Thursday, November 14, 2013

San Francisco: The Grand Prize

During 1-800 Contacts' company party this summer I was the last name called for one of the grand prizes - a trip to see an NFL team play and enjoy the hometown! Jennifer and I decided on San Francisco and the 49ers. I selected the week I did for the time of year, but mostly because that same weekend Oregon was visiting Stanford...I just didn't see how I could pass that up. But in order for Jennifer to sign up for two football games she asked that we try to do some things she liked as well. And so the planning began.

We flew in on Wednesday morning and couldn't check in till 3PM so we made a few stops first. We heard about a large farmers flower market there and thought it could be amazing. It wasn't, actually. Just some large shops grouped together selling flowers - not that special. Then we visited Tartine Bakery for lunch. We got a couple sandwiches, but our favorite was the Pecorine and Almond (sheep cheese and almonds crushed with olive oil, lemon and sage) - very good. Their croissants were also quite good. We were close by a local hero of an ice cream shop so of course we picked up a couple scoops and hung out at the nearby Doloras Park to enjoy. I love ice cream, but theirs (Bi-Rite) was just ok. But the park was full of all sorts of interesting people to keep us entertained (half naked hacky-sack guy, guy wearing a skirt, guy that asked us if we wanted pot then asked for our left-overs, hula-hoop girls). There are a lot of homeless people in San Francisco.

We then spent some time at the Golden Gate Park. We really liked the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Garden.

We eventually made it to the house we stayed at. We found it on - this Russian guy lived in the upstairs and rented out the main floor (where we stayed) and lower level. It was in a nice neighborhood called Inner Sunset on 11th avenue. It was built in like 1912 and was hardwood everywhere (so a modern house to us), but recently remodeled. Here is a street view:

We had to wake up early the next morning to drive an hour to Napa Valley for our hot air balloon ride. This ended up being the highlight of the trip. It was a beautiful time of year with all the fall colored leaves on the grape vines and the smell of fermenting grapes. We were in the air for about an hour and really enjoyed the views and experience as a whole.

On our way back to San Francisco took a detour to Muir Woods to check out the gigantic trees. Very cool and unique forest.

We ate lunch at the farmers market near the Ferry Building. One of my favorite things was this Korean Taco with kimchee.

We then continued our day of driving down to Palo Alto for the Oregon vs. Stanford game. The campus was really nice and a noticeably classy student body (especially when compared to the Duck fans and then later the 49ers fans). I was so impressed with how well Stanford played. Granted, Oregon did not play their best game either, but I couldn't figure out how the Utes beat them earlier this year.

We rented bikes from Blazing Saddles for our activities on Friday. We rode along the beach and bike paths in the morning and made our way into the Financial District for our Chocolate Food Tour. We were not that impressed on this tour. Granted, we used a groupon, but still, when the sample they give you is the same sample they give anyone walking into the store it doesn't make you feel like you paid for anything. But most of the stores were great; Spicely, Minamoto Kitchen, Leonidas, Teuscher Chocolates, and CocoaBella. After the tour we jumped back on our bikes to get across the bridge before sunset. We started to cross just as the bridge was being lit up from the setting sun - we thought it was perfect.

We looked up the best rated restaurant in Sausalito and decided on a place called Pizzeria Rossetti. We ordered two pizzas; the Burrata was my favorite while Jennifer especially liked the Truffle. We have eaten great pizza in New York that was previously tops, but this is even better. The crust is perfection. The staff was great, the owner was humble and gracious. And even then the locals there were awesome. We sat and chatted with two retired-age women that I felt like I could talk to all night. But eventually I thought I should let them get back to their meal. Then the waitress brought us dessert (on the house they said). Then when the check came out the ladies we talked to had already paid for it! Sausalito with its pizza and people is now my favorite!

On Saturday we had our Foodie Adventures tour (North Beach / China Town). Our tour guide, Chris Milano, was awesome. He had such a rapor with the owners of each place we visited - such a contrast from our chocolate tour the day before. We learned a lot about the history in that area and met some great people that make fantastic food. Our favorite was XOX Truffles - incredible handmade chocolate morsels. Throughout the tour we went up to a Chineese Temple, made sure to touch nothing at a fresh fish/poultry market, saw fortune cookies made, heard food demonstrations from passionate business owners, and otherwise enjoyed the afternoon with more food than we needed. At the end Chris gave away a few goodies in a raffle drawing. By that time he knew we won the trip we were on and laughed when my name was drawn for a gift certificate for another food tour - of course.

Then back to my new favorite place (Sausalito) for our sunset sailing adventure. We boarded a 50' sailboat with 20 or so others. Again enjoyed talking to the locals - we met a Rabi/QA Analyst and his wife who teaches the Harpsichord at Stanford (had to YouTube that afterward...didn't know what it was).

Sunday morning we visited Alcatraz - was actually impressed with their audio tour that featured actual guards and previous inmates. Below is a picture taken from the island with a view of the city.

We then caught the metro train to Candlestick Park. It took us a while to figure out the transit system - I'd like to chastise the several locals we asked about how to board the train and where the stop was. The only guy that actually had a clue and was of any help was a homeless guy. The 49ers game was fun. A different class of folk though than the Stanford fan base. As good as Oregon and Stanford players are there is a huge jump in talent, size and speed in the NFL. Very cool to see live and the last season for the Candlestick Park.

For dinner that night we ate at a Middle Eastern chic restaurant called La Mediterranee. Most everything we ate there was awesome, some was just ok. The Avgolemono (lemon chicken purée soup) was way good. Then we had a tasting that sampled 10 of their more famous dishes. I didn't love the lamb or baba ghanoush, but the hummos, fillos, and chicken pomegranite were delish! We then went for dessert at the Ice Cream Bar. Jennifer was reluctant since we ate a lot, but once she had a taste of that vegan chocolate dessert she was sold! I had a 'Love It or Hate It' soda (licorice flavored) from the soda jerk (not derogatory I learned). If we were to open an ice cream shop this is how we'd do it.

Our last day, after checking out we went back to the XOX Truffles, the Ice Cream Bar, and the Golden Gate Park and drove down Lombard Street. We also ate lunch at the Little Chihuahua - a decent Mexican place.

Loved our trip - special thanks to Kami (at 1800) for helping me book everything and of course for footing the bill. We did not expect to go on vacation like this for another year or two so this was just amazing to have been able to go at all!


Sunday, July 7, 2013

New York, New York

We finally did it, we went on our long delayed New York trip. We have been planning to go for over 2 years, but it was worth the wait - we had so much fun! We traveled with our good friends, Nick and Mariah, which made it a lot of fun and Jennifer didn't have to stare at me the whole time.

First, we walked from our house to the bus stop and took the new trax line to the airport - quite convenient actually. The flight wasn't bad, we watched "When Harry Met Sally" on the plane. It is Jennifer's favorite movie and it takes place in New York. When we arrived we took a long subway ride from JFK all the way to 50 st and walked a few blocks to our hotel. In the first few minutes on the subway we were greeted by some pole dancing teenage break dancers - it was strange but entertaining.

After getting settled in the hotel we took the subway (a brilliant system as it turns out) down to some food festival for a snack. Jennifer and I shared a 'crack pie' - it did not contain any illicet materials, but it was fantastically addicting! We had dinner that night at Eataly. This place was really cool. It had several different eateries and shops in a unique indoor market setting. We wandered for a while and decided on 'La Pizza & La Pasta.' It took a while to get a seat, but very worth it. At the end of the trip this still stood as one of the the best places we ate. We all got incredible dishes, but we agreed that mine won the prize - Pasta al Forne al Pesto. This was Lasagna with pesto, bechamel sauce, and green good! Before we left I had to stop by the gelato shop for some cold creamy gold...pistachio gelato, amazing!

The next day we spent some time at the New York Public Library which was very impressive and saved a 10 minute time slot to play ping pong at Bryant park out back.

Later on we stopped off at small store called Bisous Ciao for these amazing little macaroons - I could have eaten 100 of those...if they weren't $3 a pop.

We had dinner at Luzzo's Pizza - best pizza ever! We had four different kinds, Jennifer's favorite was the Michele (w/mushrooms), but I really liked the Piccante (w/hot cherry peppers). Similar style to Settebello in SLC, but better.

That night we went to Wicked - I thought it was awesome so I'm glad we went. Jennifer had already seen it so it wasn't as amazing for her.

The next day we had brunch at Cafe Lalo. The food was ok, but the place, at least, looked cool. The well endowed waitress was really working for her tips that day with her plunging neck line...really wanted to make sure we heard everything she said so she'd bend down when she spoke so we could see, er, hear better - sorry, no pics. You might remember this place from 'You've Got Mail' - so of course we had to go there.

We spent some time at the Riverside Park and then made our way to a bakery for some famous cookies. Levain Bakery has THE BEST COOKIES IN THE WORLD! Get the chocolate chip walnut (my favorite) or the dark chocolate chocolate chip (Jennifer's favorite). They were so good that we ended up going back another day for some treats to take home (they didn't make it too far through the plane ride). We then made our way to the MoMA. The main reason was for the Rain Room exhibit. But the lines were too long so we weren't able to see the exhibit which was a bummer. But we saw some amazing art - here was one of my favorites...a Jackson Pollock:

My bosses boss had recommended that we eat at JoJo's so we had reservations there that night. It was very good. My fresh pea soup was outstanding and the duck was the best! Jennifer had a really good lobster meal. We were rushed for time so we regrettably didn't stay for dessert. We had to get across town for the Upright Citizens Brigade - a comedy club that often feeds into SNL. That was hilarious - and only $10!

Saturday was our Cenral Park day. We first went to the Farmers a market though, to get our picnic food. We found some rye bread, lavender goat cheese, pretzels, and strawberries. But my favorite was the raspberry cider - liquid gold! We found a bike rental place and got a couple of bikes for the day and took off to find a spot to picnic.

Then we just spent the day exploring and riding around. One of our favorite spots was the Conservatory. This had immaculate gardens showcasing three different styles, English, Italian, and French. All were amazing. As we walked into the first one it was as if we walked into heaven. The light was coming through the trees, beautiful flowers, and the harp even started playing. It turned out a small wedding was taking place there, but great first impression regardless.
Jennifer's favorite part on the bikes was a down hill section where the breeze could cool us down a bit.
The Central Park day was one of our favorites. We saw waterfalls, gardens, and turtles, explored bridges and castles, took a nap in the shade by a lake, and otherwise had a relaxing and fun day. This also built up an appetite for our next event. For dinner we had tickets to the Taste of the Upper West Side - as it turns out, a block party charity event run by the Shake Shack guy. This was a food and wine tasting from 40 different chefs in the area - everything was so good, but among my favorites was the salmon tartare and the ricotta cheesecake. DJ Fresh was there with some silver lady hanging upside down pouring shots. This, as Stefon would put it, was New York's hottest new club!
The next day we had bagels at this really good bagel place (Absolute Bagels) and at them at the Riverside Park. We spent some time at the American Museum of Natural History. Tons of stuff to see here, we could have spent all day. And of course I had to get a shot of the butterflies.
We also saw some old manuscript of some of the earliest Filipino writings. I used to know how to write like this, might have to learn again to read this:
We had an early dinner at one of the best Mexican restaurants ever, Rosa Mexicano. Their mole sauce actually beats the Red Iguana's, and that's hard for me to say. I had some tacos that were soooo good - I just want to eat there again! We then had a baseball game to catch so we jumped on the subway and followed all the Yankees hats to the stadium. They were playing the Red Sox so it was fun to hear all the banter between the fans. The Red Sox won in a game that was thrice delayed by rain and eventually called due to thunderstorms, but it was fun to be there and see some good hits and home runs. Our nose bleed seats ended up being the million dollar seats as the rain cleared everyone else out several times.
The next morning we had planned to go to the Intrepid Museum, but we thought we'd try again for the Rain Room. Nick and Mariah still went so we could compare notes afterwards. The lines were again ridiculous, but Jennifer figured out a way to get a membership and thereby cutting in line by like 3 hours and it was only a few bucks more. This place was so cool. An exhibit were it would rain from a platform above, but with sensors to stop the rain right were you are. So you could walk around in the rain, but not get wet. This ended up being Jennifer's favorite.

For lunch we went beneath the Plaza Hotel for Luke's Lobster and took it across the street for a picnic in Central Park - goodness, the best little sliders ever! How was it that good?! Later on it started to rain a bit and we went on a walk along the High Line. This was an abandoned above ground rail way that was transformed into 1.5 miles of incredible trails, gardens, community centers, and public art exhibits. It was very well done. For dinner we went to Babbo's, an up-scale restaurant by Mario Batali that had the most impressive waiting staff I have ever experienced. We did their traditional tasting menu - a 7 course meal that had 5 of the best things you have ever put in your mouth...2 of the 7 were just ok.

Some of the mornings I would wake up early and go running in Central Park - it was like a full on triathlon (or at least biathlon) was taking place each morning. Hundreds of runners to race with and tons of bikers cruising by. It was full of life at 6 AM. My favorite place to run was a path specifically for running (no strollers or pets or bikes allowed) around the larger lake (Jackie O reservoir) - fantastic views:

After my run on Tuesday morning, we went on a food tour through Greenwich Village. I'm so glad we did this. We had a lot of great food and got to see learn about many historical insights about how this part of NYC evolved over the years. My favorite food on the tour was at Restorante Rafele (shown below with Rafael himself making us this amazing eggplant dish behind us).

After the food tour we spent a short 2 hours at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art). We saw some great paintings and a random assortment of other displays, but really needed more time to be able to appreciate this fully. We had to get back to Central Park to wait in line for tickets to their Shakespeare in the Park - a free public theater featuring exceptional talent. This year it had Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell from Modern Family) and Hamish Linklater (from 42). They played leading roles in Comedy of Errors - it was very funny and we were glad to have stumbled upon this since we didn't actually plan this part out - this was Jennifer being spontaneous!

For a midnight-ish snack we stopped off at these famous food carts (The Halal Guys). There were several carts in a block radius, but only one had a line 20 deep. We asked around and apparently that's the only one that you go to. They weren't kidding - for $6 we got some of the best food we had eaten and I wasn't even that hungry at the time, but we slurped up that dish on no time! And I appreciate some spice in my food, but they are not kidding with their sign above the red sauce that states, "Caution - Very Hot!"
Our last day in NYC consisted of us checking out and eating one last fantastic meal at Spice Market. This was a very spacious Asian (Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, etc.) themed restaurant that went over the top with ambiance and it did not disappoint! Jennifer got this chicken and coconut milk soup that is among the best soups ever. It was sad to be leaving as we jumped on the subway for our hour ride back to JFK. I held on to our Metro cards as a souvenir. And honestly, the weirdest people we met during our whole visit was on the public transportation systems in Salt Lake on our way back home from the airport...weirdos.

This trip was worth every penny we saved up for the last two years - we both would love to go back at some point.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Resolution Results

New Years is a time where many of us set new goals and otherwise plan for a better tomorrow. Last year we set up a plan to pay off our house in 5 years. On paper we went into more detail, of course, but that was the gist of it. Our goal for 2012 was to get our mortgage from $192K to below $160K. This post is really a look back at how that went, what we learned, and what we plan for this year.

First, we learned it isn't easy. We had an A/C unit go out and ended up replacing a furnace while we were at it. We had a sewage pipe that needed to be replaced and other various out of pocket and unexpected expenses. So this took planning and reevaluating with very little wiggle room, but things worked out in the end.

Our refinance was a big part of the plan. It did cost us some dough and set us back slightly, but the long term benefits heavily outweighed the cost. We got rid of the pesky PMI each month, secured a fantastically lower interest rate, and into a 15yr loan. - leaving us with a payment of $50 less each month! While we were at it we shopped around for cheaper insurance as well.

The main thing we did that made the biggest impact, however, was to stick to our budget. And this is the hardest part at times. You feel you make enough money to spend $20 on this or that..."I deserve it," you might hear yourself say to yourself! But just saying no and being consistent each month will make the biggest impact. A huge help in our staying on budget and still having good food to eat and a surplus of supplies is Jennifer's coupon-ing capabilities and planning/cooking skills! Looking back, it doesn't feel like we've really had to go without too much (except a vacation here and there).

I think it also helps to listen to Dave Ramsey's show. I especially look forward to the Monday morning podcasts since it usually has some 'Debt Free Screams' from Friday. Listening to couple after couple telling their success story of getting out of debt makes me feel more normal for attempting it and validates that it is possible.

Year end is down to $156K - we made it! And we're well on our way to beat our original goal - should be able to get it done in a total of 3.5yrs now.

Our goal for this year - pay it down below $100K and get a little vacation to New York (that we've put off twice already) to hold us over to the end!