Starting today, we'll bring you occasional reviews of hookah lounges around the Valley. If you have a favorite hookah place you'd like us to visit, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm sitting on a leather couch with two friends, blowing clouds of white smoke into the air, and complaining about stupid songs that get stuck in my head (thanks a lot, Lady Gaga). An Arabic soap opera's showing on a large screen TV; every five minutes, some lady in a red dress cries on a different guy's shoulder.
This place is so fragrant that my friends and I begin a game of "What's that smell?" Is it strawberry tobacco? Burnt hair? Smoldering plastic? It's hard to tell what you're getting a whiff of at hookah lounges -- and this one, Cafe Instanbul and Market on Apache Boulevard in Tempe, is filled with so many people smoking so many different flavors of hookah tobacco that all the scents blend together into one obtuse fragrance.
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We ended up here after we picked the brain of a knowledgeable friend, who runs a website called hookahculture.com. He recommended we start our hookah reviews with Café Instanbul and Market, because it's one of his favorite local places.
Café Instanbul is close to Arizona State University, and sits right across from the Metro Light Rail stop at Apache and McClintock. It's a big building with two floors -- the ground floor houses a Middle Eastern market, and the hookah lounge occupies the second floor.
The lounge décor is a mix of Middle Eastern, Moroccan, and Kashmir styles. Seating consists of several black leather couches, with blue and red pillows adorned with gold patterns. Colorful, cone-shaped glass lamps hang from the ceiling. Tables are polished wood, carved with ornate flower and animal scenes. The atmosphere feels very old-world and authentic -- except for the hip-hop videos that started playing on the TV after 9 p.m.
Café Instanbul's location makes it a favorite hangout for college students. The night we were there, there were about ten college students (half of whom were wearing Affliction T-shirts). But it's not just college kids that come here --- there were also two well-dressed, 30-something women; a somewhat dumpy, middle-aged guy; and a handful of young, Middle Eastern guys chatting in Arabic. Every couch in the lounge was occupied by 10.
The hookahs are very high quality, with glass bowls of various colors and sturdy hoses of coiled wire wrapped in vinyl. There are more than 50 flavors of molasses tobacco on the menu, including vanilla, coconut, and cardamom. But we were feeling fruity, so we ordered melon and guava flavors.
Hookahs take a while to get going (you usually need to take several deep drags), but patience pays off at Café Instanbul, because their hookah bowls lasted longer than any other hookahs we've tried (our friend, who's smoked hundreds of hookahs, agrees). Our bowls burned flavorfully for almost three hours. The guava flavor was fruitier and more potent, but the melon was delicious, too -- sweet, with a very slight hint of mint.
The prices are competitive -- $10.95 per hookah (with one flavor and hose per hookah) for Al-Fakhir tobacco, and $13.95 per hookah for Starbuzz tobacco. Tobacco reloads cost $5.95 and $7.95, respectively.
Our only complaint: the 15 percent tip they automatically add to every bill. Patrons are usually unaware of this until they're leaving and see the sign at the register. Adding a tip to a bill is reasonable, especially when someone's constantly tending your hookah coals, but patrons should be tipped off sooner -- maybe with a notice on the menu or the door.
Café Instanbul and Market is located at 1310 E. Apache Boulevard in Tempe. For more information, call 480-731-9499 or visit www.cafeinstanbulandmarket.com.