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April 14, 2008

Gluten-Free Mac & Cheese In NYC

S'mac Exterior

345 East 12th Street (between 1st & 2nd Ave.)

Fasten your gluten-free comfort food seat belt, because S'MAC is going to take you for a cheesy ride! I can't eat there (for now) due to my stupid corn and dairy allergies, but I wanted to get the scoop about their gluten-free options for everyone else.  I emailed the owner, Sarita, and her reply seriously impressed me:


Hi Kelly,
From the day we opened (actually, since a few days before we opened), we have had requests for specialty mac & cheese. Dairy-free and Vegan being one, Gluten Free was another, Rennet Free cheeses, etc. Of all these requests, GF was the one we heard the most. We knew we always wanted to extend mac & cheese to more and more people, so we decided upon GF as the best one to start with. Seemed like a simple enough idea at the time. But as we dug deeper we realized that it would be harder than we had first imagined. Restaurant cooking is very different than home cooking and a recipe that might work in your home would not necessarily hold up in a restaurant. The considerations we had were,

1) Gluten is a great emulsifier and helps to bind cheese sauce to pasta. Non-gluten mac & cheeses, especially ones made with starches, tend to have cheese sauce that runs off the pasta. We wanted to make sure that the "goopiness" factor was not lost.
2) Gluten is also a great stabilizer and mac & cheese made with gluten in it will not separate when sitting in your fridge for a few days. This stability was very important to us because people order Take & Bake from us and typically hold them in their fridge for a few days before baking and eating. People also take leftovers home and have to be able to reheat and eat them at least a few days later.
3) Any thickener, stabilizer used in mac & cheese needs to be pretty tasteless and a lot of the alternative flours out there (like bean flours, sorghum, etc.) tend to have very strong flavors of their own, completely masking the cheese flavors.

So you can imagine that it took us a good 6-7 months of playing with ingredients before we got everything we wanted. The successful thickener turned out to be a blend of Sweet Rice and Potato flours. Sweet Rice is blander, starchier and not grainy like its other Rice cousins, and Potato flour tends to be a very gummy flour.
The other big consideration was Cross Contamination. We knew that in our tiny kitchen, with food flying everywhere when a rush hits, there was no way we could, (a) maintain a separate set of sauces and pasta for GF people, and (b) prevent cross contamination. So the next rule we made was that either we serve GF bechamel and GF breadcrumbs to everyone, or give up on the GF idea. A lot of other restaurants will sometimes put GF (or other allergy friendly) items on their menu that taste sub-par, because they know it is not their main business and they are doing it just to appease a certain constituency. We, on the other hand, had to make sure that our GF mac & cheese tasted just as good (or better!) as the regular one because we would be serving it to everyone, not just GF customers. So that took some time too, doing blind taste tests with regular customers and tweaking proportions until we got to a point where neither our own staff nor our regular customers (who had been eating our food for a year and a half) could tell which was which in a blind taste test. When we reached that point we knew that we could now go ahead and put it on the menu.

So we have eliminated All-Purpose flour completely from the restaurant, and everyone gets their mac & cheese with the Sweet Rice & Potato flour base. We have also eliminated Breadcrumbs from the restaurant and everyone gets their mac & cheese with GF Corn Flake crumbs. We went over our pantry with a fine tooth comb and talked to all our suppliers, and so at this point, there are only 4 sources of gluten contamination at S'MAC ....

1) Regular Pasta
2) Multi-grain Pasta
3) Cookies
4) Brownies
So you can see that it is much easier to control these than breadcrumbs and flour flying around our kitchen. Once that was accomplished, it was just a matter of designating separate pots and utensils for cooking GF and non-GF items, rearranging the kitchen a little bit to ensure things don't fall into one another, and then training all the staff so they understood what Gluten is and does to people and how to avoid cross-contamination.
It does help that just over 8 months ago I suddenly developed an intolerance to gluten myself, and was unable to eat my own mac & cheese until now :(. That's the story - sorry for the thesis but it's hard to condense! Now that GF is on the menu, we will be turning our attention to dairy-free. So rest assured, we will get you to S'MAC one day!
Also -- yes we do have a membership with GFRAP and are just waiting on them to link to us now. 
There is an additional charge for people ordering "gluten-free" pasta -- it is as follows:
Nosh:  $1.50
Major Munch:  $3.00
Mongo:  $6.00
Partay!:  $15.00

S'mac Menu View 2

It looks like S'MAC may change the term "cheesy" into a compliment!

So go get yourself some gluten-free mac n' cheese!! Be sure to come back here and give us your feedback.


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WOW! I live right by that place and I've been walking past it cursing it's name under my breath for about two years. No More! (Yes, I can admit that it was just petty jealousy...)

What a great two weeks! First Rice Chex, and now S'Mac!


Kelly, what an outstanding response from Sarita. It sounds like she really understands the needs of a gluten-free customer. I will be sure to check it out soon. Would you mind posting her response on the Meetup board? There has been a lot of discussion about S'Mac lately and I am sure this post will help reassure our crowd. Thanks!


S'MAC has been dangling GF Mac&Cheese in front of us for so long and now it's finally here!!
Sooo exciting... I am going to go pig out there this week!!

For anyone curious to see some more of the history behind this coming into being, or post your own reviews, check out the below threads:

If YOU want to help (beg/cajole/entice) new GF-friendly restaurants into existence join the NYC Celiac Disease Meetup Group:

I am so looking forward to a trip to NYC at the end of next week now. Thanks so much ladies! I'm going to get some mac and cheese as soon as I get off at Penn Station.

Justin G.- Since you live so close I bet the odds of anyone stopping by S'MAC and bumping into you are going to be really high!! Enjoy!

Erin- I went to link to this letter on the S'MAC Meetups string and Erin beat me to it! ;)

Thank you so much for this post Kelly! We'll be in NYC for vacation the first week of May and I was just checking your site to try and pare down where all to eat while there. I almost fell off my chair when I saw this post! I can NOT wait to have mac-n-cheese (in a restaurant) for the first time in over two years!

Hello TJ,

Have a great time when you are in NYC! If you are near Park Ave. in midtown you'll have to pop in and say hello!

OH! MY! GOD! This is too good! Had the American tonight, can't wait to try the Masala! I've never had M&C this good -- and I was a civilian until I was 50. Run, don't walk.

Alan- I always LOVE your comments! btw- nice site!

Wow! I love that this restaurant is doing this. I hope others follow their example! I am glad eating out gluten free isn't as "weird" or difficult as it used to be.


Does this now include the one on the UWS? I was throughly disappointed two weekends ago as i went to the smac uptown and even though it was on their menu, they told me the didn't haven't it...and wouldn't for quite some time. I asked that they let their customers know online as well as in store by putting a sign up.

S'mac rocks. I love that place for good comfort food. Awesome to read this. Now I can bring my children too! Thank you S'mac!

Had the cheeseburger and the buffalo chicken mac 'n cheese.. soooooooooo good!! I'm not a celiac but my boyfriend is but we both enjoyed our lunch! I'm planning on bringing some other friends there soon!

Hi Kelly!
Heather and I wanted to share our experience at S'MAC with you.
We learned about S"MAC while attending your Gluten Free BBQ over the summer.
Heather saved, and filed every piece of information we picked up from the BBQ, and any other Gluten Free events
she has attended!
Yesterday, we took Heathers daughter, Nikki, into the City for her birthday.
After a morning at Radio City, to see the Christmas Show, we jumped in a cab
and headed down town to S"MAC.
Being a civilian in the war on Gluten, I have the luxury of stuffing my "pie hole" with what ever I want,
but Nikki and Heather studied the menu the entire cab ride there!
They were more excited to eat some good mac' n cheese, than they were seeing the tree in Rockefeller Center!
We all went for the "build your own" style, and it was lost of fun picking and choosing what to put in.
and believe me, there's a lot to choose from!
The food comes to your table VERY hot cast iron skillet ( keep an eye on the younger ones if you go there with kids) with the cheese still bubbling !
We all chose the "Major Munch" size, and it was filling for Heather and I, but we ended up packing the rest of Nikki's to take home with us.
Aside from the staff mixing up Heather and Nikki's order, not the gluten free part, just the mix-ins, we had a great time.

I wanted to share this with you, for the simple reason, it's because of you, and the work that you do for the celiac community
that we were, and continue to be, exposed to different establishments and manufacturers that are celiac friendly.

Thanks Again Kelly, and keep up the good work!
Merry Christmas,
Nikki, Heather & Bob

This is almost a year later, but I wanted to post about my disappointing experience yesterday at the UWS S'MAC. I should have checked with the restaurant before going with a group of friends, but the UWS S'MAC - IS NOT GLUTEN FREE! This was a huge surprise considering the LES restaurant's focus on GF options. Keep this in mind if making plans!!!

can't to treat myself with mac and cheese.
--rob towles

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