Breakfast of Road Warriors

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Lobby of the Marriott Convention Center, Riverside, California

RIVERSIDE

Vegan on the Road

A perpetual concern of travelers everywhere is what to do for breakfast.  Lack of planning on the part of the traveler is common, and the quality of the traveler’s experience is thus largely in the hands of one’s innkeeper.  Unless you’re staying at a “bed and breakfast,” chances are better than average that you will be in for something inadequate, disgusting or, if you’re particularly unfortunate, both.

About the time you open your eyes and realize that you are not at home in the comfort of your own bed, but in a hotel room in a strange city, you will hear your stomach rumbling and you will begin to wonder where sustenance is to be had.  If, at check-in, you spied a sign at the front desk indicating “morning coffee available in lobby,” you know you are at the mercy of what’s available nearby.  This is when one’s stomach expresses the fervent wish that the local amenities extend beyond microwaving a pre-packaged burrito from 7-11.

We road warriors are dedicated to the truth that there is much work to be done and that such work must be fueled by some form of morning sustenance beyond mere caffeine.

My employer has informed me that I am not permitted to seek reimbursement for the cost of my morning meal if breakfast comes free with the room, even if it is a “continental breakfast” consisting of coffee and donuts.  The fact that I am unable to partake of either of the aforementioned delicacies does not appear to sway company policy in my direction.  Thus, I am better off staying the night in accommodations that blithely ignore their guests’ need for food in the A.M.

One way to assure morning prandial satisfaction is to bring one’s own food.  This is an attractive option for those with special needs, such as my fellow vegan and gluten-free eaters.  The success of such plan, however, is largely dependent on the presence of a refrigerator and microwave in one’s hotel room.  While such amenities are common these days (at least in North America), they are by no means universal.  In fact, may I suggest that the likelihood of finding food storage and preparation facilities located in one’s guest room is inversely proportional to the quality of the hotel?  One is more likely to find a micro and fridge in Room 108 at Motel 6 than in a 20th floor suite at the Hilton.  Then again, who wants to bring one’s own food when local culinary delights await?

Lesson learned:  When making reservations for business travel, be sure to order a refrigerator and microwave rather than waiting until check-in and hoping for the best.  That is, unless you want to end up like me, with a bagful of hard potatoes that you can’t cook.

I do have certain gluten-free vegan coping mechanisms that I use on the road.  Everywhere I go, I search for Thai restaurants.  This is not because I’m crazy about Asian food, but because most Thai restaurants offer at least a few dishes that can be prepared both vegan and gluten-free.  Pad se ew, please.  No meat, just tofu, no egg, no fish sauce, no soy sauce.  Those are real, gluten-free rice noodles, right?  Not so hot that I turn into a fire-breathing dragon, please.

As it is not my habit to eat Thai food for breakfast, however (even if there were any Thai restaurants open at that hour), I generally look for a place where I can find some fruit.  Now, my habitual breakfast at home is either coconut milk yogurt with banana and raisins or a “protein bowl” (garbanzos and tofu).  But I challenge you to find an American restaurant serving such delights at seven in the morning.  I frequently end up throwing a banana, a slice of gluten-free millet bread and a bottle of water into a bag as I hurry out the hotel door to an early meeting.  I hope to cadge a cup of tea at the meeting venue, but I am seldom so lucky in this coffee-devoted nation of ours.

As a case in point, a few days ago I was in Los Angeles.  After a night in a motel in a seedy area of town marked by the repetitive wailing of car alarms and sirens, I walked into a meeting and was surprised by a breakfast spread just waiting for the participants to dig in.  The viands consisted of turkey, ham, cheeses and rolls to make sandwiches, assorted muffins and, of course, coffee.  (Query:  Who the heck eats such crap at eight o’clock in the blessed morning?  When I asked this of my mother, she replied: “A farmer.”). Honestly, it’s such a ray of sunshine to be presented with all the lovely comestibles that a gluten-free vegan would be delighted to encounter.  And, of course, not a cup of tea in sight.  I sighed and dug in my bag for my banana and millet bread.

Here at the Marriott Convention Center in Riverside, California, one evening I wistfully reviewed the room service breakfast menu and its checkboxes and found the usual variety of egg dishes, meat and cereal.  When completed and hung on the door knob, a hot breakfast would appear, as if by magic, during the 15-minute interval of the guest’s choice (6 to 11 am).  And, just as magically, $15 to $18 per person would be added to the guest’s hotel bill.  Perhaps, I wondered, if I closed my eyes, recited an incantation and wished upon a star, the menu would magically be altered to include berries with almond milk or a breakfast sandwich of soy cheese and grilled tomatoes on rice bread.  Sigh.  In some alternate universe, perhaps.

Then a funny thing happened. While I leafed through the hotel’s amenities brochure and noticed the availability of a breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant for the princely price of $19 per person, my wife attempted in vain to get the flat screen TV to work.  Not being wealthy, I couldn’t imagine spending nearly $40 (plus tip) for my wife and I to have breakfast.  After all, my employer allows me to expense the grand sum of seven dollars for my morning meal.  Perhaps I do inhabit an alternate universe after all.

I phoned the front desk to report that the telly was on the fritz.  The staff member on duty apologized and sent up a technician.  He messed around with the thing but had no more success than we did.  After he went off to contact the hotel’s internet service provider, my wife called the front desk again to ask about checkout time.  The same chirpy staff lady asked whether our TV had been repaired.  When we assured her that it had not been, she offered to have us change rooms.  No need, said my wife.  We were heading off to sleep anyway.  Apologizing once more, the desk clerk offered us two free breakfast buffets for our trouble.  Hallelujah!  Perhaps my awkward abracadabras worked the right spell after all.

Visiting Riverside is always a slightly strange experience for me, tinged with more than a bit of déjà vu.  My former employer was based in Riverside and, even though my work location was a three-hour drive east, out in the desert, I had to come into town two or three times each year for meetings.  Ironically, now that I work in northern California, I find myself still doing the same (although it’s a six-hour drive each way from Sacramento).

My former employer always put me up a few blocks away at the Mission Inn, deemed by many to be a premiere accommodation due to its historic setting and the ghosts of the past that some say continue to inhabit its walkways and guest rooms.  Personally, I never cared for it, finding the atmosphere dark, drafty and just a wee bit pretentious, as might be expected of some English countryside manor with a 17th or 18th century pedigree.

While the quaintness, antiques and Spanish architecture of Mission Inn appeal to many, I much prefer the modern amenities offered by the Marriott.  While the venue levies separate charges for most of these, those in the know are able to take advantage of the broad leeway given staff to satisfy guests.  In other words, many of the fees can be waived if you just ask (particularly if you mention that you’ve stayed with them before and that your employer has certain expectations in regard to costs).  Not only did we have $25 in wifi connection charges waived (“we still have to work, you know”), we also obtained free parking and an upgrade that allowed us access to the 12th floor concierge lounge (where we watched the Cubs and Indians duke it out on a big screen TV back in September).  Oh, and about that concierge lounge:  They serve juice and pastries in the morning and appetizers in the evening.  Appetizers?  Try sushi, curry, salad and desserts.  Who needs dinner?  As a vegan GFer, I could chow down on raw veggies, hummus and fresh fruit.

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Breakfast buffet at the Riverside Marriott

Which brings me to the $40 breakfast buffet for two that we were comped.  Although it was a weekday, a cook was preparing omelettes to order.  There were scrambled eggs, boiled brown eggs and several of my wife’s favorite breakfast items, including bacon, sausage, yogurt and bread and English muffins for toasting.  GF vegan?  I chowed down on oatmeal with raisins, potatoes and fresh fruit (cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and watermelon).  They even had almond milk on hand for my tea, a rarity on the road.  The staff was so accommodating that I wonder whether they would have sent out to Whole Foods or Sprouts had I asked for gluten-free millet bread.

My fellow breakfasters ranged from men discussing football and billion-dollar deals to an older couple traveling with a squirming three year old who was Face Timing the folks back home.  “Behave,” I heard her mom warn from halfway across the room (and, likely as not, from halfway across the country). “Don’t cause Grandma any trouble.”

 

 

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Duke’s

After church today, we headed over to the local diner for lunch.  Only we had breakfast instead.

The dining choices in our little town are few, and are mostly limited to fast food.  Going out to eat generally means traveling 20 minutes or more to one of the neighboring towns.  So I was excited to try out an eatery close by.

Duke’s is a homespun, hole-in-the-wall joint that opens at 5:30 in the morning for the early birds and calls in the horses at two in the afternoon.  And yes, there really is a Duke.  Plaques on the wall bear witness to his chili-making prowess in the form of awards from the Las Vegas chili competition in multiple years.

Although it was late in the day for Duke’s, about three-quarters of the tables were filled.  I was concerned that they wouldn’t have much in which a (near) vegan could partake.  On our way there, my wife mentioned that they offer an egg substitute, but it turned out to be Egg Beaters, which is made from egg whites.  So I was surprised at the choices available.

I ended up ordering fried potatoes, oatmeal and dry toast.  The home fries were prepared with bell peppers, onions and garlic.  Delicious!  The oatmeal was served with cinnamon and raisins.  My first surprise was that the place carries nondairy creamer (made from soy).  “That’s how Duke eats his oatmeal,” the server told me.

My second surprise was that Duke’s serves decaffeinated herbal tea, both jasmine and chamomile.  You may think that’s not so special, but you might be surprised how many restaurants serve standard issue black tea only.

Although we ate in the rear dining room, I suspect that the best place to sit at Duke’s is up front on the stools at the counter.  I saw several different newspapers and even a copy of National Geographic hanging around for the perusal of guests waiting for their meals to be cooked.

Those coming in for lunch have choices such as egg salad or grilled cheese sandwiches, patty melts, chef salads, soups and the diner’s specialty, chili.  Now, if I could only convince them to start cooking cauliflower cutlets and Portobello mushroom sandwiches.

But as far as breakfast goes, you can count me in.  I told my wife that she’s lucky that I am currently without my car, which we have loaned out to my niece so she can drive back and forth to her college classes.  Otherwise, I don’t think you’d be able to keep me away from the place.

 

$2-$4-$6-$8, Who Do We Appreciate?

Denny's

I don’t believe Denny’s gets the respect it deserves.

Ubiquitous as a roadside waystop, seemingly in every other town and every other exit off the interstate, Denny’s is either perceived as hopelessly boring or else a beacon in the night for weary travelers in need of strong coffee and maybe a little food.

People think of Denny’s and they think of breakfast.  Eggs and pancakes.  Bacon and toast.  Lots of coffee.  So Denny’s attempted to give itself a makeover and assume a new image, that of “America’s diner.”  They updated their menu to include more kinds of hamburgers, appetizers, dinner entrées.

So what do the folks like to order with all these new choices?  The “Build Your Own Grand Slam.”  So we’re right back at square one with breakfast.  Poor Denny’s.  It can be hard to reshape your image.  At least they have a sense of humor about it.  They have a giant poster inside the door that proclaims in oversized letters:  “Breakfast for dinner?  We’re open for that.”

They better be.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump, breakfast is as breakfast does.

My chief problem with Denny’s is that, once you get past the Grand Slam, I never know what to expect.  One day they’re doing the build your own hamburger thing, where you take a pencil and circle the fixings you want on a little form and then name your burger.  Next visit they’re doing some Tolkien Hobbit thing.  At the moment, it’s Baconalia.  They even have a bacon ice cream sundae.  If Denny’s is seeking to gain notoriety through being disgusting, I do believe they are on the right track.

What I find truly amazing is their $2-$4-$6-$8 menu.  They’ve had this feature for a while nows, and it actually features some deliciously satisfying, if greasy, items.  Today, for example, I treated myself to a cheese quesadilla appetizer, with sour cream and pico de gallo on the side.  Two bucks.  Now who can beat that price?  That’s about the same price as a fast food quesadilla through the drive-in, which doesn’t come with sour cream or pico.  Admittedly, the quesadilla and our local, family-run Mexican restaurant is a bit larger and a bit tastier, but it’s also greasier and costs more than twice as much.

Quesadilla

Then I ordered the Everyday Value Slam, also from the 2-4-6-8 menu.  Breakfast for dinner.  I’m so glad they’re open for that.

You get two eggs any style, two pancakes and your choice of bacon or sausage.  I don’t eat meat, so they gladly substituted fried redskin potatoes.  It was almost more food than I could eat and it was four dollars.

Breakfast

Actually, $4 was the menu price.  For me, however, it was FREE.

That’s right:  Free, no charge, gratis.  That’s because, when I paid my bill on my last visit, the cash register spit out a receipt that offered me a free Everyday Value Slam if I went online and completed a brief survey at www.dennyslistens.com.  There were just a few questions; it didn’t take me five minutes to complete it and obtain a code to write on the receipt.

You think this is unusual?  Well, I will tell you that I get a survey offer for a free meal on about every second or third visit.  The prize used to be a free Build Your Own Grand Slam; these days it’s the slightly smaller (3 items rather than 4) Everyday Value Slam.

So you have to pay for your beverage, big deal.  The bottom line is that a very filling meal, when it’s not free, is only four dollars.  You can’t get out of the fast food drive-through for that price.

Forget about their reputation.  Denny’s rocks!

 

The Good, the Bad and the Veggie

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Guilty pleasure confession: I like McDonald’s. And I don’t even eat hamburgers!

I’ve heard all kinds of negative things about McDonald’s over the years: That they’re not environmentally conscious, that they destroy both the rain forest and local family businesses, that they encourage childhood obesity. Does any of that stop me from heading for the drive-thru early in the morning? Not a chance.

Breakfast at McDonald’s is one of my favorite ways to start the day, and I typically indulge in all its greasy, calorie-laden glory a couple of times a week. Even a non-meat-eater like myself can find some tasty ways to increase his lipids and get his cholesterol up.

I cruised over to the drive-thru on Friday morning and placed my usual orderr: Two sausage McMuffins with egg, no sausage. And a hash browns.

“Ohhhh yeah, no meat on Friday during Lent,” came the voice over the speaker.

“That’s every day for me,” I responded.

No, I’m not Catholic. I’m just a Jew-boy from New York who got farblonget and ended up in the middle of the desert. When it comes to my eating habits, one day is the same as the next. No meat for me, please. And don’t even think of serving me that pig meat crap they call sausage.

I’ve heard all the vegetarian arguments about McDonald’s: It’s all made with the same meaty, greasy utensils, they make it in advance and just take off the sausage patty, the oil that they cook it in contains animal fats. So I do a really bad imitation of a vegetarian and I’m a terrible Jew to boot.

But I still love my McDonald’s breakfast anyway. This little habit will probably take a year or two off my life, but I suspect it’s worth it. I’ve never smoked, but I think I’ve caught a glimpse of what it’s like to be hooked on the cigarettes that you know will result in your untimely death.

Oh, it gets worse. I also like McDonald’s fish filet sandwiches. I had to try their Fish McBites that they rolled out just in time for Lent, but I was not impressed. They are too salty for my taste. Besides, there is just something about that slice of American cheese on the fish filet sandwich.

It seems that everyone’s getting in on the act. In some locations, McDonald’s lowers the price of its fish filet sandwich from over four dollars to about a dollar and a half on Fridays during Lent (but not in our little town). Their fast food competitors have to keep up with reduced fish filet prices, the broiled cod sandwich (Carl’s Jr.), beer-battered fish tacos (Del Taco) and so forth. I love Lent!

I do try to balance out my horrible fast food habit with eating more healthily the rest of the time. One of my favorite dishes is roasted vegetables (pictured above). My wife cuts up the veggies, I spread them out on the pan and season them, then into the oven they go. Quick, simple and delicious. Protein? We don’t need no steenkin’ protein! I make a meal of this alone. Prepared this way, veggies are truly delicious and they are so filling.

This is an extremely easy dish to prepare; there is nothing to it. I don’t really cook and this is the kind of food we make all the time. Preheat the oven to 375°F, place a sheet of aluminum foil on a flat plan, then grease it with some cooking spray or a little olive oil. Cut up whatever fresh veggies you have on hand (today we used zucchini, carrots, bell peppers, white mushrooms, onions and one large potato). Sprinkle on garlic powder, onion flakes, oregano or Italian seasoning, black pepper and whatever other spices you like. Stick it in the oven for 15 minutes. That’s all! The potatoes will come out very al dente. If you like your taters a little more toward the well done side, put them in the oven separately 10 or 15 minutes ahead of time, then have the rest of your colorful veggie family join them on the heat.

Eat this regularly and you can almost justify that lovely, greasy McDonald’s breakfast that you know is calling your name.