"B.F.'s" Recollections Of Road Trip Repasts
Riding The Rails: Dining & Other Adventures On
Amtrak

July 11, 2002 at 00:14:52

Being long time aficionados of train travel, in particular steam
driven locomotion when they can find it, and not relishing
(Mmmm, a hot dog 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
Wayne's 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 reverberating
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 discernible 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
Wayne's 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 Wayne's 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 Wayne's 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 Wayne's, 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 “white bread”, 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
Wayne's repaired to the diner for more eggs (scrambled and over
easy with bacon and ham this time) more home fries (that
actually had some minuscule 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 Wayne's’ 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 Wayne's 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 Wayne's 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 table mates
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 table
mates, 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 Wayne's got in
to their hotel room was a room service order, then a shower.

The Chino Wayne's, 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 Wayne's 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 Wayne's 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 Wayne's 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 Wayne's’ 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 knowledgeable, 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 place
mat, 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 Wayne's 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 Wayne's 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 Wayne's 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 Wayne's would again attempt to
disembark from the Southwest Chief. The Chino Wayne's 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 Wayne's 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

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)


Copyright © 2005-2006 Wayne E. Frost, all rights reserved.