Thursday, July 23, 2009

Things I Love About New York: Zipcar

I write quite often about the high cost of living in NYC - whether it's the fresh produce, or real estate or toilet paper - that last one is coming in a separate post. "But you don't have to pay for a car or car insurance or gas!" my Angeleno friends offer as consolation. Perhaps. My car was paid off when I left LA. But I digress.

When you need to get out of the City, sometimes renting a car is just easier than taking the train. Especially if your destination is some small town an hour and a half drive north of the city and taking the train would mean having your BBQ-hosting friends pick you up from the station.

In the past, City Guy and I have rented from the Hertz in our neighborhood. Convenient, yes, but the challenges numerous:
  • It's expensive. You go in thinking you're only going to pay $40/day, but wait, the counter person says, do you have insurance, and hey, it's impossible to find a gas station in Manhattan, so how 'bout prepaying for gas and how many miles did you say you were driving today?
  • They operate out of a garage that closes at 10 pm, so if you miss that return time, you have to park the car and pay for an additional day, even if you're returning the car in the morning.
  • If you have to park the car overnight, you may find yourself cruising the neighborhood to find an elusive open spot so you can save yourself another $40 in parking fees.
  • You never know what you're going to get. We'll reserve a Mazda and get a Chevy, for example, or worse, reserve a compact and get a honkin' SUV.
Which is why I have to tell you about my new love, Zipcar. This past weekend, City Guy and I used Zipcar for the first time since he signed up for membership a while back ($25 one time application fee and $50 for the year). Now that we've tried Zipcar, we'll never got back to Hertz. Here's why:
  • It was soooo easy! Just sign up for membership online. Pick up your Zipcard or have them mail it to you. Reserve a car online. The site shows you what cars are parked near you. Pick a car. Say how long you'll need it. Go to the car. Swipe your Zipcard to unlock the car. Voila! You're in, and wow - are those keys? Yes, they are. No upselling! No counter person or contracts to sign!
  • They have all sorts of cars. Driving is fun again. I really do hate those clunky fleet vehicles rental agencies use. Sorry GM and Ford. :( Just for kicks, we rented a BMW for $17/hr - that's the higher weekend rate too - only a couple dollars more an hour than a Mazda, and what a great ride.
  • Gas is included. Yup. They pay for the gas. We stopped at a station in the Bronx and all we had to do was use the gas card that was waiting for us in the car to pay. Sure, fill her up! And make that premium!
  • Insurance is included in the price, so no awkward decision making at the counter.
  • When you're done, you just return the car to where you picked it up and you're done. No one to check in with. No one eyeing you suspiciously.
  • Did I mention it's cheaper than renting from Hertz?
Not all cities are fortunate enough to have Zipcar yet, and I'm happy to live in one that does.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Great Find: Ippudo's Unforgettable Pork Belly

Last night, Book Babe and I went to Ippudo, the Japanese ramen chain that opened a while back on 4th Ave and 10th St. In the past, the long lines snaking around the side of the entrance deterred me, but last night, at 6 pm, we were able to get in without a wait. Check out this bar made out of ramen noodles. What a hoot!

First off, I have to say I had a minor celebrity sighting -- Govind Armstrong, celebrity chef and owner of Table 8 - walked past me - he's hard to miss with his streaming dreadlocks- and if he's eating there, you know it's got to be good.

Okay, so the decor wasn't quite what I expected. Ippudo's stylish, but it's doesn't feel very minimalist or natural, the way you expect Japanese restaurants to be. It's loud and crazy and kinda rock and roll.We were sat at this sort of fake-fire-pit-bar thing, at the back of which was mirrored glass, which I was facing straight on. It was quite distracting. Here's a photo:The noise in the place also gets a bit crazy, with all the ramen guys shouting "Irashaiiii!!" every time someone enters the dining room and a pretty large dining room full of chatter, but the service is fast and friendly, and most importantly the food is good.

We started with the Hirata Buns, slabs of succulent melt-in-your mouth pork belly and some lettuce and sweet sauce that complements the salty pork perfectly, all slipped into a mantou bun.

Now for the ramen. As far as ramen places go, Ippudo's difference is their tonkastsu broth, made by slowly boiling pork bones, giving it a rich, almost nutty texture. Their handmade ramen noodles are thin and light, not like the greasy, plump curly kind you get freeze-dried in the supermarket. It takes a moment to get used to, but once you're a few bites in, your taste buds are doing a happy dance.

I had the classic choice - the Shiromaru, and Book Babe had the Akamaru Modern. Both come with a couple slices of that wonderful pork belly that was also in the buns. I had half a boiled egg and some pickled ginger in mine. The Modern had some cabbage, I think, but the main difference between the two is the Modern has a squirt of "special sauce" - maybe the same special sauce in the buns? - and some oil and miso paste, giving it a richer flavor and creamier texture. But the Shiromaru was perfect for me that night, as I wanted something lighter.

But that pork - boy, I couldn't get it off my mind. I'm definitely going back.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Word On The Street: City's Short On Produce

This little headline in the Huffington Post caught my attention today: "How Hard Is It To Get Fruits and Vegetables In the City?" It's so true. New Yorkers don't know how bad they have it. Anytime I visit a produce department in a supermarket (much less a Walmart) in another state, it's like stepping into Eden, with all that bounty.

When I moved to NYC from California, I used to go to this little bodega across the street from my Upper East Side apartment. They charged a ransom for the mealiest produce you'd ever seen. In the summer, the place would be swarming with fruit flies - unappetizing to begin with - and whatever produce I bought would be rotten or moldy within 48 hours.

There was a Gristedes a couple blocks away, but I swear their produce department is just for the truly desperate--"Yikes, I have a recipe that calls for onions and I'm fresh out. Thank god there's a Gristedes selling really expensive, sickly produce around the corner." I have been this desperate on occasion, but I've learned to plan better

I made these produce blunders when I was a grad student and low on funds. Not only did I lose my California tan, but I'm sure my sickly pallor was due to my inability to find tasty, affordable produce in my neighborhood.

Now that I have a little more cash flow, the only two places I'll buy produce are Whole Foods and the produce markets on Mott St. in Chinatown. At the former, you're paying a little more, but you know you're geting quality stuff. At the latter, you know the stuff is fresh b/c of the rapid turnover, and it's cheap. I also frequent my neighborhood Zeytuna, which is like a mini-Whole Foods and has a cheaper and better herb section.

I'll occasionally stop at fruit stands on the corner from time to time to grab a bunch of grapes or an avocado, but you have to be careful. I always ask the stand keeper if I can sample the grapes before I buy them, and I inspect my produce before forking over the cash. These guys will pick the produce for you if you stand back and mumble "I'd like to get a few apples, please," but when you get home, you'll find your apples are as mushy as your commitment to good produce.