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Riding The Rails: Dining & Other Adventurs On Amtrak (Long)

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Riding The Rails: Dining & Other Adventurs On Amtrak (Long)

chino wayne | Jul 11, 2002 12:14 AM

Being long time aficionados of train travel, in particular steam driven locomotion when they can find it, and not relishing (Mmmm, a hotdog would go really well about now) standing in lines for hours, hiking across miles of airline terminals, enduring interrogations, shoe inspections, pat downs, X-rays, gamma-rays, and what ever else might follow, only to then be shoe-horned in to seats that were obviously designed by some sadistic engineer from the Seattle Sardine Packing Company, the Chino Waynes quickly determined that Chino Wayne’s necessary business trip to New Orleans would only be bearable if the conveyance was a train and not a plane. So for the price of a single round trip business class airline ticket, a round trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans for both Mr. and Mrs. Chino Wayne, in a Deluxe Sleeping Compartment was booked. At this point Chino Wayne thought he was ahead of the game, getting two fares on Amtrak, in deluxe accommodations no less, for the price of one fare in the sardine can.

The first inkling of the adventure to come should have been early on when Chino Wayne tried to navigate the Amtrak web site and simply obtain some scheduling information. After filling in an HTML form at the Amtrak site requesting information about trains from Los Angeles to New Orleans and back, the Amtrak web server served up information about trains between New Orleans and Chicago. Chino Wayne, exhibiting the traits of a true ‘hound persevered and finally obtained the needed data for an L.A.-N’awlins-L.A. excursion and had his travel agent book the trip. When Chino Wayne received the tickets it finally began to dawn on him that he and the Mrs. really were about to embark on an adventure, as Amtrak had apparently determined that it would be still be more convenient (apparently to Amtrak) to return Chino Wayne and Mrs. Chino Wayne to Chicago from New Orleans instead of to Los Angeles. When the travel agent tried to get Amtrak to book the correct itinerary (i.e. L.A. to N’awlins to L.A.) she was informed by Amtrak that there were no longer any deluxe accommodations available on the leg from New Orleans to L.A. The end result was a trip booked on the Sunset Limited, from L.A. to New Orleans, then on the City of New Orleans, from New Orleans to Chicago, then on the Southwest Chief, from Chicago to L.A.

On the appointed evening, Mr. and Mrs. Chino Wayne, accompanied by Mrs. Chino Wayne’s faithful companion, “Whoopi”, (“Whitney” stayed home in a drawer) made their way through the cavernous interior of Union Station in L.A., an architectural landmark, of Spanish influence, with very high ceilings, heavy wood beams, beautiful tiles and reverbating acoustics that rendered every announcement on the public address system incomprehensible to human ears. Chino Wayne glanced longingly at Traxx restaurant, while briefly resting on his sojourn through the non air-conditioned echo chamber. With about 150 impatient passengers clamoring to all get aboard the single six seat electric cart piloted by a hapless redcap, the Chino Wayne’s reluctantly elected to hike to the Track 12 tunnel, which was barely discernable in the distance, where they encountered an anal retentive station agent who wanted all passengers to line up “just so” at the entrance to the tunnel to the Track 12 platform, and an agitated train conductor who wanted to get his train the hell on its way, both did an admirable job of wasting time while simultaneously annoying all of the by then panting passengers who just wanted to get the hell on the train. The Chino Wayne’s finally made it aboard their sleeper and enjoyed complimentary Pepsi-Cola’s while the train rolled back and forth on the back side of the L.A. County Jail, collecting freight cars from the Terminal Annex Post Office. The train finally departed, an hour and a half late at about 12 midnight.

The next morning the Chino Wayne’s, after a night of bumping and grinding (separately mind you, in upper and lower berths) in a rocking, rolling and bumping sleeping car, and somewhere between Yuma and Tucson, enjoyed their first dining car breakfast. Scrambled eggs, sausage patties and bacon were consumed, with sides of grits and home fries and biscuits. In Chino Wayne’s estimation the eggs were cooked to order in the diner’s lower level galley and the grits cooked there also, the breakfast meats seemed to have led a previous life on a stove that was not on tracks. While not the best of breakfasts consumed in Chino Wayne’s long and illustrious eating career, it was indeed better than contemporary airline fare, and did hit the spot in the middle of the Arizona desert. By this time the Sunset Limited was about two hours behind schedule.

Lunch was somewhere between Tucson and Deming, New Mexico and consisted of hamburgers, potato chips and sodas. Apple pie for dessert. The hamburgers, like the breakfast meats, seemed cooked prior to boarding the train, and then re-heated, but were tasty. And so a routine was established that the Chino Waynes would endure for many days to come: up in the morning to the dining car for breakfast while the berths were converted to seats in the sleeping compartment, back to the sleeping compartment for sight seeing, reading and snoozing, then to the dining car for lunch, back to the sleeping compartment for sight seeing, reading, snoozing and snacking, then to the dining car for dinner, back to the sleeping compartment for sight seeing, reading, maybe a friendly card game, berth conversion and then snoozing, bumping and grinding.

By the time the Sunset Limited rolled in to El Paso on the first day after departure, it was about six hours late. Dinner with the Chino Wayne’s favorite, White Zinfandel, was enjoyed while the train rolled back and forth in front of the El Paso train station for two hours, hooking and unhooking cars rather violently. The only minor problem was that for at least 30 minutes, there was no electrical power to most of the train. That meant that the New York steak that Chino Wayne was anticipating was not available, since it could not be cooked. Chino Wayne had to settle for a baked pork chop. (Obviously baked in another life, not aboard a train, and then put in a warming oven below decks in the diner.) Adding insult to injury, while Chino Wayne was tucking in to the abject little pork chop on his plate, the dining car attendant made sure to announce on the P.A. system to the whole train, that since the power had been restored (while Chino Wayne was elbow deep in said pork chop), the next seating would get steak! Chino Wayne did, however, compensate by specializing almost entirely in steak at all subsequent dinner time meals.

The trains that the Chino Waynes rode on were supplied by Amtrak commissaries in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago, and all menus on all trains were the same. This was institutional food, with final preparation and presentation executed within the limited confines and resources of dining car galleys, conveyed via dumbwaiter to dining car attendants that despite having to negotiate rocking and rolling cars, served the meals with wit and a lack of spillage. While the food was formulaic, it was satisfying and added to an overall sense of well-being as the Chino Wayne’s rolled across America. The baked pork chops were served with a subtle sauce that Chino Wayne wanted more of, and the steaks, while reminiscent of something from the Sizzler chain, also were presented with (probably a pre-made) mushroom sauce and were cooked properly medium-rare. The vegetables on the Sunset Limited seemed to be prepared from fresh ingredients and consisted of some very nice carrots with a very sparing sweet glaze and fresh, not overcooked, green beans. The rice pilaf was workman like, the garlic mashed potatoes sufficiently garlicky; the baked potatoes were undersized and under baked.

The good news for the Chino Waynes on the second night aboard the Sunset Limited was the fact that they slept really well. The bad news was that they slept really well, because the train was not moving, and was somewhere outside of El Paso, in west Texas all night, due to a broken down freight train up ahead. By this time the Sunset Limited was approaching 10 hours behind schedule. The Chino Waynes, ever the pragmatic and opportunistic ‘hounds (yes, even in this case, Mrs. Chino Wayne, who is not a natural born ‘hound, and becomes quite squeamish if the food offered is anything but “whitebread”, exhibited ‘houndly instincts) figured that since the alternative to staying aboard the train was to step off in to some serious boondocks and possibly encounter a rattlesnake, or a border patrolman, that they would just relax aboard the train. So after a refreshing shower, executed by Chino Wayne after shoe-horning his rather considerable bulk in to the combination potty/shower (torture) enclosure the Chino Waynes repaired to the diner for more eggs (scrambled and over easy with bacon and ham this time) more home fries (that actually had some miniscule slices of onion) and strong Amtrak coffee. Three hours later, with the same monotonous sage brush and sand scenery passing by, in fits and starts, the number one item on the Chino Waynes’ agenda was lunch. A burger for the Mrs. and a rather pitiful Reuben sandwich for Chino Wayne, but all was made well by a slice of apple pie with (obligingly by the attendant) two scoops of ice cream.

After riding for nearly a lifetime, that evening the Sunset Limited pulled in front of the platform at the San Antonio station, about 12 hours behind schedule. By this time it had become apparent to the Chino Waynes that once any train has had an initial delay, the domino effect kicks in. The engineering crew, by law must not work more than a prescribed amount of consecutive hours, so while the train may not have been moving, the crew was still “on duty”, and they would have to stop the train after their hours were exhausted and wait for a replacement crew, this would be further exacerbated by the fact that the train would have to stop and wait for passing freight trains, which may have been avoided, had the train been on time.

The adventure for the Chino Waynes continued as they spent an unanticipated third night aboard the Sunset Limited, which finally made it out of the state of Texas in the wee hours of the fourth day. At breakfast that morning Chino and his tablemates discussed the possibility of pulling the emergency cord and stopping the train. Not because they were tired of being on the train, but because they were getting hungry. Approaching 16 hours late, the Sunset Limited had not been provisioned for an extra dinner and breakfast service. The dining car was running out of food and water, and more important, that ingredient essential to all serious travel, ice. So Chino Wayne and his tablemates, when told that certain items deemed necessary for an enjoyable breakfast were not available, in their desperation, were keeping an eye out for a local coffee shop, or even, horror of horrors an Applebee’s in each of the small Louisiana towns they were passing through. At least one McDonalds was spotted from the train, but Chino Wayne does have his standards and he and his compatriots were not that desperate, so in the end they let the train continue on without any more unscheduled stops and settled for what ever could be scrounged in the galley. Finally, after a another lifetime, the Sunset Limited arrived in N’awlins on a Saturday afternoon, instead of the scheduled Friday evening before. The first order of business once the Chino Waynes got in to their hotel room was a room service order, then a shower.

The Chino Waynes, by no means considering themselves chic, and obviously not a part of the jet-set, still have their standards. So while most passengers, except for the gentleman in the tan suit, leather vest, cowboy boots and cowboy hat, were decked out in shorts, jeans and T-shirts, the Chino Waynes were in their business casual duds when boarding the City of New Orleans for the trip to Chicago. Chino Wayne in his slacks, polo shirt and penny loafers, Mrs. Chino Wayne in pants, a coordinated blouse and sweeter, and chic medium heel sandals, with of course, “Whoopi”. Apparently the Chino Waynes were overdressed, and “Whoopi” was putting out her mojo, as more than one train attendant said to Mrs. Chino Wayne upon boarding, “Are you a movie star?”

The trip from N’awlins to Chicago was uneventful and on time. After traversing Lake Ponchatrain and the state of Mississippi, Chino Wayne had seen more water and more overgrown green entangled forest than he had since living in the jungles of Panama as a guest of the United States Navy. More of the same food for dinner and breakfast on the City of New Oreleans as was experienced on the Sunset Limited. The layover in the Metropolitan Lounge in the Chicago Union Station was enjoyable, especially after Mrs. Chino Wayne scouted out the food court on the upper level of the station and found a BBQ joint. So while fellow travelers, in the by now standing-room-only Metropolitan Lounge lamented the fact that the free coffee, soda and juice dispensers were not functioning, Chino Wayne every so slowly savored a rack of baby backs, some beans, coleslaw and a roll. After all, being the ever resourceful ‘hound that he is during field operations, Chino Wayne had no idea what obstacles would lie ahead on the Southwest Chief, so he stoked up before boarding.
True to form, the Southwest Chief pulled out of the station in Chicago on time, at a rapid pace, for about a mile and then stopped for 45 minutes while waiting for the freight cars full of mail from the post office, that was late. By the time the train passed Naperville, Illinois it was an hour late. Somewhere southwest of Naperville the train blew out an air hose. Since intact air hoses, on all of the cars, are essential to the braking system the train could not proceed. Fortunately for the Chino Wayne’s their resourceful engineering crew had a spare part on board, and after a struggle for about an hour, with assistance from the crew of the freight train that was stuck on the adjacent track (it could not pass until the Southwest Chief got out of the way) and the Southwest Chief rolled on.

Normally it seems Amtrak configures their trains as the engine, then a crew sleeper, then a two passenger sleepers, then the dining car, then the lounge car, then any number of coach cars, then freight. This was the configuration on the Sunset Limited and the City of New Orleans. For some reason the configuration was modified on the Southwest Chief, with an extra sleeper behind the last coach, just in front of the freight. This was where the Chino Waynes were relegated to, about two football field lengths behind the dining car. Fortunately for Chino Wayne and Mrs. Chino Wayne they were served by the best sleeping car attendant of the entire trip on the Southwest Chief who very graciously provided “room service” for the entire trip on the Southwest Chief so that Chino Wayne and the Mrs. would not have to negotiate the trip to the far distant dining car. When traveling on long haul trains on Amtrak, the passengers are served by the same sleeping car attendant for the entire trip on a given train, unlike the engineering crew, the service crew must work the entire trip, and are on-call to the passengers at all hours. In the Chino Waynes’ experience, their first sleeping car attendant on the Sunset Limited was an admitted greenhorn, and despite the generous upfront gratuity palmed by Chino Wayne, provided the worst service of the trip. The sleeping car attendant on the City of New Orleans was sufficiently responsive to the greased palm, and somewhat in awe of who ever the movie star (Mrs. Chino Wayne) was. The sleeping car attendant on the Southwest Chief was by far the best, most knowledgable, and attentive, and Chino Wayne believes he would have been that way even if not handsomely rewarded by Chino Wayne upon boarding in Chicago and upon disembarkation in California.

The adventure continued on the second day aboard the Southwest Chief as Chino Wayne noticed that the wet spot on the carpet in the sleeping compartment instead of evaporating, had grown larger during the night. The growing water menace was dealt with by a succession of Amtrak’s miniature bath towels. It should be noted here for any who might consider traveling via Amtrak sleeper, that not only are the “water closets” truly teeny, tiny closets, the bath towels have apparently been scaled down proportionally. A single bath towel was the size of a large placemat, with about enough surface area to dry Chino Wayne’s left elbow. What was more annoying was the faulty latch on the water closet on the Sunset Limited, which greatly impeded Chino Wayne’s snoozing, as it regularly failed and the door flapped open throughout the night. Thank God, at least the toilets in the water closets were extremely efficient at whooshing themselves out after each use.

The food on the Southwest Chief was the same as on the Sunset Limited and as on the City of New Orleans, with the exception that the green beans on the Southwest Chief were inferior (in taste and appearance) to the green beans on the other two trains, but obviously the beans from the Amtrak Chicago commissary were much more sophisticated then the L.A. and N’awlins beans, because the Chicago beans had slivered almonds nestled in them. Chino Wayne, however, would have gladly traded all of his Chicago green beans for a Chicago hot dog, with some of that neon green Chicago relish.

On the morning of the third day, the Southwest Chief was only 5 hours late as it pulled in to Barstow, California, but the adventure was not over yet. Despite the fact that the Chino Waynes were ticketed all the way to Los Angeles, Chino Wayne had informed the sleeping car attendant that he and the Mrs. would disembark in Riverside, California, which is much closer to the old homestead in Chino, California, than L.A. is. As the train pulled in to the station in Riverside, however, the sleeping car attendant was no where to be found to open the door to the platform, he had forgotten that the Chino Waynes wanted to disembark in Riverside. So as the train pulled out of the station in Riverside, Chino Wayne tried using his arms as a semaphore, to signal the Brother-In-Law-Of-Chino Wayne, who stood on the platform, a confused look on his face as the train pulled away, and there were no Chino Waynes in sight. Chino Wayne and the Brother-In-Law-Of-Chino Wayne quickly established cell phone communications and the Brother-In-Law-Of-Chino Wayne was asked to hot tail it, in Herman, to the Amtrak station in Fullerton, California, where the Chino Waynes would again attempt to disembark from the Southwest Chief. The Chino Waynes did successfully disembark from the Southwest Chief in Fullerton, met up with the Brother-In-Law-Of-Chino Wayne, and after Chino Wayne palmed another gratuity to the sleeping car attendant after he had placed the Chino Wayne’s luggage on the platform, bid the sleeping car attendant adieu, as the train pulled out of the station. As the last car of the train rapidly receded in to the distance, Mrs. Chino Wayne informed Chino Wayne that not all of the Chino Wayne’s luggage was on the platform, that in fact one piece was on its way to Los Angeles. Chino Wayne, Mrs. Chino Wayne, the Brother-In-Law-Of-Chino Wayne, and Herman then joined the party on the Interstate 5 parking lot, and eventually made their way to Union Station in Los Angeles, 40 miles past Chino, California, where they were reunited with their luggage and the hapless sleeping car attendant, who after two back to back 48 hour trips on the Southwest Chief, (one out to Chicago, a 12 hour layover, then one back from Chicago) was informed by Amtrak that he would not be returning to his family, but would be flown to El Paso to relieve someone else. What a way to run a railroad.

The Chino Waynes reported that despite the minor inconveniences experienced, they will do this again. The only thing that will be different is that Chino Wayne will insure that at least a half case of White Zinfandel will be tucked away in the carry-on baggage.

Chino Wayne did manage to snag the Amtrak menu as a souvenir, this is what was served on all three trains:

Breakfast

TWO FRESH EGGS
prepared up, over or scrambled. Served with breakfast potatoes or grits and a hot biscuit or croissant. (Egg substitute is available upon request). $6.00

CLASSIC FRENCH TOAST
Two thick slices of egg-dipped French toast grilled to a golden brown. Served with syrup or fruit topping. $6.50

PANCAKES
Three pancakes fresh off the griddle, accompanied with syrup or fruit topping. $6.50

CONTINENTAL
The lighter alternative: A choice of Raisin Bran, Rice Krispies, Frosted Flakes or oatmeal, served with fruit, yogurt and a choice of a hot biscuit or croissant. $5.75

ON THE SIDE
Your choice of either bacon strips, pork sausage patties or turkey sausage links. $2.25

BEVERAGES
Freshly Brewed Coffee (regular or decaffeinated) $1.50
Tea (iced, hot or herbal) $1.50
Milk $1.50
Orange, Apple or Cranberry Juice $1.50
Bottled Water $1.75

Lunch

STEAK BURGER
Served with or without cheddar cheese. Accompanied by lettuce, tomato, and onion on a Kaiser roll with potato chips or fruit, and a pickle spear. (Add two bacon strips for an additional $1.50) $7.75

GRILLED RUBEN SANDWICH
A classic Reuben piled high (that’s a real joke -CW) with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and tangy Thousand Island dressing (missing in action -CW) on rye bread. Served with potato chips or fruit, and a pickle spear. $8.50

SOUTHWEST CHICKEN SALAD
Sliced, grilled seasoned chicken breast on top of crisp garden lettuce with black beans, sliced black olives, crispy tortilla chips, and Cheddar/Jack cheese. Served with ranch dressing. $8.75

VEGETABLE STIR-FRY
A mixture of seasoned Asian vegetables and rice topped with crispy chow mein noodles. $7.00

MEDITERRANEAN VEGETABLE SOUP
Complement any of today’s entrees with a bowl of hearty vegetarian soup. $3.50

BEVERAGES
Freshly Brewed Coffee (regular or decaffeinated) $1.50
Tea (iced, hot or herbal) $1.50
Milk $1.50
Soft Drinks (regular or diet) $1.50
Bottled Water $1.75
Domestic Beer (Budweiser and Bud Light) $3.50
Premium Beer (Corona, Heineken or Samuel Adams) $4.25
(Our Premium Wine [yeah, right, real premium -CW] Selections are indicated on a separate wine card.)

DESSERTS

Vanilla Ice Cream
Served with our choice of whipped cream, fruit topping or chocolate sauce. $1.75

New York Style Cheesecake
A classic favorite with your choice of whipped cream, fruit topping or chocolate sauce. $3.75

Apple Pie
Large pieces of apple combined with a rich sauce baked in a flaky pastry crust. $3.25 (A la Mode available for an additional $1.75)

Dinner

All entrees served with a mixed green salad with a choice of dressings and a dinner roll.

GRILLED NEW YORK STRIP STEAK
A classic grilled 10 oz. New York strip steak cooked to your preference and accented with a sherry mushroom sauce. $17.50

CHICKEN L’ORANGE
Slow roasted chicken in our special orange sauce. $12.50

CENTER-CUT PORK CHOP
A seared 7 ounce center-cut pork chop baked slowly and topped with an herb cream sauce. $14.50

REGIONAL SEAFOOD SELECTION
(Blackend catfish on all trains, rumor had it that salmon was available on some trains -CW)
This evening’s selection of fish has a regional flair. Your server will describe this selection. $16.00

(The above selections served with our choice of baked potato, garlic mashed potatoes or rice pilaf, and green beans amandine or whole baby carrots.)

PENNE PASTA
This vegetarian selection is al dente penne pasta topped with a fire-roasted pepper sauce, served with your choice of green beans amandine or whole baby carrots. $11.00

BEVERAGES
Freshly Brewed Coffee (regular or decaffeinated) $1.50
Tea (iced, hot or herbal) $1.50
Milk $1.50
Soft Drinks (regular or diet) $1.50
Bottled Water $1.75
Domestic Beer (Budweiser and Bud Light) $3.50
Premium Beer (Corona, Heineken or Samuel Adams) $4.25
(Our Premium Wine [yeah, right, real premium -CW] Selections are indicated on a separate wine card.)

DINNER DESSERTS

Vanilla Ice Cream
Served with our choice of whipped cream, fruit topping or chocolate sauce. $1.75

New York Style Cheesecake
A classic favorite with your choice of whipped cream, fruit topping or chocolate sauce. $3.75

Apple Pie
Large pieces of apple combined with a rich sauce baked in a flaky pastry crust. $3.25 (A la Mode available for an additional $1.75)

Amtrak Signature Dessert
A warmed luscious dark chocolate truffle. $4.00 (A la Mode available for an additional $1.75) (This was good stuff, very chocolaty -CW)

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