Thursday, April 24, 2014

Aboard the Southwest Chief, plus a nondescript day in Las Vegas.

Holiday Trip to Las Vegas and Reno, Part 4
December 22, 2013

Traveling aboard Amtrak's westbound Southwest Chief, I took a post-dinner nod through Missouri. Something before midnight I woke up to find the train sitting in a Kansas City rail yard, with snow on the ground. The train was running about 50 minutes late by the time it left the yard. Five hours later our delay had extended to two hours.

At this point, passing Hutchinson, Kansas, I was awake for good. Alas, this wretched soul made coffee with three packets of Sanka, purloined from the Metropolitan Lounge the day before at Chicago’s Union Station. It may have been prostate friendly for lack of caffeine, but the flavor wasn’t much to crow about.

The view of western Kansas slipping by isn’t terribly exciting, but after bringing up my Pandora station for Neue Deutsche Härte music, Kansas seemed cool and edgy while listening to the likes Rammstein, Megaherz, and Eisbrecher.

It was short-sleeve weather and sunny at our stop in La Junta in Colorado. Okay, so maybe 34° isn't exactly for short-sleeves, but the sun is awfully nice after many days without it. An already delayed train is made even further late by "mechanical issues” between La Junta and Trinidad.

Lunch was an unremarkable chili and salad combo. The chili had a few decent pieces of beef, but for flavor it had no oomph. Liberal amounts of Tabasco and black pepper contributed only so much.

From left: Okey dokey, let me find the lotion; Far away view of the Spanish Peaks in southeastern Colorado; Only die-hard Cubs fans will know this one.

Hours later in New Mexico a familiar situation arises, having to wait for the opposite-bound Southwest Chief to pass first through the narrow, single-tracked Apache Canyon. While stopped we’re notified that the eastbound train needed one of our engines so it could continue its run. Both trains were late at that point: the eastbound by an hour, and the westbound on which I was aboard was well over two hours behind.

And then we were told that the cafe in the lounge car had sold out most of its food. The crew then started passing out emergency snack packs and bottles of water to placate coach passengers tired of sitting out in the middle of nowhere. I fared much better in my sleeper car. Fate determined to spread out the misery when the toilets in my sleeper were closed. More mechanical issues.

Once we got going again we traveled at much reduced speed, being pulled by just a single engine now. Amtrak long-distance consists generally operate with two engines, one to provide locomotion and the other to provide electricity to the lounge, diner, coach and sleeper cars. One engine can’t accommodate both, hence our relatively slow crawl to Albuquerque.

We pulled into Albuquerque about four hours late. A few more minutes were needed than the time it normally takes to refuel and replenish water tanks to attach a fresh engine to our consist and speed us on our way, through the now inky black night.

For dinner I did not have to endure the same pasta dish as the previous night. Instead I had a Nathan’s hot dog on a bun with potato chips. I was quite pleased!

I retired to my bed where a good sleep finally caught up with me. I awoke for good nearly ten hours later to find we were even more late than before, about seven hours so. I was surprised to find the cafe up and running at 5:30 in the morning. I ordered a microwaved California Pizza Kitchen Sicilian for breakfast. Folded over it was like a flatbread pizza sandwich. I would order it again in a heartbeat.

It still dark out when I arrived in Kingman, Arizona, and am reassured to find our shuttle van to Las Vegas waiting for us, despite our lateness. Once on the road I wished I had called shotgun upon boarding the van. From where I sat in the back, every significant bump in the road went straight to my ailing back. And on top of that it was sweltering inside the vehicle.

From left: And this is the least garish part of the jacket; 'Pro gun' and proud!

As the sun rose, we were greeted by the rugged, craggy terrain that hugs the area around the Colorado River just south of Hoover Dam. After crossing into Nevada, an elderly woman sitting in front of me laments, "When does it flatten out? When it gets not too mountainous? I think this is the worst part of the trip.” I can only roll my eyes in embarrassment.

Upon arrival at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, I sought out a head for relief’s sake, then located a RTC bus stop to catch an express bus to Summerlin. Outside the Suncoast I finally meet up with my pal Barb. With all the hubbub with her husband’s recent hospitalization, my first meal in Las Vegas was an Egg McMuffin at a McDonald's. Sigh.

Barb’s husband, Al, had suffered a cardiac arrest at work and was successfully revived. The diagnosis eventually pointed to arrhythmia and Al had spent the better part of two weeks stuck in the hospital waiting for an optimal time for a defibrillator implantation.

My time in Vegas on this visit would be spent less on roaming the town for eats, drinks, and sights, and more so spent watching over cats back at the now empty house while Barb overnighted with Al at the hospital. Either way, I wasn’t back home grinding over the slaving meat wheel of wage servitude.

I fared much better with lunch, featuring grapefruit from the yard. Dinner with Barb, Al, and friends, at the hospital was even better with thin-crust pizza from Northside Nathan's of Las Vegas. Simple and comforting, though I much prefer their classic Detroit-style pan pizza [see blog post].

That night I had the house all to myself, along with the two house cats, and the four feral cats camped out in the back yard.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Breakfast at Tempo Cafe gets my motor running, all the way to Fort Madison.

Holiday Trip to Las Vegas and Reno, Part 3
December 21, 2013

My overnight in Chicago was less than optimal in my tiny but comfortable room at DeWitt Place: insomnia had robbed me of a decent night’s sleep.

Finding a Starbucks on Chestnut St. that opened early I trekked across Michigan Ave. for a fix and possibly a line on breakfast. I usually drink decaf to combat ‘old man problems', but having been awake since three and desperate to nip a dull headache that had been plaguing me for days, I sought refuge in a full-octane dark roast. Some pyrography on a table, taken out of context, amused me somewhat.

A fellow patron clued me to a breakfast spot down the way at the corner of Chestnut and State. Eagerly I snagged a top for my coffee and ventured off. Five minutes later I found a bright spot in the still dark morning – the Tempo Cafe. And its a 24 hour joint! Oh the endless minutes spent earlier at Starbucks when instead I could have been stuffing my cake hole with eggs.

I was offered a complimentary orange wedge and a pitted prune for starters, something I’ve not seen since six years prior at Lou Mitchell’s, a popular Chicago restaurant just a stone’s throw from Union Station. I suspect this is an only-in-Chicago tradition.

The homemade orange spread is quite sweet. Too sweet for my taste; I’d much prefer a marmalade with pieces of rind that add a contrasting bitterness. Something I fondly remember from my visit to Lou Mitchell’s [see blog post]. However the salsa verde is excellent, being both picante and delicious.

Tempo Cafe’s Gold Coast omelet, with mushroom, tomato, spinach and onion, is superb. The bed of sliced potatoes it lay upon wasn’t too shabby either: fork tender and with tasty spots of browning.

After such a fine breakfast I took a leisurely walk north to an outpost of Lavazza Espression – my favorite Chicago area coffee chain – nestled within the Drake Hotel. I settled down to a double espresso with a dose of half-and-half for about an hour before returning to my hotel.

From left: goose couture, coffee couture, gluttony for sure.

Check-out time came, and being anxious for the road, opted to go straight to the train station, but not before picking up some supplies for the trip. A one-pound Snickers bar called out to me, but I grudgingly resisted temptation. The remaining hours in Chicago were spent at Union Station in the sleeper passenger’s Metropolitan Lounge, where I partook of the complimentary snacks and juices for a light lunch. I would have much rather munched on a gynormous Snickers bar.

Aboard the Southwest Chief bound for Arizona, we glance the inclement weather bearing down on the Midwest all the way up from Kansas. As for the sleeper I was pleased to find it was a refurbished car, which meant more leg room where it counts, in the toilet. Newer sleeper cars feature WCs that are uncomfortably small, all for the sake of squeezing in another loo.

In Fort Madison, the station platform was completely glazed over in ice. Dinner shortly thereafter in a notoriously bumpy section of track crossing over into Missouri did not sit well. It was a confused mélange of sun-dried tomatoes, edamame, goat cheese, and bucatelli. Two wilted strands of asparagus atop was not a well thought out garnish. Not as horrible as the gut-wrenching black bean burrito I had on the Southwest Chief a number of years back, but pretty darn close. Edamame burps all through the night weren’t terribly pleasant.

I rather wished I spent another day in Chicago.

Tempo Café on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 21, 2014

The vacation doesn't start until I get to Gino's East.

Holiday Trip to Las Vegas and Reno, Part 1
December 20, 2013

I started my holiday vacation with an overnight in Ottumwa with friends. My first breakfast on the road amounted to a slice of bread with peanut butter, mayonnaise, and a spicy pickle spear. Living the dream, baby!

Lunch aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr bound for Chicago was a $10.50 Angus burger. No discount applied for requesting no potato chips; that must have explained the extra pickle spear I got. The bun was the most bread I had eaten in one day, let alone in a meal, in weeks. Plenty of tomato and lettuce, but not so much for onion. Amusingly for mayonnaise, Amtrak accommodates both coasts' brand preference.

That evening in Chicago, after checking in at DeWitt Place, I took a stroll around the Near North Side. Plans to visit the John Hancock Observatory were scrapped due to heavy fog enshrouding the city.

For my first meal in Chicago I revisited Gino’s East on Superior St., known for deep dish pizza but they also make a thin-crust as well. Piqued I ordered a medium with pepperoni and fresh garlic. It was on my first visit to Gino’s where I became acquainted with the taste and aroma of fresh garlic on pizza [see blog post].

After a month without a beer, I indulged myself with a pint of Dirty Bastard, a Scotch ale from Founders Brewing of Grand Rapids, Michigan. And at 8.5% ABV, its a whopper! Impressively malty with a decent amount of hops.


Gino's thin-crust pizza isn’t cracker thin, but it exhibits a crunch not too dissimilar from a crispy breadstick, but with a more tender crumb. That said, the crust could easily handle a heap of toppings. Pizza sauce made with ground tomato and Parmesan is thick and rich, and its no slouch for mozzarella either – neither lean or overburdened.

I hardly ate half and could have easily spent the wee hours of the night noshing on the leftovers, but as I made my way up Michigan Ave. I gave it to a street person, panhandling for change. You can’t buy a bottle of Thunderbird with leftover pizza from Gino’s East, but I hope it gave him a modicum of pleasure.

Before retiring, I popped into Water Tower Place to browse about at the LEGO® Store. I so wanted to walk off with the life-size LEGO® Iron Man on display, or the LEGO® Super Star Destroyer [see blog post], but settled for a tiny Hulk on a keychain instead.

Original Gino's East on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sweet dreams are made of these treats… well, maybe two out of three.

The sinful-looking Cherry Delight from a Mast Candy Kitchen kiosk at Merle Hay Mall over the holidays. Looks like a cousin to cherry nougat candy bars I've enjoyed in the past [see blog post]. I regret not buying some.

Wild Ophelia’s milk chocolate studded with bits of beef jerky. Not unpleasant, but not worth revisiting. The mouthfeel of the jerky felt so foreign in this application

Kyle Munson is the Iowa columnist for The Des Moines Register, and self-described 'reformed pop music critic’, but around the holidays Kyle also dabbles into the peanut brittle arts. I always look forward to a shard or two, or more.