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.
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.
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.
They also provide plentiful condiments…
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.
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:
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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
~ 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
~ A useful note from Francolina in the comments: “The griddle that the eggs, bacon, and steak are cooked on also is used to cook French toast and other wheat-containing products. I eat the steak a lot, and have not gotten D (I have CD), but that does not mean there is not cross contamination.” As ever, with coeliac, eat at your own risk and do as much due diligence as you need to.
So how does a steak on a train sound to you?
For my other Amtrak posts, see here.