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Smokin' Salon

KYLE T. WEBSTER

When it comes to what goes into my mouth, I'm pretty discriminating. (I'm a vegetarian; what did you think I was talking about?) I also staunchly oppose the "five second" rule, thoroughly inspect cutlery, own a toothbrush sanitizer, and carry antibacterial gel in my purse.

But on a Friday night at the Funky Buddha Lounge (2621 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton), a chillaxed hookah hot spot full of heavy-lidded college kids, I found my mouth having unprotected relations with the end of a hose. Good thing shisha (flavored tobacco) gets me buzzed enough to slightly abandon my OCD inclinations. At least for one night.

Ambience: Walking into the Funky Buddha is a lot like infiltrating an Eastern-themed hippie hideout. The place is open 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night, offering food, drinks, hookah, and a preferred alternative to hanging with your peeps at the local IHOP.

I walked in, found a cozy spot to sit, propped my leg up, and immediately cared less about global warming, the war in Iraq, man's inhumanity to man, and whether my rent is paid. The goal is to get mellow. And I was already buzzin' on second-hand scented smoke.

Customers in stages of both relaxation and inebriation sprawled on big couches positioned around nine small candle-lit tables and a bar. Low overhanging lights provided just enough glow for me to glimpse the large wine rack facing the bar, from where a small statuette of Buddha sat smiling at the clientele. Thick, perfumed smoke swirled toward the ceiling as college-aged customers took turns sucking on hookah hoses. Imagine setting the citrus section of your local Publix on fire. But in a cool, chilled-out kind of way.

Bright paintings of headless women, tits, and skulls jazzed up the deep burgundy walls. Think: Internet café crossed with a Chinese opium den. Despite the Eastern theme, I knew better than to seek enlightenment at the end of a hose. But worth a shot, right?

Drinks: And speaking of shots, what better way to start the night than with alcohol? For the sophisticated hookah-ers willing to risk not just a lung but a liver too, the drink selection at Funky Buddha is extensive. The menu boasts more than 100 microbrew beers and 30 wines, not to mention sake mixes ("Death by Cherry," sake mixed with black cherry soda, looked especially tempting).

Prices on beer and ale ranged from $4 to $13. Nicole Smith, our waitress (and, as I found out later, the manager), is petite, with dark hair and rectangular-framed glasses. She told us that Funky Buddha is one of two bars in the area to have Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA on draft. "It's 9 percent alcohol, and people love it. But it's not for the weak."

As one of "the weak," I decided on pear cider for $6.50, which jump-started my buzz and satiated my sweet tooth. My hookah-wise companion ordered "Dead Guy Ale" from Rouge, Oregon, for $5.50 a glass.

Also worth mentioning is the variety of food items, which included hummus, pizza, and quesadillas. Buddha also boasted more than 40 varieties of tea, at $6 a pot.

Customers: Big groups of guys and girls laughed loudly, seated closely together around the nine small tables and bar. Three college-aged guys — one wearing a Lehigh University T-shirt — at the next table marinated in their smoky, blueberry buzz. Feeling the mellow moment, one asked his comrades, "Dude, is Ravi Shankar still alive?"

"No, man," one replied. (He is.)

"Yeah, I think it was recently he died," the third said.

"That sucks, I would have liked to chill with him."

They toasted: "To Ravi!"

Then two of them walked outside to smoke a cigarette — a smoke break from smoking.

"What flavor you guys get?" I asked Scott, the guy who stayed inside, sucking their double-hosed hookah.

"It's a mixture blend, a couple of different flavors," he told me. "Wanna try?"

Oh, why the hell not? I love sharing saliva with strangers, I thought, submitting shamefully to peer pressure and putting my lips around a mouthpiece that three boys had been sucking on. "Watermelon," I concluded, exhaling.

For nonsmokers like me, particularly those who find the hot, scratchy smoke of cigarettes less-than-relaxing, rest assured that hookah smoke is cool and flavorful. It's a novel, smooth, more sociable way to take in nicotine.

Scott's buddies soon returned. Hyperactive Jared was quick to ask us if we needed a stuntman for anything. "I've got stories," he said, and proceeded to tell us about the time he and his friends went off-roading in a Volvo and (shockingly) got stuck in the mud. Allegedly, they then employed a small carjack and two textbooks (biology and chemistry) in a desperate attempt that failed to free their vehicle. They eventually had to summon a tow truck.

"Still," said Brett, the one in the Lehigh shirt, "it was the best $200 I ever spent on books."

There's something about curling smoke and exotic fragrances that stimulates the storytelling gene in people.

Service: The mellowness wavered as the place began to approach capacity, but Nicole was careful not to rush. I could have knocked our hookah's charcoal down the front of my tank top and caught on fire and she still would have been mellow.

She also made no qualms about seating people at tables with unfamiliar faces. "You guys should get along," she said, motioning a group of newcomers to pull up chairs to an already-occupied table. "Let me know if you don't. No brawls." The two groups exchanged awkward smiles as they sat down together. Though as soon as the couple making out in the back corner left, the second group was up and scrambling to claim the abandoned table.

A pair of chicks — one in a short black skirt, the other in a white poplin dress shirt — sauntered in, and with no waitstaff to be found, they took seats at a high table opposite two complete strangers. Jessica, one of the table's original occupants, was curvy, kinky-haired, and dressed too neatly for the joint. She conceded that it was her first time here and though initially surprised by "random people" sitting down with her, she enjoyed her mango-flavored hookah and met some cool new girls. But seriously, if you're sharing spit with people, you might as well suck it up and share tables too.

Hookah: The menu has at least 40 hookah flavors, and, as Scott did, you can get blends — up to nine flavors mixed together. A single hookah is $12, a double $18, a triple $23. Surprising was the fact that each additional charcoal (a quantity of the fuel that heats the hookah) cost $5 on a single, $7 on a double, $9 for a triple.

We decided on "California Dream," which consisted of pineapple, orange, and cherry flavors. The charcoal glowed from the top. We took turns taking long drags. The water in the glass base bubbled quickly as the inside clouded. I found the initial mouth-to-hose contact disgusting, but I enjoyed the flavor and the thick blasts of smoke I was able to puff dragon-style.

Later, I noticed that a group of kids near us had plastic mouth covers — but couldn't figure out how to fit them onto the mouthpiece of their hookah. "Why didn't we get those?" I hissed. My companion just rolled his eyes and blew a machine-gun stream of perfect smoke rings at me. One of the kids, a thick guy with dark, curly hair, finally called the waitress over and sheepishly explained their dilemma. With ease, she popped the plastic into place for him.

"I told you guys it went on that way," he snapped to his friends.

"Ha, yeah, just like a condom," one of them smirked.

Though hookah gave me a head rush that made me wobble on the walk to the car, I couldn't help but brush my teeth for an extra-long time with my sanitized toothbrush that night. The Funky Buddha is a great place to chill, but next time I feel the need to inhale candy-flavored smoke, I'll just hang with the good buddy of mine who owns a hookah and with whom I'm not afraid to share spittle. At least he doesn't charge me for using additional charcoals.


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