by Sara Dickerman

Olympus Women's Health Club Restaurant
8615 S Tacoma Way, Lakewood, 253-588-3355
Spa hours Mon-Fri 9 am-10 pm, Fri-Sat 9 am-2 am

We left our names at the door. As soon as my friend Carmen and I entered the Olympus Women's Health Club, located on an ugly commercial strip outside of Tacoma, we were known only by our locker numbers. I'd wanted to visit the spa and see how Korean spa food measured up to smoothies and wheatgrass, but, naturally, I had to experience the rest of the spa first.

Throughout the spa (entrance is $25, treatments $45-$60 each), there's a funny blend of relaxation and bossiness. Everywhere, signs told us how to behave: "No swimsuits in the pools," "Please refrain from the public displays of affection," "No oil, milk, eggs in the spa." Perhaps they had a problem with illicit picnicking in the locker room.

The "earth energy" part of the spa looks a little like the Home Depot door department. There are white doors of every style, each leading into a super-heated room lined with sand, sea salt, or jade. According to the spa literature, the experience is akin to "cooking meat with a heated stone which makes it well-done from the inside out," and as it turned out, I liked cooking myself: It had the pleasant laziness of sunbathing. Carmen, a native of a Persian Gulf nation with its own fair share of spas, sniffed, "We don't need this at home, we just step outside..."

After we'd had a requisite soak in the hot tub my number was called, and a woman in a sports bra and bike shorts beckoned sternly. She slapped the plastic-covered table in the crowded scrubbing area. "Lie down," she said. I did as I was told; I was number 57 now. Four other naked women meekly did the same, and when I glanced up from my terry cloth pillow, all I could see were acres of pink flesh. For the next 45 minutes my sports-bra lady scrubbed me methodically with nubbly green mitts, leaving me with skin that was smooth, almost otherworldly.

All that buffing made me ravenous. After changing, I stepped through another white door into the cafe. The kitchen was filled with the chopping and sizzling of kitchen prep.

"Spa food" in Europe and America used to suggest a particularly effete brand of nouvelle cuisine: highly orchestrated food made with stringent restraint on fat and calories. One '70s advocate, chef Michel Guérard, promoted tomato tarts with spinach leaves instead of crusts, and aspics layered with salmon and peppercorns. In the past decade or so, spa food has devolved into convenience food that seems supersaturated with nutrition: vitamin-boosted smoothies and energy bars and the like. At the Olympus spa, I was reminded that a whole meal, layered with flavors and textures, fills me up more wholesomely than any engineered food.

One of the best things about Korean food, in fact, is that it is well accessorized. Even here in this no-nonsense cafe, our meals came out with six tiny bowls of side dishes: marinated tofu, fermented black beans, pickled bean sprouts, coleslaw (instead of more aggressive kimchee, I suppose), pickled radish, and soy-tinged spinach. While waiting for the main course, we drank muscat juice ($1.50), a not-quite-natural-tasting white grape drink, with little shards of jelly at the bottom of the can.

Each meal--barbecue beef, noodle soup, potstickers, and the like--was $7.50. The barbecued chicken came with shredded cabbage, carrots, and a subtly sweet soy sauce, offering a satisfying blend of chew, crunch, and slurp. Tofu soup, served in a hot stone pot, arrived at the table in a raging froth. It was packed with supple globs of tofu, slivers of celery and bitter melon, and plenty of hot red pepper. Once it cooled down enough not to scald my tongue, the soup was soothing and healthful, warming me from the inside out, just like the jade energy room. It wasn't too complex in flavor, but spa food, Korean or otherwise, shouldn't be too stimulating; our bodies had already been through a lot. Besides, I was eating with smug delight, knowing that for the next few days at least, my skin would be as supple and smooth as a baby's rump.