Friday, April 29, 2005

Our Train Trip to Utah

We made it into Salt Lake City at 3:35 a.m., about 20 minutes behind Amtrak's posted timetable. This evening is the International Dutch Oven Society convention DOG (a Dutch oven-style potluck). Tomorrow, we work the annual IDOS convention at the Davis County, Utah Fair Park from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

I had feared that we'd pull into the Salt Lake City station one or even two hours late. Amtrak passenger trains are notorious for being late. As I understand, freight trains have the right-of-way because the freight services own the tracks, not Amtrak.

Our train -- the California Zepher to Chicago -- only stopped one time for about 15 minutes to allow a 94-car (my 13-year old son counted!) freight train pass on an adjacent track. We were about 30 minutes late when Train No. 6 left the Reno station yesterday evening.

Dining Car Experience

Since this is a food blog, dining car cuisine is worthy of a comment or two.

This was the first time I had experienced Amtrak dining car cuisine in about a decade. It's not five-star, nor is the food and service poor.

My wife, son and I enjoyed lunch in the dining car around noon yesterday. Nikki, the dining car steward, called lunch at noon as we passed through Colfax, California. Since they fill four seats to a booth as passengers arrive in the dining car, we ate lunch with a gentleman from Big Sur, California who records nature sounds for a living.

The service was what I'll call "Amtrak average." The waiters were pleasant, but abrupt at times. I guess that have a lot on their minds with trying to stay on their feet. Our dining car seemed to jerk about more that the other cars.

About seating: Dining car staff are particular about where you sit. Nikki emphatically announced over the public address system, "Please wait to be seated." When a party took seating into their own hands, she'd bark, "You can't sit there," or "I'll seat you."

She wasn't rude -- just business-like. I see their point. The dining car can only accommodate about 60 passengers. They must fill each four-seat booth as much as is possible. Come prepared to sit with strangers.

For dinner, we signed up for one of three seating times -- 5 p.m., 6:45 p.m. and last call around 8 p.m.

The food: I can't complain. For lunch Deb had the Black Angus steak burger. Our son passed the 13-year old pepperoni pizza test: He ate it all except for the crusts. I tried the grilled chicken breast on a bun. I'd say the quality was good -- my chicken breast was grilled just right. A dry, overcooked chicken breast can ruin a meal.

You have to listen for substitutions, which are announced after the train pulls out of each major station (Sacramento and Reno in our case). Amtrak is subject to menu outages like a restaurant. I was looking forward to the rack of lamb for dinner, only to find that pork shanks was the substitute (braised? Not sure -- our waiter didn’t say).

We ate three New York strip steaks and the special at our table. The breading on Deb's chicken fried steak was a bit salty. The steaks had a succulent brown sauce with capers on them. My baked potato has been around for a bit.

Sunday we take Train No. 5 for the return trip to California. The food isn't five-star. But it keeps you going. I'd say the quality is comparable to a family diner. The staff were helpful and business-like.

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