The Best Korean Food You’ll Ever Enjoy While Wearing Standard-Issue Pajamas

kinglogo_redBack in January, I decided that 2016 was the year I said “yes” to opportunity and didn’t even bother to qualify it by adding “within reason.” That’s how I found myself at King Spa & Sauna in Niles, enjoying the best Korean food I’ve ever eaten while wearing standard-issue pajamas. For years, I’ve been told that King Spa was, in turns, “awesome,” “sooo relaxing,” and “something I’d really enjoy if I just got over my crippling fear of public nudity.” Buoyed by the encouragement of a forever friend and riding the inner calm of a klonopin, I decided it was time to experience a jimjilbang, a large public bathhouse containing hot and cold tubs, traditional saunas, and relaxation areas. I was told there would be food as well, and that’s what sealed the deal for me. I’d seen what happened to Conan O’Brien when he visited a Korean spa, so on the drive over, my companions gave me a quick overview of what to expect. They confirmed I would have to be naked for at least some of it, but anywhere I’d be naked (if I adhered to the house rules) would be female-only; males have their own side for the hot tubs and so forth. Relaxation rooms and the kiln saunas are co-ed, so I would be issued a set of pajamas for wandering around those areas. bathside_muse Female hot tub/spa area at King Spa & Sauna. King Spa is situated between a Home Depot and Super H Mart, a seriously awesome Korean supermarket and mall requiring a separate visit. Once we entered the lobby and paid, we were issued a bracelet which held our locker key and functioned as a credit card. We then headed off to our respective locker rooms. After stripping down, I briefly considered bailing until my friend handed me an orange tea towel and stated we were going in to the hot tub/spa area. I’ll admit that after a few minutes, sitting and soaking with naked strangers, a forever friend, and some young adults I’ve known since they were zygotes wasn’t so weird and I was actually starting to relax. After making several circuits of increasingly warmer hot tubs, shocking myself in the cold tub, and defrosting in the wet sauna, it was time to change into my pajamas and head to the common area for lunch. I really didn’t know what to expect and was surprised by the variety of food available. There were traditional Korean dishes like bulgogi, bimbimbab, and pajeon — a pancake featuring green onions as the main ingredient — as well as Japanese udon, pork tonkatsu, sushi and other familiar options like pizza and burgers. Exhausted and exhilarated from battling my demons, I needed protein and opted for bulgogi. I was glad I did; the meat was tender, flavorful, and accompanied by a small salad, jasmine rice, potato salad, kim chee, and other vegetables. Others in our party enjoyed bimbimbab, chicken bento boxes, and spicy soba noodles. Prices were a little higher than what you might see at a Korean restaurant, but where else do you get to enjoy this kind of food while shoeless and in pajamas? Bimbimbop. Photo credit: Bimbimbop. Photo credit: Satisfied with our meal, we spent a couple more hours enjoying the other amenities, including the traditional kiln saunas (we steered clear of the super-hot one, which came with a warning and a hairnet), the relaxation room  — with its fully reclined leather chairs, as well as the ionization rooms and movie theater. Would I go back? Definitely — I’ve yet to experience a full-body scrub. Although I think I may need more than just bulgogi to recover. Admission for adults is $35 per person ($30 for ages 2 - 12). Food and other spa amenities are extra, as is an overnight stay, should you choose to partake. King Spa & Sauna is located at 809 Civic Center Drive in Niles. It is open 24 hours a day, although the wet sauna areas are unavailable from 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. for cleaning.
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Tracie Bedell

Tracie Bedell started wiping dishes with her family's catering company at the tender age of 8 and has been involved with the food industry in one way or another since. After earning her degree in French and spending way too much time on technical writing and advertising, she's stoked to be back doing what she really enjoys: eating and writing about food. Ask her for her life-transforming enchilada recipe; you'll be glad you did.