Train fare: Dining on the rails with Amtrak

Train fare: Dining on the rails with Amtrak
Amazing what comes out of this tiny kitchen from the dedicated staff. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Once upon a time, dining on the train could be compared to dining at high end restaurants with trained chefs preparing food from scratch--everything from housemade turtle soup to spiced nuts (cuisine du jour in the golden days of train travel).

Things have changed.

Train food still beats the airlines where a complimentary soda pop and a bag of pretzels is standard cuisine. But it is no longer worthy of a Michelin star--even on a dark night.

So what do you get?

On a recent 42 hour, 2053 mile ride on the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago I got a taste of train fare circa 2018. I confess to being a bit of a food snob, but considering Amtrak's limited budget and small space kitchen, I give them an A for effort.amtrakfood

Interestingly (to me anyway) Amtrak has a Culinary Advisory Team (ACAT)--and a pretty impressive one. Former Trotter's chef Chicago’s Matthias Merges of the Japanese-style Yusho restaurant, the popular Logan Square hangout, Billy Sunday and A10 is one of the three team leaders.

The others include James Beard winning chef Jamie Bissonnett co-chef/owner of Toro, Coppa and recently Little Donkey in NYC and Boston and Roberto Santibañez, chef/owner of Fonda restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan. These chefs meet annually to develop menu selections for Amtrak's long-distance routes and Acela First Class trains.

The menus feature some healthy choices including vegetarian and gluten free foods. There are also sugar-free and soy milk options available. A nice touch for weight watchers is that the menu lists the calorie count for each dish. Real dishes (although not fine china) silverware, no plastic, serrated steak knifes, clear plastic cups for liquids and paper cups for coffee rounded out the tableware.

The staff is friendly, professional and at the ready with suggestions and refills on beverages and coffee.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car is included in the fare for sleeping car passengers. Coach car passengers are welcome in the dining car but must pay the prices listed on the menu. Beer, wine and cocktails are also available at an additional cost for all.

amtrakbreakfastBreakfast offers many choices but the only style for eggs is scrambled, whether in an omelet or as is. The only bread choice for breakfast is a "croissant" that is nothing like the crescent-shaped buttery, flaky, viennoiserie pastry conjured up by the French.

Amtrak's "croissant" is square, resembling a pop tart with an uneven texture. If nothing else a new name other than "croissant" is in order. Several dishes come with fruit but, not grapefruit unless you BYOG--a missed opportunity for a train that departs from California where grapefruit is plentiful.

No longer is the popular French toast (pictured above) an option due most likely to no breads besides the "croissants" onboard. You can order bacon or sausage as a side and choose between potatoes or grits with the egg dishes.amtrakangusburger

Lunch offers a nice selection of menu items including a Romaine & Goat Cheese Salad, a Black Bean & Corn Veggie Burger, Baked Chilaquiles, a lo-cal garden salad and a 270 calorie Steamed Prince Edward Island mussel dish with a white wine and garlic broth sauce.

A favorite for lunch is the calorie-laden grilled antibiotic and hormone-free Angus Burger that weighs in at an impressive 1088 calories--add some cheddar, bacon and Monterey jack cheese, a side of guac followed by dessert (which is available on both the lunch and dinner menus) and you have a days' worth of calories.

I say go for it.

Popular dinner choices features the Amtrak Signature Steak at $25--a USDA Choice Black Angus flat iron steak with optional Béarnaise sauce. The steak is accompanied by a baked potato, sour cream and green beans. Other choices include griddle seared Norwegian Salmon served with green beans and wild rice pilaf, a thyme seasoned chicken breast with mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley and an Italian inspired creamy Arborio rice dish with butternut squash, topped with petite green beans and cherry tomato halves, dusted with Parmesan cheese.

Dinner in the room.

Dinner in the room.

Sleeping car passengers have the choice of eating in the dining car or their rooms. For room service give your sleeping car attendant your order and the time you would like your meal delivered.

Eating in the dining car is communal. Unless you are a party of four, you will be seated with others. You will meet a wide variety of people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the world and most likely learn a thing or two from them.

On my ride, I meet a semi truck driver and his wife from Illinois, two PHD engineering candidates from Texas Tech, a lady from a small town in Ohio who takes the train once a year to visit her sister in San Diego, a man traveling to Washington D.C. on business and a women traveling all the way to Orlando from Los Angeles via Chicago and Washington D.C.

In general the people I met were happy with the food. Favorites included the thyme chicken breast and the Butternut Squash Risotto.

Although you can download movies and books for the trip, don't forget to look out the window to see special moments like the reflection of the sun as it set off the mountain tops in Trinidad, Colorado captured here.

Sun reflecting off the mountains in Trinidad, Colorado. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Sun reflecting off the mountains in Trinidad, Colorado. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

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