Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hotel Review: Courtyard San Ramon (California)

So our family took a week long trip to San Francisco that included a 12 hour drive and when it came to deciding where to stay with an active four year old boy and a ten year old girl, we decided it would probably be best to stay in the outskirts of town.  We've found our family travels best when there are parks and open spaces for our kids to run off some energy.  Well, the "outskirts" of San Francisco include some pretty rough areas.  We eventually picked the Marriott Courtyard San Ramon and it worked out very well for us.

A Courtyard for the most part is a Courtyard.  I don't mean that as a bad thing, in fact it's nice to know before we arrive that the room will be clean and nice and probably have good access to the freeway, have well lit parking and free wifi.  Nothing glamorous, but all key factors when traveling with the family.  Although Courtyards are generally for business travelers, we've had some good stays as a family at Courtyards through the years.  The Courtyard in Stockholm, Sweden is one of the best places we've ever stayed.

The Marriott Courtyard in San Ramon was a good choice for a couple reasons:
  1. The entire lobby and rooms have been renovated in the last 6 months.  That helped put a nice clean feeling on everything.  
  2. The staff was very friendly and helpful any time we asked for help.  
  3. The hotel is just about a 5 minute drive from the Dublin BART station, which allowed for very convenient public transportation each time we went to downtown San Francisco.  It costs $1 to park there and about $40 for a family of 4 to take a 40 minute BART downtown.  It saves the drive time and the frustration/expense of finding parking.
  4. San Ramon is a very nice master planned city that is safe and very family oriented.  
  5. We went for about a 5 minute walk and found a great little public park that included a great little playground, baseball diamond, dog park and even a BMX track.  

Only a couple baby negatives about the hotel.  It is pretty close to the freeway and there is a little freeway noise at night.  The pool is small, I know it's petty to even bring it up, what do expect at a Marriott Courtyard, right?  But like I said these are just minor things.

We spent a week at this hotel in San Ramon and got to know our way around pretty well.  We were really impressed with San Ramon.  I think if we were to book in the Bay Area in the future as a family, we would stay in San Ramon all over again.  The one thing we might do differently is I think we would have tried to book the Residence Inn San Ramon for a couple reasons. The Residence Inn sits on the other side of the freeway right next to a 20+ mile running path that Katie liked, it also sits next to a shopping center with about 10 different restaurants (Thai, Chinese, Pizza, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, etc.), some meals are free and is across the street from an even bigger park than the one by the Courtyard.

As usual, very happy with our stay at a Marriott.
Mason at playground across the street from San Ramon Courtyard

We just have to get energy out of this kid

Mason always insists on hitting the button at Marriott Hotels

I don't think Gwen was as scared as she looks

Saturday, July 28, 2012

10 Things Learned From a 12 Hour Road Trip

Our family completed a road trip from Salt Lake City, Utah to San Francisco, California.  No one looks forward to road trips with kids.  The road trip is 750 miles.  If one drives that far with a 4 year old and a 10 year old they will learn a lot about the human spirit's ability to overcome.

Top 10 Things Learned

1.  God must have personally inspired the Apple engineers in their creation of the iPad.  Is there a better travel tool for kids?

2.  When your 4 year-old yells "you want a piece of meat" he really means "you want a piece of me".

3.  Our son doesn't get why Netflix doesn't work in our moving car and it can literally upset him for 12 straight hours.

4.  A 10 year-old girl could put an ACLU attorney to shame in her cries for equality and fairness.

5.  If there is road construction over Donner Pass and absolutely zero shoulder and huge bright yellow signs saying "do not pass for the next 8 miles," you will be passed as though you're parked with no more than 1 1/2" between rearview mirrors.

6.  Amazingly no one wears shirts with sleeves at Nevada truck stops...male or female.

7.  No one minds the smell of their own farts but are indignant about the smell of anyone else's.

8.  A 4 year-old can stay awake, and remind you that he's awake often, for 11:55 minutes and somehow fall into a dead sleep as he pulls into the driveway.

9.  Apparently "truckers are welcome" at all freeway gentleman's clubs.  I'm no marketing expert, but was the Cat House in Battle Mountain, Nevada targeting anyone else?

10.  If you learn that you have a terminal disease and not much time to live, take a 12 hour ride across Nevada, it will feel like 50 hours and you'll be adding time to your life.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Kodachrome Basin State Park (Utah)

Katie's mom is from a small town of about 400 people 10 miles outside of Bryce Canyon National Park called Tropic.  Katie's grandma is living in a care center in nearby Panguitch.  For this reason, we try to get down there at least once a year.  Each time we go there, I'm struck by the beauty of the area.  Some of the amazing nearby sites include Bryce Canyon, Red Canyon, Escalante, Boulder Mountain, and so on.  We didn't have as much time to explore as we would have liked to since Katie competed in the Bryce Canyon 1/2 Marathon on Saturday, but we did take a couple hours to go to Kodachrome Basin State Park.

Kodachrome Basin is about 30 minutes from Bryce Canyon.  It sits about 5,800 feet above sea level and is home to a few chimney rock formations, gorgeous red rocks and natural arches.  Other than our group of city slickers, the only other people we saw were some Granolas (made evident by the fact they had the $300 hiking backpack and drove a Subaru) and Germans (made evident by the fact the guys wore mid calf length shorts, white shoes and black church socks).  The park doesn't seem to be too heavily visited and it felt like we'd stumbled across a gorgeous little corner of the earth that not many people know about.

A lot of money has recently been spent to create a general store, build some small cabins that can be rented, several camping sites, and very well marked trails.  It cost $8 a car to enter the park, and it was well worth it.  We found a short little hike that took about an hour and was perfect for our family of 4 and Katie's two sisters with their families.  Now of course Gwen wants to go back in stay overnight in the little cabins.   I had never even heard of Kodachrome Basin before we were down there, and now it's a great little find that we all look forward to going back to some day.

Here is a link to rent those cabins.  www.kbcabins.blogspot.com
Gwen on hike at Kodachrome Basin

Mason enjoying some shade

Does that left peck look saggy?

A view across the Grand Staircase

A rare picture of all 4 of us

Kodachrome State Park

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tokkuri-Tei Honolulu

"Go where the locals go."  Always a good motto when it comes to food. 

Tokkuri-Tei was introduced to me by a friend in Hawaii who has the nickname of "The Govenor."  He earned this nickname by knowing everyone on Oahu.  He has gotten to know people across many layers of the social fabric through going to the right private shools, working as a vallet, surfing, playing golf at the country club and underground poker.  He is connected with every type of diverse social group one can imagine.  It's because of this unique blend that he often knows of the best spots.  Tokkuri-Tei is one of them.

For those of you that like to feel exotic because you've tried a caterpillar role, and brag to your friends that you "love sushi" this place may be just a little much for you (although it's almost a disappoint to admit there is the obligatory caterpillar role on the menu).  This is a Japanese restaurant that has so much more to offer than just sushi, and their sushi is good.  They have award winning Poke, Deep Fried just about anything you can imagine-go with the squid legs, Rice and Noodle dishes, Skewered Meats-with things like skewered chicken gizzard, and so on.

Now the menu at this restaurant is 14 pages.  I'm going to tell you two things you must order that you probably wouldn't.  1) Tan Shio.  It is a Kushi Yaki (grilled, skewered meat on a stick) dish that is comprised of cow tongue.  Trust me.  2)  Bintoro Ponzu.  Bintoro is albacore tuna that has a soft, buttery and flaky flesh.  The tuna is quickly grilled to cook the surface and then immediately put in cold water to tighten the flesh.  They then pour ponzu sauce all over the fish and garnish it with sprouts that soak up that ponzu sauce.  Honestly, I can eat 3 of these dishes by myself.  You'll be tempted to get the Ponzu Salmon, but go with the Bintoro Ponzu...so good.

Tokkuri-Tei has dropped a few points since they moved.  They used to be located in a strip mall with a low ceiling and wall to wall Japanese decorations and patron signatures.  I've previously admitted my weakness to restaurants in strip malls.  They've since moved to a large restaurant by the Honolulu Zoo off Kapahulu Avenue.  I don't know, it almost feels like it's "gone corporate."  Still though, I would go there just to eat the two dishes I recommened.

Entrees are about $8-15.  Take as many people as you can and order as much as you can to share.

Service: 7/10
Ambiance: 7/10
Food: 10/10

Link to restaurant website

Tokkuri-Tei on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Pho Kim Long-Las Vegas

When you're in Vegas with two Asian guys, two Asian guys that spend A LOT of time in Vegas, and they say "Let's go get some Pho" and it's 3:00 in the morning, you know they have some place good in mind.  And when you just got bounced from a Poker Tournament, some comforting soup just sounds so good.

I read some other reviews and the people that marked Pho Kim Long low did so for a couple reasons.  First, the hostess didn't great them with a warm smile and act honored by their presence.  If that's what you're looking for, go to The Strip.  Plus, have you spent time with Asian people?  It's all business.  Ask a Chinese friend how much coddling he got from his mom growing up.  Second, the menu had no description of entrees.  Seriously, just ask what is good and trust the waiter's opinion.  Although I admit, having some "insider" tips from my two buddies helped.

Here's the thing, I'm a huge sucker for a good restaurant in a strip mall, and if any town has a China Town, I'm eating there.  Vegas does have a little China Town with some great food.  I personally don't love the over friendly hostess, low light or ambiance.  I like good food, finding a place you feel the locals are eating at and getting my food quickly.  Pho Kim Long delivered on all my hot buttons.  As I looked around, I kind of felt like this was the secret spot that integrated Asians introduced their white friends to.  At each table it was a mix of two or three Asians with, like me, the token white friend.  Like the Asian veil had been drawn back to get a taste of some good, authentic stuff.

I was in the mood for Ox Tail soup, but the waiter recommended the closest thing on the menu, Beef Porridge (Beef Stew).  I looked over at my buddies, each giving me a subtle, approving nod.  There were over 190 items on the menu, but each assured me mine was a good choice and one even ordered the same thing.  Our other buddy got Duck Porridge (Duck Noodle).  The bowls were delivered to our table in about 7 minutes and were huge.  The broth on my Beef Stew was very flavorful and the meat was tender.  It was the good kind of beef too, where there are a few joints and bones you have to nibble around...and the fat, just eat that!  I tried some Duck Noodle, the broth wasn't as flavorful, but the duck was delicious.  None of the food has MSG, but still is very tasty.

Bottom line, you know a restaurant has struck a chord when you stumble upon it and know the next time your in town, you will go there again. 

Service: 7/10
Ambiance: 7/10
Food: 9/10

Link to menu.

Pho Kim Long on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 9, 2012

Kob Kun Krab Thai Orchid-Salt Lake City

So we've been to Thailand a few times, but that doesn't necessarily make us Thai food snobs.  But what does bother me is when Thai restaurants in the U.S. eliminate 60% of the spice to make it more palatable to the average patron.  At least that has been my experience at Salt Lake City Thai Restauratns.  Here's what they're missing, the average patron, the guy that likes to brag he eats Thai food and probably is dumb enough to walk into a Thai resataurant and ask for chop sticks to try to impress his friends, is really only eating Thai food a couple times a year.  If you own a Thai restaurant, my recommendation is make the food as authentic as possible so the true Thai food lovers will crave the salty, spicy, sweet and sour balance that perfect Thai food has.

Aren't the best restaurants always the little hole in the wall that you think only you know about?  We have one of those special spots in Utah, Thai Orchid (if you're in Utah it's on Highland and about 6200 South, by Sneiders).  It is tucked into a strip mall and only has about 10 tables of 4.  You know you've found a great Thai restaurant when English is a second language for all the staff and the cook is a little old man that I'm convinced only knows the words "you like?" in English. 

I introduced my parents and sister and brother-in-law to this gem on Saturday.  The only negative comment was my dad thought the papaya salad was too hot...sorry dad, that's what makes THIS Thai restaurant actually good, is that it is hot.  We ordered all our dishes medium spicy, but they can bring extra peppers for people in the party that want the heat.  We ordered some of the standards, Papaya Salad, Thai Beef Salad, Pad Thai, Satay, Massaman Curry.  We also ordered a few stir fry dishes based on the servers recommendations and loved them.

I'm torn sharing such a glowing review.  On the one hand, I kind of want to keep this place a secret, but on the other hand I want to help reward this establishment for doing such a great job and help make sure they're around for a long time to come.

Service: 9/10
Ambiance: 7/10
Food: 10/10 (isn't this all that really matters?)

Thai Orchid on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 6, 2012

Hotel Review: Kemmerer Wyoming Best Western

Okay, so not the most glamorous location or hotel to review.  I admit it.  But, if we've stayed there, we'll write about it.  Who knows, someone out there may be interested in going to Kemmerer.  Did you know it is the location of the original JC Penny store?  Pretty crazy with a population of 2,651.

So Katie stayed at this hotel on a business trip.  Hard to imagine Kemmerer as a hotbed of industry.  But there was a mine that she had to go audit.  She was fortunate because she only had to go for 4 days, whereas one of her fortunate co-workers was on that audit for over 6 weeks.  At least she got some Best Western points and mileage out of it.  Downside-she had a choice between Subway, Arctic Circle and Pizza Hut for 6 weeks!

By all accounts, the hotel was very nice.  For Katie, it always comes down to the cleanliness and workout facility.  Check and check.  Nothing gets her riled up like going to a workout room and finding no fan and a broken down treadmill.  Not the case at this hotel.  In fact, the hotel was quite new and she was impressed with the friendliness of the staff.

I'm not sure what you'd do in Kemmerer besides audit mines, but apparently there is some good fishing close by and it makes a convenient stop on your way to Yellowstone.

Katie was not excited about working this engagement, but the good news is her lodging experience was pleasant.  Plus, Best Western allows you to convert your BW Points into airmiles.  This took place in a timely manner.  It helps us save points for a trip to Spain or Italy...no offense Kemmerer.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fish Lake Utah

Our family just got back from the annual visit to "Grandpa's Cabin."

We usually get together with Katie's family for 3-4 days every summer at their cabin at Fish Lake, Utah (up Seven-Mile Valley).  The activities during those days include playing cards, going for rides on 4-wheelers, and fishing.  It also includes taking orders from Katie's dad who can somehow come up with about 23,000 projects that need to be tackled in 4 days, and the time honored tradition of eating WAY more than we should and sitting around passing gas, blaming it on each other.
Gwen's first trip to "Grandpa's Cabin" in 2003

View from The Cabin

For me, Fish Lake has a bit of a special meaning in that my dad asked my mom to marry him while fishing on that lake.  A few years later in 1970, my mom caught the largest fish caught in the state of Utah that year, pulling in a 22 pound mackinaw.  My family grew up spending a fair amount of time at Fish Lake.  So it was quite a pleasant surprise to find out shortly after marrying Katie that her family owned a cabin there.

Gwen's 2nd Cabin Trip

Gwen with her cousins

Our family has enjoyed many great times at this cabin.  It is a very unusual treat anymore to go somewhere that is so "off the grid."  On the way there, Gwen asked "does Grandpa's Cabin have wifi?"  This cabin doesn't even have a phone, or cell coverage for that matter.  It really induces the opportunity to just spend time together and unplug.

Mason brought his very own fishing pole.  Uncle Landon was kind enough to help him try to hook one.  In the meantime I was in the process of breaking my pole while trying to loosen a snag.  Unfortunately neither of us caught anything.

Gwen made us very proud by joining several of us on a hike to the top Mt. Marvine, also known as "Sawtooth."  Mt. Marvine is a the remnant of a high plateau volcano.  Landslide, water and wind erosion have gradually left a narrow, jagged profile of rock.  It has a peak of 11,624 feet which stands directly above the cabin.  There are no defined trails to the peak and the hike to the top includes climbing over fallen trees, massive amounts of flies and mosquitos, several hundred vertical feet of climbing over loose rocks/boulders, and finally a climb up about a 6 foot cliff to finally get to the summit.  There is a mailbox on top with a notebook each climber signs.  About 100 people add their names to that book each year.  We were the first to sign it for 2012.  It wasn't easy and a few times Gwen wanted to stop.  The last 300 vertical feet of the hike were a challenge, but Gwen pushed on even after two uncles, an aunt and her Grandma decided they couldn't go any further.  I was so happy to see her finish.  The entire hike took us about 5 hours.

Katie has a great family and I'm grateful that we have this cabin in the family to get together every year.
Gwen at Fish Lake

Trying to find a fish, just before my pole broke

Katie and Gwen with Grandma and Aunts Christen and Kara

Mason could throw rock all day

Uncle Landon helping Mason catch a fish
Katie, Gwen and I at the top of Saw Tooth

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