Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Best places to eat Indian Vegetarian Food in Bay Area

When we were relocating from India, food was at the top of my long list of concerns. Only after landing in the bay area did I discover how unfounded my fears were. Because of the high influx of immigrants, this area has a large number of thriving ethnic restaurants and there's no dearth of Indian restaurants either. Being a vegetarian, we needed a place which had a lot of vegetarian options. Soon enough we were able to locate many such restaurants nearby, now it has come to the point where in some of these places we don't even bother with the menu. We just order our favorites as soon as we are seated. If you happen to be in the bay area, you may want to visit one of these budget friendly eateries for a taste of India.

Chaat House
Some background here - Chaat in Hindi is usually a melange of various things with the final version being pleasantly spicy, sweet and tangy. There're various versions - often featuring one particular dish as the main item with a lot of garnishing and condiments often customised to suit the taste buds of the person eating it. It can have potato pattis, chick peas, sprouted beans, puffed rice as the main ingredient and these main ingredients are then mixed with a number of sweet, sour chutneys, yogurt, red chilli powder, green chillies, chopped onions etc. Often the quantity and variety of ingredients results in each cook have its signature dish when it comes to chaat.
The name Chaat House suggests that they are big on these Chaat varieties but actually they have a decent offering of Chaat as well as other usual Indian fare like Chapati, Daal, Curries etc. Since the owner is from North India ( State of Punjab), the menu leans heavily towards north Indian dishes. Ironically, Chaat is not very recommendable at Chaat House. I find it a little too raw ( contains more raw veggies, lacks usual condiments), but then we go there for a full meal and not snacks.
There are quite a few restaurants on El Camino Real with this name. We love the one on the intersection of N. Mary and El Camino Real. They are not great with the fancy stuff, but we can trust them to supply us with home like food on the super busy days. BEB loves their "Makki ki Roti, Sarson Ka Saag" ( Bread of corn flour with Entree of Mustard Leaves combo with a choice of Chai or Chaas for dink), While I order anything from Daal (Lentil soup) and Chapati ( Wheat flour Indian bread) to Rajma (curry of beans) and rice. For the first timers I recommend trying something from their combo meals. It would give you a meal with nicely matched side dish and entree and will be easy on your pocketbook too. We spend in the neighborhood of 25$ for a dinner for two here.

Background - Udupi is a place in Southern India which is famous for its preparation of Idli. With time, the south Indian restaurants sprang up in the rest of India and were commonly referred to as Udupi restaurants. In India these are lean mean working machines, serving inexpensive south Indian dishes in a clean, hygenic and efficient environment. In India, these places are often frequented by employees of nearby establishments during their lunch hours.

Udupi Palace in Sunnyvale ( On El Camino Real near Wolfe) is a restaurant born from that tradition. It has all the usual fare offered by traditional Udupi restaurants like Idlis, Vadas and a variety of Dosas. Along with it they also offer all the regular North Indian options like Paav Bhaaji, Chhole Bhature etc. But if you do go to Udupi, I would recommend ordering traditional South Indian fare, its their area of expertise, its delicious, its healthy ( well, for the most part), so why not? If you are not watching calories, try their Rava Masala Dosa, its the best I've ever had. If I'm going to Udupi, I'm going to have Rava Masala Dosa. Period.
One thing thats free, and that you must try while at Udupi is their after dinner mouth freshener, they prepare it themselves from coconut and its amazing. I usually pickup a handful everytime I'm leaving. I would also recommend grabbing a Paan(Betelnut leaf with a garnishing of rose petal jam among other things) on your way out. It is not complementary though ($1.5 apiece), but it will be a nice way to finish your dinner.
On a typical visit we usually spend between $20-$25 for a dinner for two ( including tips and taxes).

Passage to India
I always thought of it as an Indian bakery until I actually went there to pick-up a cake. They have a cozy little dining room tucked in the corner of their shop and they do have a mouth-watering menu for lunch and dinner buffet. This is the place to be if Chaat is your piece de resistance - They serve really good chaats, and their tamarind chutney and coriander chutney is quite close to authentic. Although there are a bunch of other things in the buffet like burger, pizza, noodles, My recommendation would be to stick with Indian cuisine while you're there and you'll have plenty of them to try. If you're a vegetarian Indian like me you must be having a hard time finding eggless baked goods. If thats the case, you'll love Passage to India for their eggless pastries and cakes (although they are not part of the regular buffet).
The buffet here costs $10 in the evenings so we end up spending about $22 for the two of us here.

Low cost is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Rajjot. This is not a place to take your girlfriend on your first romantic date but if you're hungry and looking for cheap and good Indian food, Rajjot is the place to go. Their paranthas(kind of tortillas stuffed with different vegetables) are very good and I have also heard good things about their Puranpoli (again like tortillas but with a sweet stuffing of lentils). Like its peers it is also very conveniently located on El Camino Real and Wolfe. There are a lot of Indian families in the bay area which rely on Rajjot for their weekly supply of Chapatis (Indian meal staple). They make nice, big, well roasted Chapatis that will keep well for a week in the fridge. I'm not sure how much we spend on a typical visit but it has to be in the neighborhood of $15. Don't expect very good service here though, they even mix up the orders sometimes. So be sure to double check if you've ordered a takeout.

Milan Sweets
Located in Milpitas this is a vegetarian restaurant + sweets shop. The owners are from Gujarat. I think thats the reason that even the typically spicy dishes have a hint of sweet in them here. Its choice of sizzlers is hugely popular and after sampling two of them, I can see why. Those hot off the griddle dishes have found a striking balance between non-Indian foods like pasta, noodles and Indian delicacies like bhajia, kebabs and various sauces. The ultimate result is yummy. The small Kachories (Flour roundels filled with spicy lentil stuffing) is another thing that you must sample while you're there. People also love their Paneer Tikka ( Grilled Indian cheese with vegetables). While some of its snacks taste really good and are popular, it is more than what could be said of their curries and other dishes. We have ordered things like Thali (supposedly complete Indian meal, with Chapati, Dal, rice and curries) once and a few other dishes on other occasions and were disappointed with them. In my opinion, one should stick to the popular dishes while ordering at Milan. It a self service place, you have to place your order at the counter and pay up-front and they will call out your name when your order is ready. Our average bill runs up to $25 here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Whole Foods - A bright spot among cookie cutter stores

Disclaimer: This is NOT a paid review

Yesterday I had to buy some hard to find oils and other things, so we took this trip to Whole Foods. We usually don't go to Whole Foods that much becuase it is quite far from where we live and when I had last visited them I found it to be on the expensive side.

I didn't know that I was in for many pleasant surprises when I stepped in Whole Foods yesterday. Near the entrance I saw this big savings ad, apparently they had put some coupon book in the store, using which I could save some money. Being a couponaholic, I decided to get the book first. I couldn't locate it in its usual place near the entrance, so I inquired a store associate, he looked at the stand and he couldn't find it either, so he checked with the management and was told that it was at the back of the store. He told me the same, and I thought that I'll just shop first and grab the coupon book before checkout. Imagine my surprise when another WHole Foods store associate approached me while I was shopping and inquired if I was the one looking for their coupon book. When I said yes, she handed me one of the coupon books and said that she had only 3 left. Have you ever heard of a store associate actually locating the customer and handing them the store coupon book. At least I haven't.
Being a fussy vegetarian, I often find myself looking for hard to find products, in order to avoid any meat content. During this trip I had been searching for cheese which didn't have renet in it.
There were two gentlemen at their cheese shop, I reluctantly asked one of them if he could help me locate a cheese which doesn't have an animal content in it. Yeah, I phrased the question wrongly, All cheese has is animal content - it is made of milk afterall. But he guessed what I actually wanted to ask. He showed me how to find out from the label whether the cheese had any meat content (Renet) in it. He also recommended some varieties of cheese that might go well in the recipes I planned to try. I often feel intimidated by store associates and usually drop the plan to buy things instead of approaching an associate, but Whole Foods folks were really friendly.
Once I got everything I wanted we went for checkout. I was preoccupied with something else so I forgot to offer my reusable bag while the cashier was ringing up my items. When she begun to put my stuff in their paper bags, the employee next to her told her "She has a bag!" and offered to put my items in my bag. Now that was a first. I have been to stores where employees are reluctant to put things in reusable bags because it takes a few more seconds of their time. I don't know whether I should blame them, but I now try to put my things in the bag myself, so they don't have to feel that my reuable bags are extra work for them. Anyhow, it made me really happy that somebody else also cares for this.
While we were heading out my husband commented that its rare to have three good experience in a single trip to any store. I couldn't agree more with him. From now on, I'm an official Whole Foods fan :). Is it any wonder they top the list of America's healthiest grocery stores (thanks to Like Merchant Ships for the link)

My Post is in Make it From Scratch Carnival #90

Make it From Scratch Carnival # 90 has gone live and my post on DIY Passport pictures has made it. Go here to check out other interesting projects.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Novemeber Half Month Pulse Check: So far so good

I'd been expecting some big expenses this November. We had to get our car serviced and its AC repaired. We had to make some big ticket purchases ( for our home as well as gifts). Since we held off making those purchases until Black Friday and BEB didn't get a chance to research a good mechanic for our car, we haven't incurred any extra expenses yet. But I know that they are on the horizon and we'll be getting those things immediately after Thanksgiving. So November has been ok so far but I am estimating that it will turn out to be expensive than other months finally. We'll see.
Other than finances, there are a couple of changes that I have made this month, which I'm hoping will bring some zest into our life.
  • Instead of gunning for exercising everyday, now I try to exercise 6 days a week. The rest day can be any one of the days when I'm really hassled or we have something extra to do, or when I just don't feel up to it. After doing it for 2 weeks now, I find that it is much better for my sanity and now that I've officially included in the plan, I don't feel guilty about it. Really, everyday is too big a commitment.
  • I'm also trying to actively increase my stamina while exercising, this would help me to burn the same amount of calories in 6 days as I used to do in 7 days.
  • To bring back a little fun in the food, I have decided to allow myself to go a little liberal with oil and butter. Not that I'll be serving fries everyday, but once a week we can have something with a little butter on it or the vegetables that I cook can be seasoned in a little more oil to cook them well. I found that it greatly enhanced the taste of food and both of us look forward to our meals again. It had become too drab earlier, when we had tried to drastically cut-back on oil and spices.
  • In the same vein, I have decided to let go of our regular food of chapati and vegetables on weekend and replace it with some fun food. Mostly it is whatever we feel like eating, although I consciously try to control the amount of fats that go into that. I am also actively looking for long forgotten recipes, or easy to try dishes to add more variety to weekend meals.

Really, a few simple changes can make life so much better. Here's to the healthful as well as tasty November.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review: Lombok - Eastern Inspired Living

Disclaimer: This is a paid review. However, I have tried to review the site in as unbiased manner as possible.

Lombok is a UK based furniture and home furnishing company. They make high-end furniture and home accessories and sell it all over the world through their website

Their website catalogs all their furniture home and decorative items in an attractive and organized fashion. I found that they have very unique offerings in decorative items like lighting, candles, decorative bowls etc. Although I found them a bit pricey but if you want to create a certain look for your home you might find yourself willing to spend the amount. Right now they are also offering 20% discount on selected items which makes them much more affordable.

The furnishing section is also intersting. Most of their cushions, throws and other furnishings are created with high end materials like silk, velvet and taffeta and are hand embroidered. This makes them attractive as well as expensive. I didn't quit like the fact that most of the furnishings are dry clean only but I do realize that we don't need to get furnishings cleaned as much as we do our clothes so that might not be such a big expense.

The furniture available on the website has more classic designs, with simple, yet stylish structures. The company claims to have built most of its furniture from reclaimed teak planks called "dinglik", imported from Indonesia. This makes the company and its products very eco-friendly because they are recycling wood, instead of cutting live trees to make their furniture. They also mention that this recycled wood is sturdier and less likely to be ruined by moisture. Currently the website is offering buy 2 get 1 free promotion for all of their furniture. Considering the fact that the furniture is genuine teak wood and the B2G1 free offer, the price seems to be about ok.


The website will be a good resource for people who have a certain look in mind for their home furnishing and furniture and wouldn't mind spending a bit more to create that precise look. Since the raw materials used in the products are quality I would think the items would last. One good thing about the furniture and accessories are that they have a classic look about them so they won't go out of fashion soon. If you're outside Europe then you may have to consider the shipping costs too, which may be substantial. I tried doing a dummy purchase to find out how much shiping would cost me in US but the website says that I'll have to call to find out shipping charges.

Since we have bought most of our furniture used, I found the prices on the website to be a bit high for my tastes, although I caught myself drooling all over their silk cushions and the quilts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A good problem to have!!!

Recently, I ran into this puzzling issue. BEB is big on drinking water. He drinks water before he sleeps, after getting up, Before tea, after tea, while heading out, as soon as he comes back...and every 10 minutes in between.

Wow! you would say...I wish I could have this habit! so do I. Drinking plenty of water is good for health and I'm also consciously trying to cultivate that habit myself. So often, while I'm franatically fixing dinner for us, I get this "Honey! could you get me a glass of water". Now getting that glass of water would mean, leaving whatever I'm doing, washing my hands, drying them, finding a glass, filling it and handing it over to dear husband. It looks like a small thing, but when I'm already in a hurry, it used to become an annoyance.

So I had a nice problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

I would have continued with this state of affairs if I hadn't come across this deal. A pitcher and 4 glasses for $8 at Macys. Suddenly the pieces of the puzzle fell in place. Now every morning I fill the pitcher and keep it in the living room. Whenever I get a chance I refill it, while BEB drinks to his heart's content. Having a pitcher in the room even encourages me to drink more water. Isn't it an elegant solution to a nice problem!

Friday, November 7, 2008

An Idiot's Guide to DIY Passport Photos

When we got BEB's passport photos for his visa, I realized for the first time how steep the price of passport photos are in US. In India it was a no brainer - need a passport photo, go to a studio, get one clicked and for less than a dollar you will get 4-8 nice passport size photos of yourself.
But here, $16, No Kidding!!!

So this time, when I had to get my passport pictures, we decided to try doing it ourselves. I think it would be interesting to share with you my efforts and the results. If you do it the right way, you can get your passport photo for about a dollar.

The things you'll need:

1. A digital camera in which you can turn the flash on/off.
2. A computer with Windows, you should have permissions to download and install softwares on it.
3. A pen drive to take your edited pictures for printing. Other media will also do.

For my pictures we went to my office and used the white-board there as a background for clicking the pictures. Since the room was well lit, we clicked pictures with flash switched off.
Next we came home and downloaded the pictures from camera to our laptop.
To edit the pictures we looked at paint, picasa etc. but they didn't suit our purpose. So we downloaded gimp to edit the pictures.
After downloading and installing GIMP, we opened my pictures in it and selected the one we found most suitable to turn into my passport picture. Then we looked up the required dimensions for the passport picture. In our type of visa it was 3.5 cm X 4.5cm.
Now that we had everything ready, we wanted to get the picture in precise dimensions. The trick is to shrink the picture to the required size without changing its resolution. Lesser resolution will result in grainy pictures. This was probably the most difficult part of the whole project, because we didn't know what options were available and what the final effect will be, unfamiliarity with GIMP also contributed to spending more time than what was required. But you don't need to worry because I'm documenting the precise steps to follow in GIMP, to get perfectly sized passport pictures.

Step 1: Cropping the picture to select the right area to be printed.

If the picture that you have taken has more background than a passport picture would need you will be required to crop it. Cropping the picture is also required to get it into the required ratio. 3.5 : 4.5 in this case.
From the GIMP toolbar select Rectangle selection tool. Below the toolbox, there's an option "Fixed [aspect ratio]" put 3.5:4.5 here. Now use this tool to select the portion of the picture you want to use. When you're incrementing the cursor to fit the picture portion of your choice look at the bottom of the picture window. It will show you the pixel size of the frame, in my case it is 604X777. Note it down. Use Ctrl+X to cut the required picture.

Step 2: Saving the picture in proper ratio and resolution
Use File->New to open a new image file. Before opening Gimp will ask the size of the file. Use the number you noted down earlier (808X766). Ctrl+V to paste the image you'd cut earlier in step 1.

Step 3: Scaling down the picture, while keeping the resolution intact
Use Image -> Scale Image. In the dialog box first choose the metric as milimeter and then specify the picture's true size in mm. First specify width 35, hit Return key, the height should automatically be adjusted to 45, or else you haven't done the first 2 steps properly.
Now save this picture. Check Image -> properties, its resolution should be the same as original image. Lets call this Image1.

Step 4: Making a standard print size picture(4X6 inches) with the true size image
Open File->New. In the File size dialog box, Now select the unit in inches (width =6, height = 4 ). Now Ctrl-C on the true size image that you'd saved in step 3 (Image1) and paste (Ctrl-V) it in this new file, lets call it Image2. Once you have the image in Image2, drag it to the top left corner. Now again press Ctrl-V, and you will have another Image1 on top of first one, drag it and arrange close to the first one. Repeat this until the whole image is tiled with the pictures from Image1. Save it in jpg format. Gimp will ask you the permission to export it. Say yes!

Voila! you have a 4X6inches image with 8 passport pictures on it. Copy it into the pen drive and take it to your nearest print shop. Select the picture size as 4X6 and print out 8 nice passport pictures in half a dollar.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Random events of this October

  • We celebrated Karva Chauth. In this Indian festival married women fast through the day until moonrise. This fasting is for the longevity of their husbands. We also celebrated Diwali, although I doubt BEB enjoyed it a lot ( he's swamped with work in his office and finding it hard to take interest in anything thats not work)

  • We skipped the gym for 3 days in a row, and I almost burst into tears when I stepped on the weighing scale afterward. My sulking stopped when the weight returned to normal 2 days later. I have skipped gym for 2 days again...gosh! how I dread that scale :(

  • Me and BEB both were almost buried under work at our respective offices, we just somehow managed to get through the week...and I had a big presentation this week. It went fine and I got lots of appreciation *smug look*

  • I have learned to whip up meals almost out of thin air this past week. Even I'm surprised at how efficient I have become.

  • I had earlier talked about how we'd stopped coming home for tea from work. Ok, we couldn't keep up the resolve and its back to twice a day for us and I dont see it stopping anytime soon. To add insult to the injury, we have also begun to have our lunch at home :-/ Actually, it is working out quite nicely, we come home for lunch, and before we sit down for our meal I place tea on the stove on low flame. Tea is ready by the time we finish our lunch, and then we can have it before leaving for work again. Goodbye drowsy afternoons! Goodbye lunch box cleaning. My dish cleaning time is half now, I spend no time in packing lunches in the morning and I don't feel guilty leaving the office in the afternoon. It IS lunch time after all!

  • I think I have finally found my groove with coupons and mail-in-rebates and freebies. I have finally found a right system to manage all the pending mail-in-rebates and now have taken to carrying forward last months rebates to the next month. Its not perfect yet, but I am finding it much easy to manage all the chaos that occurs from having 100s of coupons, multiple stores to match them with and multiple months of sales. Now if only I could find a way to get my hand on the 'on sale' items before they fly off the shelves...

  • October gifted us with a big bouquet!!! Don't believe me? See for yourself.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

October budget report: Do you want to cut your expenses by one third

No really! Do you want to do that?
First let me ask you some questions. Do you have any kids? No? Good. Are both husband and wife working? Yes? Good. then this technique is suitable for you.
When you reach your office tomorrow, see your boss the first thing ( I know how this ruins your day, but is this day more important than your one-third budget?) and when you see him/her tell her how well do you like your current job-profile ( doesn't matter that you don't, in fact the more you dislike it, the better, just don't tell it to the boss). Then ask him if you can have some more of it...the work. At this point your boss may become suspicious about your ulterior motives...salary hike, replacing him, promotion etc. gently alleviate his fears. Just explain that you currently have a lot of free time on your hands and you'd like to get some work done in it. Hopefully this will result in your being swamped with work.
Once you have it try and get into a position where you have some impossible to meet deadlines. That's it! Believe me, these simple steps will lead to a healthy bottom-line.
No more time for grocery shopping - no expense on food, no time for meandering into that mall and spending money on fashionable clothes, after-all you'd be sweating it out in the office on weekends you will barely manage to keep up with the laundry. While you would be busy analyzing that data, you wouldn't even realize that the new batman movie has just released in the movie theaters. You get my drift...
Well, this is the long and short of what happened to us this month...except for asking for work. We booked our tickets to Europe in the beginning of this month and after this ~2000$ expense it seemed that our monthly budget with shoot up to an all time high this October, but then we started getting busier, and busier. Since we had no time left after work, we didn't go shopping, and didn't spend money. So apart from those tickets, which have to come from our separate travel budget, we had finished this month considerably lower than our targeted budget. Although this could be a cause for celebration, I'm not really happy. I guess, our time is as important as our money, sacrificing one may result in saving the other but I don't want to go down that road. I'd rather hover around our targeted budget and have some more time to myself and hubby. Hopefully November would be more balanced!
Our savings had increased a bit this month. Now we have about 96.66% of our 10% down payment. While we are still far from actually buying a house, it feels kind of nice to have money for it. I want to pull that number up to 20%, so that we can escape the mortgage insurance and also be more in control of our mortgage time of course.

Review - MoveMe - Renting or Buying, Reconnect your life

Disclaimer: This is a paid review. However, I have tried to review the site in as unbiased manner as possible.

MoveMe is a site that provides users move related services and tools. The first thing that I noticed about the site was its neat interface and intuitive presentation. They claim to take the stress out of moving. While my experience says that it may not be entirely possible, I'll hand it to Move me that it offers a lot of nifty tools and services that can relieve you of a lot of move related worries.

The first thing that I found instantly appealing is their move planner. Using it, you can create a step by step list of activities leading up to your day of move. I've a thing for lists so maybe I'm just being too happy, but they have a really neat list of "to do" things that we need while planning a move, like informing our banks and other institutions about our new address.

The web-site has been made to become a one stop shop of all move related needs and it seemed pretty comprehensive. It has lot of resources depending upon your particular situation (e.g. buying, selling or renting, moving with children etc). I felt that the checklists provided and the suggestions given can be a good starting point for anybody considering a move in the near future.

MoveMe has a big section of referrals for various services and move related products. Since the advertisements are practically absent ( there are some but they are not prominent), I guess the website earns some referral bonus for its recommendations. You can request quotes for practically everything that you would need during a move - Movers, Removal quotes, Insurance etc. They even offer financial ( mortgage quotes, credit report etc), legal services for people who're considering buying/selling houses. You can request free mortgage quotes, Home Survey etc here.

I haven't tried getting quotes for any services because I don't need any right now but they have categorized the services nicely. I remember that when we had moved last time I had a hard time getting quotes from movers. I had posted an ad for moving help on craigslist and all the calls I got were by big movers whose minimum was too high for me. At that time we had very little stuff and all we needed was a mover with a truck who would haul our stuff to our new place. Move me has a special "Man and Van" section for such needs.

It is a relatively new site and it shows in its interface, some of its input forms show errors when there are none, but I'm sure they will be able to remedy that with time. The site has advertisements on its homepage but I found them unobtrusive. MoveMe has also been awarded Yahoo! People's choice award and Yahoo! Innovation award for the year 2007.

To summarize, here are the things that I really liked abut the website:

  • Easy to navigate interface
  • Comprehensive resources and nifty tools
  • Unobtrusive advertisements

Few things that I didn't like/don't know about:
  • The input form had an error on it.
  • Don't have an idea about the client base that it has. It is fairly new so its possible that it doesn't have as many vendors in its database, although I didn't request for quotes so I can't comment on that.
  • Doesn't have a special section for students moving to dorms. I strongly feel that this particular group of users needs to be targeted with a special section tailored to their needs.
All in all, MoveMe is a resource worth checking out if you're planning a move of any kind in the near future. It even offers a free moving box as a promotion.