Paper lanterns set the atmosphere
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Think I may be getting hooked on this hookah thing. Not so much the smoking, but as a social phee-nom.

Here I was, loping down through the Gaslamp, ten at night, hadn’t eaten a thing all day, looking for someplace that was still serving, like, late-night happy hour, if possible.

I’d just jumped off the 120 bus from Hillcrest. (Had gone up there because I was still desperate to try Kous Kous, the Moroccan eatery I’d been aiming for last month. Checked online. Yes, they had a late-night happy hour, Tuesday nights. I had raced down the steps into their subterranean place, only to find they were closing. “Winter hours,” said the one guy I found. Bummer. (Maybe they should update their website.)

Now I’m fighting the clock. Winter hours? It’s ten and already the street — Fifth Avenue — is emptying out. And, inside, most places that are open look dead.

New sign outside the old building

I make it all the way down to Market Street. See Funky Garcia’s, the Mexican joint in the old Sun Cafe spot, is still open. But the noise, the beehive of people clustering, shouting, talking, comes from the place next door.

Pasha Lounge

425 Market Street, Downtown San Diego

Pasha. A hookah joint.

Not exactly what I was thinking of, but I stop at their menu board and check it out anyway. Because, especially when the streets are getting cold and deserted, it’s nice to huddle with a warm and comfortable crowd, even if food’s not the big thing here.

And, yes, foodwise, it is spare. Like, sandwiches, pizzas, hummus, Caesar salad (each around $8). But a bird in hand is worth two in the bush, so I head on in.

Ancient bells from Morocco

And, oh, man. What a scene. Sofas are filled with millennials, couples, older gents, and in some cubicles, friends talking in different languages — Arabic, mainly — rattling away with each other between sips of hot tea. Most everybody’s also taking drags on hubble-bubbles, and chomping on patisseries like chocolate lava cake, tiramisu, baklava.

Pasha? The word means “lord” in Turkish. Same word as “shah” in Persian. And the way they’ve tricked this space out, it feels like an upscale harem in a Turkish palace: blue, purple, and magenta sofas set against white Moroccan tile. Green rockers made of seatbelts, yellow and chrome tables, but also lots of dark heavy wood. And, pillars and shelves all over the place are recycled railroad ties. Then, really old-looking bells and lanterns and wooden peekaboo screens carved into a zillion little flowers and plants. Is that what they call “jalousies?” Feels like Cairo. Or maybe Casablanca or Istanbul.

And the gal behind the white marble bar, where I end up sitting, says yes, one of the owners is Turkish. Alkan Bunyamin. Came to San Diego a few years ago and stayed. “But the bells and lanterns and the carved screens are all from Morocco.”

So, first up: a cup of Turkish coffee, though it’s served café Americano-style in a tall cup ($4). It doesn’t have all the grainy stuff you expect in the bottom, but it does taste super flavorful.

Turkish coffee

I ain’t having a hookah. Just too up there for me, cost-wise. Like, 25 bucks (though Nikki, the server, says it goes down to $14 in happy hour and happy hour goes from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day).

Food? Choice is quick and easy here. I like that. Don’t want to spend a lot anyway. It comes down to chicken and Caesar salad for $8, hummus plate ($8), a cheese or pepperoni pizza ($8), a panini with meat and cheese ($8), roast beef sandwich ($8), turkey sandwich ($8), and a soup of the day for $4.

Love to have the soup on this cold night, but with my limited supply of lettuce, I get down to basics with Nikki.

“Which is gonna fill the belly best?”

“The beef sandwich, in panini form,” she says without a hiccup. “You get two, with a ton of ribbed chips on the side.”

Nikki with my panini

So that’s what I ask for. It comes on a square white plate, and, yes, plenty of it. Really, two whole sandwiches. Beef, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and mustard inside hot panini. Standard stuff, no way Turkish, but toasty and crunchy, especially good with this tallish Turkish coffee to slurp with it.

And it’s helped by the flavors you smell from the hookahs people are puffing on. Apple, blueberry, grape...

Turns out both Nikki and the other server gal Emma are students at SDSU. And both have been to Istanbul.

“I’m doing a degree in ecological tourism,” Nikki says.

Emma’s studying for an English teaching credential. Loved Istanbul. “Hookahs are definitely cheaper there,” she says. “But you get less of a head-rush from them.”

Alkan the owner sounds pretty cool, too. He was a professional soccer player who played with his team in San Diego. Came back with dreams. Nikki points to a painting of a bulldog on the back wall.

“That’s Alkan’s dog. It’s called Pasha.”

Irony strikes me as I leave, around midnight. I started the night looking for something Moroccan. This place is Turkish, but the whole interior is pretty-much Moroccan. Okay, so haven’t yet eaten actual Moroccan food, but with everything else, I feel I’ve been there. Near enough.

Serefe,” says Nikki as I leave. She pronounces it “cherefay.”

“Uh, say what?”

Serefe. It’s the one word I remember from Istanbul. It means ‘cheers.’”

Pasha Lounge, 425 Market Street

Prices: Chicken and Caesar salad, $8; hummus plate, $8; pizza with cheese or pepperoni, $8; panini with meat and cheese, $8; roast beef sandwich, $8; turkey sandwich, $8; soup of the day, $4

Hours: 1:00 p.m.–1:00 a.m. (till 2:00 a.m. Thursday; till 3:00 a.m. Friday, Saturday)

Buses: 3, 11

Nearest bus stops: Sixth and Market (3, northbound); Fourth and Market (11, northbound); Fourth and G (3, southbound); Sixth and Market (11, southbound)

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