At first glance, the four relaxed folks on the couch at the Chi-Cha
Lounge look like they're passing around a hookah pipe and getting
stoned on hashish. But hold on. Don't jump to conclusions. The aroma
is distinctly tobacco-esque, though none you've inhaled before,
unless you've hung out in Middle Eastern bars.
"It's Arabic tobacco, soaked in apple juice," says Anca Novacovici, a
World Bank employee who's already a regular, drawn to the exotic side
of this new nightspot. "You smoke it like a cigar, without inhaling.
It's great." She passes the hose with the smoke nozzle to a smiling
The tobacco sits in a big bowl at the crown of a nearly three-foot
tall arguileh, the brass water pipe that sits on the floor. "I'm in
heaven," says one veteran correspondent of several Middle Eastern
wars. Sinking into the plush golden couch, she says, "This pipe was
the only thing missing from my life in Washington."
Chi-Cha owner Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld first smoked an arguileh on a
trip to the Middle East with his wife and partner, Nesrin Abaza. "We
were there for a month and I got hooked on it," he says grinning. The
tobacco is cured with fruits and honey in Bahrain, and
Fraga-Rosenfeld says the pipes are turning into magnets for folks
tired of the cigar craze, something he helped introduce to Washington
as one of the original partners of Ozio.
Fraga-Rosenfeld says he wants to re-create the atmosphere of his
grandparents' hacienda in Ecuador. That house was doubtless bigger
than this space, half the ground floor of a refurbished fire station.
The walls are painted a light adobe; the lighting is soft and warm;
the music from the stereo is defiantly un-hip: Simon & Garfunkel,
Peruvian folk songs, the Carpenters, Sheryl Crow.
The deliciously comfortable couches and chairs are jammed together so
informally you often become part of someone else's conversation, and
usually end up sharing the jars of tostados, the toasted South
American corn kernels that pass as salty snacks. A little dusty, they
are definitely an acquired taste, as is the lounge's namesake
beverage, the fabled chi-cha.
"It's a traditional Latin American drink," says Fraga-Rosenfeld, "and
we offer two kinds, the white and the red." He mixes the concoctions
in the club, but lacking a brewing license, he can't allow the
ingredients to ferment, but simply adds some unnamed hard alcohol to
the mix before he pours it. Fraga-Rosenfeld explains: "In the white
chi-cha, we have cooked rice, pineapple, cane sugar, naranjilla -
it's similar to a kiwi but with a sour taste - and then a secret
ingredient. In the red, we have corn soaked with pineapple juice,
cinnamon, cloves, cane sugar and the secret ingredient."
A menu of "Modern Andean Cuisine" (tapas-size appetizers only) is
hidden inside 10 pages of information on the lounge, including
Fraga-Rosenfeld's personal philosophies, the legend of the chi-cha
drink, the Chilean wine list and the Rules of the Hacienda (neckties
The traditional yapingacho was stellar: a little pancake of mashed
potatoes, yucca and cheese, served with white beans and Brussels
sprouts. The excellent tamal de maiz was flavored with spiced chicken
and potatoes, while the grilled salmon I tried was as good as the
other two dishes. All in all, a remarkable place that's already
turned into a comfortable neighborhood watering hole.
- Eric Brace
HOURSFri -Sat 5:30pm- 2:30am
Sun -Thu 5:30pm- 1:30am
01/05 - 12/26
Tom Tom du Monde Jazz every Tuesday night.