No, this isn’t magic smoke — though many of these establishments resemble the inside of a genie’s lamp. And no, we’re not talking about head shops in Amsterdam. These places are right here in Philly. For social smokers, searching for a new sanctuary, each of these spots can be looked at as cloudy oasis in the middle of this vast smoke-free desert.
Okay, enough mystery. What we’re talking about are Hookah bars. Say it with us now — “Hoo-kah”.
If you’re not familiar with the term, picture a metal bong, customized by Dr. Octopus. If you don’t know what a bong is, then you must have never attended college. In essence, a Hookah is simply a glorified water pipe, many of which have multiple hoses sprouting from an elongated stem. These hoses allow several people to simultaneously pull flavored tobacco smoke from a bowl head.
Hookahs are enormously popular in Turkey, India, and Egypt as well as several other Middle Eastern countries. Here in America, Hookah lounges are beginning to gain some popularity. Folks gather at these bars for a dash of culture and a hit of Double Apple tobacco. But mostly, they come for a change of pace.
Momen Mansa has been an employee of Little Marakesh Moroccan Restaurant (1825 Limekiln Pike in Dresher, 215-643-3003) for the last five years. He definitely knows a thing or two about Hookahs, as the restaurant offers smoke sessions and various flavors of tobacco to anyone over 18. According to Mansa, spots like Little Marakesh give the college crowd, not yet old enough to get into traditional bars, a place to go.
“It’s frustrating to know that you can’t go to bars and socialize, so many under-21 year olds come here, or to other Hookah lounges,” he says. “That is the appeal. It’s a place where you can all hang out at a big round table, eat different food and have a smoke.”
Another appealing facet of a Hookah is the smoke itself. Each puff of flavored smoke first passes through the water in the bottom of the vase — making every hit smooth. Smoking from a Hookah is far less abrasive than the usual method.
Says Mansa, “People always enjoy it, right away. I’ve never seen anyone cough very hard or seem displeased.”
But the best part is that when you’re done with the Hookah, you’re done with the smoke. It does not linger. It does not stick to you or make your clothes smell. The flavored tobacco gives off a pleasant, clean aroma.
The purity of the tobacco helps to put curious parties at ease, too. “There is a very small amount of nicotine in the tobacco,” says Mansa. “It’s measured at about 0.5 percent. Also, there is no tar at all.”
Brennan Appel is the director of a Hookah website called SouthSmoke.com. He agrees with Mansa in that the main appeal of a Hookah is the social interaction that inevitably occurs while smoking.
“In a Hookah lounge, it’s all about the communal atmosphere,” he says. “It’s about the relaxation.”
Appel even likens Hookah bars to a nighttime version of a popular chain of coffee shops. “They are kind of like a Starbucks type of location,” he says. “Just as people in Starbucks are doing many other things besides drinking coffee, it’s the same at a Hookah lounge. There is usually much more than just smoking going on. People interact with one another.”
If you find that you enjoy the Hookah experience, but don’t necessarily want to smoke in public, the next step would be to purchase one of your own. “Even at home, it is a social activity,” says Appel. “Usually when people enter a home with a Hookah, they become intrigued and want to try it for themselves. They are also very decorative. They have a modern, exotic appeal. Many are very ornate. They can be used as a centerpiece.”
Appel explains that although most Hookahs in the U.S. have multiple hoses, in other countries, Hookahs usually have just one hose and the entire piece is passed around. So what is the Hookah capital of the world? “Egypt produces the most,” says Appel, “then China, then India.”
Hookahs, much like pipes and Philly Blunts, have had to deal with being labeled as part of the drug culture in America. It’s true that Hookahs are often used to smoke marijuana, but for true aficionados, Hookahs are only used for their original purpose — smoking flavored tobacco. Incidentally, there is no weed-flavored tobacco, as of yet, but boy, are there a lot of others from which to select.
Mansa says that choosing a tobacco is much like choosing an ice-cream. Really, any flavor that can be imagined, probably already exists. And if it doesn’t, then you are encouraged to mix and match and created it yourself. In fact, SouthSmoke.com asks visitors to send in their mixed-flavor recipes for everyone to enjoy. There are all types of ways to enhance or modify your smoke session. For instance, you can add ice to the water, for a more cooling experience.
Purchasing a quality Hookah can sometimes be a pricey affair, so Appel recommends that you first visit a lounge to see if you really dig it. Usually Hookah bars will charge about $12 per bowl (which can satisfy several people), but prices vary depending on the bar or the tobacco flavor.
So be vigilant, be experimental and shop around for your favorite bar, your favorite flavor, and your favorite style of Hookah. You should do your homework before you actually go out and buy one of these crazy contraptions. And if you do end up with your very own piece, make it special — give the little guy a name (perhaps something like Smokey or Cleopatra). Be sure to keep it clean, keep it unclogged, and for God’s sake, keep it away from the edge of the table. These things are fragile fire hazards; you know.
In the meantime here’s a list of some local joints that offer a world class Hookah experience.
Aromatic House of Babob
113 Chestnut St.; Philadelphia; 215-923-4510
Byblos Restaurant and Bar
114 S. 18th St.; Philadelphia; 210-568-3050
620 South Second St.; Philadelphia; 215-925-5367
Jaba Kabob and Grille
138 Chestnut St.; Philadelphia; 215-922-1129
Little Marakesh Moroccan Restaurant
1825 Limekiln Pike; Dresher; 215-643-3003
Mokas Mediterranean Restaurant
3505 Lancaster Ave.; Philadelphia; 215-222-4410
1823 Sansom St.; Philadelphia; 215-557-0808
622 S 6th St; Philadelphia; 215-627-3344