Eating on America’s trains can leave a traveler wanting. On trains in Japan, you can dine on gourmet bento boxes and sake that cost less than a meal at a U.S. airport. Here you’re stuck with food you’d find at a gas station.
The “reimagined” menu is a response to passenger feedback, Amtrak said, and features more hot meals and vegan options. The items are available on trains along the Northeast Corridor (the Acela, Northeast Regional, Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express) and on Amtrak’s long-distance trains (the Capitol Limited, Cardinal and California Zephyr).
I hopped on the first train I could — the Acela to Philadelphia and the Northeast Regional back to D.C. — to taste as much of the new menu as possible. I ordered 15 items — some new and some familiar — and ranked and scored them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being worthy of no additional bites and 10 being “Wow! I’d eat that again!”
Vanilla yogurt parfait: 3/10
It could be your standard, chemical-sweet convenience store yogurt parfait ($5). The granola particles were fine, but the berry compote at the bottom did not hold up to the promise of “mixed berries” from the description.
Bacon, egg and cheese bialy: 4/10
The bialy breakfast sandwich ($6.50 on Café Acela; $6 with sausage on the National Café menu) has the essence of a typical bacon, egg and cheese but not the soul. The bialy doesn’t do well in the microwave used to heat it up, and comes out tough and dry, creating a sesame-dusted choking hazard (I’m only half-joking). Even with the slab of smoky bacon, bites do not go down easy.
Tropical fruit medley: 5/10
The new-menu press release had mentioned a “Seasonal Fruit with Mango” option. I found a tropical fruit medley ($5) on my Acela train that had mango (albeit unripe), pineapple (hard), peeled orange slices (juicy), grapes (standard) and kiwi (flavorless). On the upside, it was straight fruit. No extra sugar or juices. If you want something that feels fresh and healthy, this works.
Egg white and cheese artisan sandwich: 7/10
The egg white and cheese artisan sandwich ($6.50) needs a few minutes to settle after it comes out of the microwave — kind of like resting a steak before cutting into it. Then it’s soft and pillowy. There’s a funk to it. Whether that’s a good thing is up to you.
Streusel coffee cake: 8/10
Pro: The streusel coffee cake ($3.50) surprised and delighted with moistness and taste. Con: As crumbly as a Nature Valley granola bar. Coffee cake. Everywhere. All in my laptop keyboards. I’m not sure I’ll ever get it out. Do not eat next to a well-dressed seatmate.
Asian noodle bowl: 9/10
The first bite was nearly ice-cold and a shock to the system, but a few more later and I was happy to be eating the vegan Asian noodle bowl ($7.50). It came with a gloppy “spicy-sweet” plum sauce (not actually spicy) to slop over the medley of super fresh vegetables — crunchy carrot strips, bell peppers that popped, al dente edamame and big chunks of broccoli — and just-okay noodles.
Rainbow berry salad: 10/10
This berry salad ($8.50) delivered. Most grab-and-go salads have wilted or boring lettuce. Not this guy. It was filled with ripe strawberries, whole walnuts, dried cranberries and a ton of blue cheese over a bed of greens with character, plus a side of balsamic vinaigrette. Amtrak skimped on nothing.
Santa Fe chicken panini: 4/10
A pure meh sandwich ($8.50). There’s a lot of chicken in it, so it’ll fill you up, but the chicken is bone-dry. Despite the roasted red peppers, jack cheese and chipotle aioli, it does not have enough flavor.
Smoked turkey and havarti sandwich: 4/10
The sandwich ($8.50) sounds a lot better than it is. It hits you with a honey mustard flavor with the first bite, which is nice, and there’s a lot of turkey in it. But the multi-grain sub roll is mediocre, soggy in some spots and parched in others. The Amtrak Café employee offered to heat it up for me, but I declined; maybe it would have been better warm.
Moonshine barbecue chicken sandwich: 7/10
There’s something very elementary school cafeteria about this chicken sandwich ($7.50). On the one hand, it hits you right away with a classic (read: basic) barbecue tang and its coleslaw has a nice crunch. But it also sort of mushes together in its brioche roll, like a sloppy Joe without the slop goodness. It could use more sauce.
Angus beef cheeseburger: 8.5/10
Taking this cheeseburger ($7.25) out of its swampy plastic packaging was obscene. Zero points for presentation. But the flavor overcame the heinous aesthetic.
Stromboli with marinara: 5/10
In the press release photos, the stromboli ($6) looked like a fun cross between mozzarella sticks and a pizza crust. In person, it looked pale and undercooked and tasted like it — maybe it didn’t get nuked long enough. Aside from the unsettling gummy texture of the dough, it did have a nice herby flavor and an abundance of gooey cheese.
Blue corn vegan tamale: 10/10
I do not want to get canceled for calling an Amtrak tamale a good tamale, but I enjoyed eating this Amtrak tamale ($5). Technically, it’s not an “Amtrak tamale”; the packaging says it’s hand-made by Tucson Tamale, a husband-and-wife company from Arizona. It was tasty and comforting, even though I let it cool too long before eating.
White cheddar mac and cheese: 10/10
The white cheddar mac and cheese ($7.25) does not tread lightly. It’s dense and decadent with a luxurious texture. Umami in a disposable container. Best served with a glass of crisp white wine or a cold sparkling water to cut the richness.
Nosh box: 6/10
If you like turkey, smoked Gouda and celery, this box ($8.50) with mini naan bread is for you. But skip the cranberry mustard sauce. It’s the wrong dip for this situation — too sweet and thin.
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