Weve Got the Hook-ahps

Smoking through the hookah lounges of Anaheims Little Gaza

Photo by Matt OttoBack in high school, I was called "the chick whose parents own tons of bongs." See, one time some buddies came over to my house and couldn't stop obsessing the following day about how practically every room in the Afghani abode had three- to five-foot smoking pipes decorated with exquisite hand-drawn etchings. Alas, my high school fame was a sham: the "tons of bongs" were actually argeelas—whatgabachoscall hookahs. Back then, argeelas were still exotic, about as mundane as a Jarmusch film. But nowadays, an argeela is essential to the hipster set, an opportunity to ditch rancid cigarettes and take communal hits of shisha (flavored tobacco) alongside cute guys and gals.

It's just a matter of time before Sutra and the other nighttime domains of the beautiful offer hookahs in their fine environments. But in the meantime, Orange County's Argeela Central is in Anaheim's Little Gaza enclave, that stretch of Brookhurst Avenue where the hummus is fresh and the pita bread is three packs for a buck instead of the 89 cents-per Trader Joe's variety. The area's multiple hookah cafés are a big middle finger for those who say Arabs and Muslims will never assimilate into the West. Here is the old—upstanding cuisine, constantly bubbling hookahs and an atmosphere worthy of some Arabian Nights cliché—set in a modern lounge environment replete with pool tables, cushiony seats and dance floors where techno-mixed Arabic music bumps incessantly. And, all the while, smoke!

But one of the more popular argeela lounges is actually in Garden Grove: AlWahaBBQ(9562 ChapmanAve.,GardenGrove,714-539-0656).Al Waha's family-style atmosphere—there's arcades in one corner and a big-screen TV near the front—is a great training wheel for the hookah beginner. But its outdoor terrace, spacious tables and majestic rock-wall fountain are purposefully similar to the argeela lounges of the Middle East—this guarantees a crowd of older patrons seeking a puff of home. To appease those folks, Al Waha also offers Middle Eastern regional specialties such as mansaf, a traditional Jordanian lamb dish sprinkled with almonds and pine nuts. And there is no better hookah monkey in the county than Al Waha's Faady, who mixes up his specialty shishas such as strawberry daiquiri and mint apple like some divine Marlboro exec.

A step up on the hookah scale is FusionCafé(512 S.BrookhurstSt.,Anaheim,714-520-5661).This isn't your dad's argeela spot—instead of allowing the sultry flow of Arabic music to loom in the background, Fusion pumps the latest and greatest hip-hop and bro rock. Patrons are younger, flashier and trendier, and the staff is flirtatiously charming. While they serve a decent hummus plate and chicken sandwich, their clientele comes for Fusion's perfect argeela handling. Their attentive coal guy runs around keeping the hookahs lit, swirling around warm coals and adding red-hot ones, instead of doing so only when prompted, like at other hookah lounges. Plus, Fusion features a color-coded system of matching hoses with flavors—that way, when you order their nutty double apple, there's no residue left from the previous smoker. Trust me: tasting the leftovers from the previous smoker is ewwww.

Although it opened just a few weeks ago, keep an eye on DreamCafé(830 S.BrookhurstSt.,Anaheim,714-502-9865).From the pretty hostess who greets you when you enter to the joint's spacious, brightly red-and-blue-colored walls and dining tables, the Dream experience is eponymous. When I visited, they still hadn't received the okay from Anaheim officials to serve Middle Eastern delicacies, but who needs grub with hookah specials like the Dream Card (smoke six hookahs, get one free hookah and a drink) and Hookah Happy Hours from 6:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. daily?

But Orange County's bestest hookah lounge is the HiddenCafé(642 S.BrookhurstSt.,Anaheim,714-284-0446;www.hidden-cafe.com).Its name doesn't lie—a big, ugly strip mall shields the Hidden Café from view. Not only that, a dress-to-impress code is enforced (no, niqabs are not mandatory for the ladies) along with "Hookah Bar Etiquette," described in detail on their website such as "respect the culture," "keep with the vibe" and "don't be a loudmouth." But keeping the code is a small price considering Hidden's specialty shishas. While most hookah lounges stick to traditional flavors such as apple, grape, melon, strawberry and chocolate, Hidden serves exotic tastes like the light Jasmine Jazz, the bubbly Tutti-Frutti and the aromatic Sweet Vanilla. It's like being a tweaker in a candy shop—or my dad in the air freshener aisle at Pep Boys.

A word of advice before you participate in the Great Arabian Smoke-Out, however: shisha is very deceptive. Its clean-burning fumes make it easy to swallow the smoke without realizing it, especially when you're trying to look cool in front of all your friends while unsuccessfully attempting to puff out rings of smoke—an incident that left a certain cub scribe blowing chunks into a bush near the corner of Orange Avenue and Brookhurst Street. So stay away from swallowing the smoke, trying to look cool, and that bush.

 
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