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Blowing smoke with Glendale's hookah king at Phoenicia

June 1, 2009 |  3:07 pm


The many-tentacled pipes commonly found at hookah cafes in this country are only the most obvious incarnation of a Middle Eastern tradition that dates back to the 8th century. At Phoenicia, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Glendale, hookah king Alfonso "Abou Salim" Ramirez carves hookahs from all manner of fruit: apples, watermelons, pomegranates, oranges, cantaloupes and pineapples.

Ramirez, who emigrated from Mexico in 1999 began his unlikely career as a nargileh specialist as a busboy at Encino restaurant Alcazar.

When the restaurant's regular hookah man failed to show up for work one day, his boss told Ramirez to prepare the tobacco bowls. Ramirez said he didn't know how, so one of the waiters offered to teach him.

At first, he found the experience awkward. His customers taught him the proper Middle Eastern customs of serving hookah, such as how the mouthpiece should face down when he hands it to a customer. Also, when serving a table with a man and woman, the hookah pipe is always given to the man.

His hand-carved tobacco bowls have made him semi-famous and certainly invaluable to his employer. Only in America! (Click here to read the rest of the story by Raja Abdulrahim.)

--Elina Shatkin

Photo: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times