Hard to Swallow

Imagine a tropical nightlife destination where the vibe is as chill as the air conditioning — the lights are low, bamboo lines the walls, and a thatched tiki bar serves a Polynesian elixir, kava, that soothes the nerves.

"There've been no fights here ever," manager Ken told me of Nakava, the nonalcoholic lounge that, other than kava, serves only tea and juices.

Bartender Nicole chimed in: "Every once in a while, a couple of drunks come in, and we send them away, telling them 'We don't have what you want right now. '"

Relaxed and polite? It's not exactly the vibe Boca Raton is known for, yet it's thriving in a dingy strip mall just east of Florida Atlantic University.

I hit the nakamal (the official term for a kava lounge) on a Wednesday night. I figured the open mic would lure some outgoing personalities.

"This place is like my Cheers," the 30-something dude on the stool next to me bragged.

He peered at me through his frameless lenses and introduced himself as "Carney." He appeared to have all of his teeth, so I assumed the moniker didn't come from a tour of duty operating the Cyclone at the fair.

"I'm an aquaculture fabrication specialist," he said when I asked his line of work.

I suspected he was just a swimming pool builder with notions of grandeur. It was Boca, after all.

But no, it turned out he'd engineered a shrimp farm, so good for him. But I wanted to know about kava and its famously bad taste, not raising prawns.

See, the brew of this pepper plant root is as notorious for its icky flavor as it is for its relaxing, euphoric effects. Tonight, there were three brews to choose from that varied in potency.

"They all pretty much taste like dirt," Nicole shrugged when I pressed for more information to help me decide among the three brews.

It obviously wasn't the sales pitch that was moving the kava.

"I had a Triple Puddle Jumper — four ounces of each kind," said Carney, who invented the concoction's name.

"How do you feel?" I inquired.

"A little nauseous, acidy," Carney said, taking a swig of his water. "But soon, all that goes away and all you feel is liquid peace."

Sounded like smack but without those pesky track marks.

I opted for a single of the midgrade stuff: the Hawaiian Purple Moi. The bartender ladled the milky-beige liquid into half a coconut shell and set it in front of me on a little bamboo holder.

"Cheers!" I said, lifting the shell and getting it halfway to my mouth before realizing that I'd forgotten to unwrap a post-kava candy (Nakava provides a small selection) to eradicate the ick.

"Wait," Carney said placing a hand on my wrist to keep me from drinking.

The immediate-gratification addict in me twitched, but I paused long enough to look around. Everyone at the tiki bar was waiting for everyone else — friends and strangers alike — to be served. Then, they raised their shells and exclaimed "Bula!" — the traditional kava toast meaning "good health!"

According to kava drinking custom (and taste-bud kindness), I tossed the four-ounce shot in a gulp.

"Tastes like dirty water stirred with funky feet," I said, grimacing and shaking my head. Carney more poetically calls its flavor a peppery delta silt. A few minutes later, my intestines started to gurgle.

While I waited for my kava high, I ventured into the east room to check out the status of the open mic. I perched my butt on a park bench bathed in the glow of a huge fish tank and watched as brightly colored saltwater fish the size of dinner plates swam by.

Across the room, a conga player sat on another bench. And Ken was playing a solo game of darts. Someone had spread an abandoned game of Solitaire on one of the tables. Perhaps in anticipation of just such a lull, board games were stacked along the walls.

"You play any other instruments?" the dude holding the classical guitar asked the conga player.

"Yeah, the triangle. There are 47 ways to hit a triangle," Conga Boy joked. "I know 46. The other one is illegal in all 50 states."

The three fashionably disheveled (bedhead and wrinkled clothes are all the rage this season) chicas sitting on the bench next to mine laughed.

It wasn't long before the conga and guitar players were jamming, and I returned to the bar for a second dose.

"I don't feel anything," I told Carney, who was still perched on the same stool.

"You might not feel much the first time," he told me. "It has a reverse tolerance effect — the more you drink, the less you need."

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Marya Summers