Beaches Cantina chef Tom Harley Cokes up the tacos, then adds crack (sauce)

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Chef Tom Harley has bounced around a bit in recent times, and now he’s peddling crack in the Northland. Crack sauce, that is — a dressing that he says is helping make diners at the six-month-old Beaches Cantina into regulars.

“It’s our smoky chipotle aioli that we serve with our fish tacos and fries,” Harley tells me, after explaining that the menu doesn’t actually contain the word crack. “Our staff and customers call it crack sauce because it’s so addictive.”

The last time The Pitch checked in with Harley, it was 2014 when he was working with chef Michael Smith during that chef’s short-lived consulting stint at CocoBolos in the Prairiefire complex at 135th Street and Nall. Harley, former executive chef at MelBee’s and the Kansas City Café — left CocoBolos before Michael and Nancy Smith said adios to the suburban cantina earlier this year.

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Montica Alexander sold the Kansas City Café to restaurateur Celina Tio two years ago. Tio later turned the venue into a restaurant called Collection, which today is a special-events space.

When Alexander and business partner Staci Santoro took over the former Luna Azteca Mexican Grill, at 10004 Northwest Ambassador Drive, to create a casual-dining restaurant called Beaches, they hired Harley to oversee the menu and the kitchen. (Before that, Harley was kitchen manager for Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar on the Plaza.)

“I liked the idea of creating a menu for a laid-back restaurant that could be as tropical or as resort-inspired as we want it to be,” Harley says. “The hardest thing for us has been getting the word out that we’re not a Mexican restaurant anymore, even though we do sell tacos. But customers won’t find traditional Mexican food here at all.”

No, Beaches doesn’t do Tex-Mex. But the tacos are a thing. Harley offers a dozen of them, including one centered on barbecue pulled pork, one with braised pork belly and an Asian plum glaze, and a rum-and-Coke steak taco. I’ve tried that last one — in which the rum is used to caramelize carrots and the Coke is integral to braising chuck steak — and it’s a perfectly sassy variation on a basic beef taco.

The best-selling folded-tortilla creation here, though, is a taco with tilapia that has been seared on the grill, then garnished with pico de gallo and that narcotic chipotle aioli. The dressing helps push the fish’s smoky char to the fore.

For the less Mexican-minded, there are reasonably priced soups, salads, burgers and sandwiches here, including a BLT with house-cured bacon.

There’s also a classic Maine lobster roll. “I use a warm, buttery roll filled with fresh lobster salad with my own house-made mayonnaise,” Harley says. “Almost everything in our kitchen is made from scratch.”

Harley is also doing his own spin on the popular Vietnamese starter, banh tom: shrimp and sweet-potato fritters. “Mine aren’t breaded,” he says, “but I wrap a sheath of sweet potato around the shrimp before I fry them, then serve them with a Boulevard Wheat–and-honey glaze.

Harley’s three dessert choices include a banana burrito — grilled, not fried — with a fresh banana tucked into a flour tortilla with chocolate and peanut butter. His take on crème brûlée is a hot one. The custard is made with Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. And in place of a burnt-sugar crust, Harley caramelizes crushed red-hot candies. A chipotle chocolate tart is drizzled with house-made caramel and sea salt.

“This isn’t really a destination restaurant yet,” Harley says, noting that many of the restaurant’s customers either work in the offices around KCI or are guests staying at nearby hotels. Beaches may be serving resort-style food, but the kitchen hours are strictly Midwestern: 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday–Thursday and 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Friday. Saturday hours are 4–9 p.m., and the place is closed Sunday.

“Our business has been good, but we’re waiting for the hipster crowd to find us,” the chef adds. “We have a menu with a lot of interesting and creative choices. Who else in town has chorizo cheese fries?”

He’s right. I can think of no other such place. 

Categories: Dining, Food & Drink