Tuesday, December 21, 2010

First Impressions: Cashback/Deal Sites Envaulted and Offermatic

How would you like to get an additional 1% cash back on all your credit card purchases without having to do any differently?  How about getting targeted offers from retailers you already frequent for things like $5 cash back for spending $50 at Trader Joe's?  If these sound intriguing to you two new services you might want to check out are Envaulted and Offermatic.

First, a couple of introductory pieces to familiarize yourself with these services.  Yesterday, TechCrunch called Envaulted A Cashback Program on Steroids. In a nutshell they give you 1% cash back on all your credit card purchases above and beyond what you're already receiving from your credit card company.  Offermatic is somewhat similar in that they offer rewards but they also offer Groupon-like deals targeted depending on your spending patterns.  Check out this blog post on How Mint.com, Groupon, and a burrito led to the founding of Offermatic.

Sound too good to be true?

Well, all of these sites depend on your providing them with the login information for your credit card so the first concern we'll all rightfully raise is privacy.  But I think a lot of people will get past that quickly.  Here's why...

A lot of people have already signed up for services like upromise or mint.com that allow third parties access to their credit card data.  Once you're comfortable with one service gaining access to your spending patterns it's not too difficult to justify another - especially when the value proposition of the service is so compelling.

And for me the services are compelling for the way they promise to effortlessly reward you for using the service -and/or- provide truly meaningfully targeted offers that are easy to sift through, consider, and make use of.  I've been using upromise for about 5 years now and I've netted over $2,200.  Not too shabby, but most of it came from large transactions initiated through their site.  Things like mortgage refinancing yielded large one-time payments that took considerable chasing on my part to see to closure.

The primary advantage services like Offermatic and Envaulted offer over some others is the ease with which we interact with them.  To take advantage of one of Offermatic's deals you only need to click "redeem".  If you spend your money at that merchant in the future your credit card will automatically be credited.  Envaulted is even more straightforward.  1% cash back on all purchases with higher percentages offered for certain retailers.

I signed up for both last night and I was impressed with how easily it all went.  In just a few minutes I signed up for both services, linked my three credit cards, they looked at my purchase history and offered deals and credited my account based on some amount of spending prior to enrolling in the service.

This stuff might not seem like a big deal (no pun intended) but it kind of is a big deal.  If avoiding recurring charges is a fundamental tenet of personal financial success then putting yourself in situations where you stand to effortlessly receive a stream of payments is just the opposite.  The only risk, then, is that you have the discipline to avoid offers you otherwise wouldn't take advantage of.

Offermatic has a deal where you can get points for referring friends.  Here's my unique link code if you're interested in signing up:


Further Reading: Upromise is a somewhat-similar service that's been around for a while that helps you save for college.

Have you signed up for either of these services?  How's it going for you?  Any questions on how it's going for me so far?  Any other similar services like this I should consider?  Leave a comment or drop me an E-mail: robert.paul.dwyer@gmail.com

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Still Looking for the Perfect Holiday Window Candles

As we were decorating the house for Christmas this year, I found 2 sets of holiday window candles that we weren't using anymore and set out on a quest to find a better solution.  You know - the single little lights in each window that look like candles that either plug-in or are battery powered?

Our first set plugged in (by the way all of the photos here are of the set we got this year from Home Depot).  This was good because I didn't need to replace batteries but bad because each window needed to be close to an outlet.  It looked a little messy inside with a cord running from the candle to the outlet.  Further, the kids often pulled on the cords and the candles fell off the window sill.  This was especially problematic because the bulb was glass and would shatter.

The next set seemed ideal because it was battery powered.  They looked great...for 2 days until the batteries wore out.  Their little incandescent light bulbs gobbled through batteries so I started going around and turning them on and off each night and investigating rechargeable battery solutions.  Their clumsy on/off mechanism whereby you'd screw the and unscrew the base to make a connection between the battery terminals and conductor inside the plastic candlestick combined with the alarming warning that they contained lead and should be kept away from children sealed the deal for these.  They lasted a year and didn't make it back into rotation.

This year I did some searching around online and was pleased to discover some very promising options including these from the Home Depot.  $14.98 a 6-pack!  They weren't available online but in store I found some for $6.98 a 2-pack.  I bought 6 and gave them a go.

At 9", I think they're the perfect height.  They've got plastic bulbs so no more shatter concerns.  I loved their simple on/off solution: The first time you turn them on establishes the start time for each day.  Then they stay lit for 5 hours and turn off.  The next day they come on at the same time as they did when you first turned them on.  This solution seemed even better to me than a light-sensitive approach -and- it promised to easily extend battery life.  They're LED-based too so even if you keep them on 24 hours a day they'll last a *lot* longer than incandescent bulbs.

How do I know they last a lot longer?  Well, one of the candles stays on all the time and it hasn't chewed through a set of batteries in a week.  Another one of the candles got mangled by our 3 year old the first night we had it in his room.  And a couple others are very "touchy" - if you don't attach the base just right it either doesn't come on or it doesn't turn off.  The candles are pretty low quality really - which is fine.  But every time I go back to Home Depot to buy more they're out of them.

They definitely look like faux candles as opposed to white Christmas lights.  They flicker.  That's cool I guess but I wouldn't mind a more "bright white" solution rather than the yellow-orange look these lights go for.  That said I'd definitely buy more of these Home Depot candles but I can't seem to find them online or in-store.

The perfect holiday window candle:
  • Turns on and off automatically each night
  • Doesn't need to be plugged in
  • Lasts an entire month without needing to replace the batteries
  • Shines bright
  • Shines white rather than orange
  • Durable enough to withstand a 3-foot drop onto a hard surface
  • Has a simple but reliable on/off mechanism
  • Cost less than $5 per candle (or even less if bought in bulk)
  • Available on Amazon with Free Super-Saver Shipping
With all of this talk about Groupon being acquired by Google (or not) for $6B I think there's a play for location-based group buying for things like this.  A 2-pack was $3.50 per candle.  A 6-pack $2.50 a candle.  How much would a 100-pack be if we got 10 families together and each bought 10?  Less than $1 a candle probably.

Have you found the perfect Holiday Window Candles?  I'd love to hear where you found them.

Friday, November 26, 2010

And the best dish of the night goes to...

The last thing you probably want to think about right now is making your favorite Thanksgiving recipes again.  But I feel the need to conclude our meal with some lessons learned.  I make a lot of the same dishes from year to year so I try to incrementally make them and the overall celebration better every year.

Yesterday I tried one new recipe; something that used an old favorite of my husband's (corn) but in a more interesting way.  I made corn pudding from a recipe I found online.  It was fine but nothing special enough to repeat.  Do you have a corn recipe you love?  Please drop me a line in the comments.

The best side dish of the night award goes to the Sweet Potato Souffle.  Don't let the name "souffle" intimidate you.  This recipe was one my mother picked up over the years and she passed it along to me.  There's nothing complicated about it and when made right, it's heavenly.

I've made it the last 3 years in a row and it didn't turn out right.  I thought it was because I always cooked the souffle at my turkey cooking temperature of 325 but that wasn't the problem.  At long last this year I finally got it right and it was worth the wait.  I attribute my mishaps the last few years to being too insistent that I could make an organic version of my mom's version.  Given the canned sweet potato options at my disposal, that was just not possible.   As soon as I reverted to using the conventional ingredients, it magically worked out exactly as it should.

Sweet Potato Souffle

1 50 oz. can Princella sweet potatoes, drained
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
6 tablespoons butter, softened
Beat together until smooth.  Pour into a souffle dish and bake for 1 hour in a 350 degree oven (I cook my turkey at 325 but for that hour I crank it up to 350.  Try to minimize your turkey basting and temperature fluctuations from opening the oven door for that hour.  The souffle needs to be left still at a constant heat in order to set up.) 

For the topping:
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 chopped pecans
1 cup corn flakes, crushed
Melt butter and brown sugar and pour over the potatoes.
Sprinkle nuts and cornflakes on top and bake an additional 30 minutes.

There are a couple of other takeaways from the meal.  Next year I'll remember to send out the tablecloth to be steam pressed.  The only tool that my well equipped kitchen still needs is a carving knife so I will certainly buy one of those before next year's meal.  And of course, we will once again welcome family and friends to join us for laughs and conversation that make the food secondary.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Windows vs. Mac: A Long Term Review of the 21.5" iMac

Around this time every year I seem to be thinking about buying a new computer.  For us, for a family member, or just generally kicking around the state of the personal computer industry and what makes sense for consumer purchases.  On one hand, most people are familiar with Microsoft's Windows operating system.  On the other hand, people are having positive experiences with their iPhones and other Apple devices and they're wondering: Is the grass greener on the other side?  In my experience it depends.  But our experience as a family with a 21.5" iMac for the past year has been almost uniformly positive and I do recommend it as a family computing solution.

The first thing that always drives me to consider a Mac is the simple and understandable manner in which they market their products.  Each of their computers has a unique use model it's intended for, and once you decide which of their products you want they make it very easy to decide which specific model to get.  Contrast this with the shopping experience at Dell.com which seems to get more complicated every time I look and it makes buying a Mac a pleasure.

Consider the convenience of being able to get your computer serviced at nearby Apple Store locations.  You can check wait times and set appointments online so you don't waste time waiting in line.  The few times I've had products in for service they've either resolved the issue or replaced it on the spot.  Even in situations where the device was significantly out of warranty.  Macs may be a little more expensive than comparably equipped PCs but service like this makes it worth it.

You've got to be careful when you wade into a conversation like this because for many it's nearly a religious debate.  Have a problem with a Mac?  You must be doing something wrong.  Have a problem with a PC?  You should be using a Mac instead.  The smug somewhat-insecure confidence some Mac users exude is interesting to contrast on the mobile side of things.  It feels to me like iPhone users have the quiet confidence PC users have: They're perfectly happy with the technology and they don't feel the need to argue about it.

Every Situation is Unique

When deciding whether you're ready to take the leap from PC to Mac I think you should take stock of the programs you run on the machine on a daily basis.  For me that was FireFox, an E-mail client, and TweetDeck.  There has been some movement in this area in the past few years that make PC vs. Mac less relevant than it was in the past.

First, E-mail services have increasingly adopted free open standards like IMAP (Google's Gmail provides free IMAP access) and Apple products have increasingly supported Microsoft Exchange.  Checking E-mail web-based or not has become easier.

Second, more applications have become web-based - like Facebook.  There's no Facebook client for Windows or PC so interacting with Facebook is exactly the same experience on a Mac as it is on a PC.  Further, programs like TweetDeck are written on Adobe Air so there's no lag between when new releases are available on Mac as they are on PC.  These are changes in the last few years that make Macs a lot more like PCs.

Third, Microsoft Office documents have become less ubiquitous - perhaps because different versions of Office seem to have trouble interacting with each other.  That said they do make Office for Mac, and it's nice to have on occasion.  On our first Mac we never bought it, but it does comes in handy.  For personal use you can buy it for around $99 off Amazon: Microsoft Office for Mac Home and Student 2011 - Single License. Also, you may also want to check whether your employer has a Microsoft Home Use Program deal which could save you quite a bit.

Fourth, I don't use the digital camera software that comes with cameras any more.  On the PC I use Picasa to import and on the Mac I use iPhoto to import.  On either you just stick the SD card into the computer and that's it.  Therefore, there's no worrying about the Mac version of the camera software being inferior to the PC - because you probably won't use it anyway. 

A word about mobile devices, from two different perspectives...

With mobile devices everyone expects to be able to check on the things they care about from whatever kind of device they want to.  This too has made Macs better equipped to interact with other systems - or maybe I as a user has become more adept at connecting our Mac to things I want to connect it to.  For example - on our previous Mac I checked all of our E-mail via web pages.  But when I saw how easy it was to connect my iPhone to all of the E-mail inboxes I want to keep up to date on I realized how easy it was to check E-mail with the free Mac Mail application.

Another angle to consider mobile devices is in terms of how important it is to you that your family computer be a laptop?  You get a lot more computing horsepower for the dollar if you buy a desktop computer.  That's a true statement in the PC world and in the Mac world.  The cheapest iMac is meaningfully more powerfully equipped than the cheapest MacBook so if you're going to have your computer sitting in the same spot most of the time an iMac is probably a better call than a MacBook. 

The Dreaded Flash Issue

iPhones and iPads notoriously do not run Flash based videos and games.  These applications run on the Mac but they've been a weak spot in my experience.  On some of the entry-level Mac laptops, Flash applications run a little slowly compared to iMacs.  To see the difference in performance go to your local Apple store and try playing this web-based gam on it.  Notice whether the car speeds along without any lag or not.  The first thing you'll notice when you try to play it on a Mac is that it won't work because you need to install an Adobe Shockwave plug-in.  You'll need to get someone at the Apple store to log in with the administrative password to install Shockwave, and you'll need to restart FireFox after installing Shockwave.  But if you can get through that you'll notice the game is speedy on the iMac and not so speedy on the MacBook Air or even the 13" MacBook Pro.  And we all know computers tend to get slower as they get older so that's not a good place to start.

Maybe you or your kids don't play many Flash-based games on the machine.  But inevitably you'll encounter some errors where certain web pages don't render correctly in certain web browsers.  This is absolutely no different than it is on a PC and in some cases it's worse because the plug-in hasn't been coded for a Mac yet.  When this happens you're "stuck" for longer on a Mac than a PC because the user base isn't as large:
Strengths and Weaknesses

But instances like this are somewhat rare.  The Mac operating system, and the iMac specifically have their strengths:
  • The aesthetics of the all-in-one design feels two generations ahead of competing products from PC manufacturers.
  • No wires.  I finished setting up our new iMac Christmas morning in less than 10 minutes including unboxing, positioning, booting, establishing an Internet connection, and registering the machine.  The only wire to connect is to power.  Everything else is wireless including the keyboard, mouse, and Internet connection.  The Internet connection is 802.11n so it has a strong signal from far reaches of the house whereas prior generations of wireless connections tended to be too flaky to rely on going wireless long-term.
  • The machine multi-tasks brilliantly.  Our entry-level $1,199 regularly has 3 users logged in with multiple applications open under each user and dozens of tabs open in each web browser.  Our old iBook didn't tolerate this very well even with maxed out RAM.  The iMac handles this brilliantly.
  • Reliably goes to sleep and wakes up non-groggy.  I wish I could say the same for my PC (or our kids for that matter).  We rarely reboot our iMac and it beautifully and reliably switches between users and goes to sleep.
Overall cons of the iMac and of Macs in general:
  • I occasionally feel like the computer is trying to be too smart for its own good.  Say for example you receive a photo as an attachment to an E-mail you're viewing in web-based mail.  And say that E-mail is rotated 90 degrees.  How do you reliably repair that rotation issue so that you can post that image in a blog entry?  When you preview it you see a different rotation than if you save it to disk and view it in iPhoto.  And where does your web browser put stuff when you "save" something?  It frequently feels like things are a bit unnatural in this area.  I'd probably get the hang of it if I spent the majority of my time on the machine but if I get confused with it I have a feeling others would be downright confounded by it so I think it's worth mentioning.
  • The wireless keyboard and mouse are slick.  But they sometimes go off in the weeds and fail to communicate with the computer.  I don't know of any ways to "goose" the mouse to get it to reconnect with the machine but I wish I did because it occasionally forces a reboot especially when the kids have dropped it on the hardwood floor and the batteries have come flying out.

In general, I think the Mac OS is better suited to a desktop computer with a large amount of usable desktop resolution than it is to a laptop.  I say that because one of the first things you'll notice about a Mac coming from the PC world is that there's no "maximize" button on windows.  The OS is set up to have a kind of drag and drop world where you interact between multiple applications rather that "right-click copy"/"right-click paste" or "click and hit the delete key".  I mention this as a reason why I've been happier with Mac OS on the iMac desktop than on the iBook desktop.

Buy one on Amazon:

Last year we bought our iMac online on Black Friday.  They're running the same promotion this year.  Check it out here.

What do you think?  Is it time to switch to a Mac?  Or are they quirky, over-priced, and not worth it?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Margaritas Offers Sit Down Family Friendly Mexican Food to the Boston Area

I was pumped when I heard Margaritas would be opening in Framingham. Finally - a high quality family-friendly sit down, chips & salsa, and Corona beer kind of Mexican restaurant in the western suburbs of Boston!  Although there are a fair number of burrito joints around, and seemingly a surge of viable fish tacos outlets, there still aren't enough good, clean Mexican restaurants in the area.  We had a chance to visit the recently opened Margaritas location in Framingham and I'm pleased to report the restaurant delivers the goods.

The first thing I noticed as we arrived shortly after 11am on a Sunday (our typical routine for scouting out area Mexican restaurants with our kids) was how substantially they renovated the exterior.  It looks like a brand new restaurant and there's not the slightest remaining hint that this location was once a quirky Cuban seafood restaurant.  The tile roof, Mexican tile artwork, and wooden accents had me thinking I was in another part of the country where Mexican restaurants are more common:
We were greeted at the door and promptly seated by a friendly host and hostess.  The restaurant was empty when we arrived yet nearly full when we left.  The bar area looks festive - definitely a good spot to hit for happy hour or after a long day battling nearby Shopper's World.
But we were with the kiddies, as were most of the other people at the restaurant.  The only remaining visual clue I noted from the former inhabitant was the unique arching walls that separated the dining room from the bar.  They've been covered up with faux brick and Mexican tile, and the first impression is impressive.  It's clear they've put some money into the build out of this location which I was told is the largest of their 22 locations in New England.  I've got to think renovating a building to achieve this aesthetic takes work in New England.  A lot of the materials have to be imported, but I think the effort is worth it as it makes the dining experience more immersive and memorable.
I thought there were a lot of employees roaming around the restaurant and a number of them had "Training Team" embroidered on their shirts.  They opened less than a week ago.  One of the managers who stopped by during our visit was in town to help get the location off the ground.  As a restaurant group they're clearly at the point where they're getting this down to a system.  As a point of comparisons to other regional chains there are more than twice as many Margarita's locations as Piccadilly Pub restaurants at this point, and there are over one hundred 99 Restaurants.

Our friendly waitress - perhaps new on the job - greeted us and took our drink order.  Though they have an extensive bar menu, plentiful amounts of the aforementioned Corona beer, and margaritas the restaurant is named for, we opted for tap water.  The kids menu includes a soft drink and dessert for just $4.99.  There was some ambiguity whether kids beverages other than soft drinks were included in the kids meals (they got chocolate milk and lemonade) so we asked and our waitress said there'd be no additional charge.  We got their orders going right away while we perused the menu.

I know the suspense must be killing you so let's get right to a review of the all-important chips and salsa.  In my opinion they were good, but not great.  The chips were light and warm but could have been a little fresher.  I sensed a slight staleness that made me wonder whether they may have been around for a while.  The salsa was good/very good.  I liked the consistency but sensed a little more vinegar than I'd like.  I mentioned this to the manager who stopped by to chat and he said there wasn't any vinegar in their salsa.  He said it was probably the diced cherry peppers I was picking up on - an interesting inclusion.  Pro Tip: The salsa was quite spicy and if you like salsa more on the mild side ask for the Salsa Fresca.  I understand it's milder and a little drier in consistency.

The menu (click HERE to see their various menus on their website) offers a mix of traditional Mexican dishes and some items and ingredients you won't find in most Mexican restaurants like buffalo chicken, french fries, and burgers.  I didn't mind seeing these options on the menu because they had my favorites like Burritos, Chimichangas and Chile Rellenos.

One thing I wasn't fond of at other Margaritas locations in the past was the lack of a lunch menu.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this location offers lunch specials until 3 pm! (Their website lists this "all new lunch menu" as being only available at their Lexington location as of this writing).  I like to see chimichangas and burritos with rice and beans in the $7.95 to $9.95 range, however I couldn't find quite what I was looking for on the lunch menu and ended up ordering my benchmark favorite Chicken Chimichanga for $13.29:

The Chimichanga delivered in a big way.  The key thing I'm looking for is that the outside of the tortilla be just a little crispy but it needs to be soft and moist on the inside.  I'm also looking for the Chimichanga to retain its roundness (like a cylinder) rather than being flattened out (like a rectangle) as it unfortunately sometimes does at some restaurants.  They cover theirs with red enchilada sauce and melted cheese and include sour cream and guacamole at no extra charge.  They absolutely nailed it.  Best Chimichanga I've had in New England by a mile.  The accompanying rice, beans and lettuce rounded out the offering and made it a value even at $13.29.  Very well done.

Deanna got a Baja Shrimp Grilled Burrito for $8.99.  It was a pressed burrito sort of affair, and she chose the Mexican Slaw as her side.  She enjoyed it but thought it was a little spicy:

The kids seemed to enjoy their meals, devouring the Kids' Chicken Quesadilla (the chicken triggering a $1.49 upcharge) and to a lesser extent, the Kids' Fajitas.  The ice cream treat was above average and included a generous helping of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, M&Ms and a cone in a cup.  Strange how they're always hungry for that kind of stuff.

Total for 2 adults and 2 kids with tip: $42.12.  Not bad for a sit down restaurant.

We enjoyed our meal at Margaritas and we'll definitely be back.  The clean, upbeat, family-friendly atmosphere, superb entrees, and convenient location make it an ideal spot to grab a bite to eat.

Highly Recommended: 4/5 Stars

Further Reading: The Best Mexican Restaurants Near Boston

Check 'em Out:
725 Cochituate Rd (near Home Depot where Naked Fish used to be)
Framingham, MA
22 locations in New England

Have you been to Margaritas?  If so what did you think?  If not, what are some of your favorite sit-down chips & salsa restaurants in the Boston area?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Restaurant Review: Ty's Pies Delivery

They estimated 35-45 minutes, but took about an hour for two soggy pizzas from Ty's Pies to arrive Friday night.  The box says they make their dough and sauce fresh every day but somehow the puffy crusted result was reminiscent of Domino's.

We ordered two large pizzas - a Veggie and a Hawaiian.  The total with tip was in the mid-$30s.  The toppings on the Veggie were dominated by large stalks of broccoli.  I thought the Hawaiian lacked flavor and the pineapple chunks were too big.  I didn't think either pizza was very good.

I don't think we'll order from Ty's Pies again.  The pizza wasn't very good for my tastes, it took longer than I'd like, and I thought it was a little pricey.

Not recommended: 2/5 Stars

Further Reading: Why is the CPK in Wellesley Struggling?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Not Your Typical Pilgrim's Thanksgiving

For many, Thanksgiving means pulling out the traditional all-American food favorites.  In my house though, meals often have a little Italian spice to them (not unlike the person who prepares them.)  Before the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and other sides, I love to offer my guests a "taste of the pasta."  A primi piatti sets the tone for what's truly American: taking the cultures we came from and meshing them with this wonderful and rich melting pot we live in.  And so, I offer you my recipe for Butternut Squash Lasagna.  This recipe was adapted from a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis so don't confuse it with an authentic recipe from Grandma.  I lightened up Giada's version and substituted whole wheat lasagna to make it a bit healthier.  It may be labor intensive, but I promise this dish won't disappoint you or your guests.  And, leftover lasagna will make the day after Thanksgiving a little bit easier.  

1 tablespoon olive oil 
1 (1 1/2 to 2-pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper 
1/2 cup water

3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups lowfat milk
Pinch nutmeg
3/4 cup (lightly packed) fresh basil leaves
12 cooked whole wheat lasagna noodles
2 1/2 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Heat the oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the squash and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour the water into the skillet and then cover and simmer over medium heat until the squash is tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly and then transfer the squash to a food processor. Season the squash puree, to taste, with more salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Melt the butter in a heavy medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the nutmeg. Cool slightly. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender*. Add the basil and blend until smooth. Return the basil sauce to the sauce in the pan and stir to blend. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, to taste.

Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F.
Lightly butter a 13 by 9 by 2-inch glass baking dish. Spread 3/4 cup of the sauce over the prepared baking dish. Arrange 3 lasagna noodles on the bottom of the pan. Spread 1/3 of the squash puree over the noodles. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese. Drizzle 1/2 cup of sauce over the noodles. Repeat layering 3 more times.

Tightly cover the baking dish with foil and bake the lasagna for 40 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses over the lasagna. Continue baking uncovered until the sauce bubbles and the top is golden, 15 minutes longer. Let the lasagna stand for 15 minutes before serving.

*When blending hot liquids: Remove liquid from the heat and allow it to cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer liquid to a blender or food processor and fill it no more than halfway. If using a blender, release one corner of the lid. This prevents the vacuum effect that creates heat explosions. Place a towel over the top of the machine, pulse a few times then process on high speed until smooth.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tradition in the Kitchen

All year round I work hard to feed my family healthy, nutritious meals.  Around the holidays I relax the rules and pull out all the family favorites.  This year my younger sister won't be spending Thanksgiving with us so she's visiting for Veteran's Day weekend instead.  It was the perfect opportunity to make an early batch of her Thanksgiving favorite.  It's a baked bar recipe that is both sweet and tart and makes a wonderful accompaniment to a cup of coffee any time of day.  I'm not a baker but even I can whip these delicious bites up so they're a winner every time.  And, if all the butter in them starts to get me down, I think about all the antioxidants in those locally grown cranberries!

Cranberry Squares
In a bowl mix and spread on the bottom of a 13x9 baking pan:
2 cups of whole cranberries (wash and drain them but allow them to be a little bit wet so the sugar sticks to them)
½ cup of sugar
½ cup of nuts (walnuts, whatever you have)  If you want to make the version my sister likes, you better leave the nuts out.

In another bowl mix:
1 ½ cups of melted and cooled butter (yes, that’s right, 3 whole sticks)
2 cups of flour
2 cups of sugar
4 beaten eggs
1 teaspoon of vanilla

Mix above ingredients and spread on top of the cranberries.  Bake at 325-350 degrees for 1 hour.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten

I don’t have a whole lot of parenting advice to give out.   In fact, I’ll be the first to tell you I have a lot to learn.   I’m not one of those parents who reads parenting books or attends parenting workshops.  In fact, I subscribe to the shoot from the hip school of parenting more than I’d like to admit.  And that lecture I attended with a friend a couple of weeks ago?  I felt like the dog ate my homework.

What I do know is that at this Kindergarten stage of the game, I’m more concerned with Sam learning kindness and fairness than math or science.  For now, I’m focused on the basics at home and I’m reassured when I find out he’s learning some of the basics at school too.

Last week, I happened to overhear Sam tell someone how he’d filled a bucket that day.  I figured he was talking about the sandbox until his teacher emailed parents about a book she was reading to the class called Have You Filled a Bucket Today?  Curiosity peaked, I read it for myself and did a bit more research and found out about my new favorite children’s book for the holiday season.

The premise is simple; everyone in the world carries an invisible bucket.  The purpose of the bucket is to hold your good thoughts and feelings about yourself.  Other people can fill your bucket and others need you to fill theirs.  You fill a bucket when you show love to someone, when you say or do something kind or when you give someone a smile.  A bucket dipper says or does mean things that make others feel bad.

I think bucket filling is the perfect mnemonic.  Get into a discussion about how your Kindergartener was insensitive or unkind and you’re on the road to him zoning out.  (I tell you this from experience.)  Offer a quick reminder about how taking a toy from a friend is bucket dipping and suddenly he understands.  Turning an abstract concept into something visual and understandable is the name of the game.     

Maybe kids wouldn’t be suffering from the lasting impact of bullying if there were more effective means to teach these valuable concepts.  So simple– but one that adults and children alike can benefit from.  Add this one to your Christmas list.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Review: El Pelon Taqueria in Brighton

Since our recent visit to Dorado Tacos in Brookline and subsequent write-up on the best Mexican restaurants near Boston, we received a lot of great suggestions for other places to check out.  Two that we hadn't yet been to: Ken Oringer's La Verdad near Fenway Park and El Pelon near Boston College.  This weekend we tried out El Pelon.  Did it deliver?  For me, yes it delivered but I can't recommend it fully without some hesitation.

It's hard to say which specific sub-category of Mexican food El Pelon belongs to.  It's definitely a take-out restaurant with relatively limited seating.  It's not just a burrito bar- they also serve quesadillas, enchiladas, and tacos.  But I wouldn't quite call them full-service mexican take-out since they lack the depth of menu and complimentary pairing of rice and beans commonly seen in the genre.  They do offer fish tacos, but the emphasis is weighted 60/40 burritos to fish tacos.  Overall, a good assortment of items with an appealing menu.

I was torn between ordering the fish tacos and the El Guapo burrito @BostonTweet recommended on FourSquare.  Actually, I was confused whether he was saying that former Red Sox great Rich Garces AKA "El Guapo" owned El Pelon -or- frequented the place -or- recommending the El Guapo burrito so I just got bailed on the whole thing and got the chicken burrito.

There isn't a kids menu so we ordered them some tacos.  Tacos appear at two places on the menu- simply as "Tacos" where they're available for between $2.50-$2.75 per taco with chicken, pork or steak.  Or as "Tacos de la Casa" where they're offered for between $5-$6.50 for two tacos.  I thought this split was confusing.  First, why not just have one taco section with varying prices depending on the cost of ingredients?  Second, when I see Tacos de la Casa it makes me think it's going to include something more than just two tacos.  Like chips, salsa, or rice and beans.  None of these are included- they were just a pricey pair of fish tacos.  The supplemental cheese quesadillas we added on at the last minute were more readily devoured.

It looked like the entrees didn't include any chips or salsa so I added some to our order.  This too was confusing.  Listed under "Antojitos" you could get Chips and Salsa for $2.95.  Or under "Sides" you could get "Chips only" for $1.75 a small bag/$4.50 a large bag.  Or Chips, salsa & guac for $4.50.  I wanted enough for all of us so I ended up getting a large bag of chips, 1/2 pint of salsa, and a 1/2 pint of Guacamole.  This added a total of $10.50 to our bill.  Ouch!  For something I think of as being included in a typical Mexican meal (even if it's in small quantities at take-out) this was an unwelcome addition.

It was Saturday night and a Corona or some margaritas would have hit the spot.  Unfortunately no such luck.  They don't serve any alcohol.  The self-serve fountain beverages were $1.75 each.

Total cost for three adults and two kids for dinner: $45.15

The chicken burrito was good/very good.  I appreciated that it came out quickly, was served hot and fresh, and that I could discern each individual ingredient in the burrito- like cilantro.  It was a good clean burrito.  It didn't include any sour cream or guacamole (the former being unavailable and the latter being an additional charge).  I think I'll go for the El Guapo next time- I bet it would bring more thunder.

The fish tacos were interesting (see photo below).  They're described on the menu as: "Crispy Cornmeal and Spice encrusted Cod topped with Arbol Chile Mayo, Limed Onions, Pickled Cabbage and Cucumbers".  I thought the fish looked like it was going to be too-crispy/hard on the outside and perhaps dry from looking at them.  However, when you bite into them the fish is wonderfully fresh and moist.  Although the cucumbers dominate the dish visually, the onions, cabbage and chile mayo were the strength of the dish flavor-wise.

The chips were heavy and crunchy- obviously made in-house as opposed to light fluffy white chips.  The salsa fresca trended more towards pico de gallo rather than saucy salsa.  The guacamole was good but not great.  I would have appreciated more identifiable avocado in the guacamole.

Overall, an enjoyable dining adventure into the charming Boston College area of Brighton.

  • They focus on an authentic interpretation of Mexican food.
  • Generously sized burritos are flavorful with individually discernible ingredients.
  • A unique interpretation of fish tacos that tasted better than they looked.

  • Entrees don't include any beans, rice, chips or salsa.
  • Confusing and expensive chips and salsa add-on options.
  • Confusing menu split between "Tacos" and "Tacos de la Casa".
  • No kids menu.
  • No beer or margaritas.


El Pelon offers a more-authentic-than-most interpretation of Mexican take-out.  Perfectly cooked fish tacos and hearty burritos were strengths, but study the menu before you go to avoid expensive add-ons.

My Opinion

Three and a Half Stars (out of Five)

Check 'em out:
El Pelon
2197 Commonwealth Avenue (right across from BC)
Brighton, MA 02135
On Twitter: @ElPelonTaqueria
On Yelp: El Pelon Taqueria

What do you think of El Pelon?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Dear Will,

As second born, you don’t get nearly the focus and attention your brother did when he was your age. Don’t think I ever forget about that, because I don’t. I’m mindful of just how special and unique and wonderful you are everyday. In fact, today I filled out your paperwork for preschool which gave me pause to think about what a big boy you are becoming. It also made me answer some questions and note some details about you that my feeble brain may not remember in 10 years so I thought I’d record them for you here.

You are an early riser, my love. Every day you jump out of bed in the so-very-early 5:00 hour ready to start your day. Sometimes you come in our room and tell me you’re “Ready!” That’s when, me, in a coma-like state and you, ready to take on the world, come downstairs together to start the day. You watch cartoons and eat enough breakfast to fill the bellies of 3 grown men. After all, that breakfast will likely be the only solid meal you’re going to eat since you typically sleep through lunch and goof around through dinner. But boy, when there’s chocolate ice cream to be had, you’re my guy.

Your facial expressions and the way you get your pronouns wrong always makes me smile. My apologies to all the girls you’ve called “him.” (Don’t worry, they often don’t get them right either.) You are opinionated about your clothes – “This DO NOT match!” you tell me intently until I convince you otherwise. And I can always count on you, my little daredevil, to jump from the top of the couch or balance on the edge of your bed's footboard so you can reach something. Still, you haven’t broken a bone but I’ll bet that’s somewhere in our future.

Even though you’re three, you still have the most delicious chubby cheeks I’ve ever seen. Only on rare occasions do you dish out the "scrunchy nose" face when you're being funny and impetuous.  And even then, you make me beg.  You are prodigious with puzzles, fitting pieces together like a 7 year old. You’ve mastered the art of drama even at this young age. Sometimes you’ll fake a fall to get your brother in trouble (who usually deserves it) or gasp and look wide-eyed at something that’s surprised you. And, as one would expect, you play with Sam with all the vigor doing so demands. You, little boy, can hold your own and I know that toughness will serve you well.

Between your raspy, deep baby voice and meaty little thighs, it’s hard not to be in love with you. Keep up the good work growing and becoming exactly who God made you, my Willa. I’ll be right here beside you watching in adoration.


Monday, August 02, 2010

A Taste of Mexico in Massachusetts

One thing I miss about the southwest is the abundant variety of Mexican food the area offers.  I often find myself in the mood for a casual, affordable, interesting meal from a number of Mexican-inspired genres I was familiar with from growing up in the Phoenix area- some of which don't seem to be implemented very well in the Boston area.  However, after searching around off and on the past decade I've found a few restaurants that are serving up some outstanding food.

There are a few formats within this group I'd like to talk about.  I'm a fan of almost all of them, and always on the lookout for more so I thought I'd offer up six styles of Mexican food establishments and the best representations I've found in the Boston area for further discussion.  Leave a comment below and let me know what you've found that you think others should check out. 

Here are six styles of Mexican restaurants and where to find representations of each nationally and in the Boston area: 

The Sit Down Chips & Salsa and Corona Mexican Restaurant

This is the food I have a taste for on a near-daily basis.  It's the kind of place where you get a burrito smothered with enchilada sauce and cheese along with rice and beans and all the free chips and salsa you can eat.  Cold Coronas are readily available.  Some old guard Phoenix area favorites include Serrano's, Mi Amigos, Macayo, and Garcia's.  Over time ambitious restaurants impressed as well: Tia Rosa, Garduno's (evidently now defunct and/or renamed Camarones), and Abuelo's.

This category is increasingly represented nationally or near-nationally, but beware of weak implementations of the concept in the northeast which ultimately doom the franchise.  I've had lousy meals at a Garcia's in Albany (now defunct), and On The Border restaurants in the northeast (whereas I think they're pretty good closer to Mexico).

National interpretations: Don Pablos, On The Border, Chi Chi's (now defunct)
Best representation near Boston: Margaritas
Tell-tale offering: Enchilada-Style Chimichanga 

Authentic Gourmet Mexican Cuisine

This isn't really what I'm talking about- neither here in Boston or back in Arizona.  This is fine dining inspired by regional Mexican dishes.

National interpretation: None
Best representation in Boston: Casa Romero
Tell-tale offering: Mole anything 

The Burrito Bar

This category is enthusiastically represented locally.  The menu is almost exclusively burritos and usually chips and salsa.  You order at the counter, take delivery of the food, find your own seat and clean up after yourself. Bonus points to restaurants with a salsa bar- an unfortunately rare commodity in the Boston area.

National interpretation: Chipotle
Best representation near Boston: Anna's Taqueria, Qdoba.  Chipotle is still my favorite.
Tell-tale offering: Basic menu burritos and chips & salsa
Note: Burrito places like Boloco serve up tasty food but they're really not trying to serve up Mexican food.  Sure you can get a decent burrito with Mexican ingredients buts the presence of Thai, Buffalo, and Teriyaki burritos tell us where their allegiances lie.  It's with the burrito- not Mexico.

Full-Range Mexican Take-Out

Here you order from a menu that's similar to the sit-down chips, salsa and Corona restaurant but you take it to go or seat yourself.  There's tons of these in Arizona ranging from the very authentic Filibertos to the more mainstream Someburros.

In looking at some Yelp reviews in this space I see mention of Taco Bell as a reference point in this category.  I'm not sure what to say about that.  On one hand it's a format many are familiar with so it's worth discussing.  On the other hand so much of the menu is contrived it's hard to say what Taco Bell does for the national discussion on Mexican food.  At any rate there aren't even many Taco Bells in the Boston area and most are paired with a KFC.

National interpretation: Baja Fresh (2 locations in Massachusetts now both closed)
Best representation near Boston: Still looking but Boca Grande in Brighton isn't bad.
Tell-tale offering: More than just burritos and tacos are available.  Look for the presence of at least an enchilada on the menu.

Baja-Style Fish Tacos

You see these all over the place in the San Diego area.  Beer battered fish with cabbage and a unique spicy slightly-creamy dressing on a soft corn shell.  Quite a delicacy.

Pelly's in Carlsbad is excellent and Taco Surf in Pacific Beach is pretty good too.  I've heard great things about Wahoo's Fish Taco as well.  Rubio's is a chain I'd love to see in the area, but if Baja Fresh couldn't make a go of it, I highly doubt Rubio's would be successful.

My inspiration for writing this up was a visit to Dorados in Brookline, MA.  Check back soon for a full write-up.

National interpretation: Rubio's (only in the southwest so far)
Best (only?) representation near Boston: Dorado Tacos & Cemitas
Tell-tale offering: Beer battered fish tacos
Special Note: Ironic that Baja Fresh isn't Baja-style.

Conclusions and Recommendations

My point in writing this up was to highlight subtle differences between restaurants in the broad Mexican food category and perhaps catch a few comments for restaurants to check out within each of these categories.

For as much enthusiasm as there is for the category in the Boston area, many national chains seem to fail when they attempt to expand here.  I don't know why that is exactly.  Is it that Bostonians don't like chains?  Or that the chains are poor implementations of the concept somehow?

Photo Credit: Rubios.com (drop me an E-mail if you'd like me to remove it)

Question of the Day: What do you think of the state of Mexican food in the Boston area?  Any gems you've discovered? 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gutter Sense: The $20 product that saved me $100+

It's been a wild few months weather-wise here in Massachusetts but then again- what's new?  Spring floods gave way to dry mid-summer conditions that had the town of Wellesley strongly discouraging outdoor watering. 
As I've been working in my home office the past few weeks I'd occasionally hear a "drip drip drip" outside and wonder- what the heck is that?  After some research it appeared it was coming from a clogged gutter that was occasionally bypassing when the air conditioner was releasing condensation.  It was a little annoying to be acoustically reminded of a home maintenance issue so I put off fixing the issue as long as I could.  But after a while it got to me and I decided I could call up our regular gutter cleaning guys, bust out a ladder (and risk busting my leg as I fell off said ladder) -or- come up with something more crafty.

What I felt I needed was a long pole with a hook on it to clear the obstruction.  This was the second time we've had a backed up gutter and it always amazes me how just a few leaves can so completely shut down the flow through a downspout.  We just had new gutters installed when we remodeled a few years ago and the cost of installing gutter guards of some sort was almost double what we paid so I feel like I've got $1,000 in the gutter bank so to speak (and hey who is to say the gutter guards won't require maintenance of their own right?).

So I did some Google searches, found the Gutter Sense and read this review.  I had my doubts as to whether the thing would work well for cleaning out all the gutters but both times they got truly clogged it was just a single focused obstruction that needed to be addressed.  It wasn't as if every leaf needed to be removed- just a single clump of leaves at the point where the gutter meets the downspout.

I ordered my Gutter Sense late last week and I was excited when it arrived today.  In the basic $20 model, the Gutter Sense doesn't include a pole or extra rope for 2-story situations.  I was prepared for this after reading reviews and product descriptions on Amazon.

I did some cursory measuring prior to the device arriving to determing how long of an extension pole I'd need and for my situation about 18' seemed about right.  I went over to Green's Hardware in town and unfortunately the longest they had was 12'.  So I went over to Home Depot in Natick and got a 6'-18' extension pole.  I also picked up some twine because the Gutter Sense didn't have enough to cover situations much longer than 12' away.

I boogied home to beat the impending nightfall and drizzling rain to try my new setup.  The Gutter Sense screwed on to the extension pole with ease, and I tied the new twine to extend the control arm of the device.  I extended the pole and I was ready to attack the obstruction.

I'll be the first to tell you: I am not a handy guy.  I regularly cause more damage by trying to fix things than the pros would charge in the first place and I'd be better off if I just called the them straight away.  But I was determined in this case because it's starting to feel like a regular occurance.

I'm pleased to report that within 10 seconds me and my trusty Gutter Sense freed the obstruction and water and muck began gushing through the downspout in a glorious display.  It was really pretty amazing.

I have to say- I can't imagine cleaning every leaf out of the gutters with the device.  For one there's a bunch of hangers that you grab onto with the device and you try to tug them out unsuccessfully.  One review I read on Amazon suggested a mirror so you could see what you were doing.  That might make sense for larger jobs but for me I'm happy to just be able to remove obstructions without having to pay $100 to call out the Gutter Boys.

When used in this context I highly recommend the Gutter Sense.  It was a joy to use and I'll look forward to busting it out again.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spring in my step

There's something about Spring in New England that makes me turn my attention from the inside of my house to the outside. A long, snowy Winter always makes the coming of Spring feel like an epic change that affects my mood and lifestyle. When the air stays consistently above freezing and my garden starts showing signs of life, I know that the warm days of Red Sox games and Samuel Adams Summer Ale aren't far behind. This transition has happened in just the last couple of weeks. This was my first weekend of being certifiably garden obsessed.

Last Fall we broke the bank and had an irrigation system installed in our yard. We are the proud new owners of a 22 zone system that allows us to dial in the watering for each garden bed and lawn zone. This is big stuff for New England gardeners for whom precipitation is reliable year round EXCEPT for a few days in the heat of Summer when grass, shrubs and perennials suffer. Yesterday I planted nine new shrubs and then promptly turned the system on to do the "watering in" for me. So far we've been extremely happy with the installation and system support from Autowater Irrigation Company in Lexington, MA.

We have mature trees around our property and so I deal with a lot of shade. Most of the plants I buy have to tolerate part shade. Yesterday I planted 3 groupings of 3 types of new shrubs each with their own benefits. In the front bed went Ilex meserveae, one 'Blue Prince' and two 'Blue Princess.' By planting male and female varieties, I hope to have some nice red berries and greenery to cut next December. Also newly planted are 3 Pieris japonica 'Mountain Fire.' Our house is white with red doors and black shutters so the new growth on these shrubs should add to our curb appeal. Last, I planted 3 Deutzia 'Chardonnay Pearls' in the backyard for their brilliant foliage and delicate white flowers. (The wine inspired name didn't hurt either.)

This is the time of year for planting so if I can find another few minutes of freedom, you can bet there will be more to come. What's new in your garden?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why is the California Pizza Kitchen in Wellesley Struggling?

5:45pm on a Tuesday night in Wellesley.  I'm looking for a family-friendly restaurant- what are my options?  Bertuccci's, Qdoba, and California Pizza Kitchen come to mind.  Tucci's it is.  We arrive at Bertucci's at a quarter 'til 6 and the place is mobbed, which can be a good thing depending on how you look at it.  Sometimes it's like a elementary school cafeteria in there and your little ones can fling a fork across the room and nobody will notice.  But tonight, we were deep into the fuss-zone before our estimated 5-10 minute wait was up.  My youngest made a break for the door and I took it as my sign that our dining at Bertucci's wasn't meant to be.

While we were driving over to California Pizza Kitchen I was wondering: Why was Bertucci's so crowded?  Especially on a Tuesday night?  Based on visiting the CPK previously on Friday nights I had a feeling they wouldn't have a wait on a Tuesday night.  Sure enough the place was nearly empty.  I'd estimate it was only about 20% full.

To understand why the California Pizza Kitchen in Wellesley is struggling, we need to understand the Wellesley consumer.  This is no easy task.  People in Wellesley spend money on the following things:
  1. Education
  2. Real Estate
That's it really, and the real estate costs are in large part driven by positioning the family close to educational opportunities (public schools in town and colleges and universities nearby).  I'm exaggerating of course but I hope you catch my drift.  People don't spend their money on trendy frivolous things.

This is part of why the Natick Collection is a ghost town.  Add to this the fact that a lot of people in the Boston area dislike chain restaurants and things don't look good for the CPK in Wellesley.

Okay, so why is it that the California Pizza Kitchen struggling while Bertucci's is apparently doing well?  They're both chains.  Both are competing with almost a dozen other pizza places within striking distance.  Bertucci's happens to be headquartered in Massachusetts but I don't necessarily think of them as a Boston kind of company.  Is the menu at CPK too unusual?  Is it perceived as being too pricey?  Is it actually too pricey?  Is the ambiance off the mark for what people are looking for?  Not family friendly enough?  Do people not like the individual-sized pizza model?  Is the food not good?  Do people just not like it?  Yelp reviews are lackluster and inconsistent.

I honestly don't get it.  We had a great meal tonight and every time we've been there so far.  But I'm afraid it's not going to be around much longer.  The location seems a bit unusual as compared to their other locations (which tend to be attached to higher traffic areas like malls or urban locations).  The build-out always seemed half-hearted to me as well.  Like they could be out of there with short notice if necessary.  I hope they stick around but wouldn't be surprised if they don't make it.

What do you think?  Is the CPK in Wellesley going to make it?  Why doesn't Wellesley eat at the California Pizza Kitchen very often?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: The Upper Crust Pizzeria Wellesley Delivery

The wait is over.  The Upper Crust Pizzeria, with locations in several upper crust Boston communities, has arrived in Wellesley.  Before tonight I've never had their pizza, but their tempting daily announcement of their pizza of the day always make me hungry.  Take today's by-the-slice special: Chorizo, carmelized onion, and banana pepper.  It's as if they're targeting me with a laser pointer saying: Come eat here! (I love chorizo and it's hard to find in the Boston area).

They opened the doors on their Wellesley location today Thursday March 18th, 2010 so we immediately rearranged our weekly Friday night pizza night schedule to try their delivery service.  I had a quick look at their menu and selected a combination we often order from other Wellesley pizza places: A large (18") Garden Veggie and a large Greek Salad.

Other pizza joints in town that we order from include Nick's Pizza (value leader), Bertucci's (still gets my vote for best tasting pizza and make sure you clip coupons for $5 off $20 or more in the Sunday paper), College Square Pizza (haven't ordered from there much lately), California Pizza Kitchen (more of a dine-in place if you ask me), and heck even Domino's when I'm in the mood for reliving the college experience (and their CinnaStix never disappoint).  There's no shortage of pizza in this town.

I was on hold for about 2 minutes and then placed my order.  They accept credit cards, which is nice, and told me it would be 45 minutes to an hour for delivery.  The pizza arrived in 35 minutes.  $33 tip included which seemed a little pricey to me.

The pizza looked pretty darn good as I hope you can see from the picture above.  The crust is on the thin side and a nice and soft for my taste.  Although it was large in size, the thin nature of the crust made the slices go down quickly.  The sauce is chunky with tomatoes.  I would have appreciated if the veggies were a little more well-done as the onions especially tend to be a little bitter when not sauteed completely or carmelized.  I also would have appreciated a little more salt or garlic flavor.  I don't think I'm a salt-fiend.  I rarely season my food with table salt but I thought the pizza could have used a little more flavor.

The salad was fresh, but nothing spectacular.  More ingredients than some greek salads we've had but pretty basic fare.  It included some pita bread.  Like many pizza take-out salads there never seems to be enough dressing.

Overall, 3 1/2 stars out of 5.  I'll look forward to trying their pizza again.  I'd like to visit in person for one of their special slices of the day which frequently sound irresistible.  I hear they have beer and wine at their Wellesley location too so that's a plus.  Great website too and a strong presence on Twitter.  They're rapidly expanding in the Boston area and appear to be doing really well.

Check 'em out:
The Upper Crust Pizzeria
99 Central Street
Wellesley, MA
Follow @UpperCrustPizza on Twitter

Question of the Day: What do you think of Upper Crust?  Have you been to their Wellesley location yet?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

How To: Lease a New Car for a Rock Bottom Price

One of the most useful books I've ever read is "How To Buy Your New Car For a Rock-Bottom Price".  It is full of so many negotiating gems and written in such an entertaining and useful style- I couldn't put it down.  Consider the "Feel, Felt, Found" gambit to be used when the dealer tells you he can't go any lower on price.  Here's how the book advises you counter such a tactic: "I know how you feel.  My friends felt the same way when I told them I could get a car for below invoice.  But after doing my research I've found that you can sell me a car for under invoice.  And you will."  It is truly a book I would recommend to anyone who is in the market for a new car.

I've used techniques described in the book to successfully purchase several cars for just a few hundred dollars over invoice each.  However, the book doesn't go too deep into specific techniques for getting the best prices on lease deals.  I've always been intrigued by leases.  Especially when I've just completed an expensive repair on an out-of-warranty car.  I think to myself- that $1,600 I just spent on a brake job could have covered a lot of lease payments!

Recently, we were in the market for a new car.  I always keep an eye on models I'm interested in, and I like to stay flexible in terms of timing a new car purchase.  The other day while we were at the Honda dealer to pick up some new wiper blades for our CR-V a kind salesperson asked me if he could help me.  He showed me back to the parts counter and on the way we started talking about Pilots and Accords.  We set an appointment to come back in to sit down and talk more, but after a few days we agreed to cancel the appointment because I wasn't sure whether we needed another car, whether we wanted to buy or lease and whether we wanted a Pilot or an Accord.  But I asked him to drop me an E-mail if he ever had a smokin' deal on the cars I was interested in.

A few weeks later I got an E-mail showing some phenomenal purchase deals.  Pilots and Accords could both be had for a couple thousand dollars under invoice on in-stock inventory as part of an inventory reduction sale on 2010 models.  We were shopping in March of 2010 so it didn't feel like we were buying last year's cars, and I've never heard of such good pricing on Hondas so I made an appointment to come in for a test drive.

Although we loved the Pilot, when we ran the numbers it was just more money than we were willing to spend right now.  I really wanted another set of wheels however so I started thinking about an Accord lease.

Lease deals are interesting.  You know when you hear an ad on the radio or see one in print and it has all kinds of fine print?  It seems as if state consumer protection agencies demand car dealers disclose lots of information about lease deals but even when they do so, they don't do it consistently and they don't do it completely and understandably.  This makes comparing lease deals difficult and it also make determining your initial and monthly payments complicated.

Lease deals, especially those promoted by the manufacturer, are often unbelievably low.  The trick often lies in hidden additional down payments- even in deals claiming to offer "no money down".

Take for example this deal on Honda's website: 

"2010 Accord LX Sedan Featured Special Lease - Zero Due at Lease Signing
$0 down payment, $0 security deposit, $0 first month's payment, $0 due at lease signing
Lease Example with $0 due at lease signing for $250 a month for 36 months. For well-qualified buyers."

I think a reasonable person would assume that there's no money you're required to pay the dealer at the beginning of the deal but there is!  When you read on further in the details you'll find: 

"Dealer contribution may vary and could affect actual lease payment. Taxes, license, title fees, options and insurance extra."

Depending on how the dealer might toy around with their contribution, it's possible that this deal might not be attainable at your local dealer.  Further, they might want to sell you goofy lease insurance that protects you against nicks, dings, and minor upholstery damage.  In total it's not at all clear, even from reading through all the fine print, what the total cost of the lease deal will be.

In addition to the car manufacturer, you'll see ads in the newspaper like this one:

"2010 Accord LX Lease.  $0 Down and $183/month."
Fine Print: "Tax, Title, Reg, Customer Service Fee, Acquisition Fee, 1st mo payment Add'l"

Customer Service Fee?  Acquisition Fee?  How on earth would I know from looking at the ad what those charges are and more importantly whether those fees are reasonable or avoidable?  For those reasons, I sought out a lease deal that was truly NO MONEY DOWN and included only 36 monthly payments.  That's it.  That's IT.

One thing that frustrated me as I started looking around at lease deals is the way they all seemed to be for entry-level LX models.  The LX model is fine and all, but if I wanted to step up just a little bit to an EX or EX-L I felt like the advertised lease deal was effectively out the window and the negotiation started from scratch.

What I decided to do, and I think this worked well for me, was to make it clear I was ready to take advantage of the advertised lease deal to gain full clarity on any hidden costs.  The offer I took advantage of said "$0 Due at lease signing/$225 a month/monthly fees exclude tax".

I asked my salesperson to confirm there was no additional up-front costs due at lease signing.  That he was certain there were no hidden fees (like an acquisition fee) and that things like tax, title, and registration was rolled into the lease payments.  He confirmed this verbally, so I committed to lease the car over the phone and put $500 down on a credit card.  I then asked my salesperson to E-mail me complete lease details so I'd be sure there was no misunderstanding when it came time to sign.

When I received the E-mail confirming there were no hidden costs, I felt I'd locked up the LX at a great price.  I then set out to obtain a higher trim level with a similar lease configuration.  I sent the following E-mail back to the sales manager:

"So long as we're at 36 payments of $239.07 with no additional costs we should be good to go Friday morning.

One other thing I thought to mention from my discussions with John (who has been awesome to work with by the way)... I may have been interested in an EX or EX-L Accord, but John told me that the $0 due at signing only applied to the LX. I was thinking that, for example, if the LX has a negotiated
sales price of $17,687 and the EX has a negotiated sales price of $20,239 (estimating these numbers from your recent inventory reduction sale on Accords) that a proportional lease payment on an EX would be $257.46 (vs. $225 on the LX). However, things seemed to jump higher than that on the
Accord because the money required down was significantly higher in addition to the payment being higher. If there's a way to get an EX or an EX-L for a proportionally higher payment like $257.46 on the EX or $285.19 on the EX-L (while still having $0 due at signing) I might be interested in it. But if
it's truly the case that the $0 due at signing only applies to the LX then I'm fine with the LX.

Sorry if this confuses things when I'm fully ready to go with the LX. I just thought to mention it in case there is an opportunity for me to get into a more nicely equipped model and for you all to sell a slightly more expensive car. I'm not sure there's a color combination EX or EX-L that I'm interested in on the lot right now, but if there's a chance you'd entertain the pricing I'm talking about on the EX or EX-L feel free to have John give me a call on my cell phone today. Otherwise I'll see John
Friday morning to lease the LX at $225/month x 36 plus tax."

He called me back with numbers on the EX and EX-L that aligned very closely with what I proposed.  I was then free to choose from a reasonable menu of prices based on their color availability on the LX, EX, and EX-L.  I chose an EX because it was only $20 more a month and added a lot of nice options.  I thought this worked really well as compared to starting a negotiation from scratch on the EX because all of the terms were fixed and only the price varied.

Of course, none of this will work if you're dealing with a shady car dealership.  I leased the car from Bernardi Honda in Natick, MA and although I must have said to my salesperson a hundred times during the course of our transaction "no surprises now" I was pleasantly surprised that there were indeed no surprises or hidden expenses.  I highly recommend the dealership especially our salesperson John Dwyer (no relation) and service advisor Bobby Gazza.  Check out their latest deals HERE.

I hope this is useful as you consider buying or leasing your next car. 

Question of the Day: What do you think of leasing?  Smart money or sucker play?

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