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When spa food means a sauna and a bowl of galbi jjim

When spa food means a sauna and a bowl of galbi jjim
A trip to the spa is a lot more soothing when there's good food nearby. (Illustration by Blair Thornley)

The term “spa food” conjures healthful things: smoothies, grain bowls, earnestly invented compilations involving açaí, whatever that is, and frilly green things, likely uncooked and pounded into submission by someone in yoga pants. Fine. The folks in Lululemon will outlive us all. But some of us who find tranquillity in Korean steam rooms or solace in the tread of feet up the spine also believe the pleasure of a good spa treatment is best paired with food that equals it in satisfaction.

And while the austerity of salads can be beneficial, sometimes a plate of hamachi tostadas, a bowl of boat noodles or a bubbling vat of galbi jjim is as curative as an hour in a sauna. So to help with your 2019 resolutions, here are eight combinations of spa and food, from the San Gabriel Valley to Orange County, to soothe both body and soul.

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A vat of bubbling galbi jiim at Sun Nong Dan in Koreatown.
A vat of bubbling galbi jiim at Sun Nong Dan in Koreatown. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Crystal Spa and Sun Nong Dan

Tucked inside the third floor of the City Center complex in Koreatown, above a huge Korean grocery, you access Crystal Spa through the therapeutic portal of an Aveda shop. There are separate spas for men and women, and a co-ed jimjilbang, or communal area with heated rooms and a tiny restaurant. There are saunas and steam rooms, and a series of small pools, both heated and cooled. With reliably good sessions for acupressure, massage, scrubs and body wraps, the spa is also worth it for the six-hour free parking you get with your entrance ticket.

Because after a milk scrub, you’ll likely have a few extra hours for all the food across the street: There are two Korean barbecue joints (Quarters, Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong) in Chapman Plaza, plus one next door (Gwang Yang). But it’s in the strip mall across the street where you’ll find not only bowls of abalone porridge at Mountain and spicy stew at Hangari Bajirak Kalguksu, but one of the best versions of the short rib stew galbi jjim — bubbling cauldrons topped with blow-torched cheese — at Sun Nong Dan. And for dessert, there’s a Honeymee down the street.

Crystal Spa: 3500 W. 6th St., No. 321, Los Angeles; (213) 487-5600; crystalspala.com. Sun Nong Dan: 3470 W. 6th St., Suite 7, Los Angeles; (213) 365-0303; sunnongdan.com.

Pan-fried Shanghai-style buns at Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village in San Gabriel.
Pan-fried Shanghai-style buns at Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village in San Gabriel. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Tibetan Herbal Feet Soak and Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village

Tibetan Herbal Feet Soak, on the second floor of a San Gabriel shopping center, has a bright, convivial communal room outfitted with a flat-screen TV and overstuffed armchairs draped with beachy blue-and-white striped towels. The technique here is to give your feet a hot steam bath before a foot massage that targets the various pressure points in your feet. Painful? Sometimes, although it’s the kind of pain that, not unlike a surfeit of chiles, feels good too.

While there is a creditable xiao long bao shop on the ground floor of the center where you’ve gotten your feet taken care of, you’d do well to book a table across the street for after your foot appointment, as one of the best places for dim sum in the SGV is in the adjacent shopping mall. Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village is a full-on banquet hall, velvet-appointed, with not only excellent sheng jian bao, but also boutique dishes such as bird’s nest soup, jellyfish and braised chicken feet with abalone.

Tibetan Herbal Feet Soak: 227 W. Valley Blvd., #218A, San Gabriel; (626) 968-9888. Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village: 250 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 282-1777.

Spaahbulous and Lasa

Spaahbulous is a homey place with a lounge-like waiting area and a dim communal space for foot reflexology and soaking sessions or back-and-shoulder massages done on plush recliners. There are private rooms for full-body massage, with the option for hot stones. A welcoming staff ends your session with hot tea.

A few blocks away is the Far East Plaza, one of L.A.’s food destination spots, with Roy Choi’s Chego, Howlin’ Ray’s hot fried chicken, Lao Tao’s Taiwanese street food, Endorffeine coffee, the Chinese noodle bowl specialist Qin and more. But it’s at Lasa, brothers Chad and Chase Valencia’s modernist Filipino restaurant, where I seek out a restorative bite, be it a pancit noodle bowl at lunch or crispy chicken done in the style of lechon for dinner.

Spaabulous: 668 N. Spring St., Suite 223, Los Angeles; (213) 596-7421. Lasa: 727 N. Broadway, Los Angeles; (213) 443-6163; lasa-la.com.

AAA Relax Massage and Proof Bakery

A minimalist, no-frills shop in Atwater Village, AAA has a front, communal room for foot reflexology massages, plus private rooms for full-body treatments. A foot massage can run as little as $15 for 30 minutes, and there are options for chair massages, combinations of full body and foot, and a variation with hot stones.

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A block away is Na Young Ma’s excellent Proof Bakery, one of the best bakeries in Southern California, packed into a tiny one-room storefront, with a kitchen that’s not much bigger in the back. Ma’s viennoiserie menu is small but superlative (croissants, canelés, financiers) as is her savory lunch menu and selection of cakes, tarts and cookies. If your massage lasts longer than Proof’s hours (it closes at 4 p.m.), head across the street to Viet Noodle Bar, which serves the addictive, hard-to-find dish, turmeric fish noodles.

AAA Relax Massage: 3106 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 667-9758. Proof Bakery: 3156 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 664-8633; proofbakery.com.

Sweet potato taco, sweetbread taco and pumpkin taco at Guerrilla Tacos.
Sweet potato taco, sweetbread taco and pumpkin taco at Guerrilla Tacos. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Base Coat and Guerrilla Tacos

Base Coat, open since late 2016 in the Arts District, is a bright lofty space that has an upscale coffee bar in the front of the shop. The place specializes in mani-pedis that use only non-toxic products, and there’s also an option of aromatherapeutic hand or foot massages. And on Fridays, a mother-daughter team comes in to do Tarot readings.

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The nail salon is next to Wes Avila’s Guerrilla Tacos, the bricks-and-mortar iteration of his longtime taco truck. These days, Avila has the standards that made his truck a destination — sweet potato tacos, hamachi tostadas — as well as brunch, a cocktail bar, queso fundido with sunchokes, and oxtail fries. Depending on how much you order, you might want to hit the spa afterward so you can drift into a taco-induced reverie in one of the salon’s plush chairs.

Base Coat: 704 Mateo St., Los Angeles; (888) 290-3552; basecoatnailsalon.com. Guerrilla Tacos: 2000 E. 7th St., Los Angeles; (213) 375-3300; guerrillatacos.com.

Siam Classic Massage and Ruen Pair

A prettily appointed Thai massage place in the heart of Thai Town, Siam Classic specializes in traditional Thai massage, with options of Swedish, deep tissue, hot stone and sports massage, as well as appointments specifically designed for pregnant women and kids. Open for about five years, the shop also has an early-bird special that makes the already inexpensive treatments a real bargain.

Long considered one of the go-to Thai restaurants in Los Angeles, Ruen Pair — conveniently in the same mini-mall as Siam Classic — has a massive menu that features dishes such as sauteed morning glory, black thousand-year eggs, Issan sausage, turnip omelets and, of course, boat noodles. Speaking of which, the boat noodle specialist Pa-Ord Noodle is across the parking lot, so you could get a bowl at each place without having to repark.

Siam Classic Massage: 5261 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 485-2800; siamclassicmassage.com. Ruen Pair: 5257 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 466-0153; ruenpairthaila.com.

Beach Spa and Athenian Burgers No. 3

Set at the back of a strip mall in Buena Park, Beach Spa came onto my radar thanks to chef Roy Choi’s mom, who’s long been a regular. It’s a pretty classic Korean spa, open for more than a dozen years, with hot and cold baths, steam and dry saunas, and a jimjilbang with heated rooms, and a tiny restaurant that serves soups, stews, dumplings and bibimbap. You can get a scrub, massage or acupressure for $35 to $100.

There’s another mall nearby with a BCD Tofu House and a location of the Korean barbecue chain Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, or you can drive a few more miles and get what Gustavo Arellano has repeatedly pronounced the best breakfast burrito in Orange County. At Athenian Burgers No. 3, inside another Buena Park strip mall, the suicide breakfast burrito may not logically be what you’d expect after a sauna and a scrub, but why not? Loaded with bacon, sausage and bits of ham that are embedded into sheets of egg alongside some pretty great hash browns, it’s a massive and happily portable meal.

Beach Spa: 4560 Beach Blvd. No. B, Buena Park; (714) 670-1000. Athenian Burgers No. 3: 8511 La Palma Ave., Buena Park; (714) 523-9999.

A mug of hot chocolate, with Oaxacan cocoa powder and cinnamon, at Cacao Mexicatessen in Eagle Rock.
A mug of hot chocolate, with Oaxacan cocoa powder and cinnamon, at Cacao Mexicatessen in Eagle Rock. (Amy Scattergood / Los Angeles Times)

Eagle Rock Thai Spa and CaCao Mexicatessen

Another strip mall, another nondescript massage shop. Open seven days a week, Eagle Rock Thai Spa has half a dozen rooms where you can get Thai, Swedish, a combination of the two, or deep tissue massage. Quiet and off the beaten track, it’s never too crowded, so walk-ins are welcome. Ask for your masseuse to walk on your back; the traditional technique is kind of the opposite of the foot massage, with marvelous results.

A mile or so east from the spa is CaCao Mexicatessen, a family-run taqueria and deli where you can find duck carnitas tacos and off-the-menu vampiros, plus mole fries (why isn’t this everywhere?) and excellent frothy, chile-spiked hot chocolate. If you’re blissed out enough from both massage and tacos, pick up some salsas, disks of Mexican chocolate and house-made tortillas on your way out — there’s nothing like a stocked pantry to complete the sense of well-being.

Eagle Rock Thai Spa: 2501 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 982-1320. CaCao Mexicatessen: 1576 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 478-2791; cacaodeli.com.

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