September 15, 2014

First Time on Broadway

I've never been a fan of New York. Despite much of America loving the city to death and inspiring a wonderful song by Frank Sinatra, I always found it overcrowded, smelly, and overrated. However, my last visit was pretty fun, and maybe even exciting. Dare I say, I wanted to be a part of it - New York, New York!



After lunch in the city with one friend, I had the whole evening to myself before I could crash with another friend in Brooklyn. I decided that the timing was perfect for one thing, and one thing only: attending my first Broadway show.


Broadway. It was a world I had always heard about but never touched. Regular price tickets are not cheap, and I didn't have the money to drop over $100 on admission at the box office. TKTS is a good option for same-day discounted tickets, but only to certain shows - generally not the most popular nor newest. Plus, I didn't even want to spend $60 on a ticket. For those with a limited budget like me, there are a few other options: rush tickets, standing room tickets, and the ticket lottery.

Times Square TKTS booth

The lottery process is simple and generally the same for all shows. It starts 2.5 hours before showtime, and all you have to do is write your name on a card, enter it in the drawing, and ensure that you have a photo ID and the accepted form of payment (card, cash, or exact cash). Two hours before showtime, names are drawn for about 20 seats. If chosen, you can purchase up to 2 tickets for an extremely low price of $25-40, depending on the show. Each show is a little different - some lottery seats are all in the first row, some are mixed throughout the theater, some are single seats.

You can leave after entering your name, as long as you return for the drawing.
Maybe see if you can spot the Naked Cowboy as you kill time.

When I was in New York City last year, Martha and I tried the lottery for Wicked tickets and lost. Of course, her stay was longer than mine and when she played again, she won. I hoped my luck would be better this time around. I first tried for The Book of Mormon and said a little prayer for my name card, but alas, no dice. I then tried the lottery for Aladdin, which took place an hour later. I had to improve my luck a little, so I drew 8 stars on the corner of my card, hoping my lucky number would somehow make it more likely to be pulled. Lo and behold, when there was only a single seat remaining, my starred card appeared. I was a proud holder of a ticket in the orchestra section for a mere thirty dollars.


I was excited for my first Broadway show. Aladdin just began its Broadway run this year, at the New Amsterdam theater. It has all the songs from the 1992 Disney film, some deleted tracks from the movie, and some unique to the Broadway production. My seat in the orchestra section was right on the end of row K. Plenty of legroom since there wasn't a seat directly in front of me, and I had a great view - especially for only $30!


It was really a wonderful show, starting with James Monroe Inglehart introducing a grand opening number. He single-handedly transformed the show into something special as the Genie, a role for which he won a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor. Any time he was onstage, he captured the audience's attention and hearts. Bud Weber stood in for Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, but I wouldn't have known he wasn't the original lead from his solid performance. The best numbers were the big ones- "Arabian Nights", "One Jump Ahead", "Friend Like Me", and "A Whole New World". Alan Menken's music is amazing. He's well known for his Disney scores, also having done Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Pocahontas. Here's the whole soundtrack for Aladdin:


The way the magic carpet ride during "A Whole New World" was conducted was the most spectacular point of the musical, in my opinion. It was gorgeous, romantic, and truly breathtaking. Unfortunately, I wasn't a fan of Courtney Reed's Jasmine. She certainly can sing, but I found her voice a little thin and gasp-y, and her character too over-dramatic and well, princess-y. While I love Princess Jasmine from the movie, this Jasmine was my least favorite character of the show. Even as I marveled at the two leads flying around a sky full of stars during their power ballad, I lamented that it wasn't Lea Salonga's voice :(

On the other hand, the villains in the musical were amazing. Jonathan Freeman, who voiced Jafar in the movie, reprises his role onstage and is a badass doing so. Don Darryl Rivera was a squawky Iago that some might find overly annoying, but I thought hilarious. For me, he made the show along with the Genie.

I definitely recommend going to see this show, especially if you enjoyed the Disney movie. In addition to being fun and entertaining, it's filled with elaborate costumes, tons of bling, and many bare male chests. Seriously, the men and women of the ensemble were great. For my first Broadway show, Aladdin was a perfect choice. I now understand the hype, and why people dream of being on Broadway! Now that I've had my first taste, I'll definitely be back for more.

Want to do Broadway on a limited budget too? Here's a guide to the cheapest tickets.

September 11, 2014

Stuff I Like #4: 嵐 (Arashi)

This month, Katy and I are heading to Hawaii for a weekend of fun, sun, and Arashi! I was obsessed with this Japanese group for many years since 2006, and I'm excited that they're celebrating their 15 year anniversary with their first concert in the USA. 嵐 BLAST in Hawaii, here we come!



Arashi, a five member group under Johnny's Entertainment, formed way back in 1999. They've become one of the most popular and well known groups in Japan, with all five members acting in dramas and movies, hosting various television programs, and selling millions of records. It took a while. I mean, they used to look like this:


Naturally, they've matured over the years. Each member is vital to the group, and Arashi wouldn't be Arashi without a single one.


OHNO Satoshi is the strongest singer of the group, and the best dancer. He's the leader of the group, the oldest member, and also a talented artist. He would be flawless if he didn't have that hook nose. Best drama: Maou


SAKURAI Sho is a smart man with eggs in multiple baskets. He graduated from the prestigious Keio University, a rarity among Japanese entertainers. In addition to being the group's rapper and a solid singer, he moonlights as a newscaster. He's got the balance between silly and serious down pat. Best Drama: Kisarazu Cat's Eye


AIBA Masaki is always energetic and smiling, though I weirdly picked this picture where he's not? He's possibly the heart of the group, but for some reason (and I hate to say it, but...) I care about him the least. Sorry Aiba. Best drama: ??


NINOMIYA Kazunari is the most legitimate actor of the group. He famously starred in Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), alongside Ken Watanabe. Basically every drama Nino appears in is worth your time. I don't know how he does it, on top of being an amazing performer. You have to check out this performance of Niji - a song he wrote himself! I don't even care that his voice is a little nasal. It's still perfect to me. Best drama: Freeter, Ie o Kau.


MATSUMOTO Jun is possibly the most popular member of the group, and also the baby. He's starred in many excellent dramas throughout his career, from Gokusen to Kimi wa Petto to Lucky Seven. From what I know, many of Arashi's fans (including me) were drawn in by him - a circumstance affectionately termed "Jun-baiting." He's considered the "leader behind the scenes" and uses his creative mind to make Arashi's concerts bigger and better. Best drama: Hana Yori Dango

I have been drinking the Arashi Kool-Aid for years. They are probably the best thing to come out of Japan since sushi. I am so excited to see them in concert! Katy and I are going to have a great weekend. We'll be staying at Seaside Hawaiian Hostel, and we'll be sure to stop by my favorite restaurant in Waikiki, Marukame Udon. September is just going fabulously.

September 6, 2014

State #1: San Francisco, CA

Turtle Tower is very well-known and held in high regard among San Francisco phở enthusiasts. I first heard about it when I went to a Yelp event way back at the beginning of the year, and I'm pleased and embarrassed to announce that I finally made it up there in August!

There are three Turtle Tower locations, all in downtown San Francisco, and all are cash only. The original is on Larkin Street in the Civic Center area, but it closes at 5pm, marking it as not the most convenient place to have dinner. I was meeting up with a friend after he got off work, so we went to the SoMa location on 6th Street instead.


Turtle Tower is unique because it serves northern-style phở, also known as phở bắc. Its simplicity sets it apart from the southern style phở you'd find in most restaurants. You don't get the plate of garnishes considered standard with southern style, so you can't customize your phở. Northern phở is designed to eat exactly as is - though there were actually some sauces on the table and jalepenos brought on the side, so maybe phở bắc isn't as strict as I thought. Or Turtle Tower has made a few compromises. Either way.

I always think of parking in San Francisco as a big pain. Parallel parking and meters prevail, and I'm too lazy to deal with it all, so I rarely make it into the city. Parking here wasn't too bad, though. After a few laps around the block, I found a nearby spot. The SoMa location is on a corner easily accessible from the freeway and has a sunny interior, with shades of yellow and cool old photos on the walls. It was noisy, not a place you'd like to sit for hours, but comfortable enough.

The menu features phở, bún, cơm, banh mi, and a few special items like cháo (rice porridge) and even xôi (sticky rice). Though I've been advised to try the phở sốt vang, I had to first try Turtle Tower's specialty, the phở gà. It turned out to be an amazing choice.

Phở gà

Think of it as the best chicken noodle soup you will ever eat. A fragrant, flavorful chicken broth deepened with the wonderful spices that define phở. Excellent quality, though quite oily. Thick, fresh noodles that render you incapable of understanding how any restaurant can serve anything else, finished with a generous topping of green onions and cilantro to brighten the dish. It's heavenly. If you were hungover, sick, or depressed, I think this would fix you right up. It was damn near perfect, but the serving of chicken, though ample, was a tad dry.

Tender, moist chicken would have made this phở absolutely flawless, and would probably have had me on my knees with tears streaming down my face. I'm kind of glad it wasn't, so I could keep it together. But the one flaw could be overlooked, and I'll still consider this one of the best bowls of phở I've ever had. The portion was huge, too. We both ordered smalls, which were only $6.75, and were more than satisfied. I couldn't even finish, which was unusual for me! Maybe sitting across from a really handsome dude made me too nervous. Oh well, I don't think he'll be a problem in the future...


Rating Breakdown:

Taste (13/14)
  • Broth flavor- 5/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 4/5
  • Garnish selection- N/A (automatic 2 pts)
  • Portion size- 2/2
Restaurant (14/16)
  • Service- 4/5
  • Cleanliness- 5/5
  • Atmosphere- 3/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 27/30

Turtle Tower, San Francisco (Civic Center, Outer Richmond, SoMa)

September 3, 2014

Wandering Kyoto in Yukata

When I first met my friend Katy, we bonded over a love of Japan. She's a quarter Japanese and was splitting her life between the US and Japan at the time. It's only fitting that we've traveled together to Japan twice now - Osaka back in May, and Kyoto in August.


Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and is now considered its cultural capital. The abundance of history and shrines there make it a must-visit destination for Japanophiles everywhere. We flew to Osaka and took the train into Kyoto, about a 2 hour ride. There, we met up with Katy's friend Kanae and checked into our lodgings, a very cute 4-room guesthouse with tatami mat flooring, owned by a Korean couple. After a Korean barbecue dinner, we went to bed early in preparation for a big day!

Katy, Kanae, and meat! 
Gotta love those sexy no-makeup faces.

It's pretty popular to visit temples and shrines in yukata, the casual, summer version of kimono. They're made of lighter fabric than the more formal kimono, and they're really cute! So of course we had to wear them around Kyoto. They're available for purchase at many shops, or you can simply rent one for the day. Kyoto has quite a few rental shops, but I was very pleased with our experience at Yumeyakata. The rental included the yukata, obi (belt/sash), geta (wooden sandals) and kinchaku (handbag). They have a large selection and do all the dressing for you (the obi is the really tricky part), and you can even have your hair and makeup done for an additional fee. The rental was about $35, and we had our hair styled for about $15 each.

My hair fell out quickly though. Fail

Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera, a well-known temple dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. We were really lucky in making it during the Thousand-Day Pilgrimage, an annual event. After entering the temple, we each purchased a candle on which we wrote our wishes and offered them to Kannon. Because of the special event, we were able to pick up limited paper charms with the most powerful Kannon blessing.



Perhaps the most popular activity at the temple - drinking from one of three streams of water will bring you long life, wisdom, or health, depending on which you choose. You may drink from two, but if you greedily drink from all three, you risk losing everything.

Next to Kiyomizu-dera you'll find Jishu Shrine, dedicated to love. I knew Katy was very much looking forward to this visit, and she and Kanae prayed to the god of love, Okuninushi. The shrine possesses a pair of "love stones" placed about 20 feet apart, and those looking for love can touch one and walk to the other with eyes closed. If successful, you'll surely find your love. If you aren't successful, it'll take you longer, and if you do it with assistance, you'll probably need someone to act as a go-between in your actual love life. While Katy walked from stone to stone with a little help from Kanae, I passed on all that. Finding love is definitely not my thing, but I did buy Katy a love charm! A while back, she got out of a bad relationship with a pitiful excuse for a man, and she definitely deserves someone who will treat her right.


We wandered around the area a bit - Kiyomizu-dera is halfway up Otowa Mountain, and has a lovely view of the city. We visited another shrine, took lots of pictures, and shopped at a Studio Ghibli goods store - very dangerous! For our wallets, that is. Who doesn't love Totoro?

Kyoto city view
Kyoto Tower by night and day
Hanging out with Jiji and Totoro

We had to return the yukata in the evening, but Katy and I bought our own to wear the next day and (in my case) forever afterward. It was a great deal: $60 for the yukata, obi, and geta, and I received strings to tie the yukata and a kinchaku as gifts.

After a delicious dinner, Kanae had to return home first as she was working the next day, leaving me and Katy to roam Kyoto ourselves. To be candid, Katy and I have many similar interests, but our personalities couldn't be more different. I'm a determined, short-tempered perfectionist, and optimistic Katy is laid-back about everything.


I may be good at a lot of things Katy isn't, but there's so much I can learn from her. Every time we travel together, I get frustrated at her many quirks, and try to hold it in until it builds up too much and I let it out - in a passive-aggressive way, not in a charming way. And yet, Katy never lets anything bother her. "It's all good," seems to be her catchphrase, and anything negative just rolls right off. Nothing gets her down, and she doesn't form negative opinions of people. She never fails to be kind, and loves giving. When we travel together, I always have to admire her for being such a nice person. She's a good person when I am not, and like Kanae and I agreed, she's a good friend. Actually, she's an exceptional friend.

Since we now had our own yukata, we also had to dress ourselves for the first time. I'm pleased to say that I figured it out from the sheet of instructions that came with the yukata, and can even tie the obi competently! Once we were ready, we headed off to Fushimi Inari Taisha, Inari being the god of rice. It's an important, popular shrine, and extremely photo worthy, with thousands of red gates leading to the inner shrine.


Although we were lucky the previous day, on this day we couldn't escape the forecasted rain, which poured down in torrents. My photos wouldn't come out, the bottom of my yukata was soaked, and I didn't want to get sick, so we called it a day and headed back to Kyoto station a little early. After a tasty lunch, I had to head back to Osaka and catch a plane back to San Francisco. I'd like to challenge Kyoto again, when the rainy season is over! I'll be back, and I'll have my yukata ready.



August 30, 2014

Stuff I Like #3: Yoga

I love to eat, and I especially love sweets, so it's really important that I do something to burn off those calories and stay in shape! Of course I'd rather spend my money on food than a new wardrobe, so I have to at least try to get regular exercise. I have a lot of friends who are into running - and you can run anywhere! Running is free! But I hate running. Instead, I'm into yoga.

Attempting dancer pose in Florida

Practicing yoga is one of the best things I've ever done. I feel positive and energized when I'm at yoga classes, and it's so important to find a workout that's right for you. I think yoga works three things that are important to me: strength, flexibility, and balance. All you really need to practice is a yoga mat.

"Yoga" really refers to the physical, mental, and spiritual practices designed to transform the mind and body. "Hatha yoga" is the physical exercise form of yoga, but since it's become so popular in the West, it's colloquially referred to as simply "yoga." It's been around since before Christ and originates from India, with roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. For the queen who loves all things Asian, that's a big plus.

Tree pose in Roatan, Honduras

If you want to get into yoga, I recommend taking a few different classes at different studios to figure out what you like. Every studio is different, teaching different yoga styles and having instructors each with their own unique personalities and teaching methods. There's Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga, which I'm terrified to try but a lot of people seem to enjoy. There's Iyengar, which emphasizes holding precise postures, often with the use of props. I personally just like a vinyasa flow style - changing from one posture to another, focusing on your breathing, and lots of sun salutations. Lucky for me, it's pretty much the most common style of yoga.

Sun salutation! via

I love looking for yoga studios when I have long layovers. I did it in Portland and Philadelphia, and it's so much better than going to the gym and lifting weights or whatever. Yoga builds muscle, tones the body, improves flexibility, and manages to relax and loosen you. There are many more benefits. It's miraculous! But even though I like it and find it fun, I don't practice enough. You can always practice at home, in between studio visits, something I desperately need to work on.

Yoga on Yamhill in Portland

My friend An introduced me to my favorite studio, Butterfly Yoga in Foster City (San Francisco Peninsula area). If you're in the area, I definitely recommend it! Pattie, the owner and main instructor, leads really engaging classes. She really knows her stuff, and we do different sequences in each class, which keeps it really challenging. Best of all, they have a new student special - 3 classes for $25. I love those kinds of deals!

Anyway, if you're looking for a new way to work out, I enthusiastically recommend yoga. I once took a friend to her first yoga class, and she was worried that she wasn't flexible enough. However, there was nothing to worry about. You'll surely experience benefits doing the postures as well as you can, and things like flexibility and balance will improve as you work on them. After the class, my friend said she didn't realize how much of yoga was about strength rather than flexibility. It's truly a great way to improve your overall wellness.

August 27, 2014

State #22: Durham, NC

Pho 9n9 will become a special place to me, just like Denver's Pho-natic, where I first got the idea to start this blog. My experience in North Carolina made me want to help Vietnamese restaurants become better, for Pho 9n9 is in desperate need of assistance.



FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Located in a predominately white business district in Durham, Pho 9n9 relies on office workers' lunch service to stay afloat. Every entree, from pho to vermicelli to rice dishes, costs at least $9. Additionally, they've had to raise prices recently due to general inflation. This family-owned business is barely breaking even, and some days end at a loss.


I went with a coworker who is also a fan of Vietnamese food. He described it as having a "fast food" atmosphere. With bright lighting and half the tables lined up cafeteria-style, that dining method may work well for the lunch crowd, but I thought it needed improvements to become more comfortable and welcoming. The decor was all over the place, with mismatched paintings on the walls, and the odd potted plant.

I had a good feeling at first, when I heard Vietnamese spoken right as we came in. That's the sound of authenticity, you know. However, the food was disappointing, despite how quickly it was served. I thought the spring rolls were remarkably tiny, and at 2 for $4, poorly priced. They had very thin slices of shrimp and pork, only enough for a taste. I felt cheated.

The pho was underwhelming. The broth was just decent, not particularly delicious, but solid. If you had a hankering for pho, it would do, but if you were looking for good pho, you'd go somewhere else. The noodles were in a clump at the bottom, which I've always hated, and the meat was cooked through - also a peeve of mine. At least the meat had good flavor, and there was a good portion considering that I ordered a small.


My friend and I both had pho, though, and there was only that one small dish of garnishes, so we had to ask for more. Though we'd ordered drinks right at the beginning, we had to ask for them and didn't get them until after the appetizers and the pho had arrived. Overall, it was a mediocre experience. Worst of all, I left hungry after having shared appetizers and eating the whole bowl of pho. Usually a small fills me up, but here, maybe I should have paid the extra dollar for large.

RECOMMENDATIONS

What can bring more customers in, and keep them coming back? Location is a key factor that Pho 9n9 might suffer, but almost everyone in the area has a car and can drive there with enough motivation. I'm also informed by a local that there's a large residential area just a mile away. Pho 9n9 needs to become a place that people will want to return to.

1. Improve the service. The cheapest way to improve the place immediately, but in reality not the easiest. Traditionally, Vietnamese restaurants have never been known for excellent service, but a struggling restaurant competing for business in a predominately white neighborhood may need to think about how much they can slide in that department. At Pho 9n9, I think a little retraining is in order. Our server didn't seem very put together. He was wearing a baseball cap, which didn't scream of professionalism, and forgot our drinks, even though there weren't many customers. Of course, I understand very well that people have off days, but I'm positive that 9n9 can improve its service.

2. Create a cohesive, welcoming atmosphere. Quite frankly, I find a disconnect between the fast food type atmosphere and the restaurant prices. If I'm paying upwards of $13 for an appetizer and entree, I should be sitting in a pleasant, comfortable environment, at least. The decor at Pho 9n9 needs some serious help. The paintings on the walls are a complete hodgepodge. On one wall, there's a painting of a man having a drink at a bar, and on the other side there are 3 different landscapes. Having a more cohesive look would certainly help. A small investment in some themed decor would make a difference, and it doesn't need to be expensive. Just look in local thrift shops, maybe. Or reach out to extended family or friends going to Vietnam - someone must be going, right?

Top: Pho 14 - Washington, D.C.
Left: Pacific Rim Cafe - Rapid City. Right: Pho-natic - Denver.

The decor doesn't need to be expensive or elaborate. Above are a few examples of simple decorating that really worked. Pottery, figurines, hats and the like can be arranged on shelving or directly on the walls for a sleek look. But if 9n9 can swing it, I think a different color of paint would brighten up the place. My vote is for light green.

Aside from the decor, something must be done about that "fast food" feel. If the bulk of the business is coming from lunch, it's time to focus on dinner. The lights should be dimmed, either completely or just for the evening. The cafeteria-style lines of tables are better broken up and separated, to create a feeling of intimacy for each party - something especially important at dinnertime.

3. Reallocate unused space, add a new element. The restaurant is really a decent size, but I have a feeling they don't fill up all of their tables. Perhaps some of the space can be allocated for a better purpose, one that will appeal to a different group of customers. For example, lounge-type seating where people can relax with a cup of coffee. If it's in a business district, why not push the Vietnamese coffee already on the menu? It's inexpensive, but the concept of individual coffee brewing right at your seat will be new to many. Vietnamese coffee is a perfect pick-me-up for office workers, too. The idea of a cafe may attract those unfamiliar with Vietnamese food, and they will probably try the food if they like the atmosphere.

4. Increase value for prices paid. If there's one thing Pho 9n9 will struggle with for the rest of its existence, it's probably this. I know the owner doesn't want to come down on the prices, but if that's the case, 9n9 has to bring its game in different ways. Looking at the pho, is that a bowl to be proud of? I'll juxtapose it below with some very good ones - Pho So 1's is one of my absolute favorites.

Clockwise from top left: Pho Y #1 - San Jose, Pho So 1 - Seattle,
and the lackluster Pho 9n9

While Pho 9n9's resources might be limited, they must be used in the most efficient ways possible. Are there any items on the menu that are rarely ordered? If so, remove them!

And those tiny spring rolls? I did tell the owner what I thought about them, and she said that they were competitive with the spring rolls at the other Vietnamese restaurants in the city. She didn't want to provide too big a serving, either, lest customers become full on appetizers alone. However, if Pho 9n9 wants to stay in business, they shouldn't just settle for what everyone else is doing, they need to be better. So I have two suggestions: either make the two spring rolls bigger, even just by adding more lettuce, or change the appetizer to a single roll. I think I'd rather pay $3 for one big roll, a la Phoenix's Rice Paper. But seriously, it has to be a good one.

These recommendations are written from a customer perspective. While I may not understand all the business and operating reasons for the way things currently are, I think it's obvious that the restaurant needs to implement changes to make more money. I'll be contacting the owner, and checking back in the future to see if any changes have been made, and what differences resulted.


Rating Breakdown:

Taste (8/14)
  • Broth flavor- 3/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 3/5
  • Garnish selection- 1/2
  • Portion size- 1/2
Restaurant (11/16)
  • Service- 3/5
  • Cleanliness- 4/5
  • Atmosphere- 2/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 19/30

Pho 9n9, 2945 S Miami Blvd, Durham, NC 27703
Website | Yelp