Kava is like a combination of weed, booze, and caffeine," the barista behind the counter informed me on my second visit to Tropikava Kafe and Juice Bar. A chalkboard on the wall described it as a "magical root" from the South Pacific, Hawaii, Fiji, and Tonga. WebMD, on the other hand, warns that it can cause liver damage, concluding, "Kava is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when taken by mouth. Don't use it." (Emphasis theirs.)
When Tropikava Kafe and Juice Bar, reportedly the first of its kind in the midwest, opened in Wicker Park near the Division Blue Line a few weeks ago, I began doing research on kava. The root of the plant, native to the South Pacific islands, is traditionally ground into powder and mixed with water or eaten as a paste. (The plant's Latin name means "intoxicating pepper.") It's supposed to be relaxing, and is sometimes promoted as an alternative to alcohol, especially in the U.S. I devoured articles in the New Yorker and Eater about the experience of drinking kava at New York City's first kava cafe, which opened last summer, learning that the concoction tastes awful; one writer described it as "putrid liquid that resembled dirt mixed with milk." Still, I wanted to try it. Besides, it wouldn't be the first time I'd endangered my liver for my job (nor the last, in all likelihood).
Tropikava Kafe is just half a block off the bustling Division shopping strip on Hermitage, a sleepy side street that makes the spot feel almost secluded; the view from the plate-glass windows at the front of the cafe is of trees and apartment buildings. The plant-filled space with its wicker furniture feels modern and tropical. Large photos of ocean scenes on the walls contribute to the impression of being in a tiki hut. Judging from the hours—it's open from early morning till 11 PM most nights, 2 AM on Friday and Saturday—it's aiming to attract both the morning-smoothie-before-work set and the nightlife crowd. And while the cafe doesn't serve alcohol, it does encourage patrons to BYOB, suggesting sparkling wine as a pairing with the juices and kava. (Everything I've read online, however, warns against mixing kava with alcohol.)
On a Wednesday afternoon, a woman sitting at the bar is chatting with the barista, sippping from a half coconut shell filled with a cloudy-looking liquid I can only assume is kava. "First time?" the barista asks. She pours some kava into another shell, telling me that the first shot is on the house. I'm apprehensive about the flavor, but the other customer—her name, I find out later, is Anna—tells me that it tastes the way tree bark smells after it rains. It's an oddly specific description that turns out to be oddly accurate. The brew, made with coconut milk and a little bit of agave nectar, is earthy and slightly bitter.
Anna and the bartender discuss how drinking kava just seems to make everything better. It's Anna's third visit, and she's a fan. The book in front of her is Getting Stoned With Savages, author J. Maarten Troost's chronicle of drinking kava with the natives on the islands of Vanuatu and Fiji. The barista had never heard of kava before she responded to a Craigslist job posting and started working at Tropikava, but she's also a convert. My mouth goes numb as I sip from the coconut shell—which is normal, apparently—but otherwise I don't feel any different. Supposedly, kava has a "reverse tolerance," meaning that people drinking it for the first time feel its effects less acutely than those who've had it before. I order a "shot" (which is actually about four ounces of liquid) of the Vanuatuan strain of kava, which according to the menu provides an "uplifting euphoric energy."
Finishing off the last of the shot, I realize why people complain about the taste of kava. Some of the root powder has settled to the bottom, and my last sip is gritty—an acrid sludge that makes my throat go numb. I've already decided to order a "kavatail"—kava mixed with one of the fresh juice blends that the cafe also serves—for my next drink, but the bitter aftertaste cements my decision. I opt for the Gold Fashioned, which combines ginger, mint, celery, pineapple, and apple; other options include the Side Car-rot, Tom Kale-ins, and Mint-mosa. Punny names usually annoy me, but I kind of enjoy these. Maybe the kava actually is kicking in.
Biking to the office after leaving the cafe, I feel alert but not particularly relaxed. Once at my desk, I'm suddenly aware my mood is better than it's been in days. I'm telling a coworker about kava when my boss, overhearing our conversation, asks if I feel relaxed. Not exactly, I say—but I do feel something. "Effervescent?" he asks. Sort of. Do I seem effervescent? He and the other coworker both nod. I'm pretty sure that word has never before been used to describe me.
Attempts to reproduce this chatty, chipper personality the next day, though, are unsuccessful. Wanting to try something different, I've ordered a Tongan strain of kava—two shots total, served over ice this time—which the menu says is "lightly sedating, with relaxing effects on both the mind and body." It could just be the power of suggestion, but I feel none of the euphoria of the day before, though I do feel relaxed.
I still haven't had kava in a social setting, though, so I convince some coworkers to try the cafe for a Friday happy hour. The place is empty when we arrive around six, but slowly fills up as we sit on the wicker couches and chat. Most people, like my coworkers, seem to be trying kava for the first time; with the exception of a guy in the corner who has a couple beers, no one has brought alcohol. We order kavatails and pass a couple hours pleasantly enough. My coworkers report feeling slight effects from the kava. Since it's my third time it seems like the reverse tolerance thing should be kicking in by now—and I do feel loose, but the effect's still pretty mild. A couple of these friends who go on to have drinks later in the evening, though, report that the kava makes them feel buzzed from the alcohol faster than usual.
Returning to Tropikava a few days later to work on this article, I overhear the owner explaining kava to a potential customer who's asked if it produces hallucinations: It's calming, he says, giving you a sense of euphoria and a little of the buzz you'd get from alcohol, but you can stay focused. He drinks it during the day while working, but at night "a glass of wine or two and a couple shells of kava will treat you real well," he says. "It'll have you floating."
I'm not sure how much I need my mind altered while working—though it would be nice to be able to reproduce the euphoria of my first kava experience. On my next visit, I'm bringing wine. v