Briana blows smoke bubbles while Jewell watches
The sphinx looks on
I knew I was right. That this would be an interesting place. It’s down a passageway off Fifth, just before University in Hillcrest.
I was heading for Kous Kous, the Moroccan eatery up around Fourth and University. But, many a slip ’twixt cup and lip: I just have to head in through the wrought-iron gateway, pass some stairs with flower pots hanging all the way up, weave through a narrow tunnel and out into a little courtyard strewn with red bougainvillea. Think: oversized Alice. After the pill. Wonderland.
You look left and there’s a door.
“Excalibur Hookah Lounge,” reads the sign.
This I have to see. I come in to an orange, brown, funny-shaped room with shelves of wine on the left and a dozen of the bottles opened and corked. A gold sphinx sits crouching on a low table, and an older guy smoking a shisha sits next to it. He’s watching an Arabic television talk show on a big flat screen.
I head for a faux marble counter and hoist myself aboard a stool.
I’m asking the young guy who’s filling the reservoir base of a hookah with…ice cubes?
“No,” he says. “We’re the Royal Hookah and Cigar Lounge. We just haven’t changed the name above the door.”
Now he’s pouring in — wow — red wine? He brings it over to a kind of servery where dozens of hookah pipes hang. He screws one onto it, then takes a gouged-out pineapple-half and loads that with pineapple chunks, then tobacco — think he says it’s mint-flavored — over the top, wraps it all with foil and then starts poking holes through the foil.
“Uh, do you have food?”
The hummus plate
“Food?” he says, like food is a new idea. “Yes, we have beef or chicken burgers, Philly steak sandwiches, or hummus and pita bread. And a sampler plate that includes baba ghanoush — eggplant — hummus, nuts, crackers, a bit of everything.”
As he speaks, he’s yanking green sheafs out of the top of the pineapple, sticking toothpicks through them and into the sides of the hookah’s pineapple “bowl,” so they point up like four green flags. He also puts four burning disks of charcoal on the foil, places a mouthpiece on the tube, and starts sucking smoke to get the whole thing underway.
“How much will that cost?” I ask.
“Thirty dollars, but it will last two, three hours with a free refresh, and people are going to share it,” he says.
“And that’s wine in the base?”
“That’s red wine.”
Turns out you can put anything down there to flavor the smoke as you suck it through. Fruit juices, orange soda, margarita mix, grenadine syrup, or to make the smoke come up really cool, frozen fruit, popsicles, or naked ice. And that’s as well as what you’re putting in up top.
All sounds too exotic, but no way I’m going to order a shisha right now. Want to send food down into my gut, not smoke.
The guy, Asser, says the Philly steak sandwiches go for $6; hummus and pita bread, $6; the burgers — beef or chicken — with chips, $5. The sampler plate costs $14.
He delivers the wine/pineapple hookah into a room that I hadn’t noticed. Have to follow. Lordy. Luxurious, low-light room with wine-colored walls dotted with carved Moroccan street scenes. Couples and groups lounge, talk, hubble-bubble away, sometimes get real close.
“Can you eat in there?” I ask Asser.
Asser cranks up the pineapple...and exhales.
“Wherever you want,” he says. “Here, there, out on the patio.”
So, I ask for the $5 beef burger, a $6 plate of hummus, and a $2 bottle of Perrier. Just sounds cool. Asser reaches into a freezer and hauls out a pre-packaged frozen bacon burger, puts it in the microwave, adds chips and a couple of pickles and, voilà, instant burger.
The meat looks, well, microwaved, not grilled, and the bacon on top is a micro-shaved sliver that doesn’t look really crisp. I mean, taste is okay, there’s plenty of it, and it has a sesame seed bun, but you sure think Greyhound depot machine burger more than a seared Burger Lounge slab.
Okay, hummus looks great. Comes in a brown ceramic saucer, has paprika on top. The pita bread is microwaved, too, but is firm and flavorful. Especially after you squeeze a bit of lime on top. And I get an idea: if you drag the burger through the hummus, it actually starts to taste interesting.
All the while, Asser is preparing pipes and we’re talking. “I’m Egyptian. My father is a doctor. I studied engineering at university in Cairo,” he says. “But we went through the revolution. I was out every day with my friends in Tahrir Square, demonstrating for democracy. We were sick of hunger and the government keeping all the money. The Suez Canal earns $3 billion a year! What happens to that? We kicked Mubarak out. But there was no joy because so many people were killed or sent to prison and tortured....
“This place is old-fashioned, like a Cairo café. We don’t do loud music and DJs. Hookah-smoking is traditionally for conversation, for friends taking time together. We added food so they wouldn’t have to go and find take-out.”
I end up talking to the two gals who have the pineapple hookah. Briana and Jewell. Briana is creating huge smoke bubbles. Magic! They give me a couple of puffs. Can taste the wine, but still end up coughing and spoiling the atmosphere.
So, yeah, burgers? Meh. Hummus? Good. Atmos? Great. Conversation? I’d come back for that any day.
3858 Fifth Avenue, San Diego
- Prices: Beef or chicken burger, $5; Philly steak sandwich, $6; hummus, pita bread, $6; baba ghanoush, $6; sampler plate, $14
- Hours: 5 p.m.–12 a.m., Sunday to Thursday; till 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday
- Happy hour: 5 p.m.–8 p.m. daily
- Buses: 1, 3, 10, 11, 83, 120
- Nearest bus stops: Fifth and University (1, 3, 10, 11, 83, 120 northbound; 10, 83 westbound), Fourth and University (1, 3, 11, 120 southbound)