Rail Travel in 2012: SFC, PDX, SEA, VAC

The last time I travelled by rail in North America must’ve been when I was in Grade 4 and took a train with my entire class for 1-2 hours into the middle of nowhere…to stay at a Coast Salish Longhouse for three days. This year, I knew that I needed to be in Portland, Oregon for the World Domination Summit in July. The thought process then went something like this:

  • Since I was going to be on the west coast anyways, I figured I couldn’t go to Portland without tacking on a side trip to see friends and family in Vancouver.
  • If I’m going to be spending more than one weekend on the west coast, I’d love to visit San Francisco again (absolutely cannot get enough of this city…plus I reconnected with a cousin there late last year and was interested in meeting up with him after 15+ years).
  • How am I going to travel cheaply between all of these cities?
  • I don’t want to spend all of my vacation time for this trip…maybe I should take some unpaid leave?
  • Unpaid leave gives me 5 weeks off. Maybe I can fulfill a lifelong dream of taking the trans-Canadian rail through the Rockies!
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    And that is how I decided that aside from an initial flight from Ottawa to San Francisco – as there is no quicker way of coast-to-coast intercity travel than flying – I would be traveling by rail. No reliance on cars or the Greyhound (the smell inside the coach bus makes me sick). After three legs on the Coast Starlight and Amtrak Cascades trains, I have a few observations about rail travel:

  • The perceived “slowness” of rail travel is not wholly the truth. Yes, you must have the luxury of time to spend 18 hours on the Coast Starlight between San Francisco and Portland but the 4 hours from Seattle to Vancouver, Canada is really comparable to the total time it takes to take a flight between those two cities.
  • Airports tend to be placed outside of the city center while train stations remain in the heart of most cities (or at least in the older hearts of cities). For those traveling without cars or who are strict tourists in a city, it saves travel time (and associated costs) to and from an airport…not to mention any time spent waiting in line for security.
  • Speaking of lines for security, there isn’t one at the train station. You also don’t need to come over an hour early for your train. If you want to check baggage, you should plan to arrive an hour ahead of departure time but if you don’t have checked bags, just come half an hour before and you’ll be on the train before you know it!
  • By train, you’ll see landscapes that you won’t typically access by car. Farmland, industrial plants and factories, abandoned buildings, beautiful houses, bridges and bodies of water, fields, forests, mountains, and the backsides of towns.
  • There’s wifi access on most trains nowadays, with the exception of the Coast Starlight and one other Amtrak train. But that’s just a great excuse to sleep, read a book (remember what that is?), and enjoy the scenery.
  • The plane does not lull me to sleep. Especially when there’s turbulence. That is not lulling in any way and I’m not particularly fond of feeling like I’m on a roller coaster…in the air. The train, however, does lull me to sleep. Any time of the day. There’s much more foot space and chair space on the train than a plane (and yes, I sat in coach class, which is the lowest class), there are multiple washrooms available for your use, you can stroll between numerous cars or to the on board bistro.
  • Speaking of time, you start to lose any sense of time passing whilst on the train. Sure, the train stops several times at stations along the route and there’s a monitor in each car to tell you where along the route you currently are and how much time there is until the next station…but somehow, it still becomes quite hard to tell whether half an hour has passed or four hours. It’s fabulous.
  • “Stopovers” on the train (proper term is de-training) are ridiculously quick. Compared to airplane stopovers of at least half an hour, the train stops for as short as five minutes before you’re on your way again!
  • The boarding process for trains is also ridiculously quick compared to the tedious boarding process of an airplane. Not to mention the plane is so squishy!
  • The interior of the train does not smell like chemicals as a plane or many coach buses do. There is also no issue with pressurization or depressurization (no achy ears).
  • Rail travel is also not as cost-prohibitive as I had first had been expecting. It was $175.50 for the entire trek from San Francisco to Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s one way. I did cost out travelling by Greyhound when I was researching travel costs and bus and train were pretty much on par. If you’re calculating cost with time as a measure, the entire rail trip took about 25 hours. You can further reduce costs by bringing snacks and meals on board yourself (but there is a cafe and sometimes a restaurant if you didn’t get a chance to pack anything).
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    The Amtrak portion of my trip is complete and I am absolutely satisfied with the rail experience that they provided. It was a bit uncomfortable sleeping on the Coast Starlight train (I boarded at 11pm in Emeryville, California, bound for Portland on an overnight train) but you had far more space than you would’ve on a plane (unless you can manage Executive class, which I can’t) so can’t really complain. Oh yes, the train also provides pillows on the Coast Starlight! And they’re better than the cheap ones that you have to buy aboard planes nowadays.

    Otherwise, it was a great experience. Obviously there are pros and cons with traveling by train, just as with any other mode of transport, but I hope that more people consider rail as a valid travel mode. More relaxing and beautiful scenery.

    Treats of San Francisco

    There is no shortage of good food in the beautiful city by the Bay and I wanted to share some of the treats that we just encountered, mostly by chance. The places that just make you smile because the service and the food is just so amazing.

    JapaCurry (@JapaCurry)

    This is a food truck that we happily came upon completely by luck. It was parked in the Financial District for lunchtime service and we had just enough space in our bellies for an order of tonkatsu curry at $8. They serve the curry in a plastic container, separate from the tonkatsu and rice, which helps keep the tonkatsu super crispy (yum!) and gave us a spare container for storing food on the go. It was a rarity to see food being served in plastic during our venture in San Francisco as all other places serve out of paper containers. Anyways, we had the curry spiced up and it had a decent kick. The sauce wasn’t all that I had thought it would be…but the tonkatsu was great.

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    XOX Truffles
    745 Columbus Avenue (Little Italy area)

    I love good artisan chocolate. We have a few in the Ottawa area but whenever I’m in another city, I like to seek out some local chocolatiers. In San Francisco, we lucked out at XOX Truffles. At a very affordable $0.75 per piece, there are easily a dozen different flavours to choose from, anything from green tea to French roast to honey vodka (sorry, my one photo of the display is quite blurry). The texture of these chocolates in your mouth is so smooth and the taste is mmmmmm. Definitely recommend saving space for a truffle or two from this place; you won’t regret it.

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    Pacific Puffs
    2201 Union St (Union Street shops area)

    Ever since I was young, I’ve had a very very soft spot for cream puffs. The choux has to be not too soft, definitely not soggy, and light and airy. There must be custard inside, not whipped cream…though I will settle for whipped cream if the choux is done well. Exploring the Union Street shops, an area new-to-me but clearly marked on my tourist map, we were just about to stray off Union Street when my eyes saw the word “Puffs” on an awning across the street. Could it be!?

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    Yes it is a shop that sells cream puffs! For $3.25, I got a regular cream puff and oh my goodness it was heaven in my mouth!

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    Smitten Ice Cream
    432 Octavia at Linden Street

    What do you get when you mix nitrogen, a refurbished steel cargo container, and deliciously sweet ingredients? Why, you get Smitten Ice Cream!

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    Opened a few years ago using an ice cream making contraption appropriately named Kelvin placed on a nostalgia-inducing red wagon from your childhood, the shop has expanded to occupy a steel container and two more Kelvins. Smitten uses cold cold nitrogen to create ice cream that it claims (rightfully so) to be creamier than regular frozen ice cream. Available in a choice of flavours each day and with fabulous toppings such as pistachio brittle and sugary cacao bits, any combo is bound to please. They also offer vegan Popsicles. We got two small sized cups of ice cream, which includes two scoops each, with one topping each for a total of $10.50.

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    Fortune cookies, cable cars, and sake! Oh my!

    Three cools places that we visited in San Francisco, two that I hadn’t been to before and one that is free and so neat I will visit it each time I’m in the city.

    The Fortune Cookie Factory
    56 Ross Alley (very narrow alley…very easy to blink and miss it)

    50 cents to take a photo inside. As little as $1.50 to pick up a small bag of fortune cookies. Free sample of a pre-shaped (ie.flat) fortune cookie too!

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    San Francisco Cable Car Museum
    1201 Mason Street, serviced by cable cars if you don’t want to walk there

    This museum is free and a must-see if you love cable cars or if you love seeing how things work. This is the hub where all of the cables that the cable cars run on, run through. There’s a cute little store inside where you can pick up San Fran souvenirs, great information to educate yourself on how a cable car runs, and awesome historical photographs.

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    True Sake
    560 Hayes

    If you enjoy sake, the Japanese rice alcohol, then you’ll want to visit True Sake. An entire store, devoted to the drink…imported from Japan.

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    Ramen shops in San Fran

    A cuisine that Ottawa lacks is Japanese ramen. And by that, I mean good ramen shops. The kind where noodles and broth are made at the shop (definitely the broth…noodles I will let pass if it isn’t store-made), and the ingredients topping the ramen are just as delicious as the broth and noodles. So while in the metropolitan city of San Francisco, we decided to seek out some ramen shops that knew what they were doing.

    Ramen Underground
    355 Kearny between Bush St and Pine St (Financial District)

    Our party of three met at this small ramen shop that had opened sometime in 2011. It’s an easy to miss place if you’re just wandering down the street but there was a small crowd already awaiting seats by the time we arrived just before 7pm on a weekday. The wait wasn’t too long and we were ushered inside to a table. Our waitress seemed new to the job (read: awkward) but was friendly. We each ordered a bowl of ramen and had a plate each of gyoza and yakibuta to share. The gyoza was cooked just right (it’s a balance between steaming and frying…not difficult but not as easy as it sounds) and the yakibuta was reminiscent of beef tataki dipping sauce on slices of pork. I had miso ramen, which comes with some charsiu pork and mushrooms…but it just isn’t miso ramen without corn, which I had to order as an extra topping for an additional $1. Not impressed, as miso ramen in my opinion should come with bamboo shoots, charsiu, corn, and seaweed.
    I found that the flavor of the broth was overpowered by the mushroom and the toppings were lacklustre, but the noodles were much better than anything I’ve tried in Ottawa. For the three of us, we spent $49 on food (no drinks).
    Note that the photo of the bowl of ramen below is of the spicy ramen, not my miso ramen. The spicy ramen has some kick but reminded me more of the green-capped rooster sauce (chili garlic sauce)…slightly vinegar-y.

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    Katana Ya
    430 Geary Street at Mason Street (Union Square)

    This restaurant is easy to pass by if you’re just wandering aimlessly up Geary St but if you’re walking by at meal times, there’s bound to be a line outside. We arrived just past 6pm and joined four others who already had their name down on a self-serve list outside (love this system by the way, just jot down your name and number in your party, then wait til you’re called). We probably waited 20 minutes before being escorted into a tiny ramen shop with the most eclectic decor. I’m thinking that the space used to be a pub, with its neon lighting and wooden beams on the ceiling, and the bar has become transformed into a sushi bar…but this is just my guess. The service was prompt and because we’d already perused the menu outside while waiting, it probably only spent 20 minutes in the restaurant from start to finish. Of course, it isn’t as though the staff rush you but we had to be elsewhere at a specified time and ordered, ate, and paid as two people on a mission would.
    We ordered two bowls of ramen; like at the other shop, I had the Regular miso ramen, which this time came with bamboo shoots, seaweed, and charsiu. No corn and no option to add corn. But I was fine with that because the broth and noodles and toppings were all absolutely delicious! For two bowls of ramen, we spent $18.
    Note that you can get spicy ramen here…and it comes out looking very red and spicy. It’s got good kick so be prepared!

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    San Francisco food carts: Off the Grid Tuesday

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    Off the Grid Tuesday was at the UN Plaza near the Civic Center (City Hall) for lunch (11:30am to 2pm). There were five food trucks sitting on a concrete and brick plaza, forming a semicircle around folding chairs that had been set out for Off the Grid patrons. The setting was a juxtaposition of good food and those without home. We tried an item from four of the five food trucks but missed hiyaaa.

    Chairman Truck (@chairmantruck)
    Serving Chinese-influenced foods, mostly buns with various drool-evoking fillings. We had two steamed buns (how could we stop at just one!): pork belly with tumeric pickled daikon and green shiso and coca cola braised pork with savoy cabbage and preserved yellow mustard seeds. $3.75 each.

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    Old World Food Truck (twitter handle?)
    Tried their pierogies. They had the traditional potato and cheese option, but they also offered a beef, dried fruit, and spices option that I’d never before encountered…so of course I had to try that! They were delicious but I also don’t think I’ve ever had pierogies that I didn’t think we’re delicious (ie. I am not a pierogi connoisseur in any way). $7.

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    Tandoori Chicken USA (@TCUSAmobile)
    Various tandoor-inspired foods. Tried their shrimp pakoras for $6. I was imagining macerated shrimp, incorporated into a batter…something filling, pakora-esque and juicy. It ended up being shrimp coated in batter…juicy but not very filling and not quite the “pakora” I had been expecting.

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    Wesushi (@we_sushi)
    I’ve had sushi pizza on numerous occasions now but sushi taco? Of course I had to try sushi tacos! For $4, you get two tacos, essentially sashimi and avocado in hard-shell tacos.

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    Everything seems to be in season!

    Ottawa, for those who aren’t aware, is at a latitude of about 45degrees North. It’s really a misconception that because we live in Canada, we all wear parkas year round and our favorite type of dwelling is an igloo. Kidding aside, being at a northern latitude means that we have a short growing season, at least when you’re considering outdoor growing sans greenhouses.

    Imagine the mind-blowing shift that goes on when I walk into my first farmers’ market in San Francisco, California: everything seems to be in season!! At the beginning of July in Ottawa, cherries are just starting to come into season. At the same time, I overheard a cherry seller at the market in San Fran that that day would be the last of the cherry season!! Absolutely mind boggling to Canadian me!

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    Needless to say, I’m quite enjoying the markets south of the border. I’ve been buying Bing, Attica (new-to-me variety), and Rainier cherries and blueberries whenever I can get my hands on them; I’m embracing an extended cherry season!

    I was able to visit two farmers’ markets in San Fran: the Sunday morning market at the UN Plaza and the Tuesday morning market at the Ferry Building (much smaller than their Thursday/Saturday markets…or so I hear). As a side note, the Ferry Building is quite the tourist attraction but there are surprisingly quite a selection of made-in-San-Fran artisanal goods inside.

    From the Sunday market:

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    From the Tuesday market:

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    Street art

    Lately at work, my colleague (friend) and I have been talking about art. Primarily because she’s getting into watercolours and I’ve learned that it’s fun exchanging ideas about art together. She recently helped me put a name to a street artist that I admire: Banksy. And that’s what inspired this post. That, and the fact that I was in a city that really seems to embrace (or invoke?) street art: San Francisco. Everywhere I went, I saw beautiful and sometimes thought-provoking murals on the sides of buildings that otherwise could’ve been quite plain or boring.

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    San Francisco food carts: Off the Grid Monday

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    Off the Grid Monday was at St.Mary’s Square (near Chinatown and the Financial District) for lunch (11:30am to 2pm). We headed there for opening time and found four food trucks (3sumeats, five ten burgers, fish tank truck, hapaSF) sitting in a cute urban park with greenspace, some trees for shade, and benches in the sun…plenty of spots to sit and enjoy lunch. We tried two of the four trucks.

    Fish Tank Truck (@FishTankTruck)

    Creates seafood-based meals dependent on the catch of the day. Tried the blackened wild pacific red snapper sandwich with mango-papaya-jalapeƱo salsa on an artisan bun for $10.

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    HapaSF (@HapaSF)

    Serves sustainable organic Filipino cuisine. Tried the lumpia (Filipino deep fried egg rolls) for $5 because I read a few articles on San Francisco food cart must-haves and HapaSF’s lumpia showed up a few times. They’re absolutely delicious and dangerously addictive, as long as you eat meat.

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    Asian night market applied to San Francisco food carts

    I absolutely adore the concept of a food cart: portable, inexpensive, appropriate portion sizes, and typically innovative good food.

    The food cart scene has really exploded in San Francisco and I wanted to dedicate as many of my meals as possible during a 3 day stay to street food. Ottawa has delicious food but its food cart scene is a bit lacking, unless all you want off a cart is poutine, burgers, or hot dogs. Don’t get me wrong, those foods have a place on the street food scene but I know that there could be a lot more variety and creativity infused into Ottawa’s food cart scene.

    Once I landed in San Francisco, I realized that the one challenge with eating from food carts is finding them in the first place. They’re supposed to be transient in nature and without knowing the lay of the land too well, this proved to be my nemesis (not to mention my lack of access to smartphone/twitter access on the go). That is, until I found out about Off the Grid. Off the Grid started in 2010 with the concept of bringing together food carts to create an Asian night market feel. They started off small and in two years have grown to include over one hundred vendors! Every day, there is a market either for lunch, dinner, or both, somewhere in San Francisco. The locations, dates, and times can all be found on the Off the Grid website. Just show up (early, if you want to avoid lines), sample food from a handful of food carts, then chow down while people watching.

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    In addition to Off the Grid, the day before I left San Francisco, I learned that the city’s first permanent food truck lot had opened in June 2012! It’s called Soma Streat Food Park and is located at 428 11th Street in SoMa (south of the market area). I happened to see it on a bus ride into SoMa and it looks pretty nice. There are usually a good handful of trucks, there’s ample seating and washrooms in the park, apparently there may be music or movie nights, and there’s wifi! Because it’s a permanent location, the mystery and adventure of seeking food carts in your area is taken away but this place has everything one could want for a fun night out! (they also open for lunch)