Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Four (ish) days in Mexico City!

D and I love to travel but it's been a while since we've made it out of the country. It's tough juggling vacation schedules and it never seems to fit in our budget easily. But when I saw that Southwest was having an international sale a few weeks ago I decided to forget about being practical and impulsively booked us a last minute trip to Mexico City to celebrate our five year wedding anniversary. I felt really spontaneous and fun until I realized that my passport had expired and I had to run around trying to get an expedited renewal. Womp womp. BUT it was wonderful and worth it and when you consider that Mexico City is closer to us than NYC (and a whole lot cheaper) it's kind of a no-brainer.

This was NOT a relaxing trip where we lounged around by the pool. I made an insane Google map with about three times as many museums, restaurants and bars as we could possibly visit in 4.5 days. I like to have options. We didn't even attempt to get to everything because feeling pressured on vacation is no fun, but we definitely kept busy and we were walking upwards of 10 miles a day, taking in as much of the city as we could. We decided we'll have to go back soon to tackle the rest of our list.

I'll share some details about what we did and where we stayed, etc. after the photos. (Whoops - this got insanely long - I should probably split it up, but I'd rather have everything in one place, so ....)

hotel casa nuevo leon
{hotel casa nuevo leon}
chicarron de queso at faron
{chicharrón de queso at el faraon}
trotksy's house
{trotksy's house}
frida's house
{frida's studio}
bonito frozen marg
{frozen margaritas at bonito}
barragan's house
{luis barragan's house}
cafe zena
{coffee at cafe zena}
national anthropology museum
{anthropology museum}
{museum entrance}
Buna 42
{buna 42}
Buna 42
{coffee at buna 42}
palacio de bellas artes
{art deco details at palacio de bellas artes}
gran hotel ciudad
{tiffany ceiling at gran hotel ciudad}
{mezcal jugs at el palenquito}
avenida amsterdam
{walking on avenida amsterdam}
tout chocolat - condessa
{tout chocolat in condessa}
eno pastries
{pastries at eno}

Hotel: We wanted to stay in the Condessa/Hippodromo/Roma area. These are gorgeous residential neighborhoods with tons of great restaurants, coffee, etc, so I figured it would make a good homebase. After a lot of searching I found Hotel Casa Nuevo Leon, which is right on the edge of Condessa and Hippodromo. It's minimalist in a good way, and relatively inexpensive. We loved it and would absolutely go back. They include breakfast in the little cafe downstairs (just fruit, bread, coffee and juice, but it's more than enough food) and one of the highlights of the trip was the warm pan dulce every morning. Avenida Amsterdam, which is just a block away, has a gorgeous green walking loop lined with cute cafes. This neighborhood has great dog watching, which I loved.

Schedule: We gave ourselves a day each in a few different areas (Coyoacan, Chapultepec/Polanco and the Centro Historico). Traffic is rough, so you can't count on getting anywhere quickly. We "lost" a day because it was Mexican Independence Day while we were there and we knew museums would be closed. It worked out, though, because it gave us an excuse to explore Condessa/Roma and take a much needed afternoon nap.

Site seeing: Actual places we visited (as opposed to all the places we saw while we were out walking). I should note that we had already visited some museums and landmarks when we were in Mexico City years ago, so we skipped those this time (including Teotihuacan, which takes a full day but is amazing).

Museo Casa de León Trotsky (aka Trotsky's house) - just a few blocks from Frida Kahlo's house and it opens up a little earlier, so you can go there first and then walk over to Casa Azul.

Frida Kahlo's house - super crowded, even though it was a random Wednesday. But seeing her studio and living spaces was amazing, and they had a great temporary exhibit up with her clothes and her undergarments/braces.

Museo Dolores Olmedo - huge collection of Diego Rivera's work, along with rotating exhibitions. This is pretty far south but I was willing to trek out so that we could see the xoloitzcuintli (ancient Mexican dog breed) that live there. Sadly, you don't get to pet them, but it's fun to see them.

Luis Barragan's house/studio - Barragan, a visionary architect, used his house as an exploratory space and it's amazing. It's best to make a reservation well ahead of time.

National Anthropology Museum - this place is enormous and you can barely scratch the surface of it in an afternoon. We just gallery hopped to the subjects we were most interested in.

Palacio de Bellas Artes - gorgeous art deco detailing, amazing murals, and (while we were there) a great exhibition on Mexican architect Javier Senosiain.

Eating/drinking: I think it was the altitude but both of us noticed our appetites were smaller than usual. This meant we didn't make it to a lot of the places on our list, but we still had some great snacks/meals/drinks. A few of our faves -

Al pastor tacos at El Huequito - so great. We also tried crowd favorites Tizoncito and El Faraon (both delicious, just not quite as good). All of these places have multiple locations across the city.

Frozen margaritas at Bonito Popfood (San Angel location, but there was also one right down the street from our hotel) - fancier than we were expecting, but this was a fun lunch.

Delicious quesadillas at Maria Isabel in Polanco - these aren't what we're used to calling quesadillas at home - they're more like pockets of fried masa with cheese and fillings. The bean and cheese one was the standout for us.

Hipster breakfast at Lalo! - avocado toast and flat whites are everywhere now. We stuck with the chilaquiles and the huevos rancheros, both were amazing. The servings are enormous and we agreed that it would be best if you had five people and could order 3 - 4 dishes (we really wanted to try the french toast, which came highly recommended, but we couldn't even finish the two dishes we ordered).

Perfect dinner at Fonda Fina - the homier cousin of Quintonil (we wanted to go there but they were booked up a month in advance). This was a wonderful, special meal in a relaxed setting.

Cocktails and aguachile at Huset - their patio is dreamy, but you need to make a reservation to get a table there for dinner.

Pastries - As far as pan dulce goes, I'm all about the conchas, so we tried a couple of the city's most popular versions. Panadería Rosetta (we went to both locations) had a great one, but their guava danish was the true standout. Eno's concha was delicious (and we grabbed sandwiches to take on the plane). I still think my favorite was the cafe at our hotel, where they baked them fresh every morning.

Ice cream at Nómada - best avocado ice cream I've ever had.

Mezcal tastings at La Botica (they have a couple locations and they do cocktails as well) and at El Palenquito, which wasn't on our list but we're so glad we stopped in our last night. They have a small but well curated list of artisanal mezcals and we also picked up a bottle take home.

Mexican craft beer at Taller de Cerveza la Graciela and El Deposito.

Delicious coffee at Buna 42, where we also picked up some beans to take home. Another great coffee stop was Cafe Zena, which we mostly picked because the space was so cute, but their coffee was good too.We window shopped at Distrito Fijo Club de Ciclismo, a combo coffee/bike shop, but we were maxed out on caffeine.


Chocolate - we wanted to bring home some candy so we visited Que Bo! (delicious showstoppers) and then later found Tout Chocolat, which was just around the corner from our hotel. They make the chocolates onsite at the Condessa location (not sure if they do the same at their other location) and we particularly loved the mezcal with sea salt and the maracuya (passionfruit). We brought a bunch home.

Custom made shoes at Goodbye Folk - D picked up a great pair of shoes here. They have beautiful designs and if they don't have your size in stock they can make a pair in about 10 days (and will ship to the US for $20 if necessary). I'm not a shoe person at all and I was sorely tempted by a pair of mint green quilted loafers.

Tourist shopping at Centro Artesanal La Ciudadela - this is a huge, overwhelming market and it's great. I think you're supposed to haggle but I hate doing it, so I didn't. We don't normally do much shopping on vacation but we couldn't resist picking up some kids clothes and then we sort of went off the rails and came home with a giant blanket, a scarf for me that might as well be a blanket, and a lighting fixture (!), along with various other trinkets.

Quirky prints from Macolen - we stumbled on this little shop and ended up buying two framed prints. The owner works with artists all over the world, makes prints of their work using a Riso printer (the full size version of the Gocco, basically) and then sells them out of this little shop/studio. There are some amazing pieces in here.

Logistics - not sure if anyone else is interested in my cell phone plan details, but I had to Google it before I left, so maybe one of you is wondering?

Uber: Lots of friends recommended Uber, which didn't exist the last time we visited Mexico City. There are safety concerns with hailing street taxis, so this was a great option and it also helps if there's a language barrier (I'm lucky because Dustin is fluent, but if I was on my own this would have been a huge plus!). We tipped in cash. I know Uber says tipping isn't expected, but that always makes me feel weird. I'm embarrassed to admit it but we didn't take the subway once. We planned to, but every time we checked Google maps it was faster to either walk or take an Uber. I think this is because our hotel wasn't particularly close to a subway station.

Walking around: We walked and walked and walked. We actually walked from Chapultepec to Polanco one day (I don't recommend this - I didn't realize our route had us walking on a tiny strip of sidewalk next to the freeway). But other than that ill advised trip, the walking was great. We were really oriented in the city and we got good at finding our way around and stumbled on little places we wouldn't have seen otherwise. I always follow the same walking safety rules in cities I don't know - choose your route on Google maps before you leave your hotel, trying to find streets that seem nice (stores, coffee shops, etc) so you don't accidentally end up in a weird deserted area. Once I have my route set, I turn on navigation, put one earbud in discreetly and then tuck my phone in my purse or pocket. That way I'm getting step by step instructions but I look like I know where I'm going.

Cell phones: Of course, in order to use Uber or maps we needed our cell phones to work. We have Verizon, so I added an international travel pass to our phone plans before we left. The travel pass is activated as soon as you use your phone in a different country, and they charge you $2 per 24 hour period (in Mexico, it's higher on other continents) to use your regular data/minutes/etc.

Cash: I ordered pesos from our bank before we left and I'm really grateful for it. They let me specify small bills, which meant I had a big wad of 20s, 50s and 100s. If you get money from the ATMs in Mexico you mostly get larger bills which can be hard to break. We did use credit cards for some meals and our hotel, but we needed cash for almost everything else, especially tips.

And one last note on the altitude - Mexico City is pretty high up (just under 7500 feet) if you're used to sea level. Last time we were there I was really affected by it and felt crummy. I was determined not to let that happen this time so I read up on what you should do to prevent altitude sickness and found this article about a study that showed taking Ibuprofen could help stave it off. The day before we left I made sure to drink a ton of water, and then I followed the general recommendations of the study, taking three 600 mg doses of Ibuprofen the day of travel (one when I woke up at 5am, one on the plane around middday, one in the evening when we had arrived). We were also really careful about hydrating while we were there, basically picking up bottles of water anytime we passed a mini-mart (so, all the time). Not sure if it was the pills or the water, but other than a little headache the second day I felt great and we were able to walk a ton and get a lot done.

Huge thanks to those of you who reached out with tips and recommendations - so sweet of you all!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Meal planning apps - Pepperplate and Big Oven side by side reviews

As I mentioned last month, I wanted a meal planning app that would help me make grocery lists. I googled a bit and found Big Oven, and tested it out. I was pretty happy with it and you can read more about my experience with it here.

I was planning to go on with Big Oven but a couple commenters mentioned Pepperplate and I decided it seemed only fair to try that as well so I started playing around with it right away and used it to help plan meals and grocery shopping while I was up north with my sister (I was cooking meals for us and trying to get their freezer stocked up a bit, so there was a lot of grocery shopping!).

Pepperplate is similar to Big Oven in the sense that it's a meal planning app that syncs across your desktop and mobile devices. You enter recipes (or clip them from websites) and then Pepperplate allows you to choose which recipes you want on which days, and creates a shopping list for you.

Let me admit upfront that I've only scratched the surface of these apps the last couple months, so if you have been using them for a while and have feedback, feel free to correct me! Here's my impression of the two apps (sorry this is so long winded but you know how seriously I feel about meal planning!).

Big Oven vs. Pepperplate

Big Oven vs. Pepperplate

Entering recipes: Both apps have a large upfront time cost. You have to get all your frequently used recipes uploaded and it takes a while. I did all this upfront work on my desktop computer. Both sites claim that you can clip recipes from websites with compatible formats, but I found that most blogs aren't compatible, so you end up entering recipes by hand a lot. Big Oven has the edge here - I found that they can pull from more websites and if they can't pull, they have a nice feature that pulls up the text from the page you're looking at and places it side by side with a manual entry screen so you can quickly copy and paste everything for entry. Pepperplate just gives you an error if it can't pull the recipe, so you have to go back and forth between the page with the recipe and their manual entry page, copying and pasting. For both apps, once you get your most frequently used recipes entered, life gets a lot easier. Anytime someone mentions a recipe I should try, I can quickly enter it and then it'll be there next time I'm meal planning. Previously I would usually forget about recipes people had recommended by the time I was planning the next month's meals and it was easy to end up in a rut. Edge: Big Oven

Meal planning: Both apps have a calendar function that allows you to choose recipes from your collection and add them to a particular date. You could plan breakfast, lunch and dinner if you wanted (I generally only plan dinner). Which is better for meal planning? Pepperplate's interface looks nicer, but you can only see one week at a time, as far as I can tell. This is frustrating to me since I want to plan a month at a time and I'd like to see all four weeks on my screen at once. Big Oven allows you to see the full month, which I love. Big Oven also has a nice feature where when you look at the meal planning calendar all your recipes show up in the side bar and you can quickly drag them over to the calendar. Pepperplate, on the other hand, has you click on a calendar date and then start to type the name of the recipe you want. As you're typing it quickly pulls up any recipes that match the name (so you don't usually have to type more than a few letters). This looks much sleeker but because my biggest issue during meal planning is thinking of what recipes I want to use, it would be nice to have them all laid out on the sidebar. I use a little workaround and have my recipe list open in a new tab and I scroll through it to choose recipes and then go back to the calendar tab to enter them. Edge: Big Oven

Grocery lists: Both apps will generate a grocery list for you based on your meal planning. Big Oven has a nice feature that allows you to scale recipes up or down and then has you review each recipe to deselect ingredients if you already have them. However, Pepperplate is the big winner here because of one crucial feature - you can create custom "aisles" for grocery items. This makes Pepperplate a million times better for me because I shop at different grocery stores for different things. I only buy meat at Whole Foods, I get most of my cheese and frozen stuff from Trader Joe's, I get fresh produce from the local ethnic market. With Big Oven, I would have the app generate the list for me and then I would write it all out again on paper so that it was categorized by grocery store. This still saved me time and headaches, but with Pepperplate I can do that all virtually. I created my custom "aisles" and then specified which categories should go in those aisles. This gives me a pretty well categorized shopping list right out of the gate and then I can quickly move items around or add in items the program couldn't categorize. It's really lovely, especially because it means I can just use the list on my phone instead of carrying around the paper one. Edge: Pepperplate

Cost: Pepperplate is free (they have ads on the desktop interface but I've found them unobtrusive - I had to check to confirm that they did because I couldn't remember noticing them and I couldn't figure out how they are making money - still not really sure what their business model is). Big Oven is free with ads and certain limitations on how many recipes you can upload. Upgrading to a Pro membership is inexpensive ($2/mo or $20/year) and gives you no ads + unlimited uploads. Edge: Pepperplate

Again, I do all the set up and actual meal planning on my desktop computer and use my phone for pulling up the grocery lists or the recipes.

Small feature that Big Oven has that I really appreciate - when you're looking at a recipe in the app, your phone doesn't go to sleep. It drives me a little nuts when I'm cooking and constantly having to unlock my phone because it times out while I'm chopping something. I don't want to tinker with my lock screen settings all the time so I just live with it, but it's so nice not to have to deal with it.

So after all this, it seems like I should be choosing Big Oven, right? Actually I'm leaning towards Pepperplate. The main reason I wanted a meal planning app was to generate my huge grocery lists and the advantage of being able to customize my list outweighs the fact that I can't see a whole month laid out at one time (and who knows - maybe they'll update that at some point in the future?).

If you have any questions, or feedback of your own, leave it in the comments!

FYI - I'm not doing my standard monthly meal planning post this month because it's going to be a little nutty for us and I'm taking it week by week and being flexible (and acknowledging that September can be our hottest month and I might not want to cook much). But I'm going to be excited to get back into it as the weather cools down (fingers crossed) in October.