Kava is a crop commonly found in the Western Pacific, but the owners of The Awa Kava Lounge in Little Haiti don’t think you should travel that far to have a taste of the traditional drink.
The Awa Kava Lounge opened in December in what used to be a 1945 residence at 3930 NW Second Ave. Owners Danny Milotta, Jose Lopez and David Bonilla have worked in the kava business for more than 13 years combined and finally decided to open their own. The lounge is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m.
The house structure adds to the flair of the lounge, which includes a bar, game room, living room and an event space in the back. And unlike most homes, you don’t have to knock to go in.
“People, when they come into the lounge, see it’s a house, so their normal [thought] is ‘This is a house, I’m going to introduce myself to everyone’ and then everybody knows everybody,” Milotta said. “When you come into the house, you’re instantly become a friend because you’re introduced to everyone. You’re not an outlier; nobody is being pushed to the side because everybody is welcome. It is like a house.”
Kava comes from pepper root. Essentially, it’s what remains after the straining process and resembles muddy water. Its effects offer a natural relaxant but don’t affect mental clarity, and the taste has earthy undertones causing a mild numbing sensation of the tongue — almost like drinking a massage.
When compared to other substances such as alcohol, kava has a reverse tolerance. Novices have to drink more to feel relaxed. For experienced drinkers, the body learns to break down the material requiring a smaller serving to feel results. Kava and alcohol should not be used together.
Portions at The Awa Kava Lounge can be sampled in low tide meaning one shot, or high tide meaning two. Drinks range from $5 to $20.
Customer Sebastien Perez calls himself a ‘kavaseur’ and has been drinking kava for about two years.
“Now, in this day and age, people are more stressed than ever, people don’t know how to relieve stress, and finally this fits that need,” Perez said. “I think everybody deals with stress on some level and nobody knows how to deal with it. This is something that can bring instant relief.”
The lounge’s tag, “Join Our Tribe,” signifies that everyone is part of a family there. In the islands, tribe leaders will take a shot of kava before important public decisions are made and everyone toasts by saying the Fijian word “bula,” meaning “to life,” Milotta said.
For him, incorporating traditional customs with new age kava drinkers and educating them on the culture is important.
“If one person comes in and they’re having a kava by themselves, I won't let it happen,” Milotta said. “I’ll drink one with them, or whoever is bartending will drink one with them, so they’re not drinking alone. In the Pacific Islands, everybody drinks together and no one drinks alone. I’ll even clap three times after we finish because that’s how they traditionally do it in the islands, meaning ‘We’re done drinking.’”
Milotta has always liked the kava-drinking crowd. He’s hoping their energy attracts artists, creatives and people looking to unwind. The lounge is also hosting events curated by like-minded locals. On Friday, Jan. 22, Awa Kava opened the house as a gallery hosting several bands and artist exhibits.
“If you drink kava just like in the islands, you’re a part of the tribe so everybody is a part and nobody is separate,” Milotta said. “Our social media is our tribe. People can come and feel safe and feel supported here and make friends. Some of the best friends in my life that I consider family I’ve met in kava bars. Not everytime you go to a bar you meet a person and say ‘OK, we’re lifelong friends —I can count on him.’
“Join our tribe, come drink kava and be with us,” he said. “Feel free to walk right in.”
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