Whether you are a diagnosed celiac or just gunning for a gluten-free diet, it seems this growing way of life has found footing in the Truckee/North Tahoe area. Dozens of grocery store offerings highlighting their gluten free-ness and restaurants clamoring to bring in patrons are working hard to provide wheat-free options for the scrutinizing eater. Despite the hullabaloo, no restaurant is approaching it with the vigor of Truckee’s Drunken Monkey chef, Sam Okamoto. Drunken Monkey, a sushi, tapas, and sake restaurant that opened its doors at the Rock in 2009, is now offering a separate gluten-free menu. From appetizers and noodle bowls to nigiri, sake, and even beer, it’s not only plausible but tempting to go gluten free on your next dining experience.
The Monkey’s new menu required an adaptation of several sauces and ingredients, the training of the entire staff to be sensitive to allergies, and part of the kitchen cordoned off as the gluten-free zone. Chef Okamoto has diligently set up storage, prep, and cooking procedures to avoid cross contamination between gluten and non-gluten items.
You could say that offering a gluten-free menu is somewhat of a no-brainer for Okamoto, who was born and raised in Japan.
In his years as a successful and busy French cook, he started having bewildering symptoms — his eyelids, lips, and skin swelled to the point where he couldn’t see or eat, and his skin was unhealthy. After years of dealing with health issues, which no doctor could decipher, the chef found himself atop a waterfall contemplating the reasons for his malaise. Doctors had told him he would have to take pills for the rest of his life, an idea that just didn’t sit right with him. His thoughts landed on his diet, which at that time was largely comprised of meat, cheese, heavy sauces, and lots of bread. Dazzled by the simplicity of the idea, he changed his habits to that of his childhood — lots of broth, vegetables, and fresh fish. Within three days, he says, most of the symptoms were gone. Since then, he has made healthy eating a passion, seeking to understand nutrition and sort through the hype of ‘miracle’ ingredients.
Unlike many contemporary California sushi restaurants, Drunken Monkey offers traditional Japanese fare, focusing more on the fish than the sauces and more on vegetables than sake bombs. With the gluten-free menu, it expands into yet another alluring realm.
We decided to do our gluten-free homework and try a few of the items offered by Okamoto and his staff. Overall, the experience left us feeling not only sated, but with a happy lightness in our stomachs. Here are a few of our recommendations when pondering the menu at Drunken Monkey.
Both times trying this traditional Korean dish of fermented cabbage knocked our socks off. Okamoto makes his kimchi in-house, and it often changes to accompany a special. Starting with a base of Napa cabbage, daikon, garlic, green onion, and three different kinds of chilis, the best kimchi we tried also had a little ginger and dried shrimp, adding to the tangy, crunchy flavor.
Ho-Fun Rice Noodles, $14
We both had exclaimed that every bite was something different and amazing in this noodle dish. Drunken Monkey noodles, not to be missed, are delivered from the Bay Area fresh every Wednesday and this rice noodle dish is bursting with squid, shrimp, scallops, hamachi, and salmon. Thrown on top of that are, depending on the season, red peppers, onions, tiger lily bud, straw mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, and squash. The sauce features garlic and ginger with tamari soy sauce and a little red chili miso and ponzu for a full-
Nigiri (Prices for two pieces):
Okamoto gets fresh fish in six days a week, and there is always something interesting to try. He has four different suppliers and isn’t afraid to send back subpar product. One evening we visited he told us that a prior week he had refused between 45 and 60 pounds of unsatisfactory fish, a fact that tells us you’ll always get the best when Okamoto is checking in the order.
Hamachi (Yellowtail), $6.50
When hamachi is at its finest, there is no better taste sensation behind the sushi chef’s glass — it is delicate yet hardy, buttery balanced with a light oil flavor, and you feel it almost literally melt in your mouth. Flown directly from Kyushu, Japan, this amazing hamachi is some of the best we’ve tasted. Okamoto sought long and hard to source his hamachi from this island. Confidently order it anytime it’s featured on the menu.
Saba (Vinegared Mackerel), $4.50
It might not be a go-to item for everyone, but this saba comes in from Norway fat and clean. Drunken Monkey chefs fillet and de-bone the fish, then salt it for 40 minutes. Upon ordering, the fish is then skinned and placed in rice vinegar for one minute before serving. The staff make it fresh daily, and it tends to have a light, pickled flavor, clean in your mouth. The best saba in the region, hands down.
Sake (Sockeye Salmon), $4.95
It’s salmon season, and right now Drunken Monkey is getting their salmon from the Columbia River in Washington. It’s a beautiful fish, with a firm texture and great flavor.
It’s evident that a great amount of care goes into the preparation and presentation of all the offerings at Drunken Monkey. Regardless of what you order, we feel you’ll leave happy, for as the menu says, Ishoku-dÅgen, food is medicine.
Info: Drunken Monkey, 11253 Brockway Road #105 in the Rock, (530) 582-9755, drunkenmonkeysushi.com. Lunch is served Thursday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner served seven days a week from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and until 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.