How to eat gluten free on the Amtrak Empire Builder

Working title: Steaks on a Train.

If you’re someone who needs to eat gluten free food, you may have ruled out long distance train travel. How could you possibly manage with no space to bring your own food, keep it cool or heat it up? Ambient gluten free food is basically cardboard, so surviving the 45+ hours on the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle had me a bit worried. However! I’m here to tell you not to panic. Turns out there are plentiful gluten free options on board the train, and they’re pretty decent, too. Steaks and all.

eating-gluten-free-food-on-the-amtrak-empire-builder

I’m writing this to show you exactly what I ate on the train, what was gluten free, and what it tasted like. I’ll tell you now, I took photos of the food exactly how it came out – no Instagram staging took place here. Also, the light in the dining car was a little on the low side and the place was moving around a fair bit, hence a lot of these photos are a tad blurry. For that, I can only apologise. Clearly I do not have a career as a steadicam operator laid out before me.

On to the food!

Now, the first meal you’ll eat when you board the train at 2.15 in the afternoon (for departures from Chicago) will be dinner. You get a timed seating, which I talk about here, and make your way to the buffet car at the assigned time.

You have to wait to be seated otherwise you get in the way, so just stand at the entrance and wait for someone to seat you. Yes, you’ll be seated with other people to make up a four. No, it’s really not as bad as it sounds.

When you arrive, you sit down and fill in this piece of paper that you mark with your room number to show you’ve already paid for your meal in the price of your ticket. This then becomes your order ticket with the server, who marks off what you are allowed. You can’t order an unlimited quantity of anything you want; there’s a fixed allocation per customer. Your server will explain.

amtrak-empire-builder-tick-list

For dinner, you get an appetiser. I picked the salad, as it’s the only gluten free option. Here it is, with a carefully counted two slices of cucumber, two tiny carrots and one tomato.

amtrak-empire-builder-entree-salad

They also provide plentiful condiments…

condiment-anyone

And now for the namesake of this post. The flatiron steak is somewhat of an Amtrak legend so of course I ordered it at the first available opportunity. Mine came with a jacket potato, which was as good as jacket potatoes get, and some mixed veg which were sadly overcooked.

amtrak-dinner-flatiron-steak

Still, I never turn down the opportunity for some fibre and the steak more than made up for the slightly sad veggies.  Oh and there was also some sour cream (?) and a mystery sauce. I think it was the only one that was gf, but I gave it a wide berth. Here’s my medium-rare steak:

amtrak-dinner-flatiron-steak-empire-builder

Yup. It was pretty good.

Then we move on to pudding. I was quite prepared for a complete lack of gluten free desserts – usually a fruit salad is as good as it gets. So imagine my surprise when I was told I could have a vanilla pudding. Win!

amtrak-dinner-empire-builder-vanilla-pudding

It was delicious. No, really.

In the morning, it’s time for a full Amtrak breakfast. Of course the french toast isn’t gluten free, neither are the pancakes, but the grits are. I had no idea what grits were before I got on the train, so our friendly dining companions had to help me out. See, I told you communal seating wasn’t so bad. So I had my first ever helping of this famed American dish, which turns out to be something a bit like polenta porridge. It’s… ok.

amtrak-breakfast-grits-sausage-and-eggs-empire-builder

I had that with scrambled eggs and two sausage patties, which is a sausage in the shape of a burger. Apparently that’s normal in the US?

I also brought my own bread roll which I really didn’t need. What with that and the grits it was a lot of carb. Overall I’d say the breakfast was ok. It sticks to your ribs and does the job, but it’s not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination. The best part of my breakfast was the half-and-half cranberry juice and orange juice that I had with my meal.

Lunchtime rolls around frighteningly soon. Still not hungry after breakfast, I opted for a salad as my main (it may also have had something to do with the 6 doughnuts I snuck on board….) Our server was very surprised but it was really all I could manage. Surprise surprise, the exact same appetiser salad came out. Count those veg…

amtrak-empire-builder-lunch-salad

But you know what, I was really happy with it. I wasn’t that hungry and I just wanted something fresh and vaguely nutritious. The salad more than delivered on all fronts. No complaints from me.

For dinner, I opted for the gluten free and vegan choice of baked enchiladas. The enchiladas were delicious, although the again overcooked veggies were a bit incongruous just dumped on the side of the plate. I think a salad might have gone better but never mind. Vitamins are vitamins.

amtrak-dinner-empire-builder-vegan-enchiladas

Once again I scored a vanilla pudding for my dessert and went to bed a happy camper.

In the morning, we had an early breakfast as the dining car needed to be cleaned before our arrival. I decided to try a bunch of different things with scrambled eggs again, bacon, a potato thing with peppers in, and another sausage patty. Plus my own gluten free bread roll.

amtrak-breakfast-bacon-eggs-and-potatoes-empire-builder

It was ok. Again, most things were overdone except the bacon, which was rubbery. Once again I went for my favourite orange/cranberry drink combo – although I had to re-purpose a glass full of orange juice from the sleeper carriage drink station because the buffet car had run out. The potatoes were exciting though, and again the whole thing was filling and, most importantly, gluten free.

In summary…

~ If you’re expecting plane food, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you’re expecting restaurant quality food, you’ll be disappointed

~ You can check the ingredients of each dish here, which carries menus for all the Amtrak routes. Although beware as I’m not sure how often this is updated – don’t rely on the dishes you see here being available on board

~ Your server will also happily double check for individual requirements with the chef, although don’t expect them to be an expert on food intolerances

~ You don’t work up much of an appetite on board, given you’re mostly sitting, and the meals provided are very filling. There’s no danger of going hungry on board

So how does a steak on a train sound to you?

-Rachel

For my other Amtrak posts, see here.

Linking up with Van, Marcella, Lauren and Isabel  for Wanderlust Wednesday

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17 Comments

  1. Jen
    14th November 2016 / 16:57

    The food looks amazing!! I was definitely surprised with the food options that Amtrak offers much better than expected that’s for sure.

  2. 14th November 2016 / 17:40

    Actually lol’ing at your reaction to American food hahah. Sour cream is classic with baked potato and steak! We eat it piled on inside the split open potato. And sausage patties are basically what my childhood sundays were made of 🙂 This is full of so many more options than I was expecting – especially surprised that they had enchiladas! I know I would be super stressing out about being trapped in a moving train with only gluteny food so this bodes well if I ever decide to do that trip Chicago to Glacier Park!

  3. 14th November 2016 / 18:26

    You really did eat pretty good while you were on your trip! That steak looks fantastic, and I’m really curious what the sauce was that they served it with. I will say that grits are more of a southern thing, so if you ever make it to the southern part of the United States, you need to give it another go! There really are good grits out there!

  4. 14th November 2016 / 20:50

    Although not ideal. you’re right at least it’s okay and better than plane food! I wonder how the cook it all on a train? Either way it wasn’t too bad and it’s good you got choices even if some of the choices (like the salad) looked a little like afterthoughts!

    I’ve never tried grits…not sure I’d want to as they don’t sound particularly appetising but at least you can say you’ve had them!

    Hope you’ve had a wonderful weekend 🙂

    Away From The Blue Blog

  5. 15th November 2016 / 03:59

    I’m honestly surprised the food is better than the food you get on the plain, I guess it all depends on the expectation (even though that salad looked a bit pathetic). I’m not friends with grits either, something about the texture that has been putting me off since childhood.

  6. 15th November 2016 / 13:00

    well not bad i say! especially that steak, who knew?! that salad just looks sad. they cannot clearly handle salads or cooked veggies. side note, that tried to autocorrect to cookie and now i want one. le sigh 🙂

    xoxo cheshire kat

  7. 15th November 2016 / 13:31

    Ok, so I have to comment on the grits. Do not let Amtrak grits be the deciding factor in whether or not you like grits! If you like polenta, then somewhere someone has made (or is making) grits that you would like. Grits can be watery and “sand like” or they can be made with cream and cheese with a much thicker consistency. I’m not a cook, so I’m struggling at explaining, but yeah. Some places in the US make delicious grits (think upscale restaurants, occasionally served with dinner) and some places make terrible grits (usually cheap restaurants).

    The Amtrak food looks meh. Neither amazing nor terrible. I’m sure you were thrilled to arrive at your destination and get real food. 🙂

  8. 15th November 2016 / 23:37

    Definitely looks better than plane food! I always bring my own food on planes because I cannot stomach that weirdness. Your meal ticket order form brought back good memories–one time my family lived at this training center for a while, something about my parents’ jobs when I was a kid, we were there for several weeks and ate at the cafeteria, and every meal required filling out a form that looked very much like that one. As a kid I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

  9. 16th November 2016 / 17:07

    I wouldn’t have expected that they can even provide vegan and kosher meals on the train, pretty cool! That’s certainly not something you’d find in Norway. In fact, if you order vegetarian here they might serve you fish 😀 Though I think when it comes to gluten-free food, your options are much better 😉

  10. 16th November 2016 / 20:49

    Jacket potato makes me smile as we Americans just call them baked potatoes and like someone else said, they are normally served with sour cream, cheese, chives, and bacon bits. Do you just have them plain normally? Those grits aren’t a good representation, either. Some people eat them like that and sweetened as a breakfast food (like oatmeal but thinner?) and others have them thicker and savory with cheese. They were everywhere when I went to South Carolina but aren’t all that prevalent in Texas, where I live. Glad it was a mostly positive experience!

  11. 17th November 2016 / 01:43

    This is so nice! I am glad you were able to find delicious food that fitted your dietary needs. The term ‘jacket potato” is very cute (first time I hear it). And, the mystery sauce looks like steak sauce. well, it looks lighter than regular steak sauce, so, I am not sure it is actually that. #wanderfulwednesday

  12. 17th November 2016 / 12:46

    I came across your blog and OMG I am really loving your content!
    Gotta check all your posts <3
    xoxo from Portugal
    Mariana

  13. 18th November 2016 / 19:29

    Fantastic! I love train rides and eating on them is part of the adventure. Glad you had a fun trip.

  14. 20th November 2016 / 08:17

    That actually doesn’t look so bad at all!

  15. 29th November 2016 / 04:26

    I did this trip in both directions in December 2013 and also have celiac. Going eastbound we were delayed by over 8 hours so the cook staff had to come up with a couple extra meals from what was available. It was a bit hilarious to be served the same salad again and a mixture of green beans and rice for dinner but we were grateful to have something hot. The temperature outside was -25F and the train had to stop to wait for sunrise as it was too cold to use the brakes. For celiacs it can be a bit monotonous to eat on Amtrak but you won’t starve to death. I’m actually looking forward to doing this trip again someday but maybe in the summer.

  16. 3rd December 2016 / 00:45

    Haha I love that it’s halfway between sort okay food and plane food lol. Not gonna lie, it’s not looking all that appetising, but on those trips, like you said, you can’t expect super quality restaurant food. I had heard of grit, but I had no idea it was like a porridge. ‘Grit’ isn’t the best sounding name either haha

  17. Glenda
    13th March 2017 / 00:28

    This blog has helped me no end as I am actually doing this trip included with a cruise to Alaska in September and I was worried about the gluten free options . You have put my mind at rest . Great info as well about the rangers coming aboard. So pleased I can bring my rolls to the table as well.
    Where did you buy gluten free doughnuts ???

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