I'm at this kava bar in Boca called Nakava, and I'm just about to down a bowl of the stuff. That's when the bartender remembers to give me a warning.
"Oh, yeah," bartender Jeffery says. "When you taste this, you're going to make a face — we call it kava face. Kava tastes horrible."
I've been known to take some extreme measures to get a buzz, but downing a disgusting bowl of muddy, root-based liquid for a slight feeling of chill? Yeah, I drank, but first let me explain.
I went up to Nakava on a night with one of those arctic blasts making us Floridians turn on our seldom-used heaters. The 6-year-old place is like a tropical haven, and with 50-degree weather outside, it was pretty easy to blame the tiki theme for my willingness to drink something putrid for a slight high.
Ambiance: On that recent nippy Saturday night, I walked past a posse of coat-clad, college-aged smokers to enter low-lit Nakava, which is situated cozily in the middle of a dark strip mall. The L-shaped bar has straw thatching over its slightly inclined roof. The walls are decorated with a host of carved Pacific island masks. Photos of regulars are lined carefully in rows, extending behind and beyond the display case. In the far corner is a large bowl, called a tanoa, traditionally used to mix kava.
In the second room, a giant saltwater aquarium, full of darting yellow, blue, and gray fish, is positioned against the right wall. Wood benches, dartboards, stray guitars, colorful masks, and random board games are scattered around the room. Upbeat island music permeates the establishment, and a rotating crowd of customers breezes in and out.
Bartender: Bartender Jeffery, or, Jeffery the Fijian, as the regulars call him, is a slight, dark-haired man with a mustache. When my companion and I plopped ourselves down at the bar, Jeffery quickly explained our kava options. On the counter behind the bar were four large, clear bowls of murky liquid: Fire Island, Black Sand, White Sand, and Chief's.
Jeffery warned us against dumping any leftovers. "If you don't want your kava and pour it in someone else's shell, that's disrespectful to the kava. That person will throw it back in your face. Kava very important in our culture, very ceremonial." Ha. Nice try. My mom used to tell me broccoli was sacred, and that didn't stop me from dumping mine on my brother's plate.
I asked what it did.
"I've been having it every day my whole life," he told me. "It's good for insomniacs and people with high anxiety. It relaxes you but doesn't take your mentality away. It's not alcoholic at all — we don't serve any alcohol. A lot of people from rehab come here."
"How many of your customers are in recovery?" I asked.
"I'd say 50 percent," Jeffery said.
The bigger question was, is a hearty bowl of unpleasant root juice better than 28 days in rehab? We were about to find out.
Kava: We decided we'd try the Black Sand kava. Jeffery scooped us a shellful and divided it into two small black bowls. Then he ladled up some kava for two other guys who were ready to drink.
"It's a community thing," Jeffery explained. "You have to wait until other people have ordered their kava. Then you drink all at once."
"What's the candy for?" my companion asked, pointing to little bowls of Starburst and strawberry candies all along the bar. That's when Jeffery warned us about how terrible the stuff tastes.
"What?!" I demanded. But the word kava sounds so delicious.
"It'll taste like mud water," Jeffery shrugged. "You guys ready?"
Mud water? Hey, wait — let's think this over.
"Bula!" Jeffery and the other two guys said, chugging down their kava.
I brought the bowl to my mouth and wrinkled my nose at its mossy odor. After I'd successfully battled every sane instinct in my body, I swallowed the first drop.
When I'd drained it, I tossed the bowl on the table and scrambled to pop a candy into my mouth to eradicate the flavor. I imagine kava probably tastes similar to the water of the marshy, corpse-filled Florida Everglades.
Therefore, I couldn't blame everyone — even Jeffery — for having serious kava face, which can best be described as the kind of expression you'd make upon realizing you accidentally had sex with your grandmother.
Patrons: Nakava has a firm base of regulars, and I went into the cold night to talk to a few of them. I sat down in an empty deck chair next to dark-haired, dark-complexioned Jed. His best friend, Rich, who wore his hood jacket up, was trying to convince him to leave Nakava and meet some girls at a hookah lounge.
I asked them what Nakava's appeal was.
"Cool place. All different types of people," Rich said.
"It's relaxed," Jed said.
I reminded them of the fact that the stuff tastes horrible.
"Yeah, it does," Rich said. They both practically made kava faces thinking about it.
"I like to be in control of myself," Jed said. "Alcohol makes that hard. I've lived in South Florida all my life, and I like to think I'm a little more down-to-Earth than most of the people who live here."
"I've seen an alien in the bar," interjected Mike, a slim, blond man in a black coat.
"That's the weirdest thing he's ever said," Jed said apologetically.
"I want to meet an alien," I said.
"You can't go to other planets, but you can see them," Mike said, extending his hand and pointing into the sky. "Just over there."
"Does everyone see them?" I stared up into the night sky. "Or is it just you?"
"Not everyone," Mike smiled secretively.
"Does kava make you insane?" I whispered to Jed.
"No, but he probably shouldn't have any more Red Bull," said Jed.
I edged my way back inside, where Michelle, or "Moosh," as they call her, had relieved Jeffery of his bartending duties. Moosh wore a lip ring and exotic eyeliner and was indescribably adorable.
"I'm not feeling a buzz," I complained.
She explained that if you drink it regularly, it'll affect you more.
"Kind of the opposite of alcohol," she said.I glanced at my companion. He'd had two more shells since I'd been outside.
"Well?" I asked.
"My mouth is numb," he mumbled.
Community: Brian and Lenny sidled up beside me to sing the praises of Nakava. Brian was a sturdy guy wearing a tan shirt, and Lenny was a slim dude still wearing the black suit he wore earlier that day for a job interview at the Home Depot.
I asked him what made a kava bar better than a bar with sweet, delicious nectar. Or, as some like to call it, beer.
"I walked in on my girlfriend fucking another guy," he said. "I wanted to go drink; I wanted to die. But instead, I came straight here and the people here took care of me.
"They even put me on a suicide watch, where someone would come over and hang out with me at all times." That sounds like a little more than a breakup. That sounds like a breakdown.
"I spend $20 a day here," Lenny said. "They might be selling us dirt water, but this place is about the community."
I eyed the warning sign, mounted on the wall behind Lenny's head. Apparently, ambiguous but bad things can happen to you if you drink kava with alcohol, while on antidepressants, or during pregnancy.
"I saw one guy drink a bunch of kava while he was on antidepressants," said Lenny. "He threw up. But he also drank a lot of kava."
"Well, I had some beer before I came here," I said. "What's gonna happen to me?"
"Ah, nothing probably," he said. "But your liver might get messed up."
Good thing I'm no stranger to abusing my liver.
As my companion and I headed out the door, we noticed that the guys out front of Nakava had created a large bonfire. They were all huddled around, like a tribe keeping warm. Kava was such an adventure that I think I'll stick with good, old-fashioned beer for a little while. But I'll definitely hit Nakava up again, even if it's just to warm up, chat, and check around for aliens.