Up In Smoke

From left: Hasan Yahya and Montaser Ashqar play cards and smoke hookah pipes at Shisha Café, named after the traditional Middle Eastern tobacco and molasses mix smoked in the pipe. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Middle Eastern fare and hookahs meld in Shisha's café culture

Pleasing many people and annoying others, San Antonio's restaurants entered the no-smoking era in January. Although there are perfectly valid public health reasons for the ban, all but the most enthusiastic anti-tobacco advocates might be interested in recalling an era when smoking was not only tolerated in public settings, but was actually the reason for congregating. Variously known as a hubbly bubbly, hookah, nargile, and yes, shisha, the water pipe was once the center of social and political life in countries such as Turkey. Originating in India, the device traveled to the Middle East through Persia, achieving its current form sometime in the 17th century. The pipe consists of a bulb-like glass bottom filled with water to which a top is attached that holds the tobacco, also called shisha, and a few hot coals (not charcoal briquettes of the backyard variety). By means of a decorated, flexible hose, smoke is drawn into the water, where it is cooled and, presumably, partially stripped of nicotine and other noxious agents. (Nobody claims that the smoke is totally benign; it's still tobacco - and you will get a mild buzz.) The tips of the hoses were once made of amber, illustrating the care that went into the making of the water pipe as an art object suitable for an important, communal ritual. Pipes are often fitted with up to three hoses.

The tobacco, moistened with molasses, is frequently flavored with apricot, peach, lemon, mint, or licorice, but the most popular appears to be apple - double apple, at that. Shisha Café offers 20 flavors with its single-hosed pipes, and on one recent occasion, a group of men played cards and drank mint-flavored tea while two hookahs bubbled at their sides. Women at two separate tables enjoyed their own pipes on the café's porch, while another group of men sat at a table on the grass flanking Eckhert Road - missing only a rolled-out Turkish carpet to complete the cultural framework. We saved our pipe for after dinner, which only helped to heighten the experience.

Shisha Café

5500 Babcock
Hours: 11am-2am Mon-Thu, 11am-4am Fri & Sat,
11am-midnight Sun
Price range: $4.99-7.99
Major credit cards
Bathroom not handicapped accessible
Shisha's menu reinforces the cultural heritage of the water pipe with its classic Middle Eastern fare, starting with standards such as hummus and tabbouleh. A smoky-tasting baba ghanouj with eggplant, sesame paste, yogurt, and (a little) garlic, paired with an order of fool muddamas - fava beans with garlic, lemon, and lots of olive oil - proved to be perfect appetizers when paired with pieces of pita bread. But we were most intrigued with the two "fresh savory pastries" that followed. The manaeesh starts with a saucer-sized round of flatbread, spread with an exotic mix of oregano, sesame, and sour-tasting sumac called zaatar - and it's a must-try. (It would be great with beer, but no alcohol is served, so try it with mint tea instead.) The sfiha builds on the same base, but layers on a pastry ground beef with onion and elusive spices - good, but less texturally appealing.

Mediterranean salad, hummus, and pita bread come with each entrée order, and the hummus is especially good with a lot of lemon juice, which adds a tart zing to an otherwise mild chickpea-sesame paste. Chickpea also figures prominently in the mix that makes up falafel. The five deep-fried balls on the entrée plate are crisp and light (a true Turkish delight), and are especially good when tucked into pita with a little salad and hummus. (The kitchen does this for you if you order the sandwich version.) At first bite, we preferred the well-seasoned chicken tikka to the beef on our mixed kebab plate, but the ground beef's subtle spicing won converts in the end. Both had been perfectly grilled in the tiny, open kitchen, and proved especially rewarding wrapped in flatbread with some of the grilled onion and tomato served alongside.

From front: Shisha's shawerma plate - marinated roasted chicken in pita bread with a creamy garlic sauce served with a Mediterranean salad and hummus, and a falafel plate. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
But, holy hookah! It was the chicken shawerma plate that floored us all. Marinated chicken is stacked on a skewer, slowly cooked on a vertical rotisserie, sliced, and served wrapped in flatbread that gets an additional toasting. A sharp and creamy garlic sauce helps cut through the richness of the chicken - definitely not of the skinless breast persuasion. Yes, it's fatty and, yes, it's fantastic. This, too, can be ordered as a straight sandwich, but the salad that comes with the plate is an especially appropriate companion.

There's little in the way of dessert at Shisha; baklawa is it. A sludgy cup of cardamom-laced Turkish coffee is appropriate at this point. And so might be a pipe if you're so inclined. The fruity flavor of the double apple is amazingly compatible with the baklawa, which is drier than many, and mercifully not too heavy on the rosewater. The other amazing thing - this from a non-smoker - is that the smoke is both cool and fragrant at the same time. I stopped after a few puffs, but my companions continued, and it was easy to see why the ritual still claims fans after more than three centuries. If you choose to continue, the affable host will come around with new coals to refresh the pipe; a little tobacco apparently lasts a long time. And with hours until 4 a.m. on weekends, you can take all the time you want - enough to try a new flavor, for that matter, and to really begin to understand café culture. According to one habitué, speaking of a place in Istanbul, "In a café like this one, you find the good people, the old people, the interesting people. As long as there is a need for company and friendship, as long as people want to stop and think, there will be nargile cafés." Even, amazingly, in San Antonio. •


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