Koreatown, New York City
Seek out this thriving enclave centered on West 32nd Street, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, for round-the-clock karaoke, spa treatments, and spicy barbecue and fried chicken.
Barbecue is what brings people to Madangsui, the city's most critically acclaimed Korean restaurant. The long spartan room fills with diners who brown thin cuts of pork belly and boneless and butterflied beef short ribs on the tableside gas grill, and then wrap the meat in crisp lettuce. Every order comes with unlimited refills of banchan (kimchi, bean sprouts, and other side dishes). Seafood pancakes and traditional entrées like yook-hwe (shredded raw beef in sesame oil with egg yolk) round out the menu. 35 W. 35th St., 212/564-9333, madangsui.com, entrées from $11, lunch items all under $14.
Smaller and cozier than many of its peers, Kunjip emphasizes barbecue but presents worthy alternatives, such as soothing sulungtang (beef soup) and budae chigae, a casserole of beef, sausage, bacon, vegetables, and a spicy red sauce. Waitresses hustle between closely situated tables to deliver steaming bowls of food. Bibimbob—a bowl of sticky rice, steamed vegetables, and ground beef topped with a fried egg—makes a great lunch deal, accompanied with a side of deonjang chige (bean curd casserole), for $13. 9 W. 32nd St., 212/216-9487, kunjip.net, entrées from $6, open 24/7.
In Korean, mandoo means dumplings, and they're the main attraction at Mandoo Bar, a friendly little café that draws big lunchtime crowds. One wall is painted lime green, a vibrant touch in an otherwise understated room with wood tables and waiters dressed all in black. Steamed or fried multicolored dumplings (about $1 each) are stuffed with savory fillings, including pickled radish and cabbage, vegetables, and pork. Through the glass front of the restaurant, you can watch one or two women as they craft the mandoo by hand. 2 W. 32nd St., 212/279-3075.
An oasis hidden on the fifth floor of a nondescript building, Juvenex Spa wows arrivals with its ginseng-and-sake-filled soaking ponds and detoxifying igloo-shaped sauna made of semiprecious jade. A Basic Purification Program includes the vigorous Korean Salt Glow Scrub, plus access to the sauna and soaking tubs, and nourishing treatments for the hair, face, and body ($115). Open around the clock, Juvenex has been known to attract Broadway performers in need of a postshow rubdown. 25 W. 32nd St., 5th Fl., 646/733-1330, juvenexspa.com, women-only 7 a.m.–5 p.m., couples 5 p.m.–7 a.m.
Nearly all of the novels, cookbooks, and magazines are in Korean at Koryo Books, but the well-lit space is a fun place to browse, and it offers a quiet respite from the action outside. You'll also come across Korean-English dictionaries, cookbooks, and a quirky selection of gifts and souvenirs, such as small statues, vases, and colorful toys. 35 W. 32nd St., 212/564-1844.
Chic young professionals flock to Third Floor Café for Tuesday-night happy hour, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., when $18 buys unlimited beer and food—not a high price to satisfy a craving for fried chicken or Korean specialties like flat fish cake and rice cake casserole smothered in spicy red sauce. A second wave crowds the lounge's plush banquettes come late night, when the views of twinkling 5th Avenue and the dim blue lighting above the bar create an alluring vibe. 315 5th Ave., 3rd Fl., 212/481-3669, open daily from 5 p.m.
In typical Koreatown karaoke style, Grand Music Studio opens early and closes early—the next day. Enter from the street at WonJo, a Korean-Japanese restaurant, and head up to the third floor. Private rooms can accommodate large parties and are outfitted comfortably with couches, tables, colorful lights, and TV screens scrolling lyrics. Songbooks stocked with Korean and English pop tunes please casual crowds of 20-somethings looking to unwind after work and on weekends. A few rounds of soju, a Korean liquor similar to vodka, will bring out the karaoke in just about anyone. 23 W. 32nd St., 212/629-7171, open from 2 p.m. daily, $30 per hour for a group of up to four people, plus $5 for each additional person.
Korean-style fried chicken—twice-fried with a choice of spicy glazes—is heating up. Two specialty fast-food joints opened in early 2010: Kyochon, a sleek franchise in the heart of K-town (319 5th Ave., from $7); and, about a 10-minute walk north, Bonchon, more of a lunch spot that draws mostly Midtown workers (207 W. 38th St., from $8).