Middle Eastern smoke cafe finds peace on Houston St.

By Lincoln Anderson and Ramin Talaie

Although on weekend nights on nearby Orchard and Ludlow Sts. the sidewalks outside the bars are mobbed with smokers because of the new anti-smoking law, at Cafe Cairo on E. Houston St. people are smoking indoors — but not cigarettes, hookahs.

On each table in the small, six-month-old Middle Eastern restaurant sits a shiny golden water pipe for smoking the aromatic tobaccos that the café sells, 35 types in such flavors as apple, rose, mint, jasmine, apricot, mango and strawberry.

On the cafe’s walls are paintings of pyramids and the sphinx.

Egyptian-born owner Mohamed Ouda said they have not applied for a waiver of the anti-smoking law to allow smoking indoors, as a few cigar bars have done. The waiver is for bars whose businesses are mostly based on the sale of tobacco products. Cairo Cafe makes 75 percent of its profit on tobacco sales, 25 percent on drinks and food, Ouda said.

He thinks a special clause may need to be written in the city’s new smoking law specifically for hookah cafes. They may look into it.

The hookah cafe has not been issued any violations at this point and no inspectors have even come around.

In fact, Ouda, puffing on a Marlboro outside the cafe, claims hookahs are safer than cigarettes because of the water that filters the smoke and cuts the nicotine by two percent, as well as cooling the smoke.

“I’m not selling drugs,” he said. “There’s no nicotine in it. Not like this crap — I know it’s a killer,” he said, glancing down at his cigarette.

The hookah is a Middle Eastern custom, often used to smooth the way for dialogue, like Native American’s tobacco “peace pipe.”

Downtown Express photos by Ramin Talaie
A waiter smokes a hookah, a Middle Eastern pipe, at Cafe Cairo, above. A belly dancer entertains the café crowd, top.

“My brother smoke it, my father smoke it, my grandfather smoke it,” said Ouda. “And my grandfather lived till 85. He smoked hookah five times a day.”

Even with hookah smoking going on at most tables, the smell in the restaurant is a mix of sweet and musky, nothing like a bar in pre-Bloomberg laws.

The food is good but it’s not the main attraction. The menu is basic with Middle Eastern finger foods. However, the authentic brewed tea is as a real as you can get. Tea is served in good-sized metal pots using a variety of flavors.

On weekends, the cafe features belly dancing by Jenna and the place is really rocking.

Ouda immigrated to America 24 years ago in search of a better life. He has always been in restaurant business. Much as with other Middle Easterners, it’s not hard to get him into a political conversation. For the record, he was fully behind the war in Iraq.

Around the corner from the café down Orchard St., the sidewalk was filled with smokers forced outside because of the new smoking law.

“Like one o’clock [a.m.], it’s crazy,” Ouda said of the crowds’ highpoint, glancing down Orchard St. from the corner of E. Houston St.

But smoking in front is simply not an option for the hookah place, since it would involve lugging a 10-pound hookah pipe back and forth.


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