At a quarter past six on a Friday, with the day’s last shafts of soft-orange sunlight sliding in through translucent drapes, U Street’s Chi Cha Lounge is getting busy.
You can tell by the noise. Having opened a little more than an hour ago, the place is filling up with the sounds one associates with a bar in this part of town at this particular time: the clinking glasses, the excitable, discordant chatter of young professionals happy to have finished another week’s work. Over a plate of half-priced appetizers a pair of sharply dressed women converse in rapid Russian, gesticulating wildly. Near the bar proper someone loudly punch-lines a joke. Mighty guffaws ensue.
Save for one glaring exception, this could be happy hour at any Washington establishment.
But at Chi Cha, there’s another sound in the mix, one unusual for a D.C. bar.
It’s a bubbling, or a gurgling, this noise, and it’s the result of several folks — some laid back on Chi Cha’s many plush velvet couches, some seated more upright in comfy chairs — taking long pulls off hoses connected to large, ornate water pipes known as hookahs. Inhaling in this way produces two effects: It excites the fruit tobacco seated in the bowl at the top of the pipe into giving up some of its smoke, and it agitates the water in the glass jar at the base of the pipe, which cools and filters the smoke as it passes through the chamber and into the hose. Thus the gurgling sound.
Of course, it’s the entire fact of the scene that sets Chi Cha and other bars of its ilk apart. It’s not every day you see people smoking indoors in Washington, after all — much less out of exotic, illicit-looking devices. (As designated smoking areas, cigar and hookah bars are exempt from the ban that took effect in the District at the start of this year — which has the side effect of allowing cigarette smoking. Chi Cha assistant manager Ziab Alazem says that those customers preferring to puff away on their Camels indoors have added to business at the bar.)
Still, if a restaurant catering to hookah aficionados tends to raise the eyebrows of the uninitiated, it’s because the practice has caught on only recently this side of the Atlantic. The hookah bar as a meeting place or social club is well-established throughout the Arab world, as well as in Turkey, Iran and the Indian subcontinent. Westerners may equate post-5 o’clock social gatherings with a trip down to the neighborhood pub, but for a large portion of the world, R-and-R means getting your smoke on.
One would be hard-pressed, however, to describe the Chi Cha Lounge as a traditional, Middle East-style hookah bar; for starters, there’s the presence of alcohol — verboten in predominantly Muslim countries. Our nation being the melting pot that it is, elements of the standard hookah café have come to commingle with others cultures’ conventions. The result? Hybrid boîtes at which patrons nosh on fine fare, indulge in specialty cocktails and cap the experience off by sharing a hookah.
Chi Cha, for instance, offers a mouthwatering array of cositas ricas (“tasty little things”) from the Andean regions of South America: roasted meats, empanadas, citrus-infused fish dishes. There was the arepa con camarones, a grilled corn cake stuffed with shrimp, iceberg lettuce, onions and plantains, which at $8 seemed too good to be true — just the kind of thing a restaurant can get away with by skimping on the shrimp. Happily, this was not the case, and the plate arrived overflowing with garlic-battered crustaceans.
After filling up on the arepa and a couple drinks — a Brazilian sugarcane-liquor concoction was overly sweet, the Classic Mojito much better — it was on to the main event. Our server, an amiable Ecuadoran named Anna who seemed a connoisseur of tobacco, informed us that while orange was her personal favorite, apple was the safer choice. Apple it was.
The pleasant, fruity taste of the stuff notwithstanding, the buzz from smoking flavored tobacco out of a hookah is noticeably stronger than that produced by a cigarette. But the experience is also much more soothing — although the rum warming our veins and Chi Cha’s dim, calm lighting probably also played their part.
One can find a more traditional style of hookah bar in Washington. Even in Adams Morgan, a neighborhood chock-full of ethnic eateries, the Azela Coffeeshop on 18th Street offers a certain level of unexpected, unadulterated authenticity. One feels, stepping into Azela, as if he has just walked off the streets of D.C. and into a café in Istanbul, Cairo or Marrakech.
The space is simple, unadorned — there are no soft couches or throw pillows here, just a small room with eight or nine scattered tables encircled by ordinary folding chairs. At the front of the shop is a large bay window that, at two o’clock on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, provides all the lighting necessary, splashing sun onto the butterscotch-colored walls. In the back, across from the server’s station, a large TV blares Arabic-language news; the anchors’ pronouncements compete for attention with an incantatory variety of Middle Eastern music blasting from a boombox.
After a few moments, a tall, friendly-looking barista appears from the back with a cup of tea in a clear glass in one hand and a large, silver hookah in the other. These he places in front of the only other patron in the café, who sits staring intently at the TV. The two exchange a few words in Arabic, and the server claps his friend on the back, leaving him to stir sugar into his tea and enjoy his smoke.
When it comes to the menu, two things jump out about Azela: There is no food, and the only beer is of the non-alcoholic persuasion. It’s a no-frills sort of experience, to be sure, but then it’s easy to figure that coupling a hookah’s worth of shisha tobacco with a Turkish coffee or fruit drink will keep an appetite at bay for a few hours. An option: the sweet melon tobacco and a banana juice.
This, it turns out, is a most pleasant experience. To begin with, the banana juice is more the consistency of a milkshake than a Snapple, thick but not syrupy and sweet without being cloying. It’s good enough that it’s worth considering another. The sweet melon tobacco is a good choice, too, more subtle in flavor, and less harsh on the lungs, than Chi Cha’s apple variety.
By and by Azela begins to fill up — with a group of North Africans who occupy the large table facing the bay window, a couple in their late 20s, a bunch of guys dressed in their Saturday hipster best. In no time at all the room is thick with smoke, a haze that hangs heavy over our heads: a mélange of singed-fruit smells. It’s a mixture whose very essence — a harmony of disparate elements — perfectly reflects the character of this town.
Hookah bars at a glance:
Chi Cha Lounge
1624 U St. NW
Azela Coffee Shop
2118 18th St. NW
2405 18th St. NW
1629 Connecticut Ave. NW
Prince Café of Georgetown
3205 Prospect St. NW