It’s 2 p.m. on a Wednesday at The Beach House and there’s a throng around the tiny building at Camelback Road and Fifth Street.
School has let out and kids from Brophy College Preparatory, Xavier College Preparatory and Central High School are in line at the order window, along with workers from nearby offices and folks from the neighborhood, putting in requests for tacos, burritos and quesadillas.
The entire Xavier volleyball team is queued at the pick-up window, along with customers coming by for their phone-in orders and a couple of hefty moving company guys waiting for a stack of to-go boxes to fuel their afternoon.
On the other side, on a covered patio, diners sit at colorful picnic tables, chowing down on tacos stuffed to overflowing – grilled or fried fish and spicy marinated shrimp are favorites – all backed by cabbage slaw, rice, pinto beans, cheddar and pico de gallo, with The Beach House’s colorful “groovy smoothies” in various fruit flavors.
The usual salsas are available, but the adventurous can opt for some spicier selections, including mango habanero sauce, a sweet and spicy blend that takes the heat up a notch. It’s not enough to take the lining off your mouth, but it’s definitely zingy.
Other taco fillings are available – shredded beef, carne asada, chicken, pulled pork and a vegetarian version with grilled marinated nopales, slaw, rice, black beans, feta and pico de gallo (a vegan version is available) – but the fish and shrimp by far top the list of favorites, said owner John Lichtenberg.
“Between fried fish and grilled fish I think we did almost 80,000 orders last year,” he said. “And the shrimp – people really come here for those three. We put them in tacos, burritos and quesadillas.”
The Beach House has been a Camelback landmark since it opened in 2007 under the name The Two Hippies Beach House. It’s hard to miss, with its scraggly agaves, decal-smothered windows and a baby blue ‘60s-era VW bus – at least the chopped off front cabin of the bus. There’s no telling where the rest went. It’s that kind of décor.
Lichtenberg had a varied career in corporate food service and construction among other jobs. He moved to the Valley in 2004 and trained at the Arizona Culinary Institute in 2007. Lichtenberg and his wife, interior designer Kalen Mehlman, bought the restaurant from the original owners and rebranded it in 2013, dropping Two Hippies from the name.
“I was kind of tired of working for corporate and just wanted to do something myself,” Lichtenberg said. “I was looking at food trucks and other ideas – something other than what I was doing. I actually found this place on Craigslist. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy.”
They updated the menu and revamped the kitchen, but kept much of the funky beach shack atmosphere. The menu focuses on fresh, locally sourced food, Lichtenberg said, beginning with
his visits each morning to purveyors and continuing with daily deliveries of ingredients to keep up with customer demand.
As for the décor, well, today, the place looks as if it was picked up – plants, bus, tables and all – from a pregentrification Southern California beach and plopped down on the Camelback site. It’s the kind of spot where you’d feel at home staggering up from some surfing, sand between your toes, salt crusting on your swimsuit, and starving for some grub.
While Mehlman focuses on her interior design career, Lichtenberg is hands-on at The Beach House. Inside, in a prep and grilling area not much bigger than a home walk-in closet, Lichtenberg and his team hustle to fill orders during the post-lunchtime rush hour. Two more workers scurry in the service area, taking orders, filling drinks and manning the delivery and take-out windows.
“We do it all in 520 square feet,” Litchtenberg said.
There’s no room for in-house dining, but plenty of space on the side patio. And it’s a gathering spot for people from all over the Valley and beyond, Lichtenberg said.
“A couple of guys I know come all the way from east Mesa to have lunch on Saturdays,” he said. “And people from California will find us and say, ‘Dude, this is amazing, it makes me feel like I’m at home.’”
The Beach House at 501 E. Camelback Ave. is open 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Forinformation, call 602-277-0399 or visit www.thebeachh ouseaz.com.