If you don't live in Los Angeles — and even if you do — it's easy to get caught up in the petty and not-so-petty grievances against the place. The traffic. The fires. The economics and the repeating cliches of Hollywood.
But there's a great deal that offsets all this, provides ballast and counterpoint — and makes living here a whole lot of fun. Among other things, there's the food, which can be as good as it gets in this country, and the hidden (sometimes culinary; often therapeutic) pleasures one finds in the strip malls and odd streets throughout the city.
So if you've been spending too much time stuck in your car or watching CNN footage of whatever part of the city is burning down today, maybe it's time to find a great noodle joint and treat yourself to a foot massage.
Lucky for you, that's incredibly easy to do in this town, particularly in certain quadrants of it. Koreatown, downtown and the San Gabriel Valley all have many, many terrific restaurants — and probably even more day spas and massage shops. Turn the page for three of each, paired by relative proximity. They're listed in no particular order. Really, sometimes you just start with chocolate and keep going.
There are about four blocks between Roy Choi's new Chego outpost and Spaahbulous, a lovely foot massage specialist in a little strip mall in Chinatown. Probably start at Chego, which, if you can believe it, is about half the size of the previous iteration of the restaurant on Overland. Park in the lot underneath, which is free with validation, head upstairs to enjoy your bowl of Kung pau noodles, then head south-east and repark in the lot outside the spa — since you're not going to want to spend much time looking for your car when you're done.
And while it is true that Chego does not exactly serve spa food, it's also true that spa food is a very relative term. It's what relaxes you and makes you happy, maybe, and a kimchi and Spam bowl followed by a Sriracha bar may be just the thing — or if you want to tone down the dude food, order a Leafy T, which is probably as close to a salad bowl as Choi is going to get. Either way, you'll have plenty of time to daydream about things, food or not food, while your masseur or masseuse (they have both) is kneading the knots out of your shoulders and absolving your temples and feet of whatever ails them. And you'll get a cup of tea afterwards. Massage, $20 an hour, plus tip. Chego: 727 N. Broadway, Unit 117, Chinatown; 323-380-8680. Spaahbulous: 668 North Spring St., Chinatown; 213-596-7421.
With about three-quarters of a mile of Vermont Avenue between them, you can calibrate this however way best suits your equilibrium. Spend the afternoon submerged in the myriad tubs and baths, in the low cumulous clouds of the steam room and sauna, or getting a scrub and pounding massage from one of the dour black bikinied ladies (if you're a woman; there's both a men's and a women's spa) at Natura Spa and then trek up Vermont to sit at one of the lovely wooden tables at Beverly Soon Tofu. Or reverse the sequence and eat first, then head over to Natura, which is in the basement of the I.Magnin building on Wilshire.
I guess I'd suggest the former, since a bubbling caldron of Monica Lee's freshly-made soft tofu at Beverly Soon is best as a palliative, something to further soothe you, and provide some sustenance once you've had your troubles eased out of you. Experiencing a Korean bathhouse on a very full stomach is not nearly as much fun; besides, if you're going to be wandering around naked for a few hours, best to do so before dinner. And you don't want to skimp on the ordering at Beverly Soon — named Beverly after the original restaurant, which opened in 1986 on Beverly Blvd., and soon after the soft “soon” style of tofu — which you might do if you're heading out for a few hours in a jacuzzi.
So get the bubbling tofu, of course, but maybe also share an order of bibimbap, which Lee will probably stir for you herself, scraping up the lovely bits of crispy rice and dosing it nicely with hot sauce and sesame oil. Of course you could choose to hit Natura super late, a kind of detox after a long evening in Koreatown, as the spa recently extended its hours until 1 a.m. In that case, it's nice to know that you can order bibimbap in the spa restaurant. Bathhouse only, $15; massages and treatments, varying prices. Beverly Soon Tofu: 2716 W Olympic Blvd, Koreatown; 213-380-1113. Natura: 3240 Wilshire Blvd, Koreatown; 213-381-2288 .
Yes, I know Exotic sounds more, well, exotic than the very peaceful, utterly reputable foot massage business that you'll find here, on Las Tunas in the San Gabriel Valley. One of the many pleasures of Exotic is that you will not even have to repark for your massage after you've had a dinner, since the dumpling specialist Hui Tou Xiang has ample parking and is about a hundred feet around the corner. So go eat dinner first, ideally as many of the trays of xiao long bao, or XLB, as you can reasonably manage.
You'll probably recognize the strip mall, as Hui Tou Xiang neighbors not only Exotic, but is literally next door to Luscious Dumplings, also a very good place to eat plenty of soup dumplings — except for the fact that it's often closed.
Hui Tou Xiang is mostly open, certainly it's open later, and it features not only excellent XLB but stellar spicy wontons, pork ribs, leek pancakes and the addictive potstickers for which the place is named. Order plenty, then wander around the corner, where you'll have a lovely foot soak and massage in the pleasant, comfy chair-filled room. Foot massage, $15 an hour, plus tip. Hui Tou Xiang Noodles House: 704 W. Las Tunas Drive San Gabriel; 626-281-9888. Exotic Spa: 702 W. Las Tunas Drive San Gabriel; 626-281-1730.
For a terrific guide to the various spas throughout L.A., check out The Spa Less Traveled, by Gail Herndon and Brenda Goldstein, published locally by Prospect Park Books.
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