Photo by Tenaya HillsLooking, I'm sure, like a timid, wide-eyed second grader who suddenly found herself separated from the rest of her class during a field trip, I had been awkwardly standing just outside the entrance to Hookups Hookah Lounge for nearly a full minute when Joe, one of the Lounge employees—and a proud customer—invited me in.
It was a fantastically kind gesture, considering that while I might have appeared to be so, I was not, in fact, lost among Lake Forest's endless array of cookie-cutter strip malls. I was just scared.
Scared of what? It isn't easy to say. But it might have been that I'd driven out to an otherwise-deserted strip mall in Lake Forest and was about to let complete strangers watch as I attempted to smoke flavored tobacco from a contraption resembling the offspring of a water bong and a bagpipe.
"I haven't found anyone who can smoke more than me," boasted Lounge owner Sean, before taking a large puff of Sunkist—one of Hookups' 43 flavors—and sitting back in a plush, plucked-from-his-living-room chair and passing the pipe to me. I took a much smaller puff and held it in, waiting for something to happen.
"It's not like weed," Sean immediately corrected, in a tone that suggested he'd corrected many a hookah virgin before me. "Just smoke and then exhale."
I gave it another try, inhaled and held it again. Old habits, you know.
After watching Sean fill the room with smoke—seriously? You can't see his face for five seconds after he exhales; the brother has lungs—with another one of his monstrous drags, it was time for a third attempt. This time, I exhaled immediately. And this time, my mouth tasted exactly like—you guessed it—Sunkist soda.
As I briefly entertained the notion of spending the rest of my days replacing all food with this deliciously flavored tobacco, Joe brought out another flavor: Bubbalicious. Grape-flavored, if my senses served me right.
I started to feel a light buzz and asked Sean what was behind it. His answer: oxygen. A simple oxygen rush to the head, not nicotine. Then he warned me that if I smoked too much, I'd start to feel sick. I passed the pipe back to him.
Passing the pipe back and forth as we were, I began to feel an odd sense of camaraderie with Sean, who, as I found out, immigrated to Costa Mesa from Iran four years ago. I also started to believe his bold declarations about owning one of the best hookah bars in Southern California. He showed me the backroom of the Lounge, where they mix the tobacco—something that many other bars patently refuse to do—and also wash the hookahs, hoses and all, after every use—another service Sean claimed most hookah bars won't provide.
Since opening last November, he has worked tirelessly to build Hookups' reputation. But it hasn't been easy. Thanks to the state's somewhat-hazy smoking ordinances, Sean can't serve food—or booze, the preferred side dish of many a seasoned smoker—inside the Lounge. He plans to expand the building to include an outside-patio dining area, but if the lukewarm reception he's been given by Lake Forest's law-enforcement and city officials is any indication, it may be a while.
Still, most customers, he was quick to point out, come back shortly after their first visit, especially for the Lounge's frequent weekend hip-hop nights. Many, like Julio and Dren, two regulars present the night I visited, flock to Hookups every night. Some nights are slow, Sean admitted, but he is nonetheless proud of his success. "Last night was my first night off since we opened," he beamed.
An hour into our chat, we were joined by his charismatic business partner, Byron, a Harley-riding, deep-sea-diving Renaissance man who appeared to have nothing in common with Sean outside a shared love of hookahs. Joe mixed a third flavor, Exotic Mango, and placed mint leaves—straight from Byron's back yard—on top for added menthol flavoring.
As Byron recommended Sean take a few of his Black Sabbath CDs home for the night, I couldn't help but notice the amalgamation of styles present within our smoking circle: there was Joe's youthful, at-the-ready energy; Byron's near-manic knowledge of all things eclectic; Sean's calm, Cheshire cat-like demeanor; and me, the still-wide-eyed-yet-no-longer-quite-virgin hookah smoker.
"Everyone is welcome here," Byron noted with a smile.
"Is there any music that you'd like to hear?" Joe asked.
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"You'll be coming back, I'm sure," Sean predicted.
While I often tell bar owners I will return, I rarely do. But Sean was right: I will be coming back. And next time, I won't be scared.
Hookups Hookah Lounge, 24412 Muirlands Blvd., Ste. E, Lake Forest, (949) 768-5987. Open daily, 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Hookahs, $10 per flavor; $7 refills. Cash only.
Joe loves when you tip him! So do I! Invite me out! email@example.com.