Thursday, January 31, 2013

Shanghai-Lights: Shanghai MagLev

Shanghai Pudong International Airport is about 30 kilometers from the downtown area, where our hotel was located.  To get to the hotel you can take a taxi (200rmb at 1 hour travel time), take the Metro (7rmb at 1 hour 40 minutes) or the MagLev (40rmb at 7 minutes) supplemented by either a taxi (30rmb at 15 minutes) or the Metro (4rmb at 1 hour).  I opted for the MagLev then a taxi.

After picking up a Chinese SIM card for my travel phone, I walked the 10 minute walk to the MagLev station and purchased my round trip ticket. The ticket itself is a hard plastic ticket - not the cheap paper tickets you get everywhere else in the world. These tickets are collected after they expire and are recycled. I wish I could have kept the ticket, I love that kind of stuff.

The MagLev is downstairs, but we are corralled into a waiting area before the train arrives. Once the passengers clear the train and enter the airport we are allowed downstairs.  The train has both VIP and Economy tickets. I don't see a reason at all to go for VIP tickets -- the ride is 7 minutes. Even if you are crowded into the car, forced to hold your suitcase and to stand the VIP still makes no sense.

I board the train, stow my luggage on the racks near the door an take a seat.  The train is quite wide, with groups seats facing each other - three on each side.  The train is clean, but not luxurious.  A bit better than a nice taxi.  The car itself smells a bit like cigarettes - not because anyone is smoking, but because there are a ton of smokers on the train.

We leave the airport at 15h31 on the dot. Inside the car there is an LCD above the door with the time and the speed of the train.  At 15h35 we reached our maximum speed of 431kph (268mph). We stayed at this speed for 75 seconds -- yes I did take copious notes as this was the fastest land transportation I have ever been on.  The ride was very smooth and very quiet. The only issue was when you pass the train going back towards the airport - there is quite a loud banging sound and before you know it the other train has passed. I guess that's what happens with a combined speed of 862kph (536mph), right?

At 15h38 we pulled into Longyang Road Station, the train quickly emptied and we head out, people scurrying to taxis, the Metro or private cars.

Longyang Road Station - Waiting for the Train

The "Ordinary Section" -- not VIP.
Mike peering out the window as we cruise along at 301 kph
A not so glamorous view from the MagLev
At the end of our time in Shanghai, we took the MagLev back to the airport. Unfortunately this time, the train maxed out at 301kph.

The biggest downside of the MagLev? It doesn't take you all the way downtown. Ideally the train would at least take you to the Central Business District in Pudong District.  The MagLev is totally worth the price. It is fast, it is clean, to me it is a novelty -- I am a transportation nerd, so it was nice to cross MagLev off of my modes of transportation list.

One word of caution though. If you take a taxi from Longyang Road Station be sure you know how much it should cost you to get to your destination. I emailed the hotel asking this question and they informed me that it should be no more than 40rmb, but closer to 30rmb based on my arrival time. The taxi driver took a very direct route, but attempted to charge me 280rmb PLUS 100rmb "highway fee".  Interestingly enough, he wouldn't even pull into the hotel driveway, he wanted to park on the street. After I told him he was overcharging me and I knew it, he played dumb. I told him I only had 50rmb and I'd run into the hotel and get cash, he pulled into the driveway.  I told the doorman what was going on and he had a few words with the driver. I paid 30rmb and considered myself lucky.

If traveling in or out of Shanghai Pudong International Airport I highly suggest you take the MagLev. It is a great ride.

Do you prefer to take a cab from the airport or hop on local transportation?  How often have you gotten ripped off by a taxi driver like this? Do you call the hotel and get fare estimates in advance?  FYI, I usually do not, but since I felt I was going to be SO far out of my element, I figured I should plan a bit better.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Nicest People - Shanghai

I met some of the nicest and generous people in Shanghai.  Everyone from the guy at the arrivals area at Shanghai Pudong International Airport who offered me a ride for only 700rmb to my hotel -- any hotel in Shanghai only 700rmbs (only slightly more than double under the worst case scenarios).

Next there was the wonderful man who sat next to me while I was plugging in the Chinese SIM card into my travel phone and he offered to sell me the brand new iPhone 7. Gosh, mister, if you would have come up 3 minutes ago, I would have, but I just spent $20USD buying a SIM card. Shucks!

Then there was the all the guys in near the Yuyuan Garden who offered to sell me watches. The most glamorous watches ever -- they even had a laminated card showing all the great brands they had: Casio,  Tagg Hour, Timecks and I think I even saw a Rollexx available.  He was even nice enough, when he found out I wasn't looking for a watch, to offer to introduce me to a "sexy lady".  Well, what's a boy to do...

Such great guys - I had no idea the folks in Shanghai were such gracious hosts.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Shanghai-Lights: UAL 835: ORD-PVG (United Economy)

@United offers one non-stop flight a day between Chicago O'Hare and Shanghai Pudong. This is a polar flight and would be the longest flight I have ever taken.

Carrier: United Airlines (ORD-PVG)
Flight #: 835
Seat: 21G
Departure: January 24, 2013 -  10h10 / 10h22
Arrival: January 25, 2013 - 14h50 / 14h25
Travel Time: 14 hours 40 minutes / 14 hours 3 minutes
Flight Miles: 7,056

You may have noticed my panic attack earlier when I saw that United swapped out my reconfigured plane for an older style 777. Well, luckily, they switched it back and Economy seats had AVOD - making the flight much more palatable.

Since one can't print a boarding pass at home for this flight (airline has to check validity of Visas before you travel), I planned on arriving at O'Hare at around 08h30, giving me about 90 minutes to check in, get molested by the TSA, buy water and head to the gate.  I'm not a morning person. I actually left late and ended up getting to the airport about 09h00 -- 10 minutes before check-in ended for my flight.

There was no line and check-in was a breeze.  TSA was a mess though.  No Pre-Check for me, since I was flying international. I was in line for a good 25 minutes - which is almost unheard of any more.  I opt out, as always and a nice older TSA gentlemen is assigned to grope me.  For the first time ever the TSA employee really did a molestation job and judging by the look on his face, he wasn't expecting to run his thumb over my junk. He was as shocked as I was (or he is a creepily good actor). Lovely.

No time for a lounge visit, I head to the gate (C18) and buy water. I see the gate area is pretty empty and the line relatively short, then I hear the "Final Boarding" call for the flight.  It was only 09h35 by this point. Final call 35 minutes before departure?  I hurry my way to the Premium boarding line and quickly bypass the masses. The plane is empty.

I sit and next to me (across the aisle) is a young man and his wife. I assumed they were Mormon (Midwest Mormons, not West Coast). Young, married, extremely polite, booze-free -- just a wholesome look.  A family with 8 (ish) year old twins sat behind me and didn't sit still for more than 4 minutes the entire flight.  A Chinese woman (I guess she was Chinese, she was Asian, spoke Mandarin and was going to may be a leap, but I'll take it) sat in front of me, never reclining her seat or doing anything that may annoy me -- Shocking, I know. Finally a young Chinese woman (see generalization above) sat in the Center section with me, on the other side of the empty middle seat.

This is my first time on a reconfigured UAL 777. The AVOD is great. The seats recline and the seat itself slides forward reducing the amount of recline that hits your neighbor behind you without reducing your actual recline.

Drinks were served. Followed by lunch which was a choice between BBQ Chicken and Hunan Beef and Rice. I chose the latter -- the Mormons chose the former (they were going to be in China for 3 week and didn't want to jump in with both feet yet).

The AVOD was great.  I watched a few TV show including: How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory, Criminal Minds, Frasier and Downton Abbey.  Then I switched to watching movies. I watched Goonies (in French, again) and Beverly Hills Cop,  then attempted to watch: Hope Springs and Avatar but found them to be so horribly bad I couldn't get past the first 30 minutes of either of them.

I napped and worked during this period too. I probably put in about 5-6 hours of work while watching TV.

I drink a ton of water on a plane. I brought 3.5 litres of water with me and had a cup of water every time the Stew would walk by and offered it -- probably once an hour, perhaps.  I had the same flight crew for this flight and my return and they were AMAZING. Read about that in an upcoming post.

Considering this was the longest flight I had ever been on (next longest was the 12.5 hour flight from LHR-CPT, following an 8 hour flight from ORD-LHR and a 10 hour layover in London), it was remarkably non-miserable.  Granted the flight was empty and the Stew Crew was fab.  I wouldn't want to do it every week, but with this plane and this crew, I could do Economy to Asia once a month, I think.

We landed early in Shanghai and as I look out the window, I see the City shrouded in a dirty brown funk. A haze that looks as toxic to your body as it is to your travel photos. Industrialization is going full steam (coal and petroleum fueled steam engines) in Shanghai.

Customs and Immigration are a breeze.  Technically, I didn't need a visa, since I was in Shanghai for less than 72 hours, but I didn't want to risk it...get a visa, even if you don't need it.

Does the idea of 14+ hours in United economy give you the hives? What is the longest flight you've taken in economy?

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Best Airline Meals Ever...

Airplane food is never known to be all that fantastic. Yes, first and business class can offer some great options (caviar, cooked to order steaks), but still all in all, the food isn't any better than what you can get on the ground.  This is not a story of how I had a meal that was so great on an airplane that it eclipsed food I had on terra firma .  Instead, I want to talk about the best meals I've had while in the air. Interestingly enough, two of these three meals were on a recent trip to and from Shanghai.

The best meal ever was on South African Airways from LHR-CPT.  I flew economy on an old A330-200. Our dinner was an absolutely amazing lamb curry. There was just enough spice to make it interesting, but not enough to make the 12 hour flight uncomfortable...if you get my drift.

The second best meal on a plane was a hunan beef and rice with peppers.  Surprisingly, this dish was served in economy on United from Chicago to Shanghai.  The presentation is really lacking - a plastic wrapped cold role, a salad with two slices of cucumber and a tiny tomato wedge - looks do not make a meal.  The beef was really good - full of flavor, warm throughout (none of those surprisingly icy bites) and rice that was also prepared almost perfectly.  Shocking, I know. Usually the food that comes out of those carts is so far from edible.  Not this time though. You can see my words of praise on top notch - just saying this meal was a whole hell of a lot better than I was expecting.

The third best meal I had was on the return from Shanghai. This time, the option was chicken and rice - no one could tell us what the accompanying sauce was. The other choice was "Chinese Pork", again without guidance on the sauce, I figured I'd give it a go.  This pork was served with the same rice as the beef and was quite good as well. Would I ever order these in a restaurant (and if I did, would I order them again?), well, I just may.  The food was just good - exceptionally good for a plane.

What was your favorite meal on an airplane?  Have you found any economy meals that were worth looking forward to?

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Shanghai-Lights: Introduction

The largest City on the planet is Shanghai (depending on what metric you use) and a hotbed for amazing modern architecture -- I had to visit.  The better half goes there for work once a year and I decided to tag along for a long weekend. Thanks to United for offering a very reasonable airfare and my work schedule lightening up for a couple of days.  Over the next week or so I'll be putting together my trip report, as follows:
What an exciting yet whirl wind trip to Shangahi. You'll see the details over the next week or so, but I had a really great time. It just goes to show what a little planning and properly set expectations can do for you.  Also, pardon me for the title of this Trip Report -- I struggled to come up with something clever and this was the best I could get.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Shanghai Must Dos

As you read this, I am in Shanghai.  This is my first time to China -- hell, it's my first time ever to Asia. Every time I travel to a new City I always make a list of a few things that I really want to see or want to do. Here is my quick list for Shanghai:
What would make your list of things to do while in Shanghai?  Anything on my list that you'd rank highly on yours?

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wow Bao - Lettuce Review

I visited Wow Bao (@BaoMouth) for lunch as part of my "Eat At and Review Every Lettuce Restaurant in Chicago" goal.  What do they serve at Wow Bao? Well, basically they serve steamed Asian buns filled with meat or vegetables.

Name: Wow Bao (Water Tower Place)
Date of Visit: January 22, 2013
Meal: Lunch (Individual)
Price/Person: $5.60
Stars: 4/5

I had been to Wow Bao once before, many years ago. I stopped by to grab a bite before heading to a Non-Profit Meeting. I thought the food was just acceptable.  This was my first visit in at least 5 years and I was now quite impressed, not only with the food but for the ordering process as well.

Wow Bao at Water Tower Place has two kiosks where you can place your order yourself, use your Lettuce rewards card and pay. Since it was my first time eating here in years and first time using the kiosk it took me a bit longer than it should have -- and the people behind me thought I took too long too.  I paid and walked through the little maze of stanchions (picture TSA or the bank) and by the time I got to the pick up area my items were waiting. Very nice.

I chose to get three Baos.  Looking back I should have gotten 4 or 5, three just wasn't enough for my lunch.  I chose the following:
  • Spicy Kung Pao Chicken
  • Spicy Mongolian Beef
  • Thai Curry Chicken

My three choices were pretty good.  I liked the Kung Pao Chicken the best, followed very closely by the Spicy Mongolian Beef and the Thai Chicken Curry was a very distant third. 

Half eaten lunch...
I almost went back this afternoon to try the BBQ Pork Bao, but figured visiting the same place twice in just a couple hours is just a bit off.  Wow Bao offers more than just these steamed (yes, steamed, not fried) Asian buns but they also offer rice bowl, gluten free quinoa bowls, pot stickers, salads and desserts. I can't really speak to the service here as I really just served myself (selection and payment) but the woman who bagged my choices had a smile and seemed nice...much better than my server here.

I will definitely add this to my lunch time options and not only because it is just across the street from my office, but because the food was pretty damn good.  What is your favorite Boa? What about the other items on the menu, what should I get next time I visit?

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

United Equipment Swap - False Alarm

Yesterday, I wrote how @United swapped out the reconfigured 777 that was supposed to take me to Shanghai later this week with a plane an old style interior.  Read why that matters to me here.

Good news, checking the United website again today I found that a reconfigured 777 is actually serving the flight I am taking.  What a relief -- AVOD, in seat power and still a pretty empty plane.  14 hours to Asia in Economy just got mildly better. Thank you United!

The worst part -- now that there is in seat power I will have to bring my laptop and work a portion of the flight(s).  C'est la vie, eh?

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UAL Equipment Swap

I fly to Shanghai this week. I was excited to be on the reconfigured 777-200. Since I am flying in Economy Plus, I was excited for Audio/Video On Demand (AVOD) which is available at all Economy seats on the newly reconfigured planes.  Even better -- the flight was pretty empty too.  I wouldn't have to worry about sitting next to anyone, I'd be able to stretch out (sort of) watch the AVOD and watch hours of TV on my tablet.  This would make my 14 hour flight so much more bearable.

Here is how the flight looked yesterday evening. Look at all of the economy availability

Today I double checked the seat map to see if someone moved to sit next to me and I found that the plane had changed.  We are no longer flying on a reconfigured 777, but the old style.  Check out those BusinessFirst seats -- no longer would you be flying in a new(ish) fully flat seats, but in the old recliner seats.  I am very happy I didn't pay to upgrade to BusinessFirst -- these recliner seats are not at all worth the extra cash and miles if you ask me.

I am still excited about this trip to Shanghai, but I am a bit disappointed in the aircraft we are taking. I'm just hoping that my tablet will be able to keep a charge for the full 14 hour flight. At least now I have the opportunity to stretch out across 5 seats in the center section and sleep if I want.  I may even move over to the window seat so I can get a view of Shanghai as I land.

Have you flown one of these old 777 recently? The last time I did was in September 2010 from Frankfurt to Chicago -- and that was only 9 hours.  How do you keep yourself occupied while on a 14 hour flight while in Economy without AVOD?  Where would you sit if you were me?

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Mity Nice - Lettuce Review

We visited Mity Nice (@MityNice) a little over a week ago for a business lunch.

Name: Mity Nice
Date of Visit: January 11, 2013
Meal: Lunch
Price/Person: $13
Stars:  2/5

Mity Nice is located through and at the very back of Food Life in Water Tower Place. Fighting through the crowds of Food Life can be a pain when visiting Mity Nice. We visited for a Friday business lunch and were not blown away.

First up the server asked if we wanted a cocktail or beer and after we told him no, he spent more time telling us why we should choose a beer since it was half price drafts Friday. We again said we weren't interested but he continued to push us to purchase a beer. After three times of telling him no, my colleague informed him that he no longer drank, to which the server suggested now was a good time to start up again, since the drafts were half price. How obnoxious.

The food itself was good and came out as we requested and in a very timely manner. The menu itself has a nice selection of lunch items, which are consistent and arrive quickly. We didn't see our server again throughout the meal -- although considering his previous actions this might have been a good thing.

The food was perfectly fine - it wasn't "mighty nice".  I've been here many times before and while the food is consistent it isn't going to knock your socks off.  Although, I will say, the gluten free pop-overs are quite good - this was the first visit that we were told these pop-overs were gluten free too. Before, there was never a mention.

The two biggest issues for me, no entrance to the restaurant other than through Food Life and our pushy yet inattentive server. If push came to shove, I would return to Mity Nice - I am sure not all of the servers are like ours. The food was good and reasonably priced for the area.

Do you enjoy Mity Nice?  What is your favorite Lettuce Entertain You restaurant?

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

L. Woods -- Lettuce Review

I had dinner with friends at L. Woods (@LWoodsTap) a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant recently, as part of my "Eat at and Review every Lettuce Restaurant in Chicago in 2013" goal.  This restaurant is technically in Lincolnwood, IL, but we were in the area and I figured there is no point in skipping a review even if it is in the suburbs.

Name: L. Woods
Date of Visit: January 19, 2013
Meal: Dinner
Price/Person: $57.00 (including appetizer, soup, entree and cocktails).
Stars: 4/5

We made reservations Friday night, for a Saturday dinner (via OpenTable). We managed to secure reservations at 20h15 which worked out perfectly because we wanted to see a movie later that evening (start time of 22h25).  We arrived shortly after 20h00 and were told we'd be seated closer to our reservation time and were given a buzzer.  You can tell you are in the suburbs when you are given a buzzer but the only place to stand is immediately in front of the host stand.

This place was packed.  Every table was full and there were at least 15 people standing in the front entryway waiting to be seated.  This place looks like an old Wisconsin lodge but with low drop ceilings and almost every square inch of wall space covered by mostly black and white photos of restaurant patrons. We did not inquire as to how we could get our picture on the walls.  Our buzzer sounded at 20h30.

We were seated in a corner table near the bar - but not in the bar seating area, we had a real table and real service.  Our server was great, although I didn't get her name.  She was warm and welcoming and was quick to get us cocktails / beer and to tell us the specials.  The dinner menu had several items that were tempting me.  There were three of us for dinner and we ordered the following:

Guest 1
  • Shrimp Cocktail x2 (priced per piece)
  • Gluten Free French Onion Soup
  • Prime Rib (medium) with Broccoli
Guest 2
  • Shrimp Cocktail x2 (priced per piece)
  • Wedge Salad
  • Filet Mignon with Mashed Potatoes
Guest 3 (me)
  • Shrimp Cocktail x2 (priced per piece)
  • Tomato Bisque
  • Full Slab of Ribs with traditional barbecue sauce with Mashed Potatoes
I couldn't decide between a few options, but the server offered her guidance (telling me more about the dishes and not just telling me which one to pick). I went with her suggestion.  I told our server that I had never been to L. Woods before and wanted something they were known for, hence the ribs.  A few minutes later the manager came over with some barbecue chicken flat bread welcoming us first timers to the restaurant.  A very welcoming feel.  We found out later that our server has worked at L. Woods for about 16 years. She said it was a really great place to work. She seemed happy.

Now to the food.  The shrimp cocktail took a long time to arrive, but the server said they clean the shrimp upon order, but our shrimp didn't look all that thoroughly cleaned. We had to do some clean up ourselves.  The cocktail sauce has a bit of horseradish which made it even more delicious.

Guest 1 loved his French Onion Soup.  There was nothing left of the Wedge Salad or my cup of Tomato Bisque either.  I thought the bisque was just fine - I probably wouldn't order it again, but that's because the review of the Onion Soup was so good and not a disparaging comment about the perfectly acceptable Bisque.

The entrees were also very tasty.  The Prime Rib was served with a traditional horseradish sauce and was well marbled and prepared as ordered.  The Filet was much bigger than Guest 2 was expecting and was served with mushrooms.  He didn't eat all of his steak, but did say it was very flavorful and cooked properly.  The ribs...where to begin? First, I usually don't eat ribs, they are messy and it seems that half of the entree either ends up on my shirt/hands or stuck in my teeth.  Not these ribs. They were fantastic! I didn't have to pick them up, they were so fork tender every morsel of meat fell off the bone.  I ate the entire slab and didn't make a mess at all.  Since you don't need to manhandle the ribs (but you could if you'd like because hot towels were distributed after the meal) you aren't stuck with 2 ribs worth of meat in your front teeth either.

The Mashed Potato side dish was absolutely great as well. They had such great flavor (must have some cheese in them as well. I could have eaten an entire pan of those potatoes.

A couple negatives on the experience. The appetizers took quite a while to come out - this is when the server explained that the shrimp are cleaned when ordered -- we were eating during peak Saturday rush too.  Guest 1 ordered a second cocktail and it almost never came. Our server came to let us know that our food would be our shortly and realized the cocktail hadn't arrived. She was very apologetic and promised that Guest 2's drink wouldn't take as long as Guest 1's did. I didn't order a refill. She was correct.

We managed to get out around 22h00 and made it to the movie in plenty of time.  Now the real question: Would I return?  If I were in the area, I absolutely would stop by for dinner or lunch. I was very happy with my entire experience at L. Woods.  Would I consider it a destination restaurant? No.  I live in the City and am car-free, so getting the L. Woods is a bit tricky for me and honestly, I don't think it is good enough to take the El to the end of the line then a suburb bus (which for me the total trip would take nearly an hour).  If I plan on seeing a movie in the burbs or have another reason to be out in that area, I absolutely would visit again.  You've got to try the ribs and the mashed potatoes. Trust me - just try it.

Have you been to L. Woods? What is your favorite part of the meal / experience?  Would you take a train and a bus to dine here? What is your favorite Lettuce Restaurant?

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Golden Gift - From Starwood

I recently earned Gold Status from Starwood (@SPG) - in December I had to hotel hop a bit to get this status too.  You can see the full list of benefits offered to Gold Members here.  I received an email from Starwood offering an additional gift. A Golden Gift for achieving Gold Status.  The gift offered is a choice between a 3-month subscription to Hulu Plus or a $25 Starwood Award Certificate.

A Golden Gift from Starwood
Both items are valued at just about $25.  I think I'll take $25 Award Certificate in lieu of the Hulu Plus subscription.  I'd prefer a cocktail or a snack on an upcoming stay, much more than 3-months of TV.

What would you choose?  I wonder what you get if you go from Gold to Platinum Status?  A larger credit? A longer subscription to Hulu? Or something new all together?

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Lettuce Entertain You Restuarants

I hate chain restaurants.  Whenever I travel, I do everything I can to steer clear of chain restaurants that are found in every bad suburb in the US.  Places like Olive Garden, Chili's, Applebee's and Sizzler do not make the list of restaurants I visit.  Trying a local restaurant gives you a better feel for the area you are visiting than a heartless chain.

Chicago is home to a restaurant group called Lettuce Entertain You - a restaurant group that operates dozens of establishments in 6 states.  There are 32 restaurants in the Chicagoland area and 26 in Chicago proper.

I've been a big fan of the Lettuce group - not a chain, as Lettuce has many different restaurants and concepts and isn't just the same old thing situated in or next to every-mall-USA.  I've worked with the Lettuce Team the past two years to plan my company's holiday party and they were great.

For 2013 I have decided to eat at and review every single Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant in Chicago. A couple of rules I have set for myself. I will:
  • ...not tell my contacts at Lettuce when and where I will be dining. I don't want any special treatment - no comped food, no reserved seat, no chat with the chef. I want a regular meal that anybody off the street would get.
  • my immediate meal and compare it to previous meals I've eaten at the restaurant.
  • ...only review a restaurant after I've been in 2013 - no reviews based solely on prior visits.
  • ...not review the same restaurant if it has multiple locations - one and done.
Below you will find the list of Lettuce Restaurants I will be visiting in 2013. Once I review I will update this page and and link to the review.
What are your New Years Food Goals? No food goals for 2013? Let's fix that - call a couple friends, make plans tonight, share a bottle of wine and talk food and the future!

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Global Entry Update

Last week I wrote about the American Express Platinum Card Benefits - one that I jumped on immediately was the reimbursed fee for Global Entry.  I filled out the online application, paid the fee with my new American Express Platinum Card and waited.  The fee was reimbursed within two days - without any additional requests from me.

Today, seven days after I submitted application online, I got the clearance from Customs and Border Patrol to schedule my interview.  From what I understand, the interview process is pretty straightforward. You are asked questions about your travels and if all goes well you get your credentials and instructions on how to use the Customs Kiosk.

I scheduled my interview - online - today and was quite shocked to find that the next available interview time at O'Hare is in mid-April!  I've heard that some airports have very quick turn around times, but not so much at my home airport. I checked availability at some other airports that I am transiting over the next few months and nothing seems to work. I am so close to getting Global Entry yet so far!

How long did you have to wait to get your Global Entry interview?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Classic Airline Commercial - TWA 1976

I am feeling a bit nostalgic this week, following my recent @United Airline Classic Commercial post earlier.  #TWA holds a special place in my heart, even though I only flew them on one trip - my first trip to Europe on a Spring Break Trip to Southern Europe (road trip from Madrid to Rome).

Check out this Classic TWA Commercial from 1976, touting their new L-1011 Planes.

What's great about this commercial:

  • Assume this commercial was directed to the west coast audience since they consistently bring up flights to the east. 
  • "Built for comfort, its seats are extra wide with special thick cushions" - too bad the seats now are narrow and the passengers are the ones who are extra wide.
  • "Now, TWA serves you a delicious steak in coach on all 1011 meal flights to the east."  I doubt the deliciousness of the steak though. What was served on the westbound flights - did the schedule only allow for breakfast service?
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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chinese Visa - The Experience

I am going to Shanghai later this month and needed to get a Chinese Visa.  Luckily there is a Consulate / Visa Office in Chicago, just a few blocks from my office.  First thing I did was check out the website to see what I needed to bring and since I was going on a tourist (not business) Visa, it was pretty straight forward:
  • Passport, valid 6 months after my intended visit
  • One Passport Photo
  • Completed Application
  • If already booked, details on hotel and airfare (if not booked, this can be skipped)
The visa office has some interesting office hours - 09h00-12h00 and 13h00-14h30.  

I stopped off at a local Walgreens to get my passport photo. After waiting in line and finally finding someone who knows how to issue passport photos, she takes my picture then wanders around the store for about 15 minutes before she comes back and says "Oh, damn, I forgot to tell you, we're out of photo paper, you gotta go somewhere else." Lovely. Luckily I work withing 2 blocks of three different Walgreens.  The next one I visit had a big sign that said the photo printing service was out of order. Strike two.  Head to the next Walgreens and stumble across a woman in her 60s getting her photo taken -- 6 times. She didn't like any of the photos and demanded the lady retake the picture. Good god, it is just a passport photo - deal with it.

With photo in hand, along with my completed application and my airline reservations, I head to the Visa office the Tuesday before Christmas.  I didn't have hotel reservations as I am staying with MS and the room is in his name.

The waiting area was quite full. When you enter you get a number (like from the deli) and you find a seat and wait to be called.  After a short 15 minute wait it was my turn - 3 or 4 people were ahead of me.  I bring all of my documents to the window and after the woman spends about 10 seconds looking through everything and denies my Visa.  She said I needed a copy of the hotel reservation in my name. I explained I was sharing a room with someone who already had his Visa. She says I need to have him write a letter inviting me to China - but only if he's Chinese, if he is not, I can't visit.  

Change of plans. I leave and book a room (with no cancellation penalty of course) and try again.

I return two days later with the same info as before, plus the hotel confirmation.   I arrive at 08h45 and get in line again.  This time, there are 2 people ahead of me and the line moves very fast. I hand my documents over to another woman. She pulls out my hotel and airline confirmations and throws them away. She then tells me that confirmations are not required and I don't have to waste time providing this info.  I did NOT tell her I was denied two days earlier because I wasn't prepared.  Oh bureaucracy.

She then says "two".  I don't understand. She continues to repeat the word "two" 5 or 6 more times.  I continue to tell her I do not understand. She then hands me my receipt and tells me that my Visa will be available on January 2nd (TWO).  Got it!

On the second I arrived at 08h30 and was the first in line. I picked up my passport/visa, paid my bill and was out in just a couple of minutes.

First roadblock was overcome relatively easily. Did you have any issues getting Visas for China? What was your most difficult part? Anything else I should be wary of?

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Monday, January 14, 2013

TripAdvisor City Guides

While we were in Ireland over Thanksgiving I stumbled across a @TripAdivsor City Guide for Dublin in the Google Play Store.  I downloaded over wifi and was pretty impressed.  The City Guide can be used both on and offline - which is critical for those of us traveling who do not want to spend an arm and a leg in data fees.

The app includes all the details you'll need to explore a new city including listings for restaurants, hotels, attractions, nightlife, shopping and tickets/tours which you can save and "star" and see all of these individually selected locations on a map.  This is a really great tool to see all the things you want to do, on the run, then pair that with restaurants in the area.  If you are online you can even use the GPS function to map your current location or get directions to one of your selected destinations.

This app doesn't only provide a detailed listing it also provides the reviews of these destinations so you can see what fellow TripAdvisor users have said.

The City Guides also include suggested itineraries.  The Dublin guide offered 7 different walking tours including:
  • Photographer's Walking Tour of Dublin
  • Walking Tour of Georgian Dublin
  • The Phoenix Also Rises in Dublin
  • The Best of Dublin's Neighbourhoods
  • Dublin Highlights
  • Museums, Art and Genealogy
  • Shopping, Markets, Street Performers and Afternoon Tea
Each of these itineraries include an overview of the tour including total number of stops, distance and estimated amount of time it would take to complete the tour. We did the Photographer's Walking Tour of Dublin, which I wrote about here.  I was quite impressed with the Dublin City Guide and this suggested itinerary.

Once we got back home, I was excited to download the Chicago Guide and see what itineraries were suggested. I couldn't wait to turn into a tourist in my own City. Boy was I disappointed. Here are the suggested itineraries:

  • President Obama's Neighborhood - 13 Stops & 14 kilometers. This is obviously a driving tour.
  • Millennium Park with Kids - 8 Stops & 815 meters
  • Eating and Entertaining at Navy Pier - 7 Stops, 1.2 kilometers
  • Walking Tour of Public Outdoor Art in the Loop - 11 Stops, 4.2 kilometers
  • The Museum Campus and Lakefront - 11 Stops, 1.2 kilometers
  • Shopping the Magnificent Mile and Oak Street - 10 Stops, 805 meters
  • Gangster Driving Tour - 12 Stops, 48 kilometers (this seems way too long)
  • Culture and the Cubs in Wrigleyville - 6 Stops, 1.7 kilometers
  • A Nature Lover's Guide to Lincoln Park - 11 Stops, 3.3 kilometers 
  • A Celebration of Mexican Culture in Pilsen - 10 Stops 1.8 kilometers 
I am disappointed, but there are a few of these tours I'd actually do (bolded above).  Only two of these have been rated by other users (the first two) and each have 5 stars, but only one rating each.  

There is no tour that focuses on the amazing architecture in Chicago.  While I think a guided architecture tour through the Chicago Architecture Foundation is really the best way to learn about the built environment, I am surprised there isn't any self guided tour through the TripAdvisor App.

Once the weather warms up I will head out and test these bolded tours and report back.

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Beer-Braised Turkey Leg Tacos

Tonight I made an old favorite recipe from Food & Wine (@FandW). These Beer-Braised Turkey Leg Tacos were first published in May of 2010.  I've made this recipe several times now and it gets better and better each time.

I won't rehash the recipe here, as you can click over to Food and Wine and get the full recipe, but I will tell you that once you try this recipe, you'll fall in love with it.  The sauce has a great depth of flavor and a nice little zing from the jalapeno and the ancho chili.  When I make this, I throw in three tomatoes instead of just the one called for in the recipe.

Seared Turkey Legs, resting before braising
Softening onions, jalapenos, garlic and ancho chilis
Turkey legs back in the pot, with a great Negro
Modelo braising liquid. The smell is so amazing.
Post blending of the sauce. Such a great rich depth of
flavors. I struggle  not just spooning this concoction
into my mouth one big scoop at a time.
The finished product, coupled with lime juice,
a corn tortilla and some freshly grated cheese.
We find this recipe makes 8 tacos - a nice portion for a dinner for two.  The recipe is very easy to double as well (even though I consistently struggle with halving or doubling recipes).  I top these great tacos with fresh cheese, a squirt of lime juice and diced onions. Usually I put tomatoes or pico de gallo on all tacos, but it's not needed here at all. Of course, your foundation must be fresh corn tortillas.

Give this recipe a try and let me know what you think.  What is your favorite taco recipe?

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Friday, January 11, 2013

New United Lounge

I had to fly out of Terminal 2 at O'Hare on @United on Tuesday.  Who thought a flight to Nashville would be so exciting?  I usually hate Terminal 2. Even when flying out of this old nasty terminal, I usually visit the lounge near B14. The old T2 lounge was tiny, old and gross.  We were pleasantly surprised by the newly revamped United Lounge in T2.

The new lounge is a bit farther than the old one.  As you walk in you are greeted by a brightly lit great lobby and a few United employees ready to check you into the lounge.  Unlike the lounge near B14 where you head downstairs, here you head upstairs and immediately notice modern phone booths off to the right. These glass boxes have chairs, a desk and power outlets.  Only one person was using the booths as we passed by.

"Phone Booths" at the top of the escalator

At the top of the escalator we find a few computer terminals where United representatives can help you should there be irregular operations.There is a ton of space in this new lounge with two self serve snack stations. These stations had the standard United Club fare: cheese, crackers, carrots, Milano cookies, etc.

There is one big bar in the center of the lounge. When I visited, there were 3 bartenders working behind the bar, so drinks were served very quickly.  The booze selection, of course, is the same at the lounge as the others throughout the nation.

The best part of the lounge, other than the open and bright feeling and the ample seating is the amazing amount of power outlets.  All the seats we tried had both traditional three prong outlets as well as a couple USB outlets too.  How great is that?

Ample seating with large bar in background

Textured tile wall leading up to the lounge.
I was so surprised that this lounge was so great.  I have to say this space is better than my favorite lounge at B14.  There is finally a reason to look forward to flying those tiny little planes out of T2 - the lounge is great.

United will be updating lounges in London, Seattle, San Diego, Houston, Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco - all before Q3/2014.  Just wish they'd put a new lounge like this in T1/C3 at ORD.

Have you been to the new lounge yet?  What's your favorite part?

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Great Travel Benefits of American Express Platinum Card

I've been waiting to get an @AmericanExpress Platinum Card for a while now.  I've wanted this card for the fantastic travel benefits, but I never pulled the trigger. Then on Tuesday night a special and short lived promotion made it clear that my time to strike was now.  American Express was offering 100,000 Membership Rewards (MR) Points after spending $3,000 in 3-Months.  Easy Peasy.  I jumped on the offer and was approved instantly.

Why am I excited about this card? Let's look at the benefits, shall we?

First off 100,000 MRs are worth at least $1,000 when cashed in for travel or so much more if you transfer these points to airline or hotel points.  For example, you can transfer 100,000 MRs to British Airways and get a 30% bonus. 100,000 MRs = 130,000 British Airways Avios.  American Express offers these transfer bonuses all the time and among many of their partners.

Secondly, each calendar year (not card member year) you get $200 in airline fees reimbursed. That means you can get free check bags, free booze or various other fees reimbursed.  You can even get reimbursed for some airline gift cards.  How great is that?

You also get the $100 fee for Global Entry reimbursed if put on your Platinum Card.  What is Global Entry? It is a program offered by the US Government where trusted travelers can bypass the long lines at Immigration when returning to the US. Basically you apply and interview with the TSA and when you return to the US from traveling abroad you can go through customs at a Kiosk.  This is a great benefit at O'Hare as it seems that I'm always standing in line for over an hour when returning home.

Access to American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts is an added benefit from great hotels throughout the world.  This benefit gives you early check-in, late check-out, daily breakfast for two, a room upgrade and spa or restaurant credits at some world class hotels.

Airport Lounge Access is also granted at American and Delta Lounges if you are flying on American or Delta tickets the same day. You can also get access to US Airways lounges (you don't have to be flying on US Airways to access their lounge either).

The final travel benefits that I'm looking forward to using is the Priority Pass Select. This gives the card holder access to over 600 airport lounges in over 100 countries. The big problem with this benefit is that you don't get to bring a travel companion into the lounge with you. You can bring a guest in for only $27 though - which would totally be worth it under some circumstances.

The annual fee for this card isn't waived and is quite steep at $450/year, but if you look at the hard dollar benefits you get the first year it is easily worth at least $1,500 for me (assuming I don't use the lounges or the Fine Hotels and Resort Benefits -- if I do, even greater value).

This list of the benefits are not all inclusive, but are just the benefits that I am looking forward to using.

What is your favorite benefit of the American Express Platinum Card?  Did you get in on this 100,000 Membership Rewards Sign On Bonus deal earlier this week?

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

#SNAPChallenge Remaining Food

After my #SNAPChallenge, I had a decent amount of food left over, including

  • One can of garbanzo beans
  • One bag of rice noodles
  • 1.33 bags of brown rice
  • 4 English Muffins
  • 1/2 jar of peanut butter

Take a look at all the food below.  I think it would be easier to do this over a multiple week period vs just a single week.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

#SNAPChallenge Day 7 - Final Day

Today is the last day of my #SNAPChallenge.  I was quite happy with my results for the week.  My breakfasts were all the same - toasted English Muffins with Peanut Butter, I snacked on multiple clementines each day and for lunch often had left overs from the night before.

I found that chicken thighs were relatively inexpensive and really satisfied the the meat craving.  I was even able to host 3 guests for dinner one night - although I did have to bend the rules a bit,  I was surprised at how much advice I got from friends and colleagues -- most of which who hadn't actually thought through the purpose of the program.  I found that living on $35/week is doable for me - it isn't easy and it isn't something I wish upon anyone.  I found a couple great recipes that will definitely make it into my regular rotation too - most specifically the Tomato and Chickpea Soup. I realize that I spend way more on food and booze than I should - there are so many people out there who could you a little help from time to time.

Honestly, I am looking forward to trying this challenge next month. I want to use what I learned this month to try to make better decisions next month.

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Shanghai Planning

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I had the opportunity to go to Shanghai. I decided to pull the trigger.  I haven't been to Asia before and I'm pretty excited about this quick trip to a great City.  I booked the flight, it is going to be a quick turn and burn.

Technically I will be flying for 26 hours and spending approximately 50 hours in the City.  Some think I am absolutely nuts to do this kind of trip, while others I tell are quite excited.  I have never been on a single flight this long before.  The longest flight I've been on is 12.5 hours from London to Cape Town - this flight is 14.5 hours.  I am downloading a ton of TV shows for my tablet - I think I've got almost enough to keep me occupied for the full trip.

While in Shanghai, we are staying on the Bund and have a pretty good list of things to visit - mostly architecture and food related. Who could ask for anything more.  We are even planning on taking a bike tour of Shanghai.

Have you been to Shanghai? Do you have any recommendations on things I must do while there?

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Monday, January 07, 2013

#SNAPChallenge Day 6

Today closed out day 6 on my #SNAPChallenge.  I wasn't very creative today. I had my usual breakfast (a toasted English muffin), my usual snacks (but today I had 6 clementines because I had more than I expected left over) and I had the left over Tomato and Chickpea Soup coupled with a chicken thigh for lunch. I had the same thing I had for lunch again for dinner, but I paired that with my two final carrots (raw) and half a head of broccoli.  I am feeling quite full right now (not steak and potatoes full, but perfectly content).

You are probably wondering how I can be content while eating the same thing almost every day (breakfast and snacks each day and today the same lunch and dinner). Well, I can be a "Peter-the-Repeater" when it comes to food.  I really don't get tired of eating the same thing repeatedly.  I usually eat the same thing each day for breakfast and will often eat the same thing for lunch a few times a week (salad with the same ingredients).

Tomorrow my #SNAPChallenge ends.  I am looking forward to stopping this program - but I am also looking forward to starting the challenge again in February.  I have two more meals on the challenge - as I technically started the challenge for Tuesday's dinner last week. I made dinner so I could have leftovers for Wednesday's lunch.  I have to travel for work tomorrow, so the end of the program couldn't come at a better time.

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