2 claws up: Amtrak's new menu features lobster crab cakes and chicken tandoori
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Have you heard of “lobster crab cake?”
I’m sure Amtrak probably hadn’t, either -- but it’s being offered on its new “chef-inspired” Acela first-class menu. In early August, Amtrak launched the new food menu on its Acela routes, which traverse between Washington, D.C. and Boston.
The American rail line rolled out new breakfast dishes such as omelets, huevos rancheros and eggs benedict for customers traveling in first class on Acela trains. Amtrak also refreshed its lunch and dinner options with new entrees, including chicken tandoori, lobster crab cakes, vegetable puff pastry and cheese and fruit. According to the company, the menus rotate approximately every three weeks. Acela first tickets include a complimentary meal and a drink of your choice and assigned seating (which is now available for all Acela seats).
When I read the menu, I'll admit I was more than a bit skeptical based on my two previous experiences in Acela first. I mean, I don't even eat crab cakes outside of the state of Maryland, so the thought of eating one on a train seemed ... unsettling.
When I rode Amtrak’s Acela first class for the first time in 2019 (before the pandemic), I was pleasantly surprised with the food. The beef lunch was tender, and the potatoes and carrots were tasty. I took Acela for the second time in April, during the coronavirus pandemic. At that point, Amtrak’s food options were limited to a sad, soggy Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich. I was incredibly disappointed, as a one-way Acela first ticket can cost as much as a first-class flight along the East Coast.
With the smell of microwaved sausage and American cheese still fresh in my mind, I approached my latest first-class experience more cautious than optimistic. Like many experiences riding Amtrak, items on the new first-class menu were hot and cold -- literally. Here’s what I discovered while testing Amtrak’s new food options.
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Acela breakfast offerings
I usually take Amtrak Acela first class between New York City and Washington, D.C. But it’s been decades since I’d visited Philadelphia, so I decided to switch up the routine and check out the City of Brotherly Love.
My morning started with a 9:45 a.m. arrival to Amtrak’s new Metropolitan Lounge at New York City’s brand-new Moynihan Train Hall. Earlier this year, I wrote about how disappointing the food at the lounge was, and, at first glance, it didn’t seem like much had changed. So I decided to just grab a coffee before catching my ride to Philadelphia.
The trip between New York and Philadelphia is just a little over an hour, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to check out the full menu. On this trip, breakfast included a fruit plate, bacon and swiss omelet and huevos rancheros. A fruit plate seemed a little basic, and I don’t eat omelets, so I settled on the huevos rancheros.
A typical huevos rancheros dish consists of eggs served on corn or flour tortillas. The dish is topped with tomatoes, chili peppers, onion and cilantro. The dish usually includes refried beans, Mexican-style rice and guacamole or sliced avocados.
One of my last trips before the pandemic was to Mexico City, where I pretty much ate huevos rancheros for breakfast every morning. While I certainly wasn’t expecting authentic Mexican cuisine on a steel tube hurtling down the Eastern Seaboard, the breakfast was undoubtedly lacking … something.
However, just as I was digging into my huevos rancheros, I overheard another passenger ordering the lobster crab cake, which I thought was only served for lunch and dinner. I glanced moodily at my unappetizing, soggy breakfast as the smell of crab cakes wafted throughout the car. While breakfast was a disappointment, I at least knew what I'd order for dinner on the ride back home.
Listen: I am not a food snob, and I don’t have the highest standards for meals on Amtrak, at that. I don’t even have high standards on domestic first-class flights. But my colleague, TPG editor-at-large Zach Honig, wrote about Amtrak’s new food menu earlier this month, and I have to admit that some of the dishes, like the eggs Benedict, looked (dare I say it) mouth-watering. There are two slightly different menus on offer, so, unfortunately, that dish wasn’t served on this train.
With that said, my huevos rancheros were pretty bland. The eggs were soggy, the tortilla was soggy, and the beans were overcooked and practically inedible. I resigned myself to my Metropolitan lounge coffee and decided to eat once I’d arrived in Philadelphia.
Still, even with the unimpressive food, the service was spectacular on the one-hour ride. And this trip served a dual purpose aside from trying out the new food.
There is mileage running with airlines and mattress runs with hotels. But what do you call a train trip taken just to hit a new level of status? A rail run? A train trek? Track running?
I’m (rail running?) for Amtrak Select status, which I should hit after this trip. And, to earn more Amtrak points for future travel, I also booked this ticket with my brand-new Amtrak Guest Rewards® World Mastercard®. My round-trip ticket to Philadelphia cost $352, which means I'll earn 1,056 points (worth about $26) for the journey as the World Mastercard earns 3x points on Amtrak purchases.
In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Amtrak is now offering a whopping 50,000 points to new cardholders after you make at least $2,500 in purchases within the first 90 days. This card also includes an annual companion coupon (worth up to $300 in Amtrak travel) and an annual upgrade coupon (worth up to $150 in Amtrak travel) for a reasonable $79 annual fee.
The information for the Amtrak Guest Rewards card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Acela lunch and dinner offerings
After my disappointing breakfast, I almost backed out of eating on the return leg to New York City altogether. The Wendy’s at Philadelphia’s William H. Gray III 30th Street Station looked pretty appealing, after all.
But I’m nothing if not a person who will “take one for the team” so, after one last longing glance at the Wendy’s menu, I headed downstairs to catch my ride home.
While the first-class car on my Amtrak train to Philly was packed, the ride back to New York City was nearly empty. I arrived out of breath, thinking I was about to miss the train and plopped into my seat.
The attendant immediately stopped by, handed me a menu and simply said, “You look hungry. I’ll be right back.”
Indeed, I was.
It was a hectic day, and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The attendant came back to my seat with a steaming plate of lobster crab cakes. “You’re only supposed to get one, but I don’t think anyone else is boarding,” she remarked.
After ordering a glass of prosecco, I dug in. This time, I was (for Amtrak, mind you) blown away. While obviously not fresh, the crab cake still tasted good and paired well with the spicy sriracha sauce on the bottom.
I was grateful that the friendly attendant gave me two crab cakes because I was hungry and, well, because they were actually good. The meal included a side of farro, butternut and craisin salad which was cold and unremarkable. On the side was a bread roll and a blondie (similar to a chocolate brownie but with a flavor more like caramel) for dessert.
Overall, I was highly impressed with Amtrak’s lunch and dinner meal service and would suggest trying to order dinner for breakfast as well (if it’s available). On this train, dinner options were the same as what was offered for breakfast and included the aforementioned lobster crab cake, chicken tandoori, cheese and fruit plate and a goat cheese salad with strawberries. Had I not ordered the crab cake, I would have definitely gone with the chicken tandoori which looked pretty tasty in the photo, along with the curried vegetables.
With a full belly, I sat back and enjoyed the remainder of the short ride into the heart of New York City.
Amtrak’s Acela first-class food menu needed an update long before the COVID-19 crisis, and things definitely took a turn for the worse after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
But, aside from breakfast, I was impressed by my meal and some of the other options on the menu. I didn’t try out any cocktails, but they also got a refresh and now include Bloody Marys and cosmopolitans.
While certainly pricey, Acela remains my go-to choice for travel along the East Coast. And now, with the new menu, it’s definitely starting to compete again with first-class air travel.