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A Wave of Juicy Hipness : The Beach Head, strongly reminiscent of another cafe, has great fruit concoctions but few surprises.

August 13, 1993|MAX JACOBSON

"We're not trying to emulate the Hard Rock Cafe or anyone else," says one Beach Head Cafe employee. "We're just trying to serve good, all-American food."

So far, the concept seems to be succeeding. It's 6:45 p.m. on a Monday at the remodeled Encino Town Center, and the Beach Head is already full, with more than a half-hour wait for outside tables on the patio facing Ventura Boulevard.

However, comparisons with the Hard Rock are inevitable. It may be just a coincidence, but the type face in which the words Beach Head are printed (on the menus, the front door and the purple-and-blue T-shirts the employees wear) resembles the type face the Hard Rock Cafe uses. And the walls are festooned with surfboards, twirling yellow fans are suspended from the high ceiling, and beach murals are everywhere, giving this place the busy, bright, frenetic look just a bit reminiscent of, well, a Hard Rock Cafe.

The menu is that of any hip American cafe: burgers, steaks, salads, pastas and plenty of finger-food appetizers like nachos and Buffalo wings. Don't come looking for major surprises, just the across-the-board appeal these places aim for.

The best thing the restaurant has to offer is undoubtedly juice. At the cheerful, coral-colored bar, the bartender will squeeze you a glass of carrot, pink grapefruit or even pulpy pineapple juice while you wait. He also makes drinks like Perfect 10, a mixture of juices plus honey and a bunch of other stuff. It tastes like a fruit pie that is partly frozen, partly liquefied.

The surf gets a bit gnarlier from here on, though. One evening we started a meal with pepper cheese sticks. This feels like a product that a restaurant buys frozen and deep-fries to order, but even if it's made on the premises it's greasy and flavorless.

More than a few dishes at Beach Head Cafe have that sort of ready-made taste. However, a couple stand out for a livelier flavor. The chunky vegetable beef soup is a good tomato broth with vegetables and huge chunks of tender beef. What the Beach Head calls an L.A. cheese steak hoagy comes on a good hoagy roll, but instead of the classic Philly cheese steak filling, it offers lots of deliciously lean roast beef with pepper Jack cheese and green chiles.

The five-cheese pizza, though made with mozzarella, Cheddar, provolone, pepper Jack and Parmesan, mostly tastes of mozzarella. The BBQ chicken pizza acquits itself a little better, though. The cilantro and the big meaty chicken pieces taste fresh and clean, and the barbecue sauce is tasty, if pretty sweet.

Spicy peanut chicken pasta is a good idea: linguine with chicken, scallions, carrots and a spicy peanut sauce. It tastes almost like something from a Mandarin Chinese-style restaurant. All the waiters recommend the Mexican chicken pesto pasta, but the flavors don't work together. Note: All the pastas tend to be overcooked.

The salads are a better bet. Beach Head's Caesar employs good crisp Romaine, garlic herb croutons and a creamy, tangy dressing that sort of skirts the anchovy controversy. Best of all is grilled Thai chicken salad, a combination of grilled chicken breast, greens, a honey-lime vinaigrette and the good peanut sauce. I just wish everything here worked this well.

But we already know it does not. There is a decent burger with fries, but the top sirloin, oddly cut in a perfect square shape, lacks flavor; the roasted red potatoes are better than the meat.

For that matter, the comforting mashed potatoes are the best thing about the plain "baked herb chicken." The potatoes taste homemade, and the Beach Head could use more dishes with that quality.

Where and When Location: Beach Head Cafe, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Suggested dishes: Fresh squeezed juices, $1.95; soup of the day, $1.95/$2.95; L.A. cheese steak, $5.45; grilled Thai chicken salad, $5.95. Hours: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. Price: Dinner for two, $14-$28. Full bar. Parking lot. MasterCard, Visa and American Express accepted. Call: (818) 501-7600.

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