offerings!  Plus with good proximity (to me) and reasonable prices, expect me to come there more often whenever I'm in the mood for some hardcore carbs. :P

Oh and as a side note, this was an opportunity for me to test out my portable studio... I still have to play around with the lighting some more, but I like the picture quality so far!  :)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Walker's Marathon - Part 4

As a continuation to the third part of the story,...

A few things immediately struck me after I had passed through the starting line and, after achieving a nice comfortable rhythm, was on my way to the tunnel leading out of Millennium Park....




Granted most of the runners did slowly inch past me, I expected this for sure; but I was also expecting them to leap far ahead of me like a pack of gazelles. In fact, I was only fractionally slower than most of the surrounding participants, using significantly less leaping and bounding; in some cases I was actually a tiny bit faster! I was able to keep up with the runners for the first couple miles as we crossed the river, looped back down State street, then turned to make our way up north towards Lincoln Park. A necessary restroom break forced a small detour, but after a few minutes of catch-up my brother and I passed a few runners we started off with.

By mile 10, people were getting noticeably tired, and chugging down sports gels like there was no tomorrow. I know it's something of a tradition, but seriously people... don't toss empty Gatorade cups and sports gel containers and wrappers in the middle of the street for other fellow runners to trip on!

By mile 16, I was no longer afraid of being the oddball racewalker because, by that time, EVERYONE around me was essentially racewalking or walking briskly or just plain walking, Only a handful of runners kept at a semi-decent pace, and it was noticeably slower. It could be said that I trained for the latter half of the race as it certainly was pretty much the same from this point forward for all but the last mile...

Only by mile 22 did I begin feeling some uncomfortable knee pain, and not the kind that could be resolved by stopping to stretch, rather an odd sensation that my knee was clicking in place and threatening to do something painful. Fearing that I would dislocate it somehow -- and so close to the end of the marathon no less -- I kept at a much slower pace until near the last dash towards the Finish line. But by then my brother and I amassed a decent time buffer, and we finished the marathon together with a good 30 minutes to spare despite the detour and the slower pace towards the end! It was an amazing moment (immortalized in the picture below!); and the medal, free food, and rest that would follow were a very welcome sight!

Granted, I never did escape excruciating post-race pains as I had hoped; certainly racewalking proved to be no less stranger to that likely due to the repetitive movement of my legs for six hours. I felt a bit sore immediately after the race, SUPER sore after I got to my brother's place for victory gluten-free pizza (from Lou Malnati's!), PARALYZINGLY sore by the time I got to my own home, and almost completely immobile the following day (glad I took off work). Even so, whether it was due to post-race treatment or just the more forgiving nature of racewalking on the body, I was more or less functional by Tuesday.

So... hurray!

Now for a few food-based observations:
  • I never got very hungry. This is not meant as a brag, just a curious fact on the ground. Sure, I was craving bananas towards the end, but more for the potassium rather than the hunger (and as luck would have it, all but one stop ran out, boo!).
  • I did munch on some almonds for most of the first half of the marathon, however, so I did had tiny bursts of fat to help fuel me along the way. Once they ran out, and seeing no bananas in sight, dried apples served me well beyond mile 23.
  • For mile 26 I tapped into some nostalgic fervor with a pack of Smarties, which helped remind me why I was there and why I was perfectly comfortable using sugar as a kind of “afterburner”.
  • And after the finish line I never felt the need to gnaw off my arm, nor was I in any rush to go eat anything... other than those DAMN BANANAS, which I could finally relish thanks to the wonderful Jewel-Osco grab bag!
  • My breakfast that morning was a little croquet made with cassava and chorizo, with a miniature banana on the side, making it comparably-equal parts fat, protein and carbohydrates. Despite this, it's possible I was in a state of ketosis as I was consistently energetic throughout the marathon, and I don't recall ever “hitting the wall”.
  • And finally, except after mile 22 and its unfortunate banana shortage, I did not drink Gatorade. Nor did I eat any gels for reasons of preference, nor coffee and pretzels for obvious safety reasons [not wanting to get sick mid-race!]. 

Whether I can thank any or all of the above factors, I could deny that I felt great!!

I had energy not just to keep going, but also to keep my racewalking form looking straight and proud (for better aerodynamics, not just for show), to smile, to participate in shout-outs along the way, to sing with the crowd or Elvis impersonators, to dance to the tune of Boystown choirs, Taiko drums, Mexican mariachis and other awesome festivities... I high-fived onlookers and their portraits, or would eagerly peace-sign to the cameras! Once a little girl's sign blew away from her hands, and I was able to catch it before it got trampled, bring it back to her, and continue on my way without ever worrying about lost time! It was a fantastic feeling to not only be in the marathon but also get fully “into it” as well!

That's not to say I did great,... most professional runners in the higher corrals could get through this in three hours or less, so my performance is fairly cute and quaint by comparison. Even your seasoned racewalker can probably chew through this with a 10 minute mile pace and better! So by no means can I say I've done my very best since I intentionally capped my best possible performance for the sake of prudence.

Even so, I succeeded in doing what I set out to do, and I was surprised that I accomplished it as well as I did with such high spirits! Even as my brother and I cheered in unison as we passed through the finish line, I knew that I would want to do this again; and indeed, as of this writing, I am set to run on the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Marathon! Next time, though, I'll use what I learned to refine my techniques, improve my speed some more, and take better care of my legs and knees so that they can pull through till the better end! =)

As for food, I'll stay the course... but maybe next time I'll bring my own bananas! ;)

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Walker's Marathon - Part 3

As a continuation to the second part of the story, the day of the marathon approached and while I wasn't calm about it per se, I did feel like I was fussing over the wrong things. I was worried about the technicalities of the marathon itself... the 1.5 million people, the need to go to the health expo, the specific way in which the runner's bib had to be attached, etc. I ruminated over the weight of my belt pouches, and I nagged my wonderful dietician for advice on natural substitutes for sport gels -- turns out dried apples work great (although I also included almonds as a failsafe).

But as far as actual performance expectation was concerned, that was the least on my mind. I continued practicing a little in the lead-up to the marathon, with a mile or two here and there, at different speeds and rehearsing with the attire I would bring along. Clothing was important since, racewalking or not, I was not looking forward to living out any horror stories on lost toenails or skin chaffing. I kept at a reliable 13 minute/mile pace, not record-setting by any extent in the racewalking world, but decent for a novice such as myself. And above all else, I bypassed the traditional "carb-loading" altogether; aside from having a lavishly-large dinner on Saturday evening, full of healthy fat, protein and safe carbohydrates, I mainly kept the dietary course I was used to for most of that year. I already knew what I was capable of from the 20 miler, and I wasn't prepared to introduce new variables that could've thrown me off on race day. For the most part, I planned to play it safe.

The morning of Sunday, October 9th was frigid cold for a day in early October, but at the same time it was electrifying! It was tradition to wear a jacket or sweater you were expecting to toss to the side before the race started, which in turn would be collected and given to the homeless. So I brought along a former Large-sized light jacket that, once upon a time, used to fit me a little too snugly, and which now I practically swam in. There was something metaphorical about respectfully setting aside a remnant of my past before starting something new and life-changing, especially if in doing so it helped charity. As if by coincidence, I later realized that the jacket was probably the same one I wore during the Chocolate Run!

We walked slowly towards the Starting line,... This was it...!

Now my months of training would be put to the test! My brother, a marathon veteran, was with me to help explain the subtle nuances of the event, and to offer me the kind of invaluable moral support a good older brother would share! He reminded me to conserve my strength early on, so I could perform my best during the latter half... "Slow and steady wins the race!"...

So I told myself to start off consistent and slow; in my case at a nice, comfortable, brisk racewalking pace that would at a minimum creep past 4mph. I had the map with me at all times as a kind of morale booster as well, since I don't like traveling to places I don't know the layout to, and I liked being able to calculate expected mile marker times. No unreliable GPS devices for me, I was going old-school!

The starting line was only a few feet away...

I saw people up front woosh ahead...

Would I be able to keep up? Or would I be left in the dust, a sad testament to anyone trying to WALK a 26.2 mile race?


 Original Image at: