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    Terrible and Tasty Eats on a Trip From San Francisco to Reno

    Mark Abramson

    By Mark Abramson–

    When David Landis asked me to fill in for him during one of the weeks that he’s gallivanting around the world with his husband Sean, he assured me that I could use some of the allotted space to plug my books. Wouldn’t I be foolish not to? I’ll control myself and only mention two of them.

    Farm Boy: a Memoir with Recipes is appropriate for this column because, as the title suggests, it contains some delicious recipes, including one for my Aunt Mabel’s Swedish Meatballs and another for my Aunt Helen’s Chex Mix. My personal favorite, and one that I make at least once or twice every summer, is Lake Superior Shores Cole Slaw with bacon. One can hardly go wrong by adding bacon to almost anything. It has fewer sex scenes than most of my books, but there are some cute pictures of me as a little kid on the farm in Minnesota.

    I’ll also include Laughing Matters: Pandemic Diaries from Castro Street because it’s my newest book. It has no recipes, but it mentions food, has some gratuitous sex, and lots of laughs. I like it because my newest book is always my favorite (until the next one comes out) and most of us can relate to the value of a sense of humor while climbing back out of the darkest days of COVID-19.

    San Francisco as viewed from across the bay

    Now, let me get to the gist of this column. I recently took Amtrak to Reno with a group of local friends. I have always loved trains, since the toy train I got for the first Christmas I can remember with its track that covered most of the living room floor. In years since, I’ve always ridden trains with the sense of being in an Agatha Christie mystery. They’re great for eavesdropping and people watching and the train ride to Reno was most spectacular for its scenery, as we climbed through the gold country through the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains and high above beautiful blue Donner Lake. I highly recommend the trip, in terms of relaxing and sightseeing, but you can’t be in any hurry on a train.

    Donner Lake, Nevada

    You can’t expect much in the way of culinary delights, either. I am old enough to remember sitting at a counter on a dining car, behind which a large man in a tall white toque hat flipped pancakes and eggs on a grill and poured steaming cups of coffee into heavy ceramic cups. Everything is microwaved and served in plastic nowadays. 

    My group of friends and I decided to have lunch on the train to Reno. An announcement came over the public address system to let us know the hours of service and the $25 cost of the prix fixe (sounds fancy, doesn’t it?) menu. On trains, they often seat you with strangers to fill each of the tables of four. I’ve met some wonderful fellow-travelers that way, but there were four of us, so we got our own table this time. 

    I made the mistake of ordering a Monte Cristo sandwich, which is a variation of the French croque monsieur, but with the addition of sliced turkey added to the ham and Swiss cheese. The sandwich is dipped in an egg batter, like French toast, and pan-fried until golden brown. I’ve ordered them in restaurants where they might be served with little bowls of strawberry or raspberry jam on the side. Sometimes they get a dusting of powdered sugar on top and they can also be good with a dollop of sour cream and/or a pour of maple syrup.

    Not on Amtrak! What I got was two slices of bread with one paper-thin slice each of processed ham, turkey, and cheese in between. I joked to my friends that the ham hadn’t seen the inside of a pig in months! There was no egg batter. The bread was barely toasted, much less golden brown. The only condiments on the table were a cardboard basket filled with tiny packets of ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise. 

    Sugar Bowl

    Two of our group ordered the mac & cheese, a cold gelatinous glob that resembled library paste on a flimsy plastic plate, and our smart friend ordered a cheeseburger. His was the only relatively palatable thing on the menu. Oh, I mustn’t forget that each entrée came with a handful of potato chips and included a soft drink or tea or coffee. For dessert we each got a “blondie” brownie topped with a squirt of whipped cream out of a can. Dessert was actually hot and tasty, but hardly made the meal worth twenty-five bucks!

    When we pulled into Reno a few hours later, we heard an announcement about the hours of dinner service for those who were going on to Salt Lake City, Denver, or beyond. The price of dinner was $45. We all laughed and were happy to get off the train to look for some real food!

    None of us came home rich from gambling, but we did luck out in our choice of a fabulous place for dinner. Louis’ Basque Corner has been serving up some of the best food to be found in Reno since 1967. I had eaten there once before, decades ago, and had almost forgotten how great it was. Their website says: “Meals are served in the traditional Basque family style which includes soup of the day, French bread, Basque beans, salad, French fries, entrée, and complimentary glass of house wine or a soft drink.”

    What we got was the most delicious split pea soup I’ve ever tasted, an endless supply of French bread, delicious beans, salad, a baked tomatoey chicken course, a huge pile of French fries, I ordered the sweetbreads for my entrée, and dessert was ice cream with chocolate sauce. Instead of a “glass of” wine, we got a liter of pretty decent house red, and when we finished that one, they brought us another liter … all included.

    Louis’ has tables of eight and, like on the train, you’re apt to end up sitting with people you don’t know. Next to me was seated quite a beautiful young, college-aged woman with two men, who turned out to be her father and brother. She spoke so knowingly about the menu that we asked her if she was a local and whether she came here often. She said, “Not often, but I always come here for special occasions. I had my twenty-first birthday here, starting when I was eighteen, and then again when I was nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one.”

    Everyone laughed and we asked if this was her birthday too, but she told us no, this special occasion was that she had family in town from Winnemucca. Of course, the gay San Franciscan in me was tempted to ask her dad and brother whether they had ever heard of the fictional Blue Moon Lodge, where Andy (later Anna) Madrigal grew up in The Tales of the City series, but I held my tongue. They might have been more apt to know about Burning Man, since the entrance is near Winnemucca, but I didn’t get to question them at all. They became very friendly as the food kept coming, but the young woman did most of the talking and she was delightful.

    Whether traveling by train, plane, or automobile, the best part of any trip, in my opinion, is coming home to San Francisco, a culinary destination for people from around the world. I’ll leave the local restaurant reviews for David to cover upon his return, but I do have one more recommendation.

    Monte Cristo sandwich at Orphan Andy’s

    Orphan Andy’s makes real Monte Cristo sandwiches. They’re really good, too, and they’re right here in the Castro and they only cost $16.75 accompanied by your choice of soup, salad, fries, coleslaw, or whatever. Mine came with powdered sugar on top and a pitcher of maple syrup on the side. People-watching is pretty good at Orphan Andy’s as well, especially if you luck out and get one of the window tables.

    Mark Abramson is an author and former event producer who is based in the Castro. He has written several books, which often recount true tales about his life and the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco. 

    Bay Times Dines
    Published on May 23, 2024