Surf On Our Turf

Beaches Mesquite Broiler Brings Coastal Living Inland.

By Rebecca Cook

PERHAPS IT'S INEVITABLE that those living in the landlocked desert would occasionally turn their fantasies to beach-front property and misty ocean breezes. Although such aqueous delight awaits just four hours distant, we all need the occasional getaway close to home.

At such times, consider a restorative dash into Beaches, a funky cantina nestled on the far-off shore of Pantano Road near Wrightstown, that even Neptune couldn't help but smile upon. Everything about Beaches is playful, beginning with a vibrant blue exterior engraved with the restaurant's name in puffy primary colors. For those who've found the concourse at Pantano and Wrightstown somewhat confusing when trying to locate an unfamiliar business, have no fear: If you can't spot this bi-leveled, sapphire-hued edifice looming over the edge of a small shopping center, you need to make an appointment with the optometrist.

Chow The interior is no less puckish, with a bar adorned with fish net and glass balls, and a garish wall mural decorated with an assortment of tropical fish, parrots and toucans. Bottles of Corona have been transformed into salt and pepper shakers, and various hot sauces nest at the far end of tables in cardboard six-packs. Game rooms appear to be evolving on both the upper and lower levels, and a tidy little alcove at one end of the dining room promises live music and endless refrains of "Margaritaville." An outdoor patio, misted and comfortably cool during the warm summer months, completes the Beaches package.

Although Beaches serves a range of customers--including many families with young children--it's an establishment that embodies equally the characteristics of both bar and restaurant. Not surprisingly, this engenders a rather quirky combination of details: cocktails, mesquite broilers, fish tacos, 11 tap beers, television screens tuned into the latest sporting event and a special kiddie menu.

Imagine the Kon Tiki lounge merging with Chuy's, and you'll have a pretty good grasp of what Beaches is all about. The drink menu is an intriguing array of exotic intoxicants, although our waitress was quick to inform that almost any of the featured items could be prepared in non-alcoholic versions. This claim stretches credulity slightly, as almost every concoction involved a combination of two or more fermented wonders, making alcohol-free substitutes hard to imagine. But who can resist the allure of drinks with titles such as Sunburn, Beachcomber, Shark Attack, El Niño, Bahama Mama, Ocean Breeze, Flamingo Passion and Sex on the Beach? It's no wonder the time-honored tradition of Happy Hour figures prominently in the Beaches scheme of things, where patrons are encouraged to explore some of these unusual beverage options at reduced prices.

Some people may feel that any place so obviously dedicated to its imbibing clientele couldn't possibly lavish much attention on the kitchen's offerings. Such an assumption would be mistaken. Great care has been taken to create a menu that's as casual and fun as everything else at Beaches.

The primary focus is the mesquite broiler, a feature directly responsible for the quality of the burgers, steaks, ribs, chicken, fish and shrimp that crop up on the diverse menu. The influence is predominantly Mexican (a la Rocky Point, of course), with a sprinkling of Louisiana bayou, the Caribbean and Australia thrown in for additional international flavor.

Although there are no surprises on the list of appetizers (wings and a variety of fried foods), what's there is done very well. This is particularly true of the onion rings (lightly battered, browned delicately crisp, and served with a tasty malt-vinegar and mustard sauce) and the nachos (corn tortillas freshly fried, then mountainously layered with melted cheddar cheese, black beans, chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and sour cream).

Restricting your evening to drinks and an appetizer or two would be an appealing option at Beaches; but if you stay for the main course, there's much to choose from. Tacos come in fish, chicken or carne asada variations, while the burros can be ordered asada or with chicken. Shrimp, chicken and beef fajitas are also available, as is a short list of burgers. From there, the selection takes a mildly surprising turn.

The camarones rancheros features nearly a dozen medium-large shrimp sautéed in a spicy, dark red chile sauce along with a handful of chopped tomatoes, green peppers and onion. The whole is served with a mound of white rice, ranch-style beans and flour tortilla. The shrimp are firm and fresh, the sauce intricately seasoned with garlic and chile heat, and the side dishes capable of carrying a meal by themselves. One taste of this scrumptious dish and the lingering notion that bar food lacks distinction will be completely dispelled.

Another shrimp specialty is "shrimp on the barbie," two skewers of five shrimp each, marinated with what appears to be a combination of citrus, soy and garlic, and then seared over an open fire. Served simply with a vegetable pilaf containing subtle flecks of red and green bell pepper, onion and carrot, and a few slices of grilled zucchini, this again constituted an unexpected treat. Not only are these crustacean dishes tasty, they're imminently affordable. Even with dinner salad included, neither dish will set you back more than $9.95. You can't beat that with a stick.

Barbecued baby back ribs seemed a dangerous endeavor for a restaurant/bar whose fundamental cooking method is a broiler rather than a smoker, but Beaches manages to navigate this tricky course with relative ease. The ribs revealed not a whit of fat, and were succulently tender to the bite. The sauce (which regrettably did not transcend the typical bottled fare) had been added after the cooking, thereby sidestepping the sometimes nasty consequence of a blackened and bitter coating. Beans, rice and flour tortilla completed the ensemble.

Pleasing touches continued to break the surface during our trips to Beaches. Either fish or shrimp with chips each expand on the fried-food theme by using fresh catches, a light coating, and an accompanying side of light coleslaw. A grilled Cajun chicken sandwich comes not only with a blackened piece of breast meat, but is further accented with a chipotle mayonnaise. What might be just a taco salad elsewhere is transformed at Beaches into salad on the half-shell: mixed greens dressed in a citrus-cilantro vinaigrette, and piled into a crisp taco bowl and topped with tomato, cheddar cheese, green onions, black olives, guacamole, sour cream and your choice of grilled steak or chicken strips.

The only dark cloud on the Beaches horizon is an absolute dearth of desserts. Fortunately, the drink menu provides several sweet alternatives to the usual after dinner fare.

Beaches kind of grows on you. Its tropical ambiance lulls you into the relaxed tempo of the islands, the staff is friendly and accommodating, the prices moderate and the food pretty darn tasty. And they deserve bonus points for their sex on the beach, which can't be outdone. The drink, that is. Drop by for some needed R&R soon.

Beaches Mesquite Broiler. 2323 N. Pantano Road. 885-5548. Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily, with Happy Hour every weekday from 3:30 to
7 p.m. Full bar. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $2.25-$9.95. TW

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