Whether it’s a first date or 47th anniversary, it’s hard to separate romance from food. In With Love & Red Sauce, we’re exploring the ways these two interact—from newlyweds learning to compromise over dinner to celebrating your longest relationship (with noodles!).
My husband John and I got married in October 2018. We didn’t really think about planning a honeymoon, but had planned to go to Atlanta together for quite some time. I may have brought up the idea before we even thought about planning a wedding, actually. Lucky for us, my editor is from Atlanta, so we had a little local help as well. In the end, it just so happened that the timing of our trip from Florida, where we live now, to the Peach State made it feel like a honeymoon.
You may be wondering, “Why Atlanta?” Well, John and I typically like to travel to places to experience things we can’t experience at home. We found that there were quite a few things just outside of Atlanta that we didn’t have where we lived.
Spas, for instance. I was always a little obsessed with spas, even as a child. When I was 12, I used an electric vegetable steamer, a bed sheet, and some imagination to create an aromatherapy hammam in my bedroom closet. I eventually graduated beyond closet steam baths to proper spas, but a trip to New York City in 2010 introduced me to a new type of spa experience that would turn out to become my true obsession. It was a cold night, and I stumbled upon a jimjilbang—a Korean spa—in Manhattan’s Koreatown. It was magical to me, back then. There was something captivating about paying a nominal cover fee to strip down, sweat, steam, soak, and nap for as long as I wanted.
As time went on, I started to go to nicer jimjilbangs. It felt like I was part of an insider club of non-Koreans who enjoyed Korean bathhouses. While I was living in Boston, I would sometimes take a bus to NYC and always made it a point to visit Spa Castle, my only real splurge on any trip to the city. I always told John about the jimjilbangs and how much I loved them, and how much he would love them, too.
We finally went to one on a trip to Washington, D.C. in 2017, and I was able to get John as addicted as I was to the Korean spa experience. A fellow aficionado at the jimjilbang there recommended Jeju Sauna in Atlanta, and the name stuck with me (because Atlanta is not too far from Florida). I did a lot of research, and I was never able to find a Korean spa in Florida like the ones I had experienced up north. So I looked up Jeju and learned that we could drive there in less than a day or take a short flight. Either way, it was close enough to warrant a visit, so we made a commitment to each other that we’d visit one day.
Whenever I plan a trip, one of the first things I do is create a personalized Google Map. For my Atlanta honeymoon, for instance, I dropped a pin on Jeju Sauna. Then, I zoomed out to see what else was around. Not many people know that you can actually personalize your pinpoints using emojis or any other images you’d like. I use flag emojis to denote different international restaurants. Before I knew it, my map started to look like the front of the United Nations building, except that instead of politics, these flags represented food. Furthermore, what these flags revealed was that the suburbs just northeast of Atlanta are an Ali Baba’s cave of Korean, regional Chinese, and Mexican food, which are all in short supply in South Florida.
It was settled, then. We were going to have a self-pampering honeymoon trip that revolved around the following itinerary: spa, eat, shop for culinary goodies and gadgets, eat, and more spa. So we left our home in Hollywood, Florida in the morning and arrived in Georgia late that evening. After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we headed straight to our first jimjilbang.
While this jimjilbang may be named after the affluent district of Seoul that PSY infamously sang about in 2012, it’s actually a pretty humble establishment. This doesn’t detract from its quality, however. Gangnam is clean, has all of the saunas and soaking tubs you’d expect in a Korean spa, is open 24 hours a day, and is pretty affordable, all things considered. For $80 you can get a one-hour massage and access to all of the amenities. And there are many.
After we showered off, the Korean locker-room attendant got up from watching his TV show and ushered us into a communal massage room. While we were required to be nude to go into the shower, tub, and steam room area, we needed to wear our Gangam Sauna–issued pajamas to get our massages. Another man directed me to get onto a massage table and then proceeded to give me the beatdown of my life! Through the corner of my eye, I saw that John was getting worked over by an older woman. I thought that he might not be getting the deep tissue massage he was craving, but she proved that a masseur’s stature should never be an indication of his or her capabilities. She turned John’s muscles into putty.
After our massages, we wandered around the facility a bit. I entered a sauna and sunk into a shallow pit of heated clay marbles whose warmth soothed me down to my soul. I cooled off in the chilly ice room and visited some of the other saunas, before both John and I got hungry. Gangnam sauna does feature a Korean restaurant, but it actually has a closing time, unlike the jimjilbang. Options for dinner past 10 p.m. were pretty limited, and we didn’t want to end up at a chain restaurant. Thankfully, we were able to find one place that was running business into the night…
2. Hae Woon Dae
I had this restaurant labeled with a fire emoji on my map (indicating that it specializes in Korean barbecue). It’s also open until 6 a.m. most nights. Our gracious hostess, who also doubled as the lone waitress that evening, brought us to a comfortable table. Hae Woon Dae’s interiors were consistent with that evening’s theme of barebones establishments. It felt homey to me in a lived-in sort of way, like I was at a friend’s mother’s house.
To drink, I ordered makgeolli, a fermented Korean rice drink. It reminded me of a milky chicha de jora—a little sour, a little alcoholic, and a perfect accompaniment to our meal. John had a Korean Hite beer. Neither of us was really in the mood for barbecue, so John ordered his favorite: dolsot bibimbap, a hot stone bowl of rice and veggies. I, on the other hand, ordered ddaro gookbap, a spicy soup starring shredded beef. As I drank my soup, the waitress was looking rather distressed. She finally approached me and asked me with furrowed eyebrows why I wasn’t eating my rice. I gave some half-hearted reason, and she unabashedly exclaimed that I was eating it wrong.
Before I could process what was happening, she grabbed my spoon, scooped up a bit of white rice, dipped it into the broth, and used my metal chopsticks to artfully place a piece of homemade kimchi on top of the mixture. Perhaps a sudden realization that I was not, in fact, her son made her hand the spoon back to me before she attempted to feed me. Or perhaps it was a very motherly way of telling me, “If I do it entirely for you, you’ll never learn how to eat properly.” The experience gave me that touch of quasi-familial tenderness that made my meal at Hae Woon Dae feel like a real home-cooked experience. I even learned how to eat the soup properly.
The next morning, my husband and I awakened with an appetite for baked goods, and we knew we wanted to take advantage of the plethora of Korean bakeries in the area. I looked at my map and zoomed in on the little cartoon figure of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While the composer is known throughout the world for his music, around these parts he is also associated with trays upon trays of delicate European-inspired pastries with decidedly Korean flavors.
This chain of Korean bakeries has locations throughout Georgia. We visited the one off of Pleasant Hill Road. As is typical in most Korean bakeries, the baked goods are individually wrapped and placed on display islands throughout the store. Customers can grab a tray and select whatever they want before going to the cashier.
We added a soboro bun to our tray, which is made with sweet enriched dough and topped with a sort of peanutty streusel. John gravitated to the bakery’s homemade version of a chocopie—a favorite commercially made cookie sandwiching marshmallow filling and dipped in chocolate. My eye was instantly drawn to the vibrant green filling of the green bean bun with sweetened green mung bean paste. The delicate flavor and smooth texture of the filling matched its visual appeal. It instantly became a new favorite.
It was now time to shop, and our first stop was just on the other side of Pleasant Hill Road. Little did I know when I looked at the pinpoint on my map that this mart was going to be a lot more “mega” than its name implied.
A store whose slogan is “A Place for Loving Families and Happiness” deserves a visit. My new little family of two was definitely very loving, and we wanted to experience the happiness that Megamart offered.
This multilevel department store should be a required stop for any visitor who loves to cook. Apparently, we arrived shortly after its grand opening, and immense floral wreaths with congratulatory and good luck notes flanked the entrance to the second-floor home goods section. To say that I was like a shopaholic on Black Friday is actually an accurate depiction of my demeanor at Megamart. I am a shopaholic, and it was Black Friday, and I kept finding things I never knew I needed. I came away with a marked-down Benriner Japanese mandoline, kimchi fermenting containers, pastry brushes, food dishes for my cats, body scrubs, and even roach traps that looked like cute little houses.
The first floor houses all of the food products and is a great place to stock up on staples like little boxes of melon-flavored milk, freeze-dried garlic clove snacks, and other necessary treats. Megamart fulfilled its promise, and John and I both walked out of there thoroughly happy. Our visit only fueled my appetite for more shopping. As such, we decided to check out some of the other culinary merchants in the area. We drove north on Pleasant Hill Road until we reached Park Village Shopping Center, which houses one of Atlanta’s boisterous H-Marts.
H-Mart may be a household name for many people who live in cities with sizeable Korean populations. I found out about this grocery chain when I was living in Boston. We still don’t have an H-Mart in South Florida, so it’s always worth popping into one when I get the chance.
While not as expansive as Megamart and a little more expensive than many other groceries in the area, it’s the ambiance that makes H-Mart a draw, especially if you’ve never been to one before. Toward one end of the store were various stations dedicated to different types of Korean foods, complete with employees in the process of making these foods from scratch. There was a rice cake station where two women were busily cooking up various types of chewy and colorful confections. There was also a kimchi station where some other women were mixing vegetables and seasonings by hand before packing it away in jars to ferment.
During our visit, H-Mart was having a sidewalk sale that included an enormous pack of Hello Kitty toilet paper. Cute hygienic products were exactly the kind of thing we didn’t have room for in our bags, so of course we bought it.
By this time, we had built up an appetite and wanted something savory to counter the sweet breakfast we had earlier.
Xi’an Gourmet House is located in the Ztao Marketplace food court, which reminded me of a pared-down version of the all-Asian food halls I’ve seen in places like Flushing, Queens. Just like jimjilbangs, I fell in love with Xi’an-style Chinese food in New York City. This regional cuisine has many central Asian influences in its dishes, so the flavor profile is distinct from the more delicately flavored Cantonese food many Americans are familiar with. The combination of garlic, chiles, cumin, and coriander with tender chunks of lamb or pork is addictive, and it really speaks to my Latino side.
This would be a new experience for John, and I was excited for him to try this cuisine. I may have ordered too much, but I knew that I needed to capitalize on this opportunity to enjoy some of my favorite dishes. I ordered the requisite biang biang noodles with braised lamb, which have a rustic appearance from the dough being pulled and slapped on a counter by hand before being ripped into wide, flat strips. It’s imperative that you eat them moments after they’re made in order to savor the chewy texture and slippery mouthfeel. I also ordered a cold noodle dish called liang pi, or cold skin noodles. These are made from wheat starch with the gluten removed (there’s no actual skin involved). They’re lightly dressed with some chile oil, black vinegar, bean sprouts, julienned cucumber, and lots of freshly minced garlic.
Lastly, I made certain to order one of their “Chinese burgers,” which isn’t some sort of fusion dish but rather the English name for a meaty sandwich featuring a freshly made, crusty flatbread. I chose to get mine with minced pork. Again, this spoke to my Latino side and was like a more nuanced version of the pan con lechón (pork sandwich) I would find at one of the countless Cuban cafeterias in South Florida. Apparently, the filling for this sandwich is stewed in a broth containing over 20 spices—and you can definitely taste it.
With bellies full, we made our way to this trip’s main attraction.
7. Jeju Sauna
I had been excitedly anticipating our visit to this Korean spa for weeks. After checking in, John and I made our way to the men’s locker room. As with most jimjilbangs, you’re not allowed to wear any sort of swimwear or clothing in the gender-segregated bathing areas. I’m not shy about my body, so this isn’t an issue for me. In fact, I find that it’s one of the few opportunities when men are able to be vulnerable around each other. There’s nothing to hide behind, and it only takes a few minutes to realize that despite our differences, we’re all pretty much the same when we’re sweating in a steam room or simmering in a scalding hot tub together.
Jeju Sauna was a lot more luxurious than the first jimjilbang we visited. The jade tiles in the soaking tubs were a clear indication of this. Besides soaking and sweating with my brethren, I was also able to doze off for a few minutes in one of the saunas in the clothed coed area. The gentility that Southerners tout as a hallmark of their culture was tangible here. People were quiet and polite. They held doors open for you and greeted you if you made eye contact. However, everyone also seemed to be there for the singular purpose of relaxing, which John and I were grateful for.
Several hours of bouncing between different hot tubs, saunas, and steam rooms gave us quite an appetite. After having picked three of our meals, it was time to let John choose somewhere for us to eat, and he wanted Mexican food.
This small, quick service eatery, located off Buford Highway on the comically named Beaver Ruin Road, specializes in Mexican sandwiches called tortas. Tortas are already pretty flamboyant with their multiple layers of fillings, but there’s a reason why they’re especially “crazy” here—they’re over the top. We asked the woman at the register which tortas were the best, and she recommended the Cubana and the Texana because they had the most fillings.
The Cubana intrigued me, having grown up in the land of the Cuban sandwich. It was nothing like the sandwiches you’d find in Miami, though. The large, crusty roll contained ham, roast pork, sliced hot dogs, scrambled eggs, and cheese. The Texana was filled with grilled steak and bell peppers, bacon, and cheese. We each exchanged half of our sandwiches so we could try both. Along with carefully measured drizzles of the eatery’s fiery sauces from the self-serve salsa bar, these complex sandwiches were the perfect ending to a relaxing day of pampering. We returned to our hotel where I enjoyed one of the most restful sleeps I had in months.
The next morning was our last day in Georgia. We decided to return to our favorite shops to pick up some things we had hesitated to purchase the day before. John was still in a reverie about last night’s dinner and wanted to take advantage of the area’s large Mexican community to have just one more taste. This time we unknowingly visited a local institution.
Nearly ten years together has taught me how to recognize when my soft-spoken husband really wants something. For one, he’s not so soft-spoken when it concerns Mexican food, especially Mexican breakfast. One of the first things we noticed in El Taco Veloz was a sign showcasing how the late Anthony Bourdain had visited it and really liked it. After we placed our order at the counter, we noticed all of the various accolades this taqueria has received over the years and got the impression that it was one of the best Mexican restaurants in the Greater Atlanta area.
Our breakfast confirmed that. Like we did at Las Tortas Locas, we ordered two dishes to share. A platter of scrambled eggs with chorizo, a side of creamy refried beans, and a stack of homemade flour tortillas gave John the sort of contented expression on his face that I live to see. The thin flour tortilla that held together our gargantuan breakfast burrito was delicately toasted. It almost buzzed with the amount of fluffy scrambled eggs, meats, and cheese that were so tightly packed into it that it nearly exploded. At least this was the excuse I gave for the mess I made while I momentarily blacked out from gustatory pleasure.
Perhaps I was overreacting, or my highly sensitive personality got the best of me at that moment. I prefer to think that it was the culmination of all of my sensory needs being satisfied that weekend. It was the finale to a weekend that truly rejuvenated my soul after a stressful year. It was the sign from above that the world is good and pleasurable, and that I can find this goodness and pleasure in the simple things—like a carefully made breakfast burrito, a bowl of garlicky noodles, a bright green pastry filling, and a relaxing day at the spa, sitting around a hot tub with a bunch of naked strangers and my new husband.
What are your favorite things to eat and do in Atlanta? Let us know in the comments below.