Studying abroad in Spain has always been my dream for the cultural immersion and ability to improve my Spanish speaking skills… but mostly the food. I studied abroad during the summer of 2022 in Alcalá de Henares, Spain outside of Madrid and lived in the dormitory because I am gluten free and need accomodations. By the time I left the facility, the women I saw each day called me their “peliroja celiaca” (gluten free/Celiac redhead). It was nice being able to form these connections and having food that made me feel safe, and I still got invited over to my friend’s homestays and was able to meet their families.
I was surprised to find that every waiter I interacted with was familiar with my allergy: I would ask about the gluten free options and they would immediately respond “¿eres celiaca?” The severity of my needs was understood and they acted with care in preparing my meals. Food was a great way to interact with others and help my Spanish speaking confidence grow. It is also a shocking way to rapidly expand your vocabulary (my favorite word is "cucurucho": ice cream cone)! My allergies did not hinder my ability to eat good food all over Spain, and I would like to share my favorite meals and restaurants that allowed me to connect with friends and practice my Spanish with locals.
Restaurants in Alcalá de Henares
Along the long street lined with shops and restaurants in the small town of Alcalá – one building of which formerly housed Miguel de Cervantes and features statues of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote on the exterior – was a restaurant titled El gato verde. My friends and I laughed at this name (“the green cat”) but I am grateful we chose to enter. This quickly became our favorite hangout spot, and we went many times each week for tapas. My favorite meal was the toast (which could be served gluten free!) topped with sirloin steak, brie, and sweet red peppers. With each food or drink ordered, the waiters would bring out candies, potato chips, and olives for the table to share. I went there frequently and eventually brought my own parents when they visited, and over time made many friendships with locals who visited as it was encouraged to talk across tables.
Manolo Bakery was my favorite study spot to go with friends in between classes or on the weekends to sit, sip a hot coffee, and complete homework assignments. I loved that they offered gluten free chocolate and sugar covered palmeras, and the coffee stirrer was actually an edible graham cracker (also naturally gluten free!). The environment was very welcoming with green ivy along its walls and large windows that allowed sunlight to fill the space.
Indalo tapas in Alcalá is somewhere everybody must visit! It appears to be a small restaurant but stretches far back and seats many people. During my short time abroad, the king of Spain visited this place at least three times. I expected grand expensive meals, but was excited to find that for the purchase of a 3 euro drink you could select a meal that was filling. My personal favorites were the huevos rotos (“broken eggs” which is a dish of fried eggs over potatoes and topped with ham) and the chicken skewers. I liked ordering this alongside a lemon Fanta: a fizzy lemonade unlike the Fanta in the United States and a flavor unavailable outside of Europe.
The place I was most excited about before going abroad was La celiacoteca. Run by non-gluten free workers, the bakery is dedicated to making delicious gluten free food options for all. Upon entry, customers are greeted with a spanning glass case of every gluten free cookie, cake, and bread imaginable. When I wanted something savory, I loved ordering the ham and cheese napolitana with a coffee, but my personal favorite was the fluffy chocolate donut. Considering Alcalá de Henares is such a small town, I felt so happy to have such an inclusive option.
Honorable mentions in Alcalá de Henares include the candied almonds at the local convent, Miss Sushi which was a cute location in the Plaza de Cervantes that decorated its interior with pink plastic animal heads along the walls, and Dall’agnese ice cream where my friends and I gathered almost every night to eat in the plaza.
Menu of the Day
When I wasn’t eating in Alcalá de Henares, I was often seeking out food options in Madrid or other cities as I traveled. I liked seeking places that offered a menu of the day: for lunch, a restaurant could present a special with appetizer, meal, dessert, and drink for 10-12 euros on average. This made bonding with friends affordable and convenient. My absolute favorite option was the ensalada rusa starter: an egg/potato/tuna salad combination with olives, carrots, and peas.
Other Meal Highlights: Traveling Around Spain
Churros with chocolate must be tried in Spain. I was fortunate to find gluten free churros in Madrid at Maestro Churrero and they were absolutely incredible dipped in melted chocolate.
My favorite restaurant EVER was the Mirador de Morayma. This was a random find in Granada, Spain while a friend and I were grabbing a meal before a flamenco show in Las Cuevas (old homes/restaurants built into the side of mountains). We stumbled into the Mirador de Morayma in hopes that they had some availability as everything required a reservation. Fortunately, they did, and I ate olives, steak, and almond cake overlooking the illuminated Alhambra through the trees surrounding the patio.
Suckling pig in Segovia, Spain: a roasted pig is so tender it is traditionally cut using a plate which is then shattered on the floor and divided among guests using a spoon. I absolutely loved the soup with sausage and beans that accompanied the dish.
Pulpo in Barcelona, Spain: octopus is served over potatoes on a wooden platter topped with paprika and olive oil. Authentic pulpo in Spain is a must-try: Pulperia a Gudina is a great little place in Barcelona.
Paella in Valencia, Spain: it is noted that places closest to the water serve the best paella, and Valencia specifically is known for this dish. Do not pass up the opportunity to have authentic paella if you go! I shared an arroz negro with a friend, which is rice turned black with squid ink and containing a variety of seafood. It was served with garlic mayonnaise and was so delicious.
Croquetas in San Sebastián, Spain: I was fortunate to find a dedicated gluten free restaurant in San Sebastián overlooking the water. I ate gluten free croquettes and scallops!