North Africa is one of my favorite places to travel, but of course I can’t go there every time the travel bug hits me. So during my state-side travels, I always try to find a Mediterranean restaurant that evokes the sights, tastes, and smells that one finds in North Africa. Last month, I flew into Chicago for a wedding that was to take place in a small town in the neighboring state of Indiana.
The morning after the wedding, the bride and groom took off on their honeymoon, and I headed back to Chicago where I would explore as much of the city as I could before my flight back to Atlanta the following afternoon. By the time I checked into my hostel in the Lincoln Park district, it was late afternoon. I had just enough time to freshen up and figure out where I would go for the night. I wanted to go somewhere close by that had good reviews for both the food and the atmosphere. After searching through reviews, my desire for fragrant hookah, tasty pita bread, and the rich rhythms of Arabic influenced music lead me to settle on a place called Samah.
A short cab ride later, I arrived. Located on N. Clark St., Samah was a truly beautiful restaurant that suggested a more sensuous side of North African and Mediterranean music and décor; The upholstery was stunning, embellished with deep burgundy, lavish gold, and rich brown. The tunes were exotic, but tranquil- a lot different than the upbeat, almost too loud hookah lounges that I had experienced back in Atlanta. That Sunday night, it was not too crowded, and the manager offered me seating immediately.
Another thing that made the Samah experience so splendid was the layout of the restaurant. With curtains in between many of the seating areas, Samah offered privacy for those who wanted it, as well as more open seating areas for those who wanted to see and be seen.
So Samah easily gets an A+ for ambiance, but what really puts the icing on the cake, (or perhaps is the cake itself), is the quality of hookah tobacco presented there. I have smoked many-of hookahs, and I even have my own hookah at home, but nothing has ever come close to Samah’s offerings. Once in my private seating area, I discovered that the hookah menu was divided into four sections—Flavors, Blends, Starbuzz, and Tangier—according to price (from $15 and up) and quality with the last section being the strongest and most expensive. The menu even tells you that this last section, the Tangier flavors, are not recommended for beginners due to the richness of the tobacco.
From “Tiramisu” and “Arabic Coffee” to “Nelson Mandela,” and “Jamaican Rum,” the restaurant offers almost 100 different tobacco flavors, some more exotic, some more banal. This would have made the choice overwhelming if it weren’t for a knowledgeable and friendly wait staff. My server’s name, I believe, was Alba, and her recommendation was excellent. At her suggestion, I chose “fakhfakhina.” I still have yet to discover what that word means, but the luscious flavor is no longer any secret. Alba explained that my hookah pipe even featured an ice chamber that helped to cool the smoke before inhalation, giving the taste a cooler, more delicate and heavy sweetness.
The menu at Samah features a handful of traditional Mediterranean favorites like baba ghanouj (an eggplant- based dish), dolma (stuffed grape leaves), hummus served with pita bread, and spinach pie. I found this hummus to be a little different, as it had a spicy kick due to a garnish of chopped jalapeños.
With a great atmosphere, top quality hookah, and good food, Samah is a great place to be if you’re in Chicago and are looking for a nice night on the town. Unlike many restaurants in Chi-Town, Samah is not a BYOB place. In fact, it’s a “dry” establishment, meaning that they do not serve alcohol, so get your liquor in before or go without, but don’t let that spoil a wonderful time out at Samah! As the manager told me when I first arrived, and as I later discovered, the hookah is well worth the visit!