On the Side | On the train, a strange brew

The time: 11:35 a.m.

The date: Wednesday, Jan. 17

The place: The Cafe Car of Amtrak's Train 184, en route to Philadelphia from Washington.

The offense: My cup of coffee.

It began innocently enough. I'd run into an old friend at Washington's Union Station, proposed a cup of coffee at the Starbucks, and, after a sip or two, realized I better hustle to the gate before I missed my train.

It was Verona blend, I think. I settled into the cafe car, the better to spread out my papers, catch up on some work.

I was idly into sip three or four when the conductor approached, his eyes locked on the cup.

Not in a good way.

May I supply a little back story here? I'd had a lovely 24 hours or so in Washington.

My wife and I had driven down to outfit an apartment near Adams Morgan, and we'd gone around the corner for a lunch bowl of aromatic, Salvadoran chicken soup called sopa de gallina.

The neighborhood is dense with ethnic eateries - Mexican, Ethiopian, West African, French (if that's ethnic), Thai, and all manner of Central American.

For dinner later, we ate at our favorite local haunt - Cashion's Eat Place, Ann Cashion's comfy, new-American watering hole where we've celebrated and relaxed over the years.

This time around I got a block of crisp, succulent, fresh-caught North Carolina rockfish surrounded by roasted cubes of butternut squash and mushroom over chopped kale.

Breakfast was at another warm-hearted place, The Diner, on 18th Street. I'm addicted to their over-easy eggs and corned beef hash, and, well, that's where - before things went off the track - I had my first cup of coffee.

The back story's message is simply this: Without even trying these days, you can sample an incredible smorgasbord - stewing-hen soup prepared the Salvadoran way, rockfish right off the dock in Carolina, a down-home breakfast at a wood-tabled place with the soul of the diner and the spirit of a cafe.

Harsh realities

It comes as a rude jolt in such a culinary landscape when you're confronted with the realities of having it all.

The bounty comes with a cost - E. coli, over-fishing, hormones gone wild, and, then, the sober pinch of retrenchment.

At Dave's Diner, an actual diner in Adamstown, Pa., the other day, we tried to order the sauteed spinach that was on the menu.

They still weren't serving spinach, they said, out of an abundance of caution.

What the conductor said was: "You can't drink that in the cafe car."

I thought he was joshing: "Are you joking?" I asked. I'd bought the coffee in the train station, I said.

But he wasn't. He said it was an FDA rule: You could eat outside food or drink outside drinks in the passenger seats, but not in the cafe car where there are tables to eat at.

Afterwards, I called Amtrak's corporate media office and talked to a pleasant woman named Karina Romero.

At first, she thought the rule was to discourage passengers from bringing in, say, pizza, and asking the cafe staff to heat it up in the microwave, increasing the odds of food contamination.

Then the service standards office informed her that, yes, there is an Amtrak (not FDA) policy banning outside food and beverages in food-service cars, but that a cup of coffee might be handled with a little compassion and flexibility.

A cup of deception

I craft my own solution: I buy a cup of coffee in the cafe car and tell them to hold the coffee. Then I pour my Starbucks brew into the cup: Let them pry the thing out of my cold, dead hand.

I feel better a little later, ratting out loud-talkers who've plunked an unbagged Subway sandwich on a table near me.

But Amtrak gets the last laugh: For lunch, I buy one of its soggy, chilled, plastic-entombed tuna-salad sandwiches.

The list of ingredients and additives and chemicals and preservatives runs to two inches long in agate-size type.

I ponder, clacking toward home, whether the cafe-car food has gotten safer - or just sorrier.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.