Thursday, April 24, 2014

1MB Travels: Las Vegas: The Oyster Bar and Pavlovian Response

In that infamous experiment, physiologist Ivan Pavlov found that dogs, naturally salivating in anticipation of food, can be conditioned to react the same way to the sound of a bell, if trained to associate the ringing noise with food.

Recently, I discovered Vegas is my bell, and the seafood/Combo Pan Roast at Oyster Bar my unconditioned stimulus.  The mere mention of the city triggers thoughts of that almost-traffic-cone-colored-bowl-of-pure-delicious, and sets off unseemly drooling.

Even though everything about that place is all wrong.

With the exception of its incredible food/cocktail offerings, I hate everything that Vegas is.  The arid desert weather, the perpetual blanket of smoke that sits over every public indoor space, the constant barrage of light and sound, signifying nothing (but the most futile of dreams) trapped in claustrophobic bullet time. Especially seedy old school Vegas, with its worn carpets, dense with decades of cigarette and alcohol fueled footfall; its wrinkled old souls, feeding their lifeblood into the slot machine, who look like they will need to be surgically removed from it when they reach the end of their days.

And Palace Station, home to Oyster Bar, is off-off-strip, and probably one of the most OG casinos left standing. When foodie blogger friends first recommended this place, I honestly thought they were out of their minds.  Though off-strip, cozy authentic eateries are often the ones that offer the most amazing food...this was the kind of place where you would expect the $2.99 casino buffet - a fueling pit that is all utilitarian quantity, not quality.

And then they mentioned the place was basically a counter, 18 seats, no reservations - and the wait could be between one to three hours.  If we're lucky, and go during off-peak time.

Sound great so far?

Well, don't judge an oyster bar by its location - because this turned out to be one of my favorite places to eat in Vegas (see Pavlovian response).

There is indeed without fail, a long line snaking from this place at all hours - for good reason.  Their pan roasts, made fresh to order by snarky-funnyman chef Bob, are pretty damn amazing.











What is pan roast? It's your choice of seafood, roasted fresh in a cauldron/pan with a slot-machine-like-handle, with brandy, cream and tomato.

You also get to choose the level of spiciness: from 1 to 10, with 10 so extreme that even the chef discourages most people from ordering it.

They do take 'made to order' very seriously, and it takes a while to get it to just the right (roiling) temperature and consistency.
So, usually, you're starving by the time a seat opens up and you've been tortured tantalized by the untouchable scent of that magical pan roast for the last few hours... 

Many customers order a platter from the raw bar to relieve hunger pains until your pan roast is deemed ready by the chef. 

I went 1/2 for my half dozen ($12.99), since not many places serve clams raw and I really wanted to try it.  Neither the clams nor the oysters had the spring of the freshest catch, nor that neat, perfectly chilled brine that conjures deep ocean - but Water Grill this never tried to be, and when you've been waiting in line for hours, you start to appreciate any bite of food you can shovel in to stop your stomach from consuming itself while you await the main course.

And then came my Combo Pan Roast ($21.99).  Packed with lobster, crab and shrimp.  Immersed in rich brandy tomato cream sauce that has that irresistible tug on my tastebuds, that happens it seems whenever alcohol is used in cooking, leaving me lapping for more.

Into this very generously sized bowl, the chef turns over a cup of white rice, the better to both offset the heat in the sauce while highlighting its flavors. (I was only able to handle level 5 heat comfortably)



While the pan roast initially may seem pricey for this essentially 'seafood shack' style Cajun joint, the pieces of seafood are a healthy size, snappy-fresh, and there's lots of it in each gigantic lake of a bowl.  Most people (i.e. averaged sized Asians, in our group) would either be able to share a bowl between two people, or have enough leftovers for your next meal.
Since that first time, every time I go back to Vegas I must now stop at Oyster Bar.  (Beyond the food, there is a lovely  instant camaraderie between those 'in the know' and lots of bonding / commisserating while in line and at the counter that provides nice human moments while in sin city.)  While there are other tasty sounding Cajun dishes on the menu from gumbo to jambalaya: I can't imagine not getting the pan roast.  Because I know that the minute I've settled the bill, no matter how stuffed I am or if my arms are already filled with to go containers, I already wish I had ordered more.  And next time someone says 'Vegas', I will be right back at Oyster Bar, without question. 


On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  2 stars
Service - 5.5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 
________________________________________________

The Oyster Bar at Palace Station Casino
2411 West Sahara Avenue Las Vegas, NV 89102
Ph: 702.367.2408

Open 24 hours!

_______________________________________________

Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon







Sunday, April 6, 2014

Yellow Cow: A Happy Surprise KBBQ Hotspot in the South Bay !!!

When you've lived long enough, you realize that not all surprises are of the pleasant sort.  (Cue violins).

It's so easy to become cynical.  Even with food.  And when an invite to try a Korean BBQ spot, way out in Gardena, arrived in my inbox, I was...skeptical.  Especially when Ktown, with its treasure trove of mouthwatering and affordable korean eateries, is so accessible on an everyday basis.  Especially at the part where there was mention of "combo #1"...which immediately brings to mind "quick service restaurant".

But then scuba class brought us to the South Bay, so we decided to give Yellow Cow a try.

A small, cozy space in a non-descript strip mall was actually the first sign that we might love this place.  And owner Monica, a Korean mom who opened the restaurant 13 years ago, when her kids were young - and named the place after their favorite animal, plus the cheeriest color.  Who, in a sight unfamiliar to non-Korean diners in Korean restaurants: gregariously flits around the dining room like a mother hen, making sure everyone was being fed well, and having a good time. 

We were treated to a kaleidoscope of banchan as soon as we sat down. Monica explained that the banchan varies from day to day depending on what's fresh in market, or if inspiration strikes to do a certain special.  We loved every item that we had that night.
 
The picture heavy menu clearly caters to a community that may not be as familiar with more...ethnic cuisine.  There were step-by-step instructions in English of how to enjoy a korean bbq meal.

And first to appear on the list were set meals or the aforementioned "combo"s, presumably to make it easier for newbies to put appropriate dinners together. These combos mainly varied in the number of plates of proteins (choose from pre-set options) and all came with free rice cakes, steamed egg, steamed rice, and soju (or beer or soda) and of course the side dishes without which no korean meal would be complete.

Monica kindly offered us combo #2 ($68), which comes with 2 Meats + 1 Seafood + 1 Soup + 2 drinks.

Those used to AYCE meals in Ktown that average $25 per person might get a bit sticker shocked at first, but realize that $68 is for two people, with plentiful portions of quality ingredients that easily fed two average sized ladies past the point of satiation - plus alcohol.

On that note, we started with the Kalbi ("Marinated Beef Ribs" on menu, requires supplement of $5) which came as beautifully marbled, hefty, tender, juicy slabs that we could cut up with a pair of scissors and grill ourselves.  We loved this flavorful kalbi, toasted with our glasses of Hite beer.

Then came items that you don't see on every KBBQ menu: kurobuta pork belly ("Black Pork Belly" on menu, requires supplement of $3), known for being super fatty, flavorful, juicy and tender.  This also was presented as giant slabs of thick bacon strips, beautifully arranged on a wooden tray, that you get to cut up yourself so you can adjust to the size you want to grill.  Also provided is a cross section of onion that you use to 'rest' the pork on the grill if the cooking speed is exceeding your face-stuffing speed.

And if you were thinking that the protein offerings might be limited to what appeals to the masses: we just selected the heartier options as we were super hungry after scuba class - Yellow Cow actually features options for the more adventurous eater too, from beef tongue to intestines to tripe to duck breast.

For the seafood item included in our combo: we selected shrimp, which wasn't spectacular, but still fairly tasty.

Yellow Cow offers other items that you don't see everywhere either:  there was the free side that comes with any combo, a plate of thinly sliced radish in two colors, with jalapenos, garlic cloves and a fermented bean paste.  The pink radish slices were dyed with beet, while the white radish was flavored with vinegar and wasabi.
You use the radish to wrap up meat that's hot off the grill, and stuff it with the jalapeno, garlic (grill it too to release flavor) and bean paste.  The radish adds refreshing crunch that perfectly balances the smokey char and juiciness of the meat.  We really loved this: and korean bbq may not feel right without it again!

Of course, you can also put the meat on the mountain of slaw provided and pick some of that up with each bite of meat to add textural contrast while soaking up the lovely meaty juices.
This side of kimchi was some of the best I've ever had (disclaimer: obviously NOT a Korean food expert here, but personally I loved the balance of sweet, sour and heat, softness and crunch in Yellow Cow's version)
Every combo also comes with a side of Steamed Egg, which comes in a stone pot piping hot, a smooth and milder tasting side dish to balance out the bold flavors of the mains and other spiced-up sides.

Lastly, also included in the combo meals is your choice of soup: Miso, Kimchi or Ramen.  We went for the ramen, which came in a large kimchi chigae like, beautifully Day-Glo orange broth - enough to serve two.

For the uninitiated, Yellow Cow has the very 'authentic'ally Korean device of the tabletop call button, which you can use to get service on demand. We never had to use this during our dinner though, as Monica and her team were so attentive.
Aside from Combo #2, we also got to try Fried Dumplings (8pcs for $10) topped with a slaw of onion, cilantro and gochujang (pungent paste made primarily of chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans).

To finish, we tried Monica's original creation: Seaweed pancake - fried with sesame leaf - delicious and one of our favs of the meal!

All in all, the authentic korean barbecue, plus western style hospitality, plus bonus dishes showing creativity all make for a kind of surprise that also delights in Gardena.  Would I drive out to Yellow Cow if I lived in Ktown?  Probably not.  But Yellow Cow is definitely a great place for those in the South Bay, craving good Korean food and not willing to drive up to Ktown.  I know that if I ever find myself in the South Bay again and hungry for Korean, Yellow Cow would now be first to come to mind.

*Disclaimer: This meal was hosted

________________________________________________

Yellow Cow
1835 W Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, CA 90247
Ph: 310.329.7343
Website: myyellowcow.com

_______________________________________________

Yellow Cow Korean BBQ on Urbanspoon







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 week...limited 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 fantastic for promoting good health.  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 stimulates 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.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________

 OLYMPIC SPA *****
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
olympicspala.com

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)

CENTURY SPORTS CLUB & DAY and NIGHT 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
centurydayandnightspa.com

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)  

NATURA SPA *****

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 services $80 or above.
Parking: $2 valet with validation ($3 without validation)
Restaurant: Yes Sun-Thu 10am-8pm Fri-Sat 10am-8:30pm
Full nude?: Yes. Gym clothing required at gym obviously, but gym is conveniently located inside women's area
natura-spa.com

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!


CRYSTAL SPA  ****
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
wispausa.com

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 
 
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
hughspa.com

Spot the difference (in a good way):
    Photo from hughspa.com
  • 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 hughspa.com
  • 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
wilshirespa.com


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)
  • Jimjilbang 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).

Enjoy!

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