It’s Saturday night at Oakland’s Sphinx Café. To the right, inside the cavernous, old church, musicians chat with the owner about an upcoming gig. On the left, sipping tea, a trio of men joke in Arabic. In the rest of the dim interior, small groups cluster around low tables, resting on brightly colored pillows. They take turns passing a communal hose, each pausing to inhale the sweet smoke from a hookah.
Originating in Turkey approximately 3,500 years ago, the hookah is a Middle Eastern water-pipe used for smoking flavored tobaccos, usually combinations of fruit, honey or molasses. Heated by charcoal, the smoke is drawn down into the hookah base and filtered through water. Patrons inhale the thick, smooth smoke through a pliant, black hose.
The hookah’s popularity spread throughout India, Africa and the Middle East, eventually becoming popular in the United States among college students, Middle Eastern families and business professionals alike. Pittsburgh now has three hookah bars, each of which has a distinctive approach.
“People like to try new things. It’s like sushi,” said Ramy Andrawes, owner of the Sphinx, which also has a South Side venue. “In the next few years you will see a lot of hookah bars.” Andrawes, 30, opened the original Sphinx Cafe with his wife, Amera, in August 2004 to create a comfortable space emulating an Egyptian hookah bar. Offering over 70 varieties of tobacco as well as Middle Eastern juices, teas and coffees, the Sphinx offers patrons a place to relax and socialize. “It’s like your living room,” Andrawes said. The Oakland location on Atwood Street also features live bands and belly dancers.
His family has a long relationship with the hookah. They own a hookah factory in Egypt, making the Sphinx one of the largest hookah and tobacco importers in the U.S. “Everyone in Pittsburgh who does hookah has to deal with us — directly or indirectly,” Andrawes said.
Nick Sandi owns Nick’s Imports on East Carson Street and claims to have introduced the hookah to Pittsburgh six years ago. Sandi sells about 300 hookahs a year and 25 varieties of tobacco in his retail shop.
A few blocks away is the HKAN Hookah Bar and Grill. Pronounced H-Con, the area’s first, true hookah bar also offers a full bar, Middle Eastern menu and live music six nights a week, ranging from acoustic to rock to Turkish drumming.
“I can’t say we hold to the traditions,” said manager Ryan Pudik. “It changes every night.” The upstairs serves the 18-and-over crowd, while the ground floor has a stage and bar. with microbrews. Customers sit in cushioned booths, smoking, talking and eating. Of the menu, cook Henry Pyatt said, the offerings “go with beer and go with it being eleven o’clock and night and being hungry.”
Hookah flavors include scores of possibilities, including jasmine, mango, strawberry, mint, cola, pomegranate and apple, which is the most popular flavor in every location. To enhance the flavor, the proprietor may add juice or wine to the water in the base.
“There is no good flavor and bad flavor. There is a flavor you like and a flavor you don’t like,” Andrawes said. “Flavor is like women. You have to change it or you get bored.”
Some have the perception that, because the smoke goes through water, it’s not as hazardous, but preliminary studies suggest otherwise. Still, the popularity of the hookah is growing in Pittsburgh. As the HKAN’s Pudik said, “It pretty much just had a young crowd, but now it’s all ages.”