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Shi ChaiHookah Lounge, Mediterranean Deli

by Ellen C. Warren, photo by Tess Reiss

Shi Chai

For some of us the word Persia holds a certain romance, conjuring up images of sumptuousness, exotic flavors and scents, luxuriant décor. Once one of the greatest empires of the world, it left its mark with tastes, traditions and styles that continue to be a rich part of our cultural tapestry.

Now Amir Rasouli, owner of Shi Chai, has brought a little piece of Persia to the corner of Bremen and Center in Riverwest.

Golden-hued walls with ceramic-tiled floors that would be as practical and inviting on the Mediterranean as they are here, are complemented with rugdraped wooden furniture and a mass of pillows. Miniature faux-crystal chandeliers and framed detail mirrors high on the walls sparkle along with the amazing assortment of hookahs displayed on the counter. These are the hookahs you may purchase for your own home enjoyment.

The light and wonderfully scented smokes you may smell or partake of in Shi Chai come from 50 or 60 hookahs that Amir keeps for his patrons’ usage. Each hookah, or shisha, is used with only one type of tobacco mixture to guarantee the purity of the particular flavor. Amir personally prepares each shisha with the chosen tobacco mixture. Up to three people may share one, with prices based on the original bowlful and a reduced refill price.

Amir buys Layalina brand tobacco, which he says has the best flavors, tasting like real fruit. Choices include Double Apple & Honey, Watermelon & Vanilla, Black Grape, and Mango. He calls it a “very juicy tobacco” which is very smooth on the lungs and produces no coughing. These tobaccos are extremely low in nicotine and the smoke disappears quickly. There is no other smoking allowed in the establishment.

To complete the picture of the traditional Ghahwa, or hookah lounge, Shi Chai offers accompaniments of food and drink. Tea is the usual beverage served, and Shi Chai’s menu lists many choices of black, white, green, red and herbal teas. Amir’s wife, Ann, has a great deal of knowledge about the types of teas, their unique fragrances, qualities and health effects, and can help guide your choice. (I tried the White Tropics which, with its delicately tropical bouquet, made drinking it a multi-sense pleasure.) They also offer Arabian coffee in regular or decaf and Arabian naturally-flavored cardamom coffee.

The food selections include unique salads served with warm pita bread, the Mediterranean classic lentil soup, spinach pie, several plates, sandwiches and wraps. There is a daily special as well. Vegans, vegetarians and meateaters will all find palette-pleasing dishes.

The two dishes I’ve tried were both delicious. The “Ghasemi, a chilled Persian-styled mix of fried eggplant and onion, whey and garlic topped with diced tomatoes and olive oil” was one of the most scrumptious foods I’ve ever eaten! Prices are very affordable and “take-out” is an option.

Check out Shi Chai! They may not have magic carpets, but what you learn about the real pleasures of Persia should please you!

Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2006