Hookah culture is booming in Killeen, thanks to receptive customers eager to embrace a different scene.
For Cherif Balde, owner of Vapors Exotic Hookah Lounge and Bar, the military played a significant role in bringing hookah smoking to the United States. Balde, who is originally from the Ivory Coast, noticed an increase in soldiers smoking hookah the more time they spent in the Middle East.
A hookah, or waterpipe, is used to smoke flavored tobacco (shisha), typically in groups, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it a popular activity for young soldiers.
“It’s become a hot topic in America the past few years. There are three hookah bars opening every month,” Balde said. “In Bell County, it became an influence when soldiers went overseas and started seeing hookah and inquiring about it.”
What originated as a popular pastime in India spread quickly throughout much of the Middle East and Africa, and the demand by American soldiers paved the way for the burgeoning hookah scene in Killeen. Unlike most nightlife options, alcohol is not a prerequisite.
Ambrosia owner Cabby Chandler proves a perfect example of Balde’s hypothesis. After spending a year in Kuwait as an Army captain with 1st Cavalry Division, Chandler, along with her husband, Ross, decided to bring the culture she’d grown to love to America.
Together, they opened Ambrosia on July 15.
“I’ve learned from the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Kuwaitis, the Egyptians,” Chandler said.
All of their hookahs are shipped directly from Egypt, and their lounge offers an authentic Middle Eastern experience, with low couches, dim lighting and high-quality tobacco products.
Hookah lounges differ from the local nightlife spots, in both atmosphere and offerings.
Nearly all of the local hookah spots serve some variation of Mediterranean food, as well as traditional beverages like Turkish coffee and tea.
Balde’s location, which began as a venture out of his mother-in-law’s restaurant, Knight’s Knook in Harker Heights, has now moved to 104 Elms Road, Suite 600, in Killeen. He plans to have more of a lounge vibe, with a “quiet ambiance,” he said. They are attempting to avoid a nightclub feel, instead producing a relaxing alternative to the local club scene. After their grand opening on Oct. 12, the only alcohol they’ll serve for the first several months will be beer and wine.
“It’s a more sophisticated, mature setting,” Chandler said of Ambrosia. “We want people to be able to relax and breathe.”
Her lounge differs from the others in town in that it has both a full restaurant menu, prepared by her chef husband, as well as a full bar featuring top-shelf spirits.
In contrast to the lounges, Hupply Pupply is chiefly a Mediterranean restaurant, at 3300 Florence Road, that doesn’t serve alcohol along with its very popular hookah experience.
Portions of the restaurant are 1950s themed, “but we have a separate area that is more authentic and traditional, like you would find in the Middle East,” manager Connie Monez said. “You can sit on pillows on the floor.”
The restaurant name itself is a play on the term “hubbly bubbly,” often used to refer to smoking from waterpipes in India.
This location, open for nearly two years, further pushes the Middle Eastern vibe with belly dancer performances on occasion. Their space is often rented for military functions, Monez said.
Though all the local hookah spots boast a substantial military clientele, the greatest common thread among them all is simple: They offer relaxation and different scenery than many are used to in Killeen.
For Ambrosia, “we want to be your home away from home,” Chandler said. They will host their large-scale grand opening at 5209 E. Veterans Memorial Blvd., on Nov. 2.