Gluten-Free Options at the Smithsonian's National Zoo

One of my favorite places to go in Washington DC is the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Whether I go for a quick visit or spend the whole day there, I love the thrill of seeing animals from around the world up close and personal. 

The best thing about the National Zoo is that it is completely free to enter 364 days a year (they are closed on Christmas Day). Located in the Woodley Park neighborhood away from the hustle and bustle of the National Mall it’s a retreat from city life and a chance to explore the beautiful grounds of the park.

Typically when I visit the National Zoo I bring a packed lunch or a few snacks because they allow visitors to bring outside food and non-alcoholic beverages into the park. This makes planning gluten and dairy-free travel a breeze, but on a recent visit I forgot my snacks at home so walked around to see what options I could find. 

The first place I checked when in the park was Panda Grill, which serves up a 7″ gluten-free pizza for $8.25. The subtext says “ingredients do not contain gluten- made to order; minimum 10 minute wait.” I did not ask about preparation protocol or ingredients because the food stand wasn’t yet open for the day, but I will definitely be back to investigate further. 

The second food cart I spotted and checked was a popcorn cart across from the visitor’s center. Popcorn is pretty easy to find gluten-free, but dairy can be a tricky as sometimes butter or milk-derivatives are used for flavoring. I asked if I could see the ingredients, and the cart worker happily gave me a bag to examine them. The popcorn is gluten and dairy-free, with the only allergen being soy. I believe it might be vegan too- depending on the ingredients of the dyes (I’m no sure if they are vegan). The popcorn is the only thing made and served at the cart so I had no concerns with cross contamination.

The popcorn is light and fluffy with a nostalgic buttery taste and terrific crunch. It’s salty and satisfying and not too oily at all. Usually when I eat popcorn it’s a very basic sea salt flavor so it was nice to get a “movie theater” style experience. I actually went back and checked again to make sure it was dairy-free because the butter taste was spot-on, and sure enough it was. 

Adding to the “wow” factor for me was the fact that the popcorn was served in this adorable Giant Panda container. Delicious gluten and dairy-free popcorn with a bonus souvenir? I was sold. I’m so glad I forgot to bring my usual snack that day because the popcorn certainly made my day and was a nice snack to have when strolling around the different exhibits.

The popcorn in this container costs $6, $5 for a paper bag. Discounts are available for the National Zoo’s members.

I most certainly will be a more frequent visitor to the National Zoo (more so than I already was) not only for the amazing animals, but as the go-to place to cure to my popcorn cravings. I will most certainly keep my eyes peeled for other gluten-free options and will update this post accordingly. 

Update 8/15/17: On another visit to the zoo, I purchased a Minute Maid soft frozen strawberry lemonade. The frozen concoction is gluten-free, dairy-free, and allergen-free. I found it sweet, fruity, and refreshing- perfect for a hot summer day in D.C.  The zoo also sells a lemon version of frozen lemonade as well.

Disclaimer: The information presented is current to the post’s publication date and does not reflect changes in ingredients or availability of items. Any updates will be noted. Please contact the restaurant directly for up-to-date information and feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.

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