Korean Cuisine at Queens’ Strangest Spa
Illustration by Miguel Pang Ly
Not to brag, but I’m carving out something of a niche here. Several years back, while working as a restaurant critic in San Francisco, I reviewed the food at a Russian spa in one of the city’s most obscure neighborhoods. The fare was hearty and dense, and I wrote that you should tread lightly before using the punishing saunas and high-heat baths. That review was a hoot, and I now feel qualified to tackle my next spa food experience: Spa Castle.
If you’ve never been, Spa Castle can be a bit tricky to fathom. It’s a boxy, enormous, Korean-owned warehouse structure in the tippy-top reaches of Queens. The neighborhood is College Point, a remote residential and industrial area that no train brings you to. And inside the building? Well, we’ll get to that.
My interest in Spa Castle’s food stems from a long-ago birthday visit, in 2008. I still maintain sepia-toned memories of the modest pan-Asian menu all those years back, and how it contrasted with Spa Castle’s gaudier offerings. My initial visit to the quirky Korean day spa was a surprise birthday treat; I recall an intense and exhausting day, buoyed by a quiet moment with a bento box.
Make no mistake: Spa Castle is not like spas you may have visited before, with New Age chime songs and kale face masks and maximum tranquility. It’s raucous, often crowded, with a vibe more like a Midwestern waterpark than a soothing getaway. There is a dazzling array of offerings, centered around its trippy saunas and whirlpools. The crowd is diverse in every sense—Korean teens snapping each other with towels, Brooklyn hipsters ambling around wearing headphones, middle-aged Russian lovers locked in perpetual embrace.
To that last example: Spa Castle has battled with controversy of late, after a sensational New York Post exposé dropped last March. It showed that patrons were getting extra-frisky in the baths, and local strippers had made it a post-shift hangout. Since the article, the management has clearly cracked down on tomfoolery, though. Large signs posted everywhere scold that no public displays of affection are allowed.
During my recent visit, there was some smooching on display, but for the most part it was a fairly chaste scene. All patrons were clad in the formless Spa Castle standard uniform (resembling pastel-hued hospital scrubs), and all in all the vibe was family-friendly. There are nude soaking pools in the basement, but those are single-sex, and it seemed like most people there were just blissed out (possibly sleeping). Ah, but the food. For the all-American visitor, there are chicken tenders, a mid-level burger, even some spaghetti and meatballs.
But—much like I wanted to eat blini and blintzes at the Russian spa restaurant—I was intent on ordering from Spa Castle’s Korean(-ish) menu. They offer an array of “bento boxes,” which are kind of a cross between typical bento and Korean dosirak lunchboxes. There is, naturally, bibimbap, as well as seafood hot pot and seaweed soup. There is also pho, udon, ramen and dumpling soup, apparently an attempt to lock down the broadest array of Asian soups.
I got the “Sizzling Rice Soup With Seafood,” a solid winter-warmer loaded with mussels, shrimp of varying sizes, clams, fish, crab and a mix of veggies. Careful not to burn your mouth, as this one is served at peak scald levels. Crusts of rice sizzle in the milky broth. My companion ordered the Bulgogi Bento, a lovely array of goodies (dumpling, fried veggies, tomato wedges, pickled radish, raw greens, egg, miso soup, shrimp tempura) centered around a tender, well-seasoned bulgogi beef-and-rice centerpiece.
Were these the best versions we’d ever tried? Certainly not, but they held their own, and felt like a welcome complement to our overall spa experience.
I would be remiss not to mention Spa Castle’s “cocktail” program, a selection of potent, teeth-achingly sweet club favorites. With cutesy names like Peach Crush and Bahama Mama, these lethal concoctions should be approached gingerly. If you are going to spend any time in the punishing saunas, be mindful of your alcohol intake. Spa Castle limits each patron to three drinks, but just one can tip you sideways. (Not to mention the steep price tags: $16 to $18 each.)
The key to a successful Spa Castle visit is moderation. If you order too much food, you’ll suffer from bloat in the pools. Too much booze and you risk dehydration. Too much sauna, you’re going to wilt. And too many public displays of affection? Well, management just might show you to the door.
But if you’re a smart customer, and pace yourself with care, you’ll leave Spa Castle a little full, a little tipsy—and a lot relaxed.
131–10 11th Ave., College Point