Sunday, January 29, 2012

Points & Miles 101

A lot of our friends have been asking about our new "hobby" of collecting points & miles. We just started this August of last year when we came across this blog about a couple who travels the world in first class for a lot less than you would think! We later discovered a whole new world of points aficionados who figured out how to maximize points--acquire them for cheap, and use them extravagantly. We were amazed at this idea and a little overwhelmed at first.

There are so many things to learn and absorb, and since we're still newbies ourselves, we still remember how overwhelming it can be at first. We are still learning everyday, and the majority of the tips below are discussed at length in various points & miles blogs, but for a lot of our friends who want to get their feet wet, here are some "beginner's tips":
  • Sign up for loyalty airline & hotel programs. They are free and you want to start accumulating points and getting credit for every flight and hotel stay. Don't let one more day pass where you don't get credit for your travels!
  • Track your mileage on AwardWallet. This site gives you a quick view of all your points/miles and also helps track those that will expire. Tracking your points/miles is very beneficial so you know what you have and you can start dreaming what your goal is and where you want to go! It will also help you keep aware of soon to be expiring miles/points and either redeem them or do something to push out the expiration date.
  • Start reading the frequent flyer blogs--start from the beginning if you can :). There's a LOT of information, which can be very overwhelming at first, but you'll get the hang of it! Here are a couple of good ones we like to start:
  • If you're married, consider combining your credit card spending into one account, so you accumulate points faster. Previously, we each had a couple credit cards that gave cash back, but all the earned cash was spread out among different cards, and every year we only got a couple of hundred dollars back, which is great but definitely not enough for a free trip anywhere! We started to research for the "best" credit cards that would be flexible and allow us to travel more. Based on our research, we found the one that fits our lifestyle the most to be the SPG American Express card. 
    • One of the benefits of the SPG American Express card is their flexibility to transfer to many different airlines, so you are not "stuck" on one particular airline program. 
    • Starwood's Cash & Points hotel redemption is one of, if not, the best hotel value that currently exists. For example, you can redeem a night at the Westin Kauai for as low as 4800 points + $90/night compared to 12,000 points/night for a regular redemption. Considering a room at the Westin Kauai goes for $310/night, if you do the straight points redemption, each point is worth $310/12,000 points = 2.58 cents/point. Now, compare that to a cash & points redemption, you essentially pay $90/night out of pocket plus points which would be worth ($310-$90)/4800 points = 4.58 cents/point. By redeeming the Cash & Points option, you have essentially doubled the points value!
    • After the first year, there is an annual fee of $65 for the SPG AmEx card.  However, we feel that it is worth it based on how many points we will earn.
  • When purchasing items online, first check EVReward to see where you can earn the most miles/points. For example, we purchase Groupons regularly but never knew that we could actually earn miles. Now, whenever we see a Groupon voucher we want, we first check EVReward for the mileage program will give me the most value. AA mileage will earn 8 points per dollar spent. So if we were to buy a $100 massage Groupon that we would have bought anyway, we would login to AA's shopping portal first, click the link to Groupon, and then purchase the $100 coupon that will net me 800 AA miles! 

Here are a couple of educational videos to also help get you started:

First is a great 20 minute mini-documentary about frequent flying from one of the blogs:

Frequent Flyer from Gabriel Leigh on Vimeo.

Second, click here to view the Nightline 6-minute segment, "Flying First Class for Free."

We are still very conservative in the ways we collect points and miles, and are still learning--by no means are we experts--but it is a very interesting world, and we'd like to continue sharing what we're learning along the way. Keep an eye out for other points and miles related posts in the future.

In the mean time, feel free to ask away if you have any questions!

Dan & Marcela

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sol Food, best find in Marin

A lot of people ask us what are some of our favorite restaurants in Bay Area.

One of the first answer that comes to mind is a Puerto Rican restaurant called Sol Food in downtown San Rafael in Marin County. Every time we visit Dan's parents we make a point to stop for at least one meal at this local spot.

The chicken combo plate (Pollo Al Horno) is excellent. The meat is so tender, juicy, and flavorful. The plate also comes with salad, beans (pinto or black), rice and plantains. I like the pinto beans because it also comes with olives. And we always go for the maduros (sweet plantains). It adds a nice sweetness to the meal. Be warned you get a lot of food with the combo plate (you can choose 1, 2, or 3 pieces of chicken). We usually share one between us, and we both leave stuffed and very satisfied.

Pollo Al Horno

The sour/spicy hot sauce in a Corona bottle on the tables is also a nice compliment to almost everything on the plate. It really brings out the flavor, if you like adding a little spice to your experience.

We also recommend the Veggie Deluxe sandwich. It comes out warm. The cilantro-lime mayo with the avocado, cheese, and veggies in between the toasted bread make for such a fantastic mix of creamy, savory, slightly sweet, and crunchy bliss in each bite.

Veggie Deluxe Sandwich

I also love the Mango Ice Tea. So refreshing, alhough Dan thinks it's a little too sweet! :)

Whenever we come, usually for lunch, there's always a line, so be prepared to wait to order and then to find a seat. And why wouldn't you? It's crowded for a reason.

Sol Food 
903 Lincoln Avenue
San Rafael, CA 94901-3213

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New York - Summary

Wow, we definitely had eaten our way in New York City by the end of our trip! Even though we only had a couple days--mixing work with pleasure--we truly maximized our time in New York.

Intro: Eating Our Way in the Big Apple
Roosevelt Hotel
Day 1: Doughnut Plant, Cafe Habana, Peter Luger, Momofuku
Day 2: Shake Shack, 9/11 Memorial, Chelsea Market, The High Line, Babbo
Element by Westin Times Square
Day 3: Ippudo
Day 4: Shake Shack, Wafels & Dinges, Eataly
Day 5: Kyotofu

Some of the highlights from our trip were:
  • Cereal milk soft serve at Momofuku Milk Bar
  • Peter Luger steak
  • Ippudo ramen
  • Momofuku's spicy rice cake entree

Here is the list of other restaurants/food places that were on our list but we couldn't fit into our schedule, and hope to try next time:
  • Chicken rice from Halal cart on 53rd and 6th
  • Clinton St. Baking company
  • Macaroon from Laduree
  • Grimaldi's Pizza
  • Cookies from Levain
  • Sushi Yasuda
  • Pommes Frites

And in conclusion, here are some other tips/recommendations:
  • Make reservations in advance where possible for places like Peter Luger, for example.
  • If you go to Shake Shack, beware of the crazy squirrels at Madison Square Park :p 
  • I would not repeat any restaurant or food place twice, but instead try another option. For example, I went to Shake Shack twice, but looking back, I should have only gone once and visited another place since we only had a limited number of meal times!
  • Must try the cereal milk soft serve with cereal crunch at Momofuku Milk Bar!

New York: Day 5

Intro: Eating Our Way in the Big Apple
Roosevelt Hotel
Day 1: Doughnut Plant, Cafe Habana, Peter Luger, Momofuku
Day 2: Shake Shack, 9/11 Memorial, Chelsea Market, The High Line, Babbo
Element by Westin Times Square
Day 3: Ippudo
Day 4: Shake Shack, Wafels & Dinges, Eataly
Day 5: Kyotofu


I couldn't believe our trip was almost ending. We only had one more meal left, and Dan preferred somewhere close to our hotel for a quick lunch.  So we went to Kyotofu. A lot of people recommended Kyotofu for dessert only, but we figured we'd try the lunch menu, too.


The restaurant didn't have any signage from the outside, but since we had the address, we knew that it must be it. The restaurant was actually small, with modern decor and white long leather back wall seating.

Looking at the menu, the items appeared to be fusion, combining Japanese and American influences.

We ordered the Omakase lunch and the macaroni and cheese. We also got soup and salad included as part of the lunch menu! The butternut squash soup was quite good, very mellow and creamy.

Butternut Squash Soup

The salad had mixed greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes with a slightly sweet dressing.


The Omakase was really good! I would highly recommend ordering the Omakase because we got a small tasting of various items. Our omakase lunch consisted of a sake baised pork belly with Japanese pickles, sausage and salad, chicken & tofu mini burger with sweet potato chips, as well as a soft tofu dish.

Our favorites were the chicken & tofu mini burger and the pork belly with rice. The chicken & tofu burger was surprisngly a little sweet but was a good lunch burger. The pork belly was super tender--slightly infused with sake--and worked perfectly when eaten with the pickles and rice.

Omakase Lunch

The Mac & Cheese was a bit heavy but good! There was a bit of truffle shavings which made it even more rich and wonderful!

Mac & Cheese

We also ordered the Omakase dessert so we could try a couple of different things. The dessert consisted of a tofu dessert, chocolate molten cake, and green tea creme brulee. The highlight was definitely the tofu dessert. It was so light, slightly sweetened, and very refreshing. We should have known and just went ahead and ordered one of the tofu dessert dish since the name of the restaurant is Kyotofu!

The chocolate molten cake and green tea creme brulee were really good as well, but I would say the star was definitely the tofu dessert.

Omakase Dessert

We had a good lunch at Kyotofu, and next time we come, we'll definitely order the full-sized tofu dessert. :)

705 9th Avenue 
New York, NY 10036
(212) 974-6012

Monday, January 16, 2012

New York: Day 4

Intro: Eating Our Way in the Big Apple
Roosevelt Hotel
Day 1: Doughnut Plant, Cafe Habana, Peter Luger, Momofuku
Day 2: Shake Shack, 9/11 Memorial, Chelsea Market, The High Line, Babbo
Element by Westin Times Square
Day 3: Ippudo
Day 4: Shake Shack, Wafels & Dinges, Eataly
Day 5: Kyotofu

I was contemplating where to go to lunch. There were still a number of places still on the list to try, but since I had to venture out on my own for lunch (Dan had a work lunch), I didn't want to go too far or take too long.

I decided to go back to Shake Shack, this time to Madison Square Park, which is their original location. I wanted to visit the place where it all started, enjoy the Shroom burger, and sit outside. Looking back though, I should have probably visited a different place and not eat Shake Shack twice in one week. :p

Madison Square Park

I came around 11:45 AM, and also found NO line! Hmm, maybe those long lines are only in the summer? Nonetheless, I was happy that I wouldn't have to wait hours for this. :)

The "original" Shake Shack

For this location, there was no inside seating; it was all outdoors. I first thought it would be nice to sit outside and enjoy the park, but boy I was wrong!

While I was waiting for my food, I noticed there were squirrels all around the park which seemed normal. However, I heard this girl screamed and saw this fat squirrel eating her fries right in front of her! She tried to shoo the squirrel away but it wouldn't budge! Not sure what she did but it finally left her alone...but then, it found another victim! While another girl was getting a drink, the squirrel ate her fries! When this girl came back to her seat, she also tried to make the squirrel go away, but it wasn't as easy.

For some reason the squirrels in this park were very aggressive and a little scary. The squirrels actually visited almost every table, and people just left or finished their food quickly.

Outdoor seating area

I ordered the Shake Stack (burger + shroom), fries, and diet coke. The Shake Stack was a little too much in my opinion. It was basically a burger with the mushroom/cheese patty on top of a meat patty. I should have just stuck to either the regular or the shroom burger.

My lunch!

After seeing what happened, I grabbed a seat at the park bench (away from the Shake Shack eating area) and made sure to stay very aware of where the squirrels were at all times. I ate my meal in peace for about 2 minutes before a squirrel came and almost attacked me! I ran away and quickly finished what I had.

Needless to say, this particular Shake Shack location was not my favorite. It's probably because it was low season that there wasn't too many people, so the squirrels don't get as much food from the trash can, maybe? I don't know, but they were just way too aggressive.  They were also probably twice the size of regular squirrels--probably from eating all the junk food!

After all the squirrel drama, I made a quick stop to unwind at Eataly, which is an indoor Italian market owned by Mario Batali. It was actually really nice, and I could imagine spending some time to browse around.  But since I was there during my lunch hour and had only limited time, I only walked through the store quickly. The entrance area was the dessert/gelato area. I'm wondering if that's a marketing ploy to actually get people in the store. :p

Front area of the store

This was probably the largest Italian market that I have ever seen in the US. There were various sections for wine, meat, cheese, dessert, pasta, etc. There were also various eating areas, and the food looked pretty good. Too bad I was still too full from Shake Shack. :)

I really liked the ambiance at Eataly. It felt somewhat "gourmet" and high quality. I came across a section for cured meats which reminded me of a similar sighting during our Barcelona trip this past summer.

Hanging meat - reminded me of Barcelona's La Boqueria Market

It was great to have visited this store. Next time I'll have to come with an empty stomach to actually try what all Eataly has to offer.

Freshly baked bread

Before heading back to work, I made a quick stop at Wafels & Dinges which was conveniently parked in front of Eataly!

I wasn't originally planning on getting a dessert (or maybe I was?). I remembered seeing the name during my Yelp research, so I couldn't just pass it up since it was right there in front of me!

I was still pretty full from Shake Shack, so I got the mini wafel (notice the Dutch spelling for waffle?). The mini wafel actually came with 2 toppings; I chose the spekuloos and vanilla ice cream (+1 dollar for the ice cream). I asked for a sample of the spekuloos and it tasted like a dutch caramel. If you've had stroopwafel before, it almost tasted like the stroopwafel filling.

The wafel was served warm with smeared spekuloos and it had a slight crunch. I definitely enjoyed it with the ice cream. I'm glad to have found this place by accident, but my all time favorite is still the Waffle Mania Truck in the Bay Area.

Wafel with Spekuloos & Vanilla Ice Cream

New York: Day 3

Intro: Eating Our Way in the Big Apple
Roosevelt Hotel
Day 1: Doughnut Plant, Cafe Habana, Peter Luger, Momofuku
Day 2: Shake Shack, 9/11 Memorial, Chelsea Market, The High Line, Babbo
Element by Westin Times Square
Day 3: Ippudo
Day 4: Shake Shack, Wafels & Dinges, Eataly
Day 5: Kyotofu

Ippudo is a famous ramen place that is apparently really well known. Every time I asked for food recommendations, Ippudo was always on the list. I heard that the wait was typically 1-2 hours long on weekends, so we decided to skip the weekend and try our luck on a weekday for lunch.

Ippudo (that is me taking picture :)

We were pleasantly surprised that there was NO line! Woo hoo! We passed by the bar area, which I assume would be really crowded on the weekends. There were bowls on the wall, as well as dried ramen noodles placed inside a see through glass--interesting decor idea.

Waiting Area

We were seated immediately around the fireplace area. The music was quite loud but very lively--the whole place was so lively. They announced whenever a new customer arrived (in Japanese), and gave you a warm, loud welcome. It felt like all the employees were pretty happy and friendly. Whenever an order was ready, they would also shout something else in Japanese. It was quite interesting to watch.

Our seating area

There were also booth eating areas for larger groups. The decor was really nice for a ramen place. It's probably the nicest looking ramen restaurant that we have been to.

Booth seating area for larger parties

For appetizer, we ordered the pork buns, which is slightly different from Momofuku's. Momofuku's was served with hoisin sauce, and the pork was braised. At Ippudo, the pork was grilled and served with spicy mayo sauce.

Ippudo's Pork Bun

Dan ordered the regular Shiromaru Hakata, and I ordered the AKamaru Modern. The prices were a little steep for ramen in our opinion: Dan's ramen was $14, and my Akamaru Modern with extra Chashu was $17.

Shiromaru Hakata

The noodles were thinner than other places we've been to (in the Bay Area), and the broth was very smooth and did not feel as heavy or salty as other places, which is probably why it was so good! The Shiromaru broth was a little creamier compared to the Akamaru broth which was more hearty. The toppings were actually pretty simple--we chose not to order other toppings (like egg) for an additional charge--but everything worked well together!

Akamaru Modern

Our total bill after tax and tip was around $50, which we thought to be quite expensive for ramen!  We liked this place, and we're glad we got to try it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Element by Westin Times Square

Intro: Eating Our Way in the Big Apple
Roosevelt Hotel
Day 1: Doughnut Plant, Cafe Habana, Peter Luger, Momofuku
Day 2: Shake Shack, 9/11 Memorial, Chelsea Market, The High Line, Babbo
Element by Westin Times Square
Day 3: Ippudo
Day 4: Shake Shack, Wafels & Dinges, Eataly
Day 5: Kyotofu

For the rest of our stay, we stayed at the new Element by Westin near Times Square. The hotel location was probably about two blocks away from Times Square. The surrounding area by the hotel was probably not the greatest, but we didn't mind. Prior to staying here, we didn't know that Westin had another brand called the Element, but we were open to trying it since the hotel looked pretty new.

It looked like the Westin brand was trying to market this hotel as a modern, eco-friendly hotel. It seemed to be geared more towards business travelers. They provide free breakfast, free wi-fi, and free cocktail hour from 5-7 PM, which was a really nice touch.

The lobby area was very simple - there was no grand lobby with high ceiling - it was just a regular first floor lobby with big blocks and long tables. Check in was quick and efficient; we actually got to check in early when we got there around noon, which was nice.

Even though there's no lobby, there's a really nice seating area right next to the lobby where people could sit down, check email, etc. This was also where they held the cocktail hour in the evening and served breakfast in the morning.

We got a corner room, and it was a pretty good size for New York city. From what I understand, all rooms comes with fridge, microwave, dishwasher, coffee maker, sink, and a full set of pots/pans, mugs, spoon, forks, etc. This hotel would be perfect for a longer stay with this kitchenette area.

We really loved the modern style of the hotel and how new and well kept everything was. It was such a nice upgrade from our earlier stay at the Roosevelt.

As customary to other Westin hotels, it came stocked with the Heavenly bed.

The decor was very zen like, lots of neutral colors, mostly browns and greens. Another thing that was unique at this hotel was that they provided a DVD player - which we really don't see much at hotels.

We noted the railings around the bathroom and realized that this was probably a wheelchair accessible room, and that probably explained why the room felt bigger than a typical New York hotel room.

Some of their eco friendly features that I noticed included having a shower gel/shampoo dispenser vs small bottles/packs, no plastic lining on the trash can, and separate recycle bins in each room.

We did check out the cocktail hour one day, and they actually had a pretty good beverage selection--wine, beer, and soft drinks--as well as a hot dish and cheese and crackers.

Overall we really liked the modern style of the hotel, as well as the nice touches that they provided such as free wifi, breakfast, cocktail hour, and also to know that they are trying to be eco friendly. Service was also good in general. The one thing that did not score well in our book was the slow elevators. This hotel was 40 stories tall with around 10 rooms on each floor, but there were only 3 elevators. We felt like we waited a while every time for the elevators.

Considering everything, we really enjoyed our stay at this hotel and would definitely put this at the top of our list when visiting New York City in the future!

New York: Day 2

Intro: Eating Our Way in the Big Apple
Roosevelt Hotel
Day 1: Doughnut Plant, Cafe Habana, Peter Luger, Momofuku
Day 2: Shake Shack, 9/11 Memorial, Chelsea Market, The High Line, Babbo
Element by Westin Times Square
Day 3: Ippudo
Day 4: Shake Shack, Wafels & Dinges, Eataly
Day 5: Kyotofu

Shake Shack

Shake Shack!

We woke up later than anticipated and didn't make it to our planned breakfast place :p so we ended up sleeping in and went straight to lunch at Shake Shack. A lot of people recommended this burger joint. We went to the one in the Financial District, since we were going to the 9/11 Memorial, which was close by, after lunch.

Outdoor seating area

The location was on the ground floor of a downtown office building. The decor was modern/industrial, with lots of metal, TVs, and wooden counter tops. It somehow felt more "upscale" than a typical burger/fast food restaurant, like In-N-Out or Five Guys.


Since we went on a Sunday, there was NO line. Woo hoo! We heard that the Madison Square Park location usually have lines 1.5-2 hours long. We're glad we didn't have to wait at all. Dan ordered the regular single burger, I order the 'shroom (vegetarian) burger, and we shared an order of cheese fries.  

Our order took about 10 minutes, and we were excited to finally dig in! The size of the burger was actually a little on the smaller side, but definitely enough. The burger was good, simple but solid. We really liked the bun; it tasted more home made style rather than fast food.

Our order

I would say the star was the 'shroom burger. When my friend originally told me to order the vegetarian burger, I was hesitant. But I'm so glad I did! The patty was basically cheese filled mushroom, deep fried! It was so unique and delicious. When I took my first bite, I could taste the crunch from the breading, and the cheese from the patty was oozing out! Yum! The fries were good too, simple and crunchy.

Shroom burger close up
Inside view with the cheese oozing out :)

We really enjoyed our simple burger at Shake Shack. We definitely recommend this place and would come back on our next visit to NY! :)

9/11 Memorial

The memorial was recently opened and we both hadn't been, so we made this one of the places to visit while in town.

Our friend told us to get tickets online which we're glad we did. Tickets were free, but we had to bring the hard copy print outs with us. When we came, they were doing major construction so there was only one entrance! We basically walked all the way around, and it was a LONG walk. So make sure you do your research on where the entrance is to make sure you don't do what we did. There was a pretty secure security measure--we had to go through something similar to airport security.

The memorial was very nice and tranquil. I think they did a really good job by making it a fountain-like memorial.... There were 2 fountain pools: North Pool and South Pool, signifying the North Tower and the South Tower. The names of the victims were engraved on the sides.

Chelsea Market

After visiting the 9/11 Memorial, we met up with Dan's friend at their place, and they recommended we check out Chelsea Market and High Line Park. They mentioned that the Food Network studio was above the Chelsea Market which made it even more appealing to visit!

There were cute stores, bakeries, cheese monger, cupcake place, cafes, and restaurants inside the building. It reminded us of the ferry building in San Francisco. Definitely a cute place to visit and wander around - especially during the day. We came at night and some of the stores were already closed.

High Line Park

Our friend also recommended us to visit High Line Park. Since our time in New York was limited, we decided to go ahead and check it out, since it's really close from Chelsea Market.

The High Line Park is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan's West Side. 

Interesting park

Since we came in January, it was really cold at night around the park. I imagine that when the weather is nice, the park would be really neat to walk around or take a jog. The elevated park is a truly unique concept, and we did get a wonderful view of the city.

Beautiful view from the High Line

Too bad it was way too cold for us to walk around for too long, so we gracefully went back down and grabbed some warm drinks indoors at the Standard hotel.

Park Benches


For dinner, we met my high school friend who I hadn't met in 10+ years! She currently lives in NYC and suggested that we eat at Babbo which is one of Mario Batalli's restaurants--apparently it's really hard to get reservations here! We were pleasantly surprised when my friend was able to make a somewhat last minute reservation at Babbo.

We were seated on the 2nd floor, which was a bit more quiet. The price was surprisingly not bad (appetizers were around $15-$18, pastas around $25+, mains around $30+). We decided to share the appetizers and pasta with our friend, and got individual main entrees.

We ordered the following:
Grilled Octopus with “Borlotti Marinati” and Spicy Limoncello Vinaigrette
Baby Wild Arugula with Parmigiano and Aceto Manodori 
Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Spicy Salami Calabrese and Green Chiles
Chianti Stained Pappardelle with Wild Boar Ragu 
Grilled Pork Chop with Cherry Peppers, Cipolline and Aceto Manodori

The grilled octopus was probably the highlight of the night. It was probably the softest, most tender octopus we've ever had. 

Grilled Octopus

The arugula salad was HUGE! It was slightly drizzled with the balsamic vinegar, and served with large pieces of shaved parmigiano.

Arugula Salad

Dan liked the Chianto stained papardelle. The tomato based ragu with wild boar tasted like a meat sauce. The dish was a good, solid dish.

Papardelle with Ragu

I actually really enjoyed the black ink spaghetti. It was cooked al dente with a slight chew which was great. There wasn't a sauce per se; it was served with shrimp and spicy calabrese which tasted like bacon. There were a little too much calabrese on the plate, but overall still a great dish.

Black ink spaghetti

The pork chop was delicious. Tender, juicy, and flavorful. The portion was so huge; we were glad we shared this because we probably couldn't have each finished a main course of this size.

Pork Chop
Overall, we enjoyed our meal at Babbo. We were glad to try it out, but we weren't blown away. Maybe worth checking out once, but we probably would not come back given so many other food options in Manhattan.