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July 4th, 2012 JOHN LOCANTHI | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Hookahs and Blow

How exotic tobacco pipes conquered the under-21 club scene.

tw_hookah_3835ILLUSTRATION: Angie Wang
     
Tags: hookah
It’s 11 pm on a Monday night at Beirut Hookah Lounge in Beaverton. Two guys—one in a hoodie and a baseball cap turned to the side, the other in a waistcoat and a purple tie—play cards on low couches. From the looks of it, they’re in the limbo between high school and adult life. A blacklight adds an eerie glow to the cards in their hands. Arabic singing and loud drumbeats surround them as throw down their hands.

“You’re buying the next refill, bro,” says the hoodie kid. “And get Blue Mist—I’m tired of this.” 

He leans back, taking a long, triumphant drag. He exhales, trying to blow smoke rings but failing. There’s still plenty of time to practice. A refill is on the way; the night is young.

At the time, turning 18 can be a disappointment. It lacks the glitz of 21 or even the excitement of getting your driver’s license at 16. You get the right to vote. Meh. You can sign contracts. Ugh. You’ll be tried as an adult. Shit. But you do get the right to smoke, and that can be fun. You barely have to inhale to enjoy it.

“I might take a few puffs every now and then, but I come here to hang out with my buddies,” says Beavertonian Justin Faresta, enjoying a night out with his roommates. “Didn’t have much planned, just wanted to go out and relax.”

Hookahs hail from India and Persia, but bars offering them have established a growing niche here in the last decade, mostly as de facto 18-and-up clubs. Unlike the acrid smoke of cigarettes, hookah tobacco is usually sweet, fruity and thick. 

Hookahs might remind parents of their bongs, but only someone like Snoop could afford to smoke  pot in a big, leaky hookah. A bowl of shisha, which most local hookah bars allow to be shared by two people, is cheaper than a pitcher of beer and lasts about an hour.

There are about 10 hookah lounges in the Portland metro area. (The Oregon Legislature passed a watered-down ban on new lounges last year, but it’s had little effect.) Some try to emulate a dance club, odd as that may sound for places that sell access to large and ungainly smoking devices. Others are like coffee shops or neighborhood hangouts.

Beirut, where these guys are playing cards, is somewhere in between, with well-lit booths and TVs dangling from the ceiling. There are low couches lining the walls in the black-lit back area, where couples cuddle and smoke. The speakers blast “Moves Like Jagger” before the playlist segues back to Middle Eastern club music.

Hosts carry metal baskets with flaming coals, re-firing and adjusting the hookahs. Three fresh coals are placed on the poker players’ foil-covered bowl. The bro in the hoodie tucks the cards into his pockets and takes a few long drags. After half a dozen, the smoke is thick enough to try again. His misshapen rings still come out as fat puffs of smoke. It doesn’t matter. 

He’s got all night to practice. 


A Complete Guide to Portland Area Hookah Bars 

Al-Narah Hookah Lounge

Al-Narah is a large lounge filled with black leather couches that’s attracting the coveted Jersey Shore crowd. DJs rotate throughout the week, offering mixes running the gamut between dubstep and rap tracks that sample dubstep. On weekend nights, the lounge has a clubbier feel and makes use of the dance floor. 18345 SE Stark St., 890-6555. 6 pm-1 am Monday-Thursday, 6 am-1 pm Friday, 6 pm-3 am Saturday. $13. alnarah.com.

Beirut Hookah Lounge

Beirut lures a healthy mix of high-school chums, young couples and loners with iPads. The shisha mixes have names like “Crazy A$$,” “P.M.S.” and “Fuc*er till Sunrise.” There are booths, chairs, benches and small tables for playing games. Music is a blend of shitty club pop and Middle Eastern dance music. The televisions are set to wonderfully random channels, and there is an aquarium tank filled with koi. 8860 SW Hall Blvd., Beaverton, 746-7460; 18200 NE Halsey Fork, Gresham, 512-8228. 5 pm-2 am daily. $15. beiruthookahlounge.com.

Genie Cafe

Genie is the bastard child of a one-night stand between a clublike hookah lounge and a normal lounge. The music alternates between Middle Eastern club music and bro rap. A laser-lighting system adds to the club vibe. Sometimes you’ll see smokers get up and dance, only to realize there isn’t enough room to bust moves. The outside patio is a quiet, laid-back place to chat. 12705 SW Pacific Highway, Tigard, 639-1221. 7 pm-1 am Monday-Thursday, 7 pm-2 am Friday-Sunday. $13.

Habebi Hookah Bar

This diminutive lounge is easy to miss when you’re cruising down Pacific Highway. Good luck parking in the tiny lot. Happily, the speakers are not set to 11 here, letting you enjoy your hookah in peace while lying on a couch with one of several stuffed animals scattered about the lounge. Habebi’s hours make it a nice stop for insomniacs. 11652 SW Pacific Highway, Tigard, 515-8818. 5 pm-4 am Monday-Thursday, 5 pm-5 am Friday-Saturday, 6 pm-4 am Sunday. $15. habebihookahbar.com. Cash only.

King’s Hookah Lounge

King’s is a laid-back hookah bar catering more to Middle Easterners than students, with a comfortable outdoor patio and a few TVs set to Al Jazeera. It blends right into the community, so much so that passing homeless people ask for a drag. The owner good-naturedly shoos these people away and is happy to smoke with the clientele when he isn’t too busy. 1806 NW Couch St., 719-6456. 5 pm-2 am Sunday-Thursday, 5 pm-4 am Friday-Saturday. $15. kingshookahlounge.com.

Pied Cow Coffeehouse

Pied Cow is the only hookah bar on this list that bans customers under 21. The tranquil courtyard is the perfect spot to take a date. Mellow music, elegant wooden benches and delicious snacks are the perfect accompaniments to a warm summer evening. It has a more limited selection of flavors, mostly offering single fruit flavors. Pied Cow is even dog-friendly. Oh, and there’s beer. 3244 SE Belmont St., 230-4866. 4 pm-midnight Monday-Thursday, 4 pm-1 am Friday, noon-1 am Saturday, noon-midnight Sunday. $16. 21+.

Qush Hookah Lounge

Situated in a converted three-story wood house along Broadway, Qush is a neighborhood hangout. There are lots of smaller rooms and an outdoor patio for peaceful conversations. There is no loud music—actually, patrons are urged to keep their voices down as a neighborly courtesy. You get to smell the shisha before making your selection, which helps when the choices include vague flavors like “Hangover” and “2Pac.” 2905 NE Broadway, 384-2373. 6 pm-2 am Sunday-Thursday, 6 pm-3 am Friday-Saturday. $14, $10 before 9 pm. qushhookah.com.

Sky Bar Hookah

There is a large dance floor in the side where a DJ spins the latest dubstep for a crowd of mildly interested smokers sitting along the walls. Blacklights give the nondescript building with white drapes a haunted look from the outside, along with making the dirty black carpet look like the Milky Way. 20105 McLoughlin Blvd., Gladstone, 305-8985. 6 pm-2 am daily. $10.

Sultan Hookah Lounge

This laid-back former drive-thru coffee shop offers both coffee and Xbox 360 while you smoke. There are large couches and black leather chairs to sit on and a cozy outdoor patio. On our visit, a playlist of trance and trip-hop on the bartender’s laptop played through speaker system while he drummed along with his djembe. Hookah is half-off before 7 pm. There’s an oxygen bar, too, if nicotine isn’t enough. 8221 N Lombard St., 208-2629. 2:30 pm-1 am Monday-Thursday, 1:30 pm-2 am Friday-Saturday, 7 pm-1 am Sunday. $12 single flavor, $15 mixed; $5 single flavor, $7 mixed before 7 pm. sultanhookahlounge.com.

Urban Hookah

This lounge moved from downtown to an awkward little building along TV Highway several years ago. Parking is limited and would-be clubbers make up its clientele. There are plenty of shisha flavors to choose from and an obnoxious collection of bro rap and shit-hop. White T-shirts are not required, but seem to be encouraged. 18240 SW Tualatin Valley Highway, Aloha, 642-9581. 6 pm-2 am daily. $10 normal shisha, $12 premium.

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