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 Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak

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  • Joined: 7/10/2006
  • Location: Astoria, NY
Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 1:07 AM (permalink)
This is my first trip report so bear with me as to deficiencies in style or image loading. Hopefully there will be many more (and better)!
A couple of weeks ago, I took a took a little trip. First stop was Chicago. I probably could have picked a better time of year to go, but at least the air temp was above 30! I did get a taste of Chicago's famous wind, though. New York has it's share of wind, too, but I can definitely see how Chicago got it's name. Ok, enough small talk, let's begin!
Before the trip, I posted a quick plea for suggestions in the "Where Should I Eat" forum. My thanks to those who suggested places, especially BuddyRoadhouse who gave me some suggestions, defended me from some criticism, and even offered to show me around. Unfortunately the timing didn't work out, but maybe next time!
I had 3 goals (food-wise) for my trip to Chicago, since I had only been to the area once (for a high school debate tournament), and didn't get a chance on that trip to do any exploring or eating. My goals were, 1) chicago hot dog, 2) italian beef, 3) deep dish pizza. Spoiler alert, I only accomplished 2 of them. Well, there's always next trip.
So the first stop, I believe, was suggested by Buddy. Ladies and gentlemen... Paradise Pup!

Conveniently located near O'Hare. I was told they serve a quintessential Chicago style hot dog here.
And here it is!


Really a pretty sight. Being a New Yorker, I do have a bias towards the Gray's Papaya/Nathan's style dog with deli mustard and kraut. However, I can definitely understand the appeal of the chicago dog. The fresh tomato and cucumber definitely give it the illusion of a healthy salad type dish. The whole pickle spear gave it a refreshing salty juicy sourness that tastes a bit brighter than saurkraut. Definitely a lot more varied flavors in the Chicago dog, assuming you get all the toppings.
So with help from Ms. Garmin despite the fact that she did not seem to want to sit still on the window of my rental car, my next stop was the original Al's Italian Beef on West Taylor Street in Chicago's Little Italy neighborhood. Like with the hot dogs, I imagine there are lots of good options for Italian Beef, but given my name, I felt like Al's was a good bet.


Not sure anything else needs to be said, really... it was good! I'd eat another one right now! The beef was nice and juicy. The peppers were a perfect accompaniment, just spicy enough. New York and Philly sandwiches might be served on better bread, but that's not really the point here. When you dip any bread in those juices it's going to be amazing.
Unfortunately, my sodas at Paradise Pup and Al's were catching up with me and Al's doesn't have a bathroom. Fortunately, the staff at Al's directed me one building down the street to a branch of the Chicago Public Library, which has one open to the public. My thanks to the Chicago Public Library system!
I next wanted to drive to the Wrigley field area to check out the stadium. Amazingly, it was pretty much open to the street. I asked a construction worker doing some work in it if I could quickly pop my head in, but he politely told me not a chance. However, walking around the stadium I found that the field is visible from the street.


I'd love to see a game there, but seeing the field in person was cool, nonetheless.
At this point I decided to park in the area and take the train into the downtown area. I thought I was being smart by finding a place on the street. Unfortunately, I only found out later that night that most street parking in the area is residential permit only... the signs really weren't too clear!... oh well, I can chalk up the parking ticket as a vacation expense.
So anyway, I wandered around in "the loop" for a while. I wanted to see one of the museums and picked the Adler Planetarium. I was too late to see any of the shows, but they have some cool stuff there, including a moon rock.

The view from the Adler.

Since it was getting late, and very cold, and my feet were nearing their limit, I got on a city bus and did some seated sightseeing. Got off the bus in the "Magnificent Mile" area. I wandered into the Nordstrom's on North Michigan and marveled that anyone would pay $150 or more for a pretty basic shirt!
I had a ticket to the Lyric Opera that night (yes, I'm a roadfooder and an opera fan), but I still had a couple hours to kill, so I rode the Orange Line train around the loop and out towards Midway. I decided to get off at the second to last stop to turn around but I got this picture from the platform of a couple of local Chicago chains, Giordano's and Ricobene's. I guess I'll have to try them next time.

The opera was pretty good. Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos if anyone is interested. The theater is not quite as impressive as the Met in New York, but it's pretty nice. I was sitting near the very back of the upper balcony and the sound was fine.
After the opera, I was thinking about getting some deep dish, despite the fact that it was about 11. I decided to try Pizzeria Due, since my friend who had lived in Chicago for a while had let me know that it was open late. I walked in and sat at the bar. The friendly barkeeper/waiter advised me that if I wanted pizza it would take about 40 minutes. It was then that the long day started to catch up with me and the prospect of sitting at the bar for 40 minutes, knowing I had to take the train back to Wrigley and then drive back to the hotel, was pushing me away from trying the pizza. The guy did recommend their version of the Italian beef, so I threw caution to the wind and decided to try that. Unfortunately it was pretty dark in there, so I don't have a picture, but it was pretty good. It obviously didn't have the same character as Al's but it was definitely tasty. It was also smothered in melted cheese (mozzarella, I think). It was served with ramekins of beef juice and giardineira(sic). I probably didn't need to eat the whole thing, but it was definitely tasty.
Finally, after making it back to my car where I had the unpleasant surprise of finding a parking ticket, and then driving to the hotel near O'Hare, I called it a night. Speaking of which, I think I'll call it a night on this first part of the trip report, but stay tuned... there's more to come!

    Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 5:13 AM (permalink)
    Great start to you trip report!  From my reading here, those are all places I'd like to try, too.  Good job on the photos.
      ann peeples

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      Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 8:06 AM (permalink)
      Great report so far, Al!!

        Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 8:15 AM (permalink)
        Nicely done on the trip report!  And you picked some fine Roadfood spots.  Paradise Pup is a real gem of a place.  I am eagerly looking forward to more.

          • Total Posts: 3704
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          Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 9:16 AM (permalink)
          I'm looking forward to the continuation.  I love the trains in Europe and one of the best experiences of my young life was taking the Pennsylvania RR from Pittsburgh to Chicago and the Santa Fe Super Chief from there to L.A. for a visit to Disneyland in the summer of its founding.
          So, one of my "wild hair" plans is to try taking Amtrack from Dallas to Chicago.

            • Total Posts: 1056
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            Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 9:25 AM (permalink)
            Big Al, Having grown up not ten blocks from Wrigley Field I got a bit nostalgic reading your report. Please keep it coming.
              Buffalo Tarheel

              Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 11:00 AM (permalink)
              Big Al,
              I'm also looking forward to reading more of your report.  You've picked some great places so far, although the only one I have been to is Al's #1 Italian Beef.  It is an outstanding sandwich, so you did really well getting there.  Thanks for posting and please keep it going.

                • Total Posts: 1070
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                • Location: Columbus, OH
                Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 1:09 PM (permalink)
                Great report so far.  The only place I have been is Al's (though I went to the one on Ontario) and I loved it but I think the hot peppers are so different from what I've found on ones at other places that I almost put it in a different category.  My go to place is Portillo's.
                I also got to sample Ricobene's at the taste this summer.  i will defnitely need a whole one of those someday.
                My wife and I have always wanted to check out the planetarium but I think we found it was a little pricey for how much time we were going to be able to spend there the last time it came up.

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                  Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 3:52 PM (permalink)
                  the pups char cheddar with grilled onions is one of if not the citys best

                    • Total Posts: 232
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                    Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 5:00 PM (permalink)

                    Great report so far.  The only place I have been is Al's (though I went to the one on Ontario) and I loved it but I think the hot peppers are so different from what I've found on ones at other places that I almost put it in a different category.  My go to place is Portillo's.

                    Ditto that. Al's beef is great, but I prefer hot giardiniera made from chopped sport peppers and other veggies in oil, rather than theirs which appears to be mainly celery with crushed red peppers. Portillo's beef is a never-fail option, though I'm lucky to have a Johnnie's Beef near where I live, when I have time to get over there ...

                      • Total Posts: 6080
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                      Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 7:57 PM (permalink)
                      Enjoying riding along with you...looking forward to continuing with the trip.......

                        Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Wed, 12/21/11 9:43 PM (permalink)

                          • Total Posts: 427
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                          Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Thu, 12/22/11 8:33 AM (permalink)
                          I enjoyed report & pics.

                            • Total Posts: 427
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                            Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Thu, 12/22/11 8:34 AM (permalink)
                            I enjoyed report & pics.

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                              • Roadfood Insider
                              Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Thu, 12/22/11 8:49 AM (permalink)
                              I went to Paradise Pup for the first time this past June and it  was a "wiener" in my book !
                                sk bob

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                                Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 12/23/11 9:52 PM (permalink)
                                nice report BigAl72
                                keep up the good work

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                                  Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Sat, 12/24/11 1:12 AM (permalink)
                                  Big Al,
                                  Writing you from our annual Kansas City Christmas trip.  So glad you enjoyed your time in our town, and so sorry our timing didn't work out on this trip.
                                  Frankly, you were lucky you only got a ticket.  Chicago's overnight parking ban was in effect when you were in town and, depending on which street you were parked on, you could have been towed, resulting in fines and towing fees that could have approached a thousand bucks or more!
                                  The ban goes into effect at the beginning of December, and although it's supposed to keep cars off the main thoroughfares and out of the way of the snowplows, the ban is enforced whether it snows or not.
                                  Anyway, I hope the rest of your trip was as successful as your first stop in Chicago!

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                                    Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 01/6/12 12:48 AM (permalink)
                                    Sorry for the delay everyone! Here's the rest of the report!
                                    Thursday, December 8, 2011
                                    The plan for that morning was to take the rental car back to O'Hare by 9:30 or so and then hop on the blue line train back into downtown Chicago where I would be getting on the train for the next part of my trip. BuddyRoadhouse was kind enough to suggest a breakfast place he liked (L&L Snack Shop in Des Plaines). For better or worse, while driving towards it, I got a bit nervous about the time. I also happened to spot a cool sign for a different place.

                                    Seeing that I could easily park in the area, and being in the mood for pancakes, I figured I'd give it a shot. Though L&L will definitely be on my list for my next trip!
                                    The pancakes were pretty good. Nice and fluffly, though probably no better than could be had in a lot of diners. The syrup unfortunately was standard breakfast stuff, though served in a nice pitcher.

                                    After navigating my way back to O'Hare, (made slightly more difficult by my attempt to avoid giving the local transportation authorities any more of my money in tolls on the 190) I returned my car and got on the blue line. Ending up at the departure point for the next leg of my trip.


                                    Fortunately, Amtrak offers a baggage check service so I was able to drop off my suitcase, which I wouldn't need on my train ride (I had a backpack which I stuffed with necessities for the train). I took advantage of my last hour or so in Chicago to do a bit more sightseeing.

                                    My friend who had lived in Chicago recommended that I check out the Harold Washington library before leaving, which is the main branch of the Chicago Library System. It's a pretty nice library. It also has a atrium space on one of the top floors.

                                    Then it was back to the train station. By then it was time for lunch. Before leaving for my sightseeing, I had noticed the station had a foodcourt. I figured I would get one more Chicago Hot Dog.

                                    Unfortunately, I didn't eat it until at least an hour after I got it because I decided to wait on line to board the train. I knew I had a 30 hour plus ride ahead of me, so I wanted to get a good seat. Later, I realized that I didn't really need to do that since they board the long distance trains pretty systematically, putting people into cars based on their destinations. So anyway, the hot dog was cold by the time I ate it. That's probably one drawback to putting a cold salad on the hot dog!
                                    So then, the train ride aboard the "Texas Eagle" all the way to San Antonio, TX. We left Chicago at about 3pm Thursday and we pulled into San Antonio about midnight Friday Night/Saturday Morning for a 32 hour trip total. It was a long trip, though I'm glad I did it. For one thing, I had always wanted to try a long train ride. Also, I got to cross the Mississippi, and I crossed off 2 extra states (Missouri and Arkansas) that I can say I've been on the ground in than if I had flown. One piece of advice for those who might be considering a long train ride: get the sleeper car. I'll spare you all the gory details but the coach cars can be loud... and a little stinky. Seriously, people, sometimes you need to leave your shoes on! Ok, well, maybe one gory detail. So yeah, get the sleeper. They're apparently very nice.
                                    I also ate on the train, of course. They have the typical Amtrak snack bar with their own "steamed cheeseburgers" (ok, just microwaved, but they're alright!). They also have the more fancy "dining room" where you order from a waiter/waitress. I ate there for breakfast and dinner on Friday.
                                    Breakfast began between Texarkana and Marshall, Texas just across the border from Arkansas. Since I was definitely in the south, I decided to try the grits, which I don't think I'd ever had before.

                                    I have to say, it was pretty good. Dinner that night was roast chicken. I also had the choice of steak, fish, and something else, which I forget. (The menus are available online somewhere if you're dying to know). The chicken was ok (no pic). Somewhat dry. The mashed potatoes and veggies on the side were pretty good.
                                    Let's skip ahead a bit.
                                    Saturday, December 10, 2011
                                    My reason for traveling to San Antonio was to visit my brother who's working there. Of course given it's proximity to Lockhart, TX, heading out there was a must. So, my brother and I and three of his friends headed out to Lockhart for some bbq.

                                    As you can see, we ended up at Smitty's. I was undecided between Kreuz, Smitty's and Black's, but my brother had read some good reviews for Smitty's so he decided for us. Whether it's the best in Lockhart, or an also-ran, it's definitely quite a place.

                                    It's pretty cool that you just walk by these big firepits to get to the meat counter. Though you definitely don't want to be in there wearing anything you don't want smelling like bbq smoke the rest of the day!
                                    Given that there were 5 of us, we were able to get a good sampling of the meat. Unfortunately, they were out of prime rib Next trip, I guess. Well, here's what we did get.
                                    Fat (Brisket)- hate to say it, but it probably looks just bit better than it was. It was still really good. I thought it was a bit dry, actually. Definitely tasty, though. I could eat a nice meal of just that.

                                    Lean (Shoulder?)- Definitely fairly dry. Not bad, but it wouldn't be the first thing I'd reach for.

                                    Pork Chop- I actually really liked these. I might have liked these better than the brisket, actually. Especially with the sauce. I know Texas BBQ means beef, but the pork was great. I did have some bbq sauce with it, so I wasn't a purist, but the sauce was a nice accompaniment.

                                    Hot Links- I don't think I'm a huge fan of the spicy beefy sausage concept, but these were definitely good. The experience of trying to bite into one is pretty amazing. Feeling the tough skin on your teeth and then the hot gush of juices once you pop into the skin is pretty great.

                                    Spare? Ribs- As with the pork chop, these are not what Lockhart is known for, but I really liked them, especially with a little sauce.

                                    My sampler plate.

                                    Your intrepid roadfooder. Yeah, it was actually pretty cold. Apparently it was in the 70's the weeks surrounding my visit, but it was in the low 50's while I was there. Oh well.

                                    The plan for the rest of the day was to drive back to San Antonio and then check out the downtown area and the riverwalk. Unfortunately, it was rainy, so that plan went by the wayside. Fortunately, there's a really great Mexican place about a 2 minute walk from where my brother lives. It's called La Fonda. (

                                    This was one of the combination platters. A cheese enchilada and a tostada?, I think it was? Whatever it was, it was pretty great. Made even better alongside an $11 top shelf margarita my brother decided to buy me. Tres Generaciones tequila makes for a good margarita! Oh yeah, my brother also ordered a couple of their fresh tortillas, which he insisted I try. Their flour tortilla was amazing. Sorry I didn't get a picture. It was hot and pillowy. Just perfect.
                                    And now for the big conclusion!
                                    Sunday, December 11, 2011
                                    We decided to do a late breakfast at a place my brother had heard good things of, the Guenther House.

                                    The Guenther house is the original home of the founder of the Pioneer flour company, C.H. Guenther. Now, it's operated as a restaurant, museum and gift shop. Yes, it's fairly touristy, but the smell emanating from the restaurant when we gave our names seemed pretty legit. There was also a 1 hour wait, which I doubt was all tourists. They gave us a buzzer which would go off when our table was ready, so we didn't have to wait around the restaurant. My brother suggested we take a walk around the surrounding neighborhood, known as the King William neighborhood. It's one of the nicest, and wealthiest, areas in San Antonio. Here's a typical house in the area.

                                    The San Antonio River runs through the area. This is the view looking towards downtown San Antonio.

                                    Finally, the buzzer went off, and we were able to sit down for brunch. One of the obvious appeals of the restaurant is that the baked goods are made with flour ostensibly milled near the restaurant (though I don't actually know if there's still a working mill in the area). The breadbasket was a very appealing start.

                                    We both decided to continue in the baked goods theme. I went for a waffle, which they called a "sweet cream" waffle. My brother wanted to try the biscuits and gravy. I was also tempted by the cinnamon rolls, though they were of the "big as the plate" variety, and my brother wasn't interested in splitting one. They sell a mix for them in the gift shop.


                                    The waffle was very good. Maybe not the best I've ever had. I paid an extra $2 for real syrup, which was worth it. The biscuits and gravy were also good, if a bit heavy.
                                    After a great breakfast, we made our way to downtown San Antonio, so I could see the touristy stuff. I saw the Alamo and the Riverwalk, though the latter was mostly deserted being a somewhat chilly Sunday afternoon. I marveled at the fact that the across the street from the Alamo, known as the shrine of Texas liberty, are a row of the tackiest, most touristy "museums" I've ever seen. I think one of them was a "Ripley's, Believe it or Not" or something like that. What would Davy Crockett say? Well, San Antonio's not alone. Across the street from Niagara Falls, one of the greatest natural wonders of the planet, is a whole neighborhood of gawdy tourist schlock!
                                    After leaving the downtown we had about an hour or so before I needed to head to the airport, but I wanted to check out one of the more informal Mexican places. First, though, my brother showed me a drive-thru beverage store, which I guess is either a San Antonio thing, or maybe a southwest thing? My brother wasn't sure. Apparently you can get a drive thru margarita, which I'm still not sure how that's allowed, or how it works but whatever. We just got water.
                                    Despite still being kind of full from brunch we pulled into the final stop on my trip (before the airport), Jalisco restaurant.

                                    I had wanted to check out Taco Taco, but it closes pretty early. Jalisco was a good alternative however.

                                    I got a soft taco and a puffy taco, since I had heard that they were a San Antonio specialty. It's possible I would have eaten the whole plate if I were hungrier. I found the puffy taco a bit too greasy. Maybe there are better renditions of it. The soft taco was really good, though. The tortilla was not quite as good as the one at La Fonda that I ate the night before, but it was pretty close. I had a horchata, also, which is like a sweetened rice milk drink. It was really good.
                                    Well that's it! Hope you didn't mind my ramblings or the long delay between parts. Hopefully there will be more trips to come!
                                      The Travelin Man

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                                      Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 01/6/12 1:46 AM (permalink)
                                      I am doing a cross-country train trip this month and I am very much looking forward to it.  I would have liked to do the Texas Eagle, but it didn't work into my schedule.  Instead, I am doing the entire lengths of the Capitol Limited from DC to Chicago, with a stopover in Pittsburgh; the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, and the Coast Starlight (plus a short segment on the Surfliner) from San Diego to Seattle. 
                                      Glad to hear the food is passable on the train.
                                        Tony Bad

                                        Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 01/6/12 9:25 AM (permalink)
                                        Great report! Thanks for taking the time to post it.

                                          Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 01/6/12 9:38 AM (permalink)
                                          This was an excellent report for anyone, let alone for your first effort.  A real nice job with the photos, too.  Thanks for taking us along on your adventure.

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                                            Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 01/6/12 10:24 AM (permalink)
                                            Nice job, Al!  You ate well...

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                                              Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 01/6/12 1:06 PM (permalink)
                                              Great first report.  Enjoyed travelling along with you. Nice food!

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                                                Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 01/6/12 1:17 PM (permalink)
                                                Great report!  I'm an opera fan, too, and made a special trip to Chicago last January to see "'The Mikado." (OK, OK, it's Gilbert & Sullivan, not grand opera, but it was a terrific production.) I hadn't been to the Lyric since I was in college at Northwestern.  I hadn't realized or recalled how incredibly COLD the Lyric's lobby is -- if it is a cold evening, which it was when we went.  The wind blows through like a wind tunnel whenever the doors are opened, which is almost constantly.  Even the auditorium was chilly.  My brother (who took the train from Indianapolis to meet me; I flew into Midway, as the train between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago is inconvenient and unreliable) and I had orchestra seats, and we both wished we had kept our coats, rather than trying to be elegant and checking them.
                                                We arrived on a Saturday morning, and tried and failed to get into Lou Mitchell's for a late breakfast, but had an excellent early lunch at the Berghoff. Like you, we tried to have deep dish pizza after the opera, but like you, we were too tired to wait in line, and then wait the requisite 40 minutes.  (We were actually going to go to Gino's East, which was closer to our hotel, though I prefer Lou Malnati's.)  Next time. 

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                                                  Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 01/6/12 3:34 PM (permalink)
                                                  An amazing first report on a fabulous trip! You managed to eat everything I would have plus more. Thank you. Please go on more trips and report back.
                                                    sk bob

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                                                    Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Fri, 01/6/12 11:25 PM (permalink)
                                                    again I say, NICE JOB.
                                                    execellent pictures & commentary.
                                                    keep up the good work Big Al72

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                                                      • Location: Astoria, NY
                                                      Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Sat, 01/7/12 12:26 AM (permalink)
                                                      Thanks for all the nice words, everyone! It was a pleasure to finally be able to contribute something to this site that's stimulated my desires to explore this country and it's food many times since I stumbled upon it.

                                                        Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Sat, 01/7/12 6:21 AM (permalink)
                                                        Great work!

                                                          Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Sat, 01/7/12 10:26 AM (permalink)
                                                          Congratulations on a great trip really hit some great spots!  I frequent Paradise Pup and love just about everything...hope we cross paths on the Roadfood trail one day!
                                                            Ralph Melton

                                                            Re:Chicago/San Antonio via Amtrak Sun, 01/8/12 10:41 AM (permalink)
                                                            Thank you for a very nice report.
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