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Poor Nina's Almanac

Rocking those limited means.

Values! Discounts! Bargains!

In the three months I called Boston home, I did my fair share of exploring. This town boasts many fine (and not so fine) establishments and public spaces that a poor, young, discerning shopper might enjoy. And, as a result of these explorations, I have culled a list of my favorite places in Boston where you’re sure to get the most bang for your buck. I call this list “Poor Nina’s Best of Boston.”

Today is a beautiful day in Boston. The sun is shining and the air is mild. There’s a slight breeze and snow-white clouds float across an azure sky. But, today is also my last day in Boston. At 7 p.m. I will board a plane that will take me to Dallas, TX, for several days, and from there, it’s on to Nepal. So, on this pristine day that I am honored to call my last in this city, I present you with this list of bests.

(Note: To be fair, this is only a partial list. I lived and mingled mostly on the Green and Red Lines, so this is really only representative of Downtown, Back Bay, Brighton, Brookline, and parts of Cambridge. I hope to explore all other neighborhoods someday.)

POOR NINA’S BEST OF BOSTON

Boston Haymarket

Boston Haymarket, courtesy of Boston Discovery Guide.

Best Grocery Store: First Place – Super 88 / Second Place – Haymarket

As far as bang for your buck goes, Asian supermarkets usually do well. Super 88 at Packard’s Corner T stop (Green Line) was dependable, except when it came to the freshness of garlic and onions. Some days, the produce was super fresh; other days, it was questionable. However, their prices were consistently lower than any other market in the area.

Haymarket, an outdoor, wholesale farmer’s market of sorts, takes second place only because it didn’t have accessible hours. Although the produce, cheeses, artisan breads, and other fare were gorgeous, the market is only open on Friday and Saturday. But it was worth the 45 minute trip out there on a Saturday morning.

Best Takeout Meal: Mysterious Chinese lunch counter in Chinatown

“Hole in the wall” would be a near-literal description of this place. I do not know the name of this restaurant, nor do I know if it even has a name. Not a word of English is spoken in this roughly 5 ft. x 10 ft. store, and its hours of business is anybody’s guess. However, you can get heaping (and I mean HEAPING) helpings of three or four different dishes and pack a styrofoam container to the gills for $3, even though the menu says $4. When enormous portions of food is cheaper than actually advertised, that is officially a deal.

Best Sit-Down Meal: First Place – Publick House / Second Place – Pollo El Chalan

Although their beverages are chi-chi, the Publick House in Brookline serves really fancy meals for decent prices. The BF and I got a hearty dish of some sort of veal meatballs with mashed potatoes and some other deliciousness for $11.

Pollo El Chalan in Brighton comes in second for sheer quantity. You get half a finger-licking good roast chicken, platter of french fries, and a dinner salad for $9.01. That’s including tax.

Busy Bee in Brookline, courtesy of photographer Tim T., yelp.com.

Best Breakfast: Busy Bee

Surly old waitresses and a full grill behind an old-fashioned counter are not the only highlights of this Brookline establishment: their PRICES are stuck in the ’80s. Get a full breakfast for anywhere between $3-6.

Best Snack: First Place – Free Samples in Quincy Market / Second Place – Asian food court at Super 88 / Third Place – Hot dog at Park T stop and vendors scattered around Boston Commons

You can’t beat free. Walk down the length of Quincy Market and you can fill up on a myriad of free samples, including clam chowder, bread, cookies, smoothies, mac n cheese, and goodness knows what else.

Super 88 wows again with their ridiculously cheap Asian food court. Everything from Thai curry and Shanghai dumplings to ramen and Korean BBQ is available fast and hot for a meager price.

Boston also offers the perennial classic: hot dog stands. $2 buys you a decent-sized hot dog loaded with the fixin’s.

A scene from Running of the Brides 2010 at Filene's Basement.

Best Clothing Retailer: Filene’s Basement

Home of Boston’s Running of the Brides (blog post on this event to come soon), there really isn’t any other department store that offers a better deal. Boston buddy Erika found her wedding dress here for a fraction of the garment’s original cost.

Best Cafe: First Place – Espresso Royal Cafe / Second Place – Pavement

ERC near the Symphony T stop was where I camped out nearly everyday to do work. Bottomless coffee for $2 and free wifi makes this one of the cheapest places ever to spend 6 hours out of the day.

Pavement, ERC’s sister cafe in Back Bay, comes in second. The free wifi is spotty, but oblivious teenagers work here, and they will give you free coffee refills even if you didn’t order the “bottomless” large size, simply because they are paying too much attention to their hipster outfits to notice you’re handing them a small cup. This provides approximately a 75 cent discount on coffee.

Best Nightlife: First Place – Our House / Second Place – Silhouette Cocktail Lounge

Both these places are dives, but they offer the best price on beverages. Our House has six contiguous rooms, each with a different feature: foosball, couches, Big Buck Hunter, etc. Silhouette has free darts, but the dank smell of the place is a slight turnoff.

BF chillin' at Boston Commons.

Best Place to Spend an Afternoon: First Place – Boston Commons / Second Place – Walden Pond

Boston Commons is an awesome place to spend a lazy afternoon. It’s free, and there are so many different little areas and nooks that anyone can find the perfect way to relax. Feed ducks at a picturesque pond with swan boats, play frisbee on a wide lawn, watch free performances from a gazebo, laze in the shade, or roll around on grassy knolls.

Walden Pond is out of the way, but it’s another wonderful and free place to hang out. You can swim in the pond, and it’s surrounded by beautiful woods. Visiting it for its literary import is cool too.

Most Memorable Establishment: Asahi Sushi

Remember that Seinfeld episode with the Soup Nazi? Well, Boston is home to its Japanese counterpart, the Sushi Nazi. This tiny, tiny restaurant has one table and a sushi bar. It is run by one sushi chef, who also serves as the waiter, bus boy, and cashier. There is no music. Everyone eats in silence. But the sushi is PHE. NOM. E. NAL. And it’s not too spendy either. But do not — I repeat, DO NOT — go there expecting crazy sushi rolls doused in mayo and spicy sauce and who knows what. The sushi here is traditional and fairly austere. And it tastes amazing. You can expect the chef to lecture you on the evils of crazy sauces when you pay for your meal at the register.

Total estimated cost: A summer of exploring discounts in Beantown = probably a couple hundred dollars.

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How time flies. My three months in Boston is almost up. Feels like I was blogging about moving and street shopping just yesterday. But lately, I’ve been packing things up, getting ready to hit the road for Nepal, and not really believing that I’ll be out of this little apartment in two weeks. Our three-story, semi-Victorian, ramshackle house-turned-apartment was a great place to spend the summer. We had a big, airy bedroom with bay windows that streamed in clear, bright sunshine every morning. We had an awesome porch. We had a pokey, dark stairwell. We had pink bathroom tiles. And so, to pay homage to a fast but unforgettable summer spent in a Boston sublet, I dedicate a photo essay to the textures of our low-budget home.

Faux brick

Faux brick.

Faux marble

Faux marble.

Faux something or other

Faux something or other.

Pink tile

Pink tile.

Hollow wood door

Hollow wood door.

More pink tile

More pink tile.

Ikea shower curtain

Ikea shower curtain (needs replacing).

Lime lawn chair

Plastic lawn chair.

Faux kitchen tile

Faux kitchen tile.

Faux ceiling

Faux ceiling.

Faux wood siding

Faux wood siding.

Thank you, Boston home. I’ll miss you “faux” real. (HAHAHAHAHAHA)

Whoo! The appropriate soundtrack to this week would have been Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” on loop. But it’s finally Friday and the weekend begins in just hours! This is a special weekend — it’ll be a mini grad-school reunion of sorts, a last-minute treat finagled into the busy schedule before the BF and I head out to Nepal. We’ve got three house guests arriving, and it’s an all-star cast, featuring a fellow frugalist who some of you may know as Emily the Penny Picker-Upper! Also joining are Stacey and Jeff, an engaged couple who also have experience feathering their nest on the cheap.

Beyond a Syracuse parking lot, the white cap of the Syracuse dome.

We all met and lived in Syracuse, where rent is incredibly cheap, but you pay for that privilege by being effectively cut off from the rest of the world. And now that we’re all going to hang in Boston for the weekend, we’re gonna go paint this town a low-budget red!

So what is a totally awesome cheap weekend composed of? The parts all fit together in a well-crafted, delicate formula. Let me share them with you here:

1. Everyone crashes at our pad. Yes, we’re all employed adults, and no, we’re not college kids anymore. But hey! No one has money to spend on a hotel! Duh! Stacey and Jeff are bringing an air mattress and Em will be staying on the lumpy futon. And they’re all going to love it. Such is frugal life.

2. We consume as many consumables as possible at home. The BF and I will make sure we have a stocked fridge: fresh ingredients for guacamole, a new bottle of CoffeeMate, the essentials. This is much cheaper than getting every cup of coffee at the local cafe and eating every meal out. And part of the fun is grocery shopping for goodies with friends at the weekly discount farmer’s market.

3. We will Yelp for “cheap” places to go. Yelp.com offers a search function where you can find hot, cheap spots on the town, all peer reviewed for authentic value hunting.

4. Everyone contributes. Of course, this is a given, but it deserves to be pointed out. Tay and I will provide food, a place to stay. Em is bringing further provisions. Jeff and Stacey will likely do the same, plus said mattress. We all contribute sparkling conversation.

5. We don’t act like snobby prima donnas. We are happy just to be with each other and we don’t need to be sipping champagne at the hottest rooftop club in Boston in our Dolce and Gabbana outfits to have a good time.

The only missing thing from this formula is fellow Syracuse buddy Sarah Haase.

Nina, Emily, Stacey, Haasie in Syracuse, 2009

But, with this blend of frugality and friendship, we shall rage on this weekend.

Hey, everyone! I’m going to Kathmandu!

(Thank you, Drew Jordan, for finding and sharing this video. It’s already given me innumerable minutes of viewing pleasure.)

Yep, as Bob Seger says, “I think I’m going to Kathmandu. That’s really, really where I’m going to.” And if you didn’t already know, please consider this the official announcement. Here’s the whatfor and why:

The BF won a Fulbright to do a photo project on Tibetan refugees in Nepal. I’ve decided to accompany him in hopes of kick-starting a career in freelance correspondent journalism. (You may be thinking, “Yeah, good luck with that,” but hear me out.) Becoming a travel writer has been a lifelong goal of mine, and it’s the main reason I put up with a lifestyle that this blog sums up as “young, educated, and poor.” I happily live life as “Poor Nina” and not “Financially Stable Nina” because of this pipe dream, and September 1 will be a watershed moment in making the dream a reality. That’s the day I board a plane to Kathmandu, and I won’t be coming back for at least 10 months.

What the heck am I going to do in Kathmandu, of all cockamamie places? Here are some of my plans:

1. Write for an English-language newspaper in Nepal.

2. Do independent research and reporting on social issues/events/news in Nepal. (The BF is interested in politics, I tend more toward the fluffy stuff — quality of life, health, trends of an old nation meeting a modern age.)

3. Sight-see my socks off.

4. Eat as many momos (Nepali dumplings) as this Western stomach can handle.

5. BLOG!! I don’t want to let the Almanac go by the wayside, but the plan is to start a new blog about my Kathmandu experiences and observations. The blog will be hosted by Glimpse, an online community of young travel journalists. Glimpse is sponsored in part by National Geographic and will hopefully give me a little visibility/cred in the travel journalism world. You can check out my Glimpse profile for now, and I’ll post the link to the blog as soon as it gets fired up.

So, in short, it’s 23 days to Kathmandu. I’m just now starting to feel jittery with excitement/nervousness about the move. But I’m asking for your opinion: what shall we do with Poor Nina’s Almanac? Do I keep posting budget lifestyle tips here, even while in Nepal? Do I shift the focus to the actual poverty that many Nepali people suffer? What do you think? Any thoughts are welcome.

Total estimated cost: One-way ticket to Kathmandu = $889.

Oh my goodness. I said I would never let this happen, but it’s totally happening. I promised a friend that I would have a new post up today, but I’ve been so busy working (which is truly incredible) that it’s nearing the end of the day and I haven’t posted anything yet. So, in the 44 minutes I have before I have to pack up the laptop and exit the cafe, I will tell you, however haphazardly, about the Cooking by Numbers phenomenon.

This is something I “Stumbled Upon” one day while trawling the ‘net for blog post material (and boy, is it coming in handy now). It’s a website that will generate recipes and meal ideas for people with limited foodstuffs. Check it out:

Cooking by Numbers

An online meal-generator for the foodstuffs impaired. (Click to enlarge)

There are options for what’s in your fridge (perishables) and what’s in your cupboard (non-perishables), so users who are running low on food can input what scraps they have to generate a meal recipe. Let’s try one.

In my fridge, I believe I currently have eggs, cheese, mushrooms, and potatoes. For what’s in my cupboard, I’ll check the boxes for bread, herbs and spices, and rice. To conclude, I click on “Find Recipes.” Then, magic happens! Cooking by Numbers has aggregated a list of eight recipes that use only the scraps of food I currently own. I can pick among such sumptuous meals as “Cheese souffle on toast,” “Egg Butty” (no idea what that is), and “Potato Pie.” I make my choice, click on the link, and boom, recipe.

I’ve used this awesome website crafted by British minds once before. It helped me create a nice little meal of “loaded baked potato.” It’s a good tool for when your fridge is nearly empty and the right-side of your brain (creativity central) is feeling sluggish.

And that, my friends (Grace, that means you), is the deal with Cooking by Numbers.

(Phew, 19 minutes to spare. I better get outta here.)

Total estimated cost: However much you spend on Internet access.

Two weeks ago, Oakland, CA, became the epicenter of race riots spurred by the verdict for Johannes Mehserle, a BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed black youth. The details of the case are sad and worth reading if you haven’t heard about it yet. (It was even reported in the UK, can you believe that?)

But you may be thinking that this is an odd way to start off a post about the best date I’ve ever been on.

Mi Grullense

Interpretitive rendering of Mi Grullense taco truck on E. 14th. (Image courtesy of Edgar G., Yelp.com.)

The connection is that Oakland has a special place in my heart. I grew up in a suburb that borders Oakland to the south. But as you can imagine, I spent most of my youth trying to spend as little time as possible in the ‘burbs, so I was always running away to “the O,” the closest city. Naturally, when the BF visited my hometown, family, and friends last winter, I wanted to show him my old stomping grounds.

After living for a year in Oakland and going to two years of college there, I learned the most important thing about the town: It is home to some of the dirtiest, awesomest, cheapest ethnic food you will find in the East Bay. The crowning jewel of ethnic cuisines in Oakland, of course, is Mexican. And the cheapest place to get Mexican, of course, is the taco truck.

Taco trucks are omnipresent in Oakland. If you know the right areas, you can literally have all three meals of the day for under $10. And it’s DELICIOUS. Like, mouth-wateringly, makes-you-get-down-on-your-knees and-cry, sprinkled-with-fresh-cilantro delicious.

Mi Grullense, again. (Photo courtesy of good friend, taco expert, and fanatic Yelper, Carlos Almendarez.)

There’s one really long road in particular that goes all the way from Downtown Oakland through San Leandro, past Hayward and beyond. It’s East 14th St., aka International Blvd., aka Mission St., and it houses roughly 15 miles of taco trucks parked every few blocks. It is taco mecca. It is date material.

The BF and I consider ourselves serious street-food enthusiasts, so our idea of the perfect date was to take a leisurely drive down E. 14th on a nice day, stopping at every taco truck that caught our fancy, trying as many different kinds of tacos as we pleased. We set aside a day to do just that.

When taco date day came around, I was giddy as a school girl. I only had $23 in my wallet but I knew that would be more than enough for my romantic getaway. We hopped in my mom’s car and clipped along down E. 14th. It was a beautiful day. The sun glinted off the quilted aluminum siding of myriad taco trucks. We tried grilled chicken, stewed chicken, chopped beef, stewed beef, beef tongue, beef face (?), carnitas, and the ever-popular “al pastor.” We licked sauce off our fingers. We nibbled on jalapenos and radishes. We drank Coke from a glass bottle. We wiped creme freshe from the corners of each other’s mouths. We chewed, swallowed, and smiled. We spent roughly $20. It was the best date ever.

Typical plate of taco truck tacos, complete with lime, jalapenos, and pickled radish. (Photo courtesy of "A Taste of Money" blog.)

The taco truck excursion qualifies as one of the best dates I’ve ever been on. It was spent completely in the wrong part of town, some would say, but what’s that mean, really? Wrong part of town, right part of town? There are myriad parts of town, all with their own personalities, and each deserves a little exploration. And some, if possible, deserve your economic stimulus. Becoming a frequent customer of taco trucks not only gives you a happy stomach but also supports the local economy. And if you’re like me, posh restaurants with tiny portions and confusing lighting just makes you feel more awkward than romantic. It all goes to show the best things in life are free, or pretty close to it.

Total estimated cost: 12 tacos x $1.75 = $21.

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Arctic tundra

This blog from mid June to late July: icy wasteland. (Photo courtesy of MarmotChaser, WikiMedia Commons)

Warning: This post includes future-post spoilers.

Oh, Almanac! Oh, readers! How did we ever get to this point? For over a month, there’s been nothing but tumble weeds and chilly breezes moving across the pages of the almanac. It’s been enough to give up on this tundra of a blog altogether…Until today.

Bolstered by a scolding comment from the BF last night and by my own gnawing guilt, I’m writing to let you know that THE BLOG MUST GO ON.

Nobody really likes hearing excuses but readers should know this period of silence was not caused by lack of material. I’m not entirely sure that it was caused by a lack of time either, but I do know that moving to Boston, going freelance, and becoming a homebody caused quite the culture shock for me. If I wasn’t preoccupied by a work project, I was clamoring to get out in the city, and if I wasn’t clamoring to get out in the city, I was reveling in the fact that I could check Facebook whenever I wanted instead of doing it surreptitiously in an office. It was like I took a month just basking (wallowing?) in this new-found freedom. Plus, I took a two-week trip back home to visit family before I head to Nepal in September. (Did I mention I’m going to Nepal? Oh dear, we really are behind on this blog, aren’t we?)

But the truth is I miss blogging. I miss doing zany projects with cheap paint and bedsheets. The past month was a wonderful whirl of confusion, but now that the dust is settling, I’m noticing this quiet little voice that’s been there all along, asking a quiet, impertinent little question: “Where’s Poor Nina?”

Well, folks. Where, indeed?

She is here, back from a month-long dream, in her pajamas, sitting at this IKEA kitchen table, furiously typing, typing away!

A couple paragraphs ago I said my lull was not caused by lack of material. So let me show you what’s in my backlog for a preview of future posts:

-Why the best date I’ve ever been on was also the cheapest

-What is freecycle?

-The free beverages that surround you

-Why paper towels need to be banished from our lives

-Cook by number

-and more!

And most importantly, don’t let this month off make you think that I’m not poor anymore. Au contraire, now I’m poorer than ever, so let the good times roll!