Standing outside his hookah station at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Glendale, Alfonso “Abou Salim” Ramirez grabbed a red apple and, using a sharp knife, sliced off the top. He flipped the apple over and made four quick incisions, creating a small square.
“This is my secret,” Ramirez said, jabbing a finger into the square to pop out the core. He then stuffed red, apple-flavored tobacco into the hole and covered it with a piece of tin foil.
“I love when I’m doing this,” he said as he carefully poked holes in the foil with a toothpick. “I forget my problems. I forget everything.”
After lighting the tobacco, Ramirez, using a removable plastic mouthpiece, took several puffs off the hookah. Smoke streamed from his nose and mouth. Soon the air smelled of baked apples.
Having perfected his skills for making tobacco bowls out of fruit, Ramirez, 43, has made a name for himself as the go-to hookah guy in Los Angeles’ Middle Eastern community. Hookahs, called nargilehs or argeelas in Arabic, are smoking pipes stuffed with flavored tobacco that have been used for centuries throughout the Middle East. Ramirez is the unlikeliest of hookah experts.
He came into the U.S. from Mexico in 1999. But he eventually obtained a work permit with the help of his employer, Phoenicia restaurant owner Ara Kalfayan. Now Ramirez is applying for an EB-3 visa reserved for “skilled workers.”
On his application, under job description, Ramirez wrote: nargileh specialist. As his sponsor, Kalfayan wrote in the petition letter that Ramirez’s “services are eminent for the success of our restaurant and the service provided to our patrons.”
Immigration officials had never heard of such a job description, Ramirez said.
Soon after arriving in California, the former carpenter and factory worker found a job as a busboy at Alcazar, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Encino.
When the restaurant’s regular hookah man failed to show up for work one day, his boss told Ramirez to prepare the tobacco bowls. Ramirez said he didn’t know how, so one of the waiters offered to teach him.
At first, he found the experience awkward. His customers taught him the proper Middle Eastern customs of serving hookah, such as how the mouthpiece should face down when he hands it to a customer. Also, when serving a table with a man and woman, the hookah pipe is always given to the man.
“One time one lady says to me, ‘why you don’t make the fruit?’ ” he recalled. Ramirez didn’t understand what she meant.
Using fruit to make hookahs is common in parts of the Middle East but relatively rare in the United States, said George Egho, owner of Glendale-based www.thehookah.com, which sells pipe supplies.
“They do it in the Middle East all the time,” Egho said. “It’s pretty trendy.”
One day Ramirez walked into the restaurant’s kitchen and grabbed an apple. That’s when he began experimenting making fruit bowls instead of using the traditional ceramic ones. It took him about six months to successfully craft an apple bowl. It now takes him about a minute.
He has since mastered other fruits: pineapple, watermelon, pomegranate, orange. Cantaloupe proved difficult at first, because of the large hole in the middle, but he eventually figured it out. He can also do lemons, but he draws the line at strawberries, which he deems too small.
The banana posed the biggest challenge. Ramirez has tried various kinds of the fruit, but they often fall apart after a few minutes. He recently settled on the plantain, however, and believes he may be near perfecting the technique.
“One day I make it work,” he said.
Ramirez has fashioned a Middle Eastern alter ego to go along with his job. His boss at Alcazar had him wear traditional garb with an embroidered black and gold vest, along with a red fez. He told Ramirez to grow a thin mustache -- which took three months -- so he could more closely resemble a 1960s-era Lebanese comedic actor who went by the name Abou Salim.
Other employees were told to call him by his new nickname or be fined $5, Ramirez said. Today, most of his customers don’t know his real name.
Ramirez, who also works a construction job, left Alcazar after a falling out with the owner. He ended up at Mandaloun restaurant in Glendale after a chef there urged the owner to hire him.
“He has taken argeelas seriously and he has developed it to a certain level on his own,” said Kalfayan, then part owner of Mandaloun.
“His nargilehs are actually the best,” said Khajag Kargodorian, Ramirez’s construction boss and a customer. “The way he does it is actually unbelievable and he has the whole look. Before I met him I didn’t think he was Mexican, I thought he was Middle Eastern.”
Ramirez’s customers are fiercely loyal. They come from as far as Orange County or Diamond Bar to smoke his hookahs, Kalfayan said. Some will call to ask if Ramirez is working before making the trip.
“Abou Salim, where you been?” customer Haik Patatanyan said on a recent week night when he arrived at Ramirez’s work station to personally deliver his order.
“Can you make me strawberry orange, with a bit of orange in the apple head? You know how I like.”
At a nearby table Tony Sarkissian and his friends sat smoking apple-flavored tobacco in apple bowls.
“Abu Salim, nara por favor,” Sarkissian called out, requesting the hot charcoals that keep the hookah working. He and his friends briefly discussed what makes Ramirez’s hookahs so distinct.
“By God, I don’t know,” Sarkissian said in Arabic before switching to English, “but this tastes very good.”
Ramirez hopes to parlay this kind of customer loyalty into a new hookah catering business. The idea occurred to him last year when some patrons, returning from trips to Lebanon, told him hookahs there are home-delivered.
Ramirez, who works construction by day and at Phoenicia at night, hopes the business will eventually bring him financial security and further establish his name within the local Middle Eastern community.
He’s grown to love his adopted culture. Over the years he has picked up many Arabic phrases that he uses to charm his customers.
As soon as he saves up enough money, Ramirez said, he wants to visit Lebanon to see the country his customers tell him about and to learn more about preparing fruit hookahs.
“If I like the place, I stay, I don’t come back,” he said. “Make Mexican food for Arab people.”