Monday, March 24, 2014

Korean Spas for the (Body and) Soul

Sometimes, you just need to get away.  Not like around the world in 80 days kind of away.  Just a something to get through the time, while supplies last (time and resources) kind of away.

No one seems to understand this better than, apparently, Koreans.

From the ultra affordable day spa (admission starting from $15!) to 24 hour facilities complete with (gender segregated) sleeping rooms, there's something for everyone looking to make that great escape, if only for a few hours or the day.  And for those seeking reprieve from the hustle and bustle with their friends / families, there are places to serve those needs too (afterall, the original korean bathhouses were created not just as a place of hygiene, but a place for people to socialize).

But besides escapism, korean spas are supposed to be fantastic for promoting wellness.  Apparently dry heat elevates heart rate, which boosts metabolism. As your core temperature and muscles warm up (no exercise required :P), circulation improves and and more oxygen is sent to body tissues / skin. As your body attempts to cool down by pushing water out your pores, the sweat carries away heavy metals and toxins with it.  High heat also creates an artificial fever state: as fever is part of the body's natural healing process, this is said tp stimulate the immune system leading to increased production of disease fighting white blood cells and antibodies. Korean spas offer a variety of saunas made of additional materials that stack up the benefits, like Himalayan salt for its anti-inflammatory balancing properties (helps relieve respiratory issues).

K-spas also serve real, good food. Forget the abstinence approach to health: heal your body at these spas and feed your soul as well with korean comfort dishes.

I had my first korean spa experience at Olympic Spa last year, and have been on a mission to check out as many korean spas in town as I can since (though I suspect Olympic will always be my fav).   

Here is a quick recap of my findings so far, and I will add to this list as I uncover more.  (Please do share if you've been to a great place that is not on this list yet :))

Note on admission fees: In general, with paid admission you’ll get use of all spas, saunas, steam rooms, towels, and lockers unless otherwise noted below.

3915 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90019 Ph: 323.857.0666
Hours:  Daily 9am-10pm
Saunas: salt w/ binchotan, jade, steam, dry
Tubs: hot, cold, mugworts (hot)
Admission fee: $20 (recently increased from original $15 :( ) Waived with service of $70 or more
Parking: free valet
Restaurant: Yes
Full Nude?: Yes

Spot the Difference (in a good way)
  • Ladies only spa
  • Still my fav himalayan salt sauna of the spas I've tried: the room is smaller and hotter, mixes healing properties of himalayan salt with that of binchotan (charcoal acts as natural air purifier)
  • Mugworts tub!!! Mugworts is known in Asian cultures for being great at balancing female hormones
  • Cafe is spacious, serene and serves tasty korean food that is definitely foodie friendly.  My favs are: bibimbap, dumpling soup with rice cakes, steamed egg
  • It's across the street pretty much from Soban (and their ridiculously delicious raw marinated crab - post on this to come), great for a lovely bite before or after your spa visit
This may not be for you if... 
  • You're skittish about the no swimsuits (full nudity) policy
  • Personal space is critical to you (the tubs here fit maybe 4 people max at a time, each) and you enjoy more of a megaplex style, uber spacious spa (see Wi Spa)


4120 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90019 Ph: 323.954.1020
Hours: 24 hours daily
Saunas: gold, salt, ice, hot stone kiln, (in jimjilbang), steam, dry  
Tubs: hot, cold
Admission fee: $20 for spa only / $25 for spa plus jimjilbang (note first 4 sauna rooms listed herer are in the jimjilbang). Waived if you book services $75 or above.
[Deal: Get $5 off admission with Foursquare or Yelp check-in!]
Parking: free in attached lot
Restaurant: Yes
Full nude?: Yes in Women's spa area; Spa issued t-shirt and shorts required in jimjilbang (common co-ed area) where saunas, cafe and juice bar are located; gym clothing required at gym obviously

Spot the Difference (in a good way)
  • 24 hours so you don't have to worry about getting out of work in time on weeknights
  • Gold sauna
  • Modern, spacious, clean facilities, not overcrowded like Wi Spa and relatively quiet
  • Juice bar!!
  • Cafe offers great selection of food and drink including samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup), patbingsu (korean shaved ice with various toppings) 
  • Driving range for golfers
  • Gym and training studio can be used at no additional cost
  • Full sized indoor pool can be used with no additional cost
  • Lessons offered for adults or kids for those interested in swimming / golf (for separate fee)
  • Cool displays at entrance to each sauna showing current temperature inside
This may not be for you if... 
  • Mugworts tubs are the whole reason why you go to korean spas (they just removed theirs)  


3240 Wilshire Blvd. Suite B, Los Angeles, CA 90010 Ph:213.381.2288

Hours: Mon-Thu 6am-11pm, Fri-Sat 6am-12am, Sun 7am-11pm 
Saunas: jade (includes himalayan salt wall, binchotan and clay ceiling), clay (includes himalayan salt pebbles, binchotan in bags), mugworts steam, dry  
Tubs: hot, cold
Admission fee: $15. Waived if you book any two services (excluding nails)
Parking: $2 valet with validation ($3 without validation)
Restaurant: Yes Mon-Sat 10:30am-9:30pm last call 9pm (Sun 10:30am-8:30pm last call 8pm)
Full nude?: Yes. Gym clothing required at gym obviously, but gym is conveniently located inside women's area

Spot the Difference (in a good way)
  • Mugworts steam room!!!
  • I felt like Goldilocks coming to this place after Olympic Spa and Wi/Century - it's 'just right' with its intimately sized yet modern, clean and upscale looking space.  It wasn't crowded on a Monday night. If they had a mugworts tub, it would easily take top spot on my favorites list!
  • Love that each sauna packages together all the best and most effective 'ingredients' to use in a dry heat treatment room: himalayan salt, binchotan and clay.
  • Modern gym, inside women's area (no need to exit spa to go work out) at no extra cost!!
  • Abalone porridge, samgyetang and fresh squeezed juices are on the menu!!!

This may not be for you if... 
  • You don't like the smell of mugworts and just want a 'normal' steam room
  • Wide open floor plans are more your thing: get out of my personal space, people!

3500 W 6th St #321, Los Angeles, CA 90020 Ph:213.487.5600
Hours: 6am-midnight Su-Th 24 hours Fri & Sat
Saunas: salt, wood & charcoal, red mud, ice, steam, dry
Spas: hot, cold
Admission fee: $30 (reduced to $15 if you book services $60 or above)
Parking: 6 hours free with validation in mall structure
Restaurant: Yes
Full nude?: Yes in Women's spa area; Spa issued t-shirt and shorts required in jimjilbang (common co-ed area) where saunas and cafe are located; gym clothing required at gym (outside spa entirely, but within same mall complex)

Spot the Difference (in a good way)
  • Aveda products 'on tap' (free) in locker rooms and showers, and for purchase at spa store
  • Secure at top level of Wilshire Galleria Mall
  • Tip: Pick up your fav drinks at Zion Market on ground floor before you enter spa 
  • Free admission to gym with entrance fee to spa 
  • Red Mud sauna
  • Wood & Charcoal sauna
  • Admission includes use of gym at no additional cost
This may not be for you if... 
  • You don't like having to fully exit the spa to get to the gym 
  • You were looking for traditional korean soaks (e.g. mugworts pool) 
  • You like your salt saunas scorching hot 
  • You don't like having to exit into a service elevator hallway to access a decidedly not spa-style / clean and decorated and very public style restroom from the jimjilbang
  • Food is a big part of the experience for you, and you need to see pictures.  Crystal Spa offers food, but their selection is not large, and unlike other spas, they do not have pictures posted of the dishes - just simple text only menus (they do have English translations though, and include skate!).  They also stop serving food at 9:30pm 

WI SPA ***
2700 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90057 Ph: 213.487.2700
Hours: 24 hours
Saunas: bulgama (oak wood), salt, clay (balls), jade, ice
Tubs: hot, cold
Admission fee: $25. Waived with treatments of $90 or more.  Additional overnight fees apply depending on time of check in and out: check in before 12AM: overnight Fee applied after 4AM. Check in after 12AM: overnight Fee paid upfront. Check in before 4AM, a New Day charge applied after 11AM
[Deals: $15 admission Tuesdays.  See more deals here.]
Gym: Yes (but requires membership / extra fees to use)
Parking: Free in attached lot (if crowded, they have complimentary valet)
Restaurant: Yes 
Full nude?: Yes in Women's spa area; Spa issued t-shirt and shorts required in jimjilbang (common co-ed area) where saunas, cafe and computer stations are located; gym clothing required at gym

Spot the Difference (in a good way)
  • 24 hours, taking the stress out of trying to get out of work in time to enjoy the place on a weeknight
  • Impressive space featuring 4 floors of shiny, state-of-the-art facilities
  • Clay room like a ball pool with balls smaller than gobstopper size.  You can really dig yourself into/under these if you wish for more even heating.  And, they have 2 large flat screen TVs IN this sauna so you can catch up on your korean dramas while your stress sweats melts away.
  • Saunas have cool designs: the bulgama is shaped like an igloo made of wood/stone or a smokehouse.  The ice sauna has cool rough-hewn crystals protruding from the ceiling, as if in a cave
  • Gift shop in women's spa area so you can buy masks, scrubs or any other DIY beauty supply you might have forgot to bring, without exiting spa
  • For those who want to fully disconnect / don't want to carry their phone around: desktop computers in jimjilbang are provided if you want to websurf for your own purposes and not be distracted by incoming work emails
  • Library of manga and mags in jimjilbang
  • Rooftop patio to hangout al fresco
This may not be for you if... 
  • Kids are not your thing, especially kids running around being as loud as they like, at the spa where you're supposed to be relaxing (I know, I am the very embodiment of evil and do not deserve to live.  No, I don't hate puppies too.)
  • You don't like sharing your spa experience with large groups of people
  • Cozy, intimate facilities are more your style 

Aroma Spa & Sports
3680 Wilshire Blvd. (3rd & 4th Floors) Los Angeles, CA 90010 Ph: 213.387.2111

Hours: Mon-Fri 8am-7pm; Sat 8am-7pm; Sun closed
Saunas: steam (mugworts), dry, mist, mud, jade
Tubs: hot jacuzzi, hot tub, cold tub
Restaurant: snack bar only with limited seating within spa; sushi restaurant on 2nd floor of complex (separate business)
Admission fee: $15 (waived with service over $90)
Parking: in attached structure (get validation from spa)
Full nude?: in spa area; swimsuit required for pool, and gym clothes required in gym (they provide shorts and t-shirts if needed)

Spot the difference (in a good way):
  • Giant gym free to use with purchase of spa service: this is the biggest and most well equipped gym at a Korean spa that I've seen yet.  Weight machines for pretty much every muscle, bikes, ellipticals, treadmills and those strange looking hand-pedal machines.
  • Golf range with great views over the city, for those into golf.  Just want to try it as a one-off thing? They will rent you the clubs to, for a fee.
  • Big pool with 4? lanes
This spa may not be for you if...
  • You love salt saunas (they don't have one)
  • Modern venue upgrades are important to you (this place looks like it hasn't been renovated since the 90s, very early 90s) 
  • A good Jjimjilbang is critical to your spa experience:
    • there aren't many common areas to lounge around in, at this spa: the only seating areas are 2 loveseats in the hallway from the lockers to the gym, and a few sofa chairs in the closed off snack bar area
    • snack bar is behind a closed, frosted door that makes you think it's not in business - if you are inquisitive/ determined enough to pass through that first door you will find a dark and dingy claustrophobic windowless room with service through a split top door. Mainly salads and juices served, with very limited Korean food menu.  Hours are inconveniently until 8pm on weekdays and 7:30pm Saturday, even though the spa is open til 10pm (so you don't have much time to get services done and eat after, unless you spend a lovely sunny socal afternoon indoors).
  • You were looking for Korean or other imported / higher end products to be used: when I tried the Aroma Signature Treatment ($110), when it came time for my facial scrub, they squeezed some out from a tube of Rite Aid Apricot Scrub.
  • You want your Jacuzzis / hot tubs to actually be hot (Aroma's were more lukewarm)
  • Efficiency / effectiveness is what you value most in a therapist (if you wanted friendly/chatty you would have gone to a non-Korean spa)

Hugh Spa * (not recommended at night)
1101 S Vermont Ave, (2nd floor) Los Angeles, CA 90006 Ph: 213.365.1268

Hours: Mon-Sun 8am-midnight
Saunas: jade steam, clay mud, himalayan salt, magnetic infrared, wormwood, ice, oxygen
Tubs: pink himalayan salt hot, cold
Restaurant: Yes
Admission fee: $20
[Deal Alert: $10 for $20 voucher i.e. price of admission with Yelp Deal.  Also, check in to get free Himalayan Salt Room Baked Egg if you are literally starving]
Parking: in attached open air lot on ground floor
Full nude?: in shower area only; in all other areas, spa robe required

Spot the difference (in a good way):
    Photo from
  • Ladies only
  • Cheap admission if you use the Yelp Deal (you can buy on phone and redeem instantly)
  • Only korean spa with magnetic infrared sauna in the area
  • Wormwood seated steam saunas - where the herbs are put on a stove literally below a seat with an opening, so you can steam yourself where the sun don't shine, to maximize female hormone balancing and other alleged health benefits of wormwood. Sounds like a unique experience: I did not try this as it was $20 extra.
  • For the uninitiated, the rooms are labelled with Step numbers, to help guide you through how to enjoy the spa, in the correct sequence.

This spa may not be for you if...
  • You don't like walking past a Bail Bonds company on the way to the spa 
  • You don't find it relaxing to be across from a Police Station (though a very nice, modern looking one, and one that probably makes the spa the safest most protected location possible in practice)
  • You don't want to hear the pounding (and often off-pitch) sounds of karaoke coming through from the bar downstairs
  • Old tiles around tubs / worn fabric on furniture bothers you, and you want everything to look clean and modern
    Photo from
  • If you don't like your clay sauna to feel a little creepy, like you're rising from the dead / taking
    the first breath as an 'immortal' from your coffin ( partitions in the clay room resemble wooden coffins without the lid).  
  • Food is an important part of the spa experience for you.  The signature 'himalayan salt room baked egg' (that I tried for free thanks to Yelp check-in) tastes exactly like an egg that has been baked for 7 hours would. Rubbery and sulfurous.  And also, not necessarily expected, brown and bland.  To be fair, I did not try their other cooked cafe foods, but I had no desire to, after that signature item.

Wilshire Spa * (not recommended)
3442 Wilshire Blvd. #100, Los Angeles, CA 90010 Ph: 213.387.0281

Hours: Sun-Thurs: 7am-10pm, Fri-Sat: 7am-2am
Saunas: mineral salt, charcoal/yellow ochre, pure onyx, steam, dry
Tubs: hot, cold
Restaurant: Yes
Admission fee: $20 ($25 after 10pm)
Parking: in lot across from building
Full nude?: Yes

Spot the difference (in a good way):
  • Onyx sauna - "improves blood circulation, increases metabolism, and relieves muscle pains and stiffness"
  • Charcoal/yellow ochre room hung with bags of herbs including lavendar
  • Not crowded at all late on a weeknight, in fact you could potentially have the spa to yourself
This spa may not be for you if...
  • You don't enjoy feeling like the star of a low budget horror movie (with gaping holes in ceiling in the spa room, peeling paint in the walls in the massage chair lounge area; late at night lights are dimmed and flickering, the only door to the women's spa is propped open where anyone in the open lobby upstairs - street level facing public parking lot directly - can potentially peek in at the right angle, and feels like they could also walk in if the female receptionist is not looking)
  • Jjimjilbang and other spa amenities are important to you
  • You can't disconnect entirely and need that WiFi to work (since your phone signal likely won't)

Now that you are informed, hope you'll keep an open mind and give Korean spas a try! (It will do wonders for any body hangups as well.  Women of all shapes, sizes and age go and couldn't care less what yours looks like - they are there for cleansing and health, not for judgment.  As long as you shower before going into any tubs or saunas, you will not be bothered or stared down in any way).


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Republique: Power to the (Food Loving) People

With the pedigree that comes from working in the kitchens of some of the world's greatest chefs, from Alain Ducasse to Ferran Adria, and rising to fame locally with Patina, Bastide, and Church & State, AND the longstanding community connection that comes with one of the most beloved, beautiful and historic venues in LA, Walter Manzke had the burden of great expectations riding on his shoulders in opening République.

The bistro with a focus on 'casual elegance', highlighting local ingredients elevated with a global approach, took over the space that once housed Charlie Chaplin's office, then the original La Brea Bakery, and Campanile: and we were glad to see that the breath-taking rustic grandeur of the space is preserved, with just the right amount of personal touches by the Manzke husband and wife team to make it their own (black and white floor tiles, furniture built by chef Manzke's father...).  They even kept the lovely fountain from the La Brea Bakery/Campanile era, but moved it appropriately outdoors.  A night out at Republique still feels like an intimate event, in some neighborhood gem of a restaurant in some off-the-beaten-path, yet ever so familiar venue that could just as well be in Italy/Spain/France.

Mims, not usually a fan of sea urchin, was so enthralled by the place that she agreed to check out the Eggs on Toast ($16) Santa Barbara uni, soft-scrambled eggs, with me.  Perfect tongues of fresh Santa Barbara sea urchin laid gently over fluffy chicken eggs scrambled with chives, which in turn sat atop crisp, freshly baked slices of baguette*.  The concept of egg on egg is not groundbreaking, but it's an absolute stroke of genius to pair uni (sea urchin gonads) with scrambled eggs - why didn't everyone do this?! Simple, yet brilliant. The dish also definitely turned Mims into a believer in one bite.

*Oh, don't miss out on Margarita Manzke's awesome bread - to avoid food waste Republique has a policy to only bring the complimentary bread to your table on request.  Whatever you do, if you're a lover of a good pre-dinner carb-loading - make sure you request this!

We can never resist a good beef tartare, and jumped when we saw one on the menu: Grass-Fed Beef Tartare ($18) tarragon aioli, pickled red onion, potato chips.  While this isn't the only place in LA to serve beef tartare with potato chips (Flores does it too), it's pretty much the best iteration we've tasted, with the crispy, fresh fried chips the perfect foil for the tender, velvety bites of beef - barely dressed to let the lovely natural flavors shine.  Also loved the plating: the way they stood the potato chips up made them look like some fantastical underwater forest.

Every dish so far had gotten our vote for some of the best things we've ever tasted...and then came the Charcuterie Board ($24) - which simply says "serves one to four" but with the generous portion sizes, we were convinced would actually feed 6 average sized adults.
We got pretty 'food-drunk' on the delirium-inducing deliciousness of every single element on this board - all house made - so much so that we couldn't even remember what the server said each item was - I only vaguely recall venison and liver somewhere in the charcuterie.  Trust me though, every single bite on this board was amazing.

If I had to choose a best of meal, however, my pick would be hands down the Duck Liver Mousse with pickled asian pear.  I don't think I've ever encountered this pairing - and it's absolute genius. This may be as close to the richness of foie that we can get in the city after the ban.  And loved how the soft juicy crunch of the asian pear balanced perfectly with the earthiness of the mousse - and how that ever so slight element of acidity helped to cut through it all without overwhelming the delicate flavors of the pear and duck liver.
We didn't want the charcuterie board to end, and seriously stuffed ourselves to the outer limits of human stomach capacity.

Yet we still had coming up: Risotto Nero ($19) with aquerello carnaroli, mediterrenean octopus, manila and razor clam.  This was a gorgeous presentation of vibrant pops of seafood against a stark backdrop of black rice.  The octopus, clams all tasted as if they were just recently plucked from the ocean.  Our only reservation about this one, was that it wasn't as full of flavor as we had expected - though it may have something to do with this being overshadowed by the flavors of the incredible charcuterie.  If we had had the risotto first it might have been possible that this would have also made our list of favorites.

All in all, République lived up to the hype for us: they have our vote as a great new place for 'special occasion dining' without the stuffiness. 

I also loved the bakery counter, where you can just get some of Margarita Manzke's pastries or delicious desserts (the ones that don't come with ice cream anyway) to go.  That's what I opted for one night when it became apparent that there wouldn't even be room for a single diner to slide up to the bar (but GM Christian was incredibly nice and apologetic about it, a rarity for a LA 'hotspot' - a manager who actually cares about every customer! After hearing that I'd driven from West LA in the rain, he did his best to accommodate, personally packing my dessert to go, and even throwing in a free baguette - and no, I absolutely never once mentioned the blog and never asked for anything extra.  This level of care made me even a bigger fan of Republique than I was after the first visit!).

***Much has been made about the 3% "Healthy LA" surcharge tagged onto every bill - which will go towards health care coverage for restaurant staff.  Whether it would have been more customer friendly to work that into food prices, versus bringing something that's usually 'behind the scenes' into front of house, will likely continue to be a topic for debate - but suffice to say here that you can, if you feel strongly about it, as stated by the restaurant take the 3% into account when calculating your tip (taking it out of your total tip).

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  6.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

624 S La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036
Ph:  323.938.1447


Republique on Urbanspoon


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