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Dining on the Pacific Surfliner: breakfast and a beer

Things taste more delicious in transit. And another thing I love: prices are good.

Before the Deluge: kneetop table for brunch. Just takes one bump.
Before the Deluge: kneetop table for brunch. Just takes one bump.

Clickety-clack along the track! We’re rolling! The Pacific Surfliner snakes through the hills around Sorrento Valley, slowly, methodically rounding the canyon curves like a hunting dog following his nose. That distant horn I hear? Oh wow. It’s us! It’s a good feeling. Specially when Jason the barman announces that the Market Cafe is now open for breakfast and lunch downstairs.

I lucked out with the carriage I climbed aboard back at the Santa Fe Depot. It was also the dining car. Okay, “dining” maybe elevates it just a bit too high. This is a snack car, with pre-cooked food aboard that you, like, microwave and unpack. We’re not talking fifteen gastro-spectacular courses served on white linen aboard the Orient Express here. Still, I’m thinking: it’s a train, we’re on the move, it has food aboard, and, hey hey!, drink, like grog. Okay, it’s a little discouraging that all the dining tables are blocked by a tape across them saying, “No Sitting!”

Conductors await Surfliner passengers. “Cold? Have you tried Boston?”

“Since Covid,” says Jason the bar guy. “You have to take everything back upstairs to your seats.” Bummer. We don’t have tables up there either — not that I can see, anyway. So breakfast is gonna be a balance-on-the-knee job? Looks like it. I join the little line at the counter, and start checking what’s on for chow as we rock along. Let’s start with breakfast. I’m glad to see prices actually aren’t outrageous. A breakfast burrito runs $4.50. So does a hot breakfast sandwich. Yogurt parfait with fruit is $4. And if you want more hot stuff, the Angus cheeseburger runs $5.75, as does the jalapeño cheeseburger. There’s a pretty delicious-looking square diGiorno pizza for $5.75, too. The most expensive food item on the rails turns out to be the salad, along with the day’s featured sandwich — each $7. (They have quite a few items that have been scratched today, too, so maybe it pays to catch the early train.)

Foodmeister: Jason runs a moveable feast

Of course I can’t leave without drinking something. Coffee ($2), because this is pretty-much breakfast, and a beer, because, well, they’re featuring Stone Brewery, my Arrogant Bastard heroes. I’ve never been to their Escondido HQ, but that’s because I know that the famous beer gardens would be dangerous, like the Hotel California. I could check out any time I liked, but I could never leave. What I can’t ignore: they have a nice big 22-ounce bottle of Stone Tangerine Express hazy IPA going for $9.

Beautiful! Except this is where I start making a series of big mistakes. For starters, I ask for my coffee in an unsealed cup. Then I ask for my beer to be in a plastic glass, as opposed to just the bottle. I waddle up the stairs with everything, trying to keep coffee and beer on the same level, while holding up the Jimmy Dean sausage-and-egg muffin I got. All is well until a little carriage jerk sits me down in my seat kinda quick, causing the hot coffee cup’s lid to collapse inward and the cawfee to belch up and out, all over my jeans, which sends a warm patch up and down my right leg. The cold beer also wobbles, and before I can catch it, it tips and gluts over my other leg. The newly-wet egg muffin starts oozing outwards until everything pretty much slides to the deck. I grab the beer bottle and then the coffee cup and start sucking, just to stop the river.

Market Cafe: No, not Orient Express, but definitely good value for money

Then the voice comes in over the speaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching Oceanside. If you are leaving us here, please collect all your belongings, and make your way downstairs towards the exit.” Long story short — and it is a long, messy story — is I manage to pick up some of my mess, apologize to Jason, and get off with most of my stuff (but not my dignity) before the train pulls out. I have learned a few lessons. Mainly: one drink and one drink only! Keep it in a bottle! No pouring into a plastic glass! Find a table! (Turns out they have slide-out trays upstairs that I hadn’t noticed.) Order one piece of food only: better to get one pizza than three muffins. Order as early as you can, so you have time to lay the nosh out and eat it with your drink, not in your drink. And remember, you’ll be getting there way sooner than you think.

I still believe in eating on board, even when it’s risking picnic hell, because yes, it’s fun. Things taste more delicious in transit. And another thing I love: prices are good. Actually, terrific, when you appreciate that they too are playing this moving craps game. The fact they don’t gouge you when they could makes me kinda love Amtrak. Next time? Move up to what I saw some folks doing: playing cards as they ate and drank. You can get a deck of Amtrak commemorative playing cards from Jason for $4. I’m gonna get ’em just to be able to imitate Paul Newman in The Sting as we rock along. All I need now is a slippery-enough partner to make sure we win, heh heh.

By the way, leave yourself per-lenty of time to find your way aboard if you’re doing it in Oceanside. That place is a mess! Miles of walking, no clear signage. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself on the Sprinter to Escondido or the Coaster (which doesn’t have cafe cars), or even the Metrolink to LA, instead of the Surfliner to San Diego. Spilling your grog and coffee and muffin on the stairs will be the least of your worries.

  • The Place: Pacific Surfliner, from Santa Fe station, or Old Town
  • Hours: Open with each train
  • Prices: Breakfast burrito, $4.50; hot breakfast sandwich, $4.50; Jimmy Dean sausage and egg muffin, $4.50; yogurt parfait with fruit, $4; angus cheeseburger, $5.75; jalapeño cheeseburger, $5.75; square diGiorno pizza, $5.75; entree salad, $7; day’s featured sandwich, $7; 22-ounce bottle of Stone Tangerine Express hazy IPA, $9
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Before the Deluge: kneetop table for brunch. Just takes one bump.
Before the Deluge: kneetop table for brunch. Just takes one bump.

Clickety-clack along the track! We’re rolling! The Pacific Surfliner snakes through the hills around Sorrento Valley, slowly, methodically rounding the canyon curves like a hunting dog following his nose. That distant horn I hear? Oh wow. It’s us! It’s a good feeling. Specially when Jason the barman announces that the Market Cafe is now open for breakfast and lunch downstairs.

I lucked out with the carriage I climbed aboard back at the Santa Fe Depot. It was also the dining car. Okay, “dining” maybe elevates it just a bit too high. This is a snack car, with pre-cooked food aboard that you, like, microwave and unpack. We’re not talking fifteen gastro-spectacular courses served on white linen aboard the Orient Express here. Still, I’m thinking: it’s a train, we’re on the move, it has food aboard, and, hey hey!, drink, like grog. Okay, it’s a little discouraging that all the dining tables are blocked by a tape across them saying, “No Sitting!”

Conductors await Surfliner passengers. “Cold? Have you tried Boston?”

“Since Covid,” says Jason the bar guy. “You have to take everything back upstairs to your seats.” Bummer. We don’t have tables up there either — not that I can see, anyway. So breakfast is gonna be a balance-on-the-knee job? Looks like it. I join the little line at the counter, and start checking what’s on for chow as we rock along. Let’s start with breakfast. I’m glad to see prices actually aren’t outrageous. A breakfast burrito runs $4.50. So does a hot breakfast sandwich. Yogurt parfait with fruit is $4. And if you want more hot stuff, the Angus cheeseburger runs $5.75, as does the jalapeño cheeseburger. There’s a pretty delicious-looking square diGiorno pizza for $5.75, too. The most expensive food item on the rails turns out to be the salad, along with the day’s featured sandwich — each $7. (They have quite a few items that have been scratched today, too, so maybe it pays to catch the early train.)

Foodmeister: Jason runs a moveable feast

Of course I can’t leave without drinking something. Coffee ($2), because this is pretty-much breakfast, and a beer, because, well, they’re featuring Stone Brewery, my Arrogant Bastard heroes. I’ve never been to their Escondido HQ, but that’s because I know that the famous beer gardens would be dangerous, like the Hotel California. I could check out any time I liked, but I could never leave. What I can’t ignore: they have a nice big 22-ounce bottle of Stone Tangerine Express hazy IPA going for $9.

Beautiful! Except this is where I start making a series of big mistakes. For starters, I ask for my coffee in an unsealed cup. Then I ask for my beer to be in a plastic glass, as opposed to just the bottle. I waddle up the stairs with everything, trying to keep coffee and beer on the same level, while holding up the Jimmy Dean sausage-and-egg muffin I got. All is well until a little carriage jerk sits me down in my seat kinda quick, causing the hot coffee cup’s lid to collapse inward and the cawfee to belch up and out, all over my jeans, which sends a warm patch up and down my right leg. The cold beer also wobbles, and before I can catch it, it tips and gluts over my other leg. The newly-wet egg muffin starts oozing outwards until everything pretty much slides to the deck. I grab the beer bottle and then the coffee cup and start sucking, just to stop the river.

Market Cafe: No, not Orient Express, but definitely good value for money

Then the voice comes in over the speaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching Oceanside. If you are leaving us here, please collect all your belongings, and make your way downstairs towards the exit.” Long story short — and it is a long, messy story — is I manage to pick up some of my mess, apologize to Jason, and get off with most of my stuff (but not my dignity) before the train pulls out. I have learned a few lessons. Mainly: one drink and one drink only! Keep it in a bottle! No pouring into a plastic glass! Find a table! (Turns out they have slide-out trays upstairs that I hadn’t noticed.) Order one piece of food only: better to get one pizza than three muffins. Order as early as you can, so you have time to lay the nosh out and eat it with your drink, not in your drink. And remember, you’ll be getting there way sooner than you think.

I still believe in eating on board, even when it’s risking picnic hell, because yes, it’s fun. Things taste more delicious in transit. And another thing I love: prices are good. Actually, terrific, when you appreciate that they too are playing this moving craps game. The fact they don’t gouge you when they could makes me kinda love Amtrak. Next time? Move up to what I saw some folks doing: playing cards as they ate and drank. You can get a deck of Amtrak commemorative playing cards from Jason for $4. I’m gonna get ’em just to be able to imitate Paul Newman in The Sting as we rock along. All I need now is a slippery-enough partner to make sure we win, heh heh.

By the way, leave yourself per-lenty of time to find your way aboard if you’re doing it in Oceanside. That place is a mess! Miles of walking, no clear signage. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself on the Sprinter to Escondido or the Coaster (which doesn’t have cafe cars), or even the Metrolink to LA, instead of the Surfliner to San Diego. Spilling your grog and coffee and muffin on the stairs will be the least of your worries.

  • The Place: Pacific Surfliner, from Santa Fe station, or Old Town
  • Hours: Open with each train
  • Prices: Breakfast burrito, $4.50; hot breakfast sandwich, $4.50; Jimmy Dean sausage and egg muffin, $4.50; yogurt parfait with fruit, $4; angus cheeseburger, $5.75; jalapeño cheeseburger, $5.75; square diGiorno pizza, $5.75; entree salad, $7; day’s featured sandwich, $7; 22-ounce bottle of Stone Tangerine Express hazy IPA, $9
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