Is it possible to travel across the USA as a vegan and not starve? I haven’t traveled throughout the States much as a vegan, so I have often wondered how difficult it would be. One day, I received an email Lauren, a fellow vegan. She had just completed a thirty day train trip across the United States via Amtrak and wanted to share her story. You might be as surprised as I am to see how much delicious vegan food she found along the way. Here is Lauren’s tale of Vegan Train Travel Across the USA.
Newly laid off, I decided to wrap up 2015 by spending time with my grandparents at their winter home in Yuma, AZ, and then kick off 2016 by hopping on a train for a cross-country trip back to Boston, where this crazy journey all began. It took thirty-one days, nine cities, and one heck of a journey for me to reach the conclusion that, from sea to shining sea, vegan cuisine is thriving in the United States.
I arrived in Yuma on Christmas Day, with a meal at the River City Grill high on my list of priorities. Online sources listed the restaurant as having the most (read: only) vegan-friendly menu around, and it did not disappoint! After a few days of the usual ‘hold the cheese and sour cream,’ River City was a breath of fresh air (literally; the outdoor seating was lovely). The menu had a clearly labeled veg*n section with diverse options. Given Yuma’s southwestern spirit, I ordered the blackened tofu, and enjoyed every delicious bite!
San Diego, California
After departing Yuma, I paid a quick visit to a high school friend in San Diego, CA. Burritos are an integral, borderline-symbolic part of our friendship, so naturally we caught up at a Mexican restaurant downtown. Pokez had a wide variety of affordable and delicious Mexican food, catering to vegans and meat-eaters alike. The tofu, potato and mushroom burrito was huge, and smothered in a tasty vegan gravy!
It is not often that vegans are able to walk aimlessly through a city and stop in at any random dining establishment to find that their needs are satisfactorily met, so Portland was a real treat in that respect. Directly across the street from the world-famous Powell’s Books I found Sizzle Pie, a pizza joint that breaks all the rules by offering by-the-slice vegan options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I grabbed a slice of the readily available Animal Chin for breakfast. Their toppings bar at the counter even had a shaker of nutritional yeast!
Unable to shake my craving for Mexican food after spending time in both Yuma and San Diego, I ducked into the Laughing Planet Cafe, where I devoured a Vegan Royale burrito and a craft beer for lunch (c’mon, it was Portland!).
Opting for some comfort food, I dined at Pacific Pie Co., which featured clearly-labeled snacks, salads, wraps and entrees that were suitable for vegans. I pulled no punches and went straight for the satisfyingly hearty Lentil & Veggie Shepherd’s Pie!
The morning of my last day in Portland, I, like many others before me, entered the mystical world of Voodoo Doughnut. With an entire shelf dedicated to vegans, it was difficult to choose a sweet breakfast treat, so I went with the signature house doughnut, made into the shape of the company’s logo. The fruity filling took me by surprise – in the best way possible. Though they originated in Portland, Voodoo Doughnuts now has locations across the United States, and in Taipei City, Taiwan, as well!
The adventure continued as I departed Portland on an Amtrak train bound for Los Angeles, CA. Unsure of what the dining car might have in store, I grabbed a yummy Grillin’ Chickin’ sandwich to-go from the Veggie Grill, and then I was on my way!
Happily, there was no need to worry about Amtrak’s vegan offerings. When I headed to the dining car for dinner, I found that the menu items (more than one of which was vegan!) were clearly labeled, and the staff was knowledgeable and accommodating. Although it wasn’t exactly five-star dining, my black bean enchiladas, and the burger I ordered the following afternoon were pretty decent – hey, I was just happy to be included!
Dining options on the Amtrak can get pricey, and as thrilled as I was about having actual choices available to me, I realized that three meals over the course of a thirty hour train ride wouldn’t be cost-effective (remember when I said I was newly laid off?). I stocked up on freeze-dried meals to eat along the way. Using the tureen of hot water usually reserved for coffee, tea, and Cup Noodles, I was able to prepare at least one meal a day, which helped cut down on spending.
Los Angeles, California
After the longest train ride of my life to date, I arrived in Los Angeles ready to stretch my legs and see the sights. Luckily, I was able to kill two birds with one stone by stopping at the Grand Central Marketplace, a bustling downtown hotspot for locals and tourists alike. Perusing countless stalls to find the tastiest option, I finally settled on Ramen Hood, an all-vegan ramen stand! I added a vegan egg to my ramen, and then finished my meal in true L.A. form, with a pressed juice from a neighboring stall.
Venice Beach was my next stop, and I made sure to go for a quick lunch at Seed, just one block from the ocean. Everything on the menu is vegan, so the world was my oyster. I went for the BBQ seitan burger with a side of pomme frites and homemade iced green tea.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A huge Breaking Bad fan, I planned a stop in Albuquerque as soon as I discovered that Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route ran through the city. While I got my Breaking Bad fix, my vegan food fix was little harder to come by. Taking advantage of local cuisine was difficult, and required the typical omission of certain animal-based ingredients. One restaurant that stuck out, however, was Monroe’s Mexican Food, which had an entirely separate vegetarian menu, from which I was able to order the veggie tostadas without cheese. To quote Jesse Pinkman: Yeah, bitch!
Overnight, I went from desertscapes to the heart of the midwest. The Windy City lived up to its nickname, and I spent much of my time there hopping from indoor attraction to indoor attraction just to avoid the cold (and yes, I am counting dining establishments as “attractions”). A friend told me to check out Karyn’s, and when I saw that there was a deal for the restaurant on GroupOn, my fate was sealed. I ordered a four-course meal consisting of a hummus platter, grilled polenta with wild mushrooms and a side of macaroni and cheese, and a chocolate cheesecake for dessert. Holy delicious indulgence!
Also high on my list was the world-famous Chicago Diner, whose “Meat Free Since ‘83!” menu is a haven for the cruelty-free dining options. I stumbled in during the brunch rush, but found a free seat at the bar. Once seated, I immediately ordered a vegan hot chocolate to combat the harsh cold. The Portabello Truffle Melt with a side of Mac and Teeze™ were well worth the wait on a freezing Sunday afternoon!
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans was by far one of the most pleasantly surprising experiences of my journey. From the openness of the locals I met, to the eternally upbeat vibe on Bourbon St., NOLA had so much to offer before dinner even crossed my mind. Immediately around the corner from my hostel was Seed, an all-vegan restaurant with tons of unique takes on the area’s traditional cuisine (this restaurant was in no way affiliated with the establishment of the same name that I ate at in Los Angeles). I ordered an eggplant po’boy with a side of southern fried nuggets, which packed all of the great flavor and soul of a traditional homestyle meal!
On my way out of Seed, I found the newest location of Cocoally, a vegan clothing and accessories store. The artwork captures the spirit of New Orleans, and is made by local artist Ally Burguieres. Her illustrations of animals are featured on a wide variety of shirts, dresses and accessories. My backpack was full to the brim, so I had a car magnet and sweatshirt sent to my home address!
In the heart of the French Quarter, I found the Meals From the Heart Cafe, a small food cart serving up local cuisine, catering to a wide variety of diets. I got the black bean soup with brown rice and a slice of king cake for dessert!
Carmo was another restaurant that was near my hostel, so I decided to check it out. Serving up tropical cuisine, many of the menu items are or can be made vegan through a number of ingredient substitutions. I decided on the daily special, a delicious avocado dish served with raw cashews and onions. When I ordered the vegan banquette bread with scallions, I had no idea what to expect and couldn’t disguise my shock when a huge sheet of bread topped with Daiya cheese and scallions was delivered to my table.
It was delicious, but I still had room for more so at my waitress’s suggestion, I ordered a decadent chocolate cake with walnuts and agave syrup for dessert!
Washington, District of Colombia
Around this time, Mother Nature decided that she had different plans than I did. While I had night in Atlanta, GA planned, word got out that Washington, D.C. was set to receive two feet of snow, and if I didn’t make my way up there as soon as possible, I would likely get stuck. So, I waved to the CNN Center as I passed, and made it to our nation’s capital with mere hours to spare. Since I was on a tight schedule, I had to make my time count, so I prioritized a visit to Busboys and Poets, a local restaurant chain friends had recommended to me. Their nacho platter was more than satisfying, especially when paired with a bowl of fresh fruit to balance out the meal!
D.C. made traveling on a budget fairly easy, due to the surplus of free museums! One of my favorite exhibits was, of course, the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s display Food: Transforming the American Table. My interest in food, culture, and food culture in the United States drew me into the exhibit immediately. In particular, I identified with the Countercultures portion of the exhibit.
New York, New York
Successfully beating the snowstorm, I took off from Washington, D.C. to NYC, where I was to spend time with my college friends. Having gone to school in New York, I was already familiar with a number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the city, but had never eaten at VLife before. It was seconds away from Penn Station, so I stopped by on my way to Staten Island. The place was so small that my fifty pound backpack and I barely fit through the door (much less at a table), but it was worth the tight squeeze! The Philly Peppersteak with a side of fries (and vegenaise for dipping) was just what I needed before weathering a blizzard, and I also tried out a bottle of locally sourced ginger ale from their Brooklyn-based supplier.
Well-traveled and well-fed, I arrived back in Boston one month after departing for Yuma. Awaiting me was the crispy noodle dish from my favorite Boston restaurant, My Thai Vegan Cafe. Although it was great to be back in a familiar city, I definitely missed the spontaneity and excitement of being out on the rails. It was an incredible trip, and one that I would encourage anyone interested in seeing more of the United States to look into! There are so many interesting, wildly diverse parts of the country to see, and, as I’ve learned, so much tasty food to indulge in!
About Lauren Russell
When she’s not busy train-hopping, you can find Lauren Russell playing pub trivia, appreciating live theater, or spending time with family and friends. She is as passionate about environmentalism and animal rights as she is about her love for Breaking Bad.