Hookah me up

The Sultan Café, on the city’s northwest side near Babcock and Huebner, is one of several local hookah joints to open in the past few years. Frequent throughout the Near and Middle East, hookah cafés have gradually moved westward across the Atlantic, despite increasing bans on smoking in the United States and Canada.

The Sultan is a hookah café with a fair selection of Mediterranean foods and a kitchen inclined to over-season and overcook them all. This doesn’t appear to deter a mainly young clientele (think late teens and a few early 20s at the high end of the age spectrum) who comes to smoke.

When you use a hookah (in Hindi) or shisha (in Arabic), you draw the smoke through a water-filled vessel that cools and flavors it with fruit juices or herbs. Despite the popular belief that hookah smoke is less harmful than that from tobacco cigarettes, the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society dispute those claims. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, though, and it’s a more social way to indulge in the vice.

The Sultan Café is unprepossessing by anyone’s definition. It’s wedged between two car-repair places with parking onsite for maybe a dozen vehicles. The furniture consists of battered sofas missing chunks of filling, a few chairs, and tiny tables. The walls are painted in a dark red-brown (persimmon, my partner suggested), and as the only decoration, silenced plasma television screens set to ESPN. No alcohol is served, and most of the customers order energy drinks or sodas. When we asked for water to accompany our tea, we were politely informed that there was no tap water, only bottled. (You think they use Ozarka to fill the hookah jars?)

We got the feeling food is incidental to hookahing up. Though the staff still outnumbered the customers when we arrived around 7 p.m., service was slow. Our appetizer of baba ghanoush arrived on a small plastic plate accompanied by a paper tray of warmed pita. The ghanoush was spicy with tahini, but heavy on the oil and light on the eggplant. 

My partner ordered the shish taouk, marinated chicken on a skewer (albeit no skewer). The marinade was strong rather than piquant. Tasting garlic, curry, and cumin, we asked what went into the marinade. The server checked with the kitchen folk and came back to tell us it was seasoned with “Mediterranean herbs and spices that had been passed down.” Inshallah, we decided. In any event, it was cooked nearly crisp. But the plate was really big, with hummus, lots of rice, and a mixed salad with crumbled feta that smacked of the marinade flavors, and several pita slices.

Feeling adventurous, I had ordered the “Ultimate Sampler,” which turned out to be even larger, with all the sides above, plus warak enab (grape leaves), kefta, lamb chunks, and the shish taouk. Again the meats were overdone, and I really had to saw at the large chicken chunks to make them bite-sized. 

By now I was watching the neighboring tables with their hookahs and looking forward to mine. We got take-out boxes for the remainder of our dinners, and asked the waitress to help us select from among the 40 available flavors. She had no difficulty identifying us as newbies and suggested we’d like a mild flavor like “blue mint.” Other choices were heavy on fruits (cherry, mango, lemon). Although I gave up cigarettes long ago, the smoke was enjoyable, and we passed the plastic mouthpiece back and forth for a good half hour. Our server came by midway to tamp the ash off the briquettes above the tobacco. Although we were told hookahs generally last an hour or more, we were smoked out well before that.

A couple of suggestions: Go for the hookah, not the food. When the weather is good, sit in the back room, which has an open side and lets the smoke drift out. And if you’re not comfortable feeling like you’re back in high school, take a pass.  

Be aware that the entrées and the hookahs are a few bucks more than the menu indicates. (Is this a trend? More than one local restaurant has upped their prices and told me they haven’t had a chance to update the menus.) That said, it’s still inexpensive.  Two entrees, tea or soft drinks, and a shared hookah will set a couple back about $40, including tax and tip. For an extra $12 you can depart with a Sultan black T-shirt.

Note that the transliterations from Arabic vary wildly. Sultan uses principally Lebanese terms for its menu, which includes wraps and appetizers for light eating and baklava and cheesecake for dessert. The menu indicates all food is halal. •

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