[Here's the letter H, with another choice to cater to the younger set and surprise the older set. I tried to focus on all of Pomona's ethnicities in "A to Z" at one point or another and writing about hookahs was an example of that.
By the way, I won a bet with an editor with this column. He bet me lunch that I would get complaints for writing about hookahs. I said I wouldn't, and I was right. Ha ha. Hookahs have become more mainstream since this column appeared. You can now smoke hookahs in Upland, for pete's sake. And Claremont.
This column was originally published Sept. 5, 2004.]
Pomona’s H is for Hookah, and that’s not blowing smoke
Hail, heroes! “Pomona A to Z” has hit the letter H, and I’ve hunted high and low for an H to highlight. Which H-bomb should we drop?
* H could be for horse racing, an L.A. County Fair tradition since 1933. Pomona’s races that debut year are said to have been the first in Southern California to allow betting.
* Hospitality, as in the top-ranked Collins School of Hospitality Management at Cal Poly Pomona, endowed by a former owner of the Sizzler chain.
* Historical Society of the Pomona Valley and Pomona Heritage, two volunteer groups preserving Pomona’s older buildings and neighborhoods.
* Hoa Binh, a popular market serving Pomona’s large Vietnamese community.
* Heliport, which downtown Pomona had in the late 1960s, offering travel by helicopter.
Our H, however, is a hallmark of today’s diverse Pomona.
Because H is for Hookah.
No, not the ones on Holt — watch the spelling! I’m talking about hookahs, as in the Middle Eastern water pipe.
In Pomona, Aladdin Jr. on Garey Avenue has a small hookah patio, as well as a top-notch buffet. A few other patios exist in other local cities. But the valley’s largest and best-equipped hookah lounge is at Pomona’s Sahara Cafe.
It’s not the likeliest of locations. Ensconced in a shopping plaza in the Phillips Ranch neighborhood, Sahara Cafe is in the heart of suburbia — seemingly a cultural Sahara.
The cafe’s outdoor patio seats 200 and is bigger than the indoor dining area. Owner Usmaan Ahmad admits that food is secondary, calling his business a hookah lounge first and restaurant second.
On a hopping night, the place is packed, with smoke and conversation floating free and Middle Eastern pop music videos flashing on plasma TV screens.
And you thought Pomona was just enchiladas and norteno music.
So what is a hookah? It’s a water-filtered pipe that has its origins in India but was perfected in Turkey some 400 years ago.
The cafe’s hookahs stand about three feet tall. Tobacco is heated in a bulb at the top. Smoke is drawn through cool water at its base via a long tube that ends with a mouthpiece.
Only flavored tobaccos are offered, 11 fruit flavors in all. (It’s like Snapple for the lungs.) The tobacco is a mix of ground fruit pulp, tobacco, molasses and honey “for that sweet taste,” Ahmad said, adding that there’s no nicotine and only a trace of tar.
“There are people who speculate how many hookahs you’d have to smoke to equal one cigarette,” Ahmad said.
Sahara designates several hookahs for each flavor of tobacco to avoid any mixing. Thus, the cafe has about 150 hookahs.
I chose apple tobacco, and employee Matais Lopez hooked me up for the first smoke of anything in my sheltered life. A transplanted Midwesterner with a Middle Eastern hookah? Oh, if my hometown of Olney, Ill., could see me now.
“You smoke it like a cigar,” Ahmad instructed me. “You’re not supposed to inhale.”
Paging Bill Clinton!
I took a few puffs as the conversation continued. The smoke was all right — I was pleased I didn’t collapse in a spasm of coughing, which might have put a crimp on the interview — but it wasn’t my thing. I prefer my apple in pie form.
Ahmad said the hookah trend is skyrocketing, especially among young people, and he’s proof. Just 24 today, he began smoking hookahs at lounges in Westwood while studying for his marketing degree.
Oddly enough, he was attending CSU San Bernardino, not UCLA. To drive that far he must have been hooked on hookahs.
He and his brother, Shahab, 20, bought the lounge in May when the original owner returned to Lebanon.
Their clientele is about half Middle Eastern, with the non-Middle Eastern segment growing.
For those smokers, “it’s the allure of smoking something in public that’s not a cigarette,” Ahmad explained.
“For us, it’s more cultural,” continued Ahmad, whose family is from Pakistan. “In the Middle East, they don’t have bars, they have hookah lounges. You have tea and smoke ’til the early morning.”
Mortgage brokers from Orange County were at a nearby table that Friday evening. They come to the lounge three or four times a week.
“For us it’s like happy hour,” said Issa Dugom, a Jordanian immigrant. “After work we come in, kick back, relax.”
Forget Miller Beer. In Pomona, it’s hookah time.
(David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, until someone gives him the hook.)